Tessa Clarke, Co-Founder of Olio

S1 Ep2: Tessa Clarke, Co-Founder of Olio Podcast Transcript

Chris: Have you ever wondered how the businesses you know and love have evolved? What inspired the founders to create them, what chances do they take, and what mistakes they make along the way?

Hi, I’m Chris, the CEO of Uncommon, a company that creates exceptional spaces for work. In each episode of Alive With Possibilities, I get to sit down with a different business leader whom I admire and discuss the journey they’ve been on.

In this episode, I’m joined by Tessa Clarke. Tessa, alongside her good friend Sasha, founded Olio in 2015. Olio initially started as an app to share unwanted food and to date, they’ve enabled 27 million neighbourhood pickups, which has led to over 113 million portions of food being shared rather than being wasted.

They’ve now expanded their service into household items like hair dryers, with yet another 9 million items being shared. Tessa is a really driven individual with a great focus on where she wants the business to go. So, I think you’ll find her story really inspirational.

I started the interview by getting her to tell me more about Olio, and how it works.

Tessa: So, Olio is an app that exists to tackle the climate crisis by solving the problem of waste in our homes and local communities. And we do that by connecting people with their neighbours so they can give away, run, throw away their spare food and other household items. You can now also sell and lend and borrow preloved household items as well.

In addition to that, we have over a hundred thousand volunteers who collect unsold food from local businesses such as Tesco, Preta Minogue, Iceland, and many more, and they give away that food via the Olio app to their local community.

And when we have a cost of living crisis, the climate crisis, that’s an incredibly powerful way for us to make sure that food that is unsolved by these businesses is instead being eaten by lots of local families.

Chris: Can you tell us more about the app’s growth?

Tessa: So, Olio has now grown to be a community of over 7 million people. We have had items shared in 63 countries so far. And a big part of how we’ve managed to grow is thanks to our 50,000 ambassadors who are people who are passionate about our mission, they’re spreading the word about Olio in their local communities. And we have over a million listings successfully transacted and given away via the app each month.

Chris: How many countries do you want to cover? How many users?

Tessa: Well, we have an unashamedly bold ambition because the climate crisis desperately needs to be solved as quickly as possible. And with food waste alone accounting for 10% of greenhouse gas emissions and our underlying model of consumption being one of the core drivers of the climate crisis, we’ve set ourselves an enormous goal of a billion people sharing via Olio by 2030.

Chris: Can you just talk me through some of the marathons that you’ve had with the company?

Tessa: Several marathons. It just actually to be honest, feels like one long marathon rather than distinct marathons. But we have been doing it for eight years, so there definitely have been phases.

So, there’s the zero to half phase, which was really very much just myself and Sasha, just the two of us. Then I guess getting us to the one phase was when we recruited our founding team. So, then there was myself, Sasha, and seven others.

And then the next phase really was growing the team from 7 to 20 people. And then the next major inflection point was when we raised our series A, we grew the team and the business again.

And then the final sort of inflection point was when we raised our series B, and we scaled over to roughly a hundred people. But there have been just an enormous number of twists and turns from a product and marketing perspective along the way.

Chris: Which one of those do you think was the hardest phase or marathon to keep using that?

Tessa: I’m smiling, laughing because I was thinking about this the other day. And when you’re in the early phases, you look to founders who are a step or two or three or five steps ahead of you, you just think life will be wonderful once I get to that phase or once I close this fundraising round, and you realise it’s just an enormous amount of challenge that just does not go away.

It’s just a different type of challenge at each stage on the journey, which is why I have to keep on reminding myself that actually, it’s the journey that is the most important thing rather than the destination or the end point.

Because if I focus on the destination, the end point too much, then you end up wishing your life away and you’ll be on your deathbed before you know it, you won’t have appreciated all of the twists and turns on the journey. I really do feel as an entrepreneur, you have to enjoy the journey. You have to enjoy that contrast of the ups and the downs.

And for some people, they love change, they love challenge. Other people thrive in a much more stable environment and that’s fine, but you’ve just got to kind of self-select into the type of environment that’ll work for you.

Chris: How do you think you do that? How do you think you enjoy that journey, and I guess celebrate those successes and kind of, I guess celebrate and learn from the kind of the failures to put it that way?

Tessa: I’m pretty sure that I’m not alone in that I’m pretty bad at celebrating the successes because you are so driven, and I think this is a challenge for mission-driven businesses.

You are so driven by your mission and by the need to get to a meaningful scale that you don’t spend very much or any time reflecting on the success or the impact that you’ve had.

You are constantly looking at all the success and impact that you haven’t yet had. That’s okay for me, on a personal level, it’s fine. I don’t need to spend a lot of time celebrating success. But actually, from a team perspective it is really important you do take that time to celebrate those successes and to recognize wins along the way.

Chris:I think it’s fair to say that most people I’ve had on the podcast have definitely said the same thing. And every time you have a moment of success, you either already have computed that said success. So, as in you got excited about it the month before it actually then happened, by the time it is actually properly done, you already passed.

Tessa: The worst example of that is fundraising. I feel very sort of bitter about it because you never actually have a true genuine moment of celebration. So, when you start off with fundraising, you’ve got sort of 0% progress along the way on probability of success.

Then you just slowly and incrementally move from zero towards a hundred percent and say at what point do you celebrate? Is it the actual funds arriving in your bank account? Well, that’s the point at which you move from 99% certainty to a hundred percent certainty.

So, at that point, as you say, you’ve already sort of really got your head around it. So, you don’t really get that genuine sense of celebration. Certainly not as a fundraising founder, however that’s where celebrating with a team is a really great thing because they haven’t been on every single percent of that journey with you. And so, their excitement can be really contagious and infectious.

Chris: Very true. Apart from obviously the gym-based stuff that you do kind of every day, do you have any habits that you think really have kind of been instrumental in your success?

Tessa: So, I’ve been on a massive journey. I had an almost 20-year corporate career before founding Olio. And all of the businesses that I had worked at were 100% office based.

And even though they claimed not to have a sense of FaceTime, the reality is that when you’re in office, FaceTime is real, and it exists, that sort of pressure to feel like you need to be present in the office.

The first year of founding Olio was the most challenging year of my life, quite frankly, and a lot of stuff was going on. And at the end of that year, even I could recognize it was completely unsustainable and I couldn’t figure out how to get out of this very unsustainable situation.

But the one thing that I did do was I booked myself into a gym class every Monday morning at 9:30 AM. And the first few times I went there, I kept on looking over my shoulder because I was expecting someone to come tuck me on the shoulder and tell me that I should be in the office because I certainly wouldn’t normally be in a gym given my previous careers.

But I very quickly realised that, it was completely game changing in terms of my physical health, my mental health, my spiritual health, everything. And in particular, since I no longer go to the gym in the same way, I now exercise a lot more outdoors, and also do a lot of walking and running. I can listen to podcasts at the same time.

And so, I’m getting fresh air, I’m taking exercise, and I’m learning an enormous amount. I get a huge amount of inspiration from the podcast I listen to. I kind of do my own version of hit training.

I’ll be running along, I have to stop, take some notes or send myself a voice recording of some insight I’ve had, carry on again. Basically my morning routine is to get up, check email briefly.

I then get the kids ready for school, walk them to school, and then I don’t hit my desk as such until 10 o’clock in the morning. And that sort of 9 till 10 period is the time when I exercise. And yes, it is sacred.

Chris: That endorphin hit definitely runs with you all day. And that it’s noticeable then to everyone that’s probably around you. Any particular podcasts you listen to that kind of give you those ideas?

Tessa: Well, they have changed over the years. I wrote a blog post on Medium called Want to Build a Billion Dollar Startup. And I listed all of the podcasts that we’ve listened to on our journey and why.

Chris: Perfect.

Tessa: But I used to listen to This Week in Startups, a lot of behavioural psychology podcasts because ultimately, at Olio we’re trying to change behaviour at scale and that’s really, really hard, and there’s lots of fascinating insights when you look into that field of behavioural psychology.

And then I also listen to wellness and nutrition podcasts as well because I recognize that being a startup founder is a series of marathons rather than just a sprint. And so, it’s really important that I am in good shape mentally, physically, spiritually, emotionally in my relationships. So, that’s why I listen to those podcasts.

Chris: Apart from obviously the gym-based stuff that you do kind of every day, do you have any habits that you think really have kind of been instrumental in your success?

Tessa: A couple of things. I wouldn’t necessarily hold myself up as massively successful, but things that have worked for me, I read the book called The Lean Startup right at the very beginning of our journey, which is all about testing, iterating, and learning. Don’t sort of build something to perfection.

I can see you, there we go — going into your bookshelf. That is exactly that book.

So, I read that book very early in our journey and I have embraced that test, measure, learn mindset. For the first few years, I applied it only to Olio, and then I realised, “Well, hang on a minute, why don’t I just apply that to myself and to my life?”

So, I am constantly testing and iterating and learning and switching things up to find out what works. So, for example, a test that I ran fairly recently, I was trying to build more body resistance exercises into my daily life and was struggling to do that.

And I thought, “Well, I know if I put my yoga mat down on the floor in between my desk and the door, then perhaps every time I get up to leave my office, I’ll do some push-ups or something like that.” So, that’s just a small example of a small test that I would be doing to see if it works or doesn’t work.

I will experiment with intermittent fasting, for example, and delaying the time at which I’ll have my breakfast and figure out what kind of impact that has on me. I’ve got what’s referred to as a growth mindset. I’m insanely curious and I love testing and experimenting.

I think a lot of people just get very stuck in ruts in their lives and they assume that sort of the status quo is the natural world order, and it just isn’t. It really is incredibly empowering to know that you are responsible for crafting your life, only you. And you can take actions, even if you think you can’t, you really can.

And instead of taking big, bold actions, break stuff down into really small little steps that don’t feel intimidating and overwhelming, and you’ll be amazed how lots of small steps rapidly build up to big progress.

Chris: Have you always been this way, or has it been, as you said, kind of led from the book? Or do you think this has always been a feature of you?

Tessa: I’ve always been insanely curious. I’ve always been a problem solver and I’ve always thought very laterally, which is very much linked to problem solving and I’ve thrived on change and variety, and I think that originates from my upbringing.

So, I was born and raised on a farm in North Yorkshire, spent the first third of my life living and working there. So, whilst many other kids were having play dates or watching TV, listening to music, or shopping or going to movies, I didn’t do any of those things.

I was working along with my two younger brothers on our family farm, putting in 10, 12 plus-hour days, no matter the weather. And when you are working on a farm, the only thing that’s guaranteed is that everything is going to go wrong pretty much every day or several things will go wrong every day, because you can’t control the weather, you can’t control animals, machinery breaks down far more often than it should.

So, I guess I learned how to flex that muscle of adapting to things that are kind of thrown my way. And actually, when I was on holiday, I did apologise to my husband. I said, “God, I hope you don’t find it really annoying about me.”

But even when something goes wrong, it takes me less than a second to regear my mind and to find the positive in what has gone wrong or to find the positive that still remains and to come up with a solution.

I can acknowledge that sometimes people just want to go, “Oh, isn’t this terrible that this has happened to us?” I really want to be angry or upset that this has happened to us. But that’s just not in my DNA, I’m just immediately looking for that silver lining and looking for a solution.

Chris: Do you think your corporate career has kind of influenced that as well?

Tessa: Not really. I think I spent my corporate career doing what I felt that society expected of me, fulfilling what I thought society defined as success and fitting in.

Chris: Interesting.

Tessa: And I learned an enormous amount. But now, I think I’m able to very much meld the best of that corporate career and learnings and experience with something that’s much more true and authentic to myself, which is doing work with purpose at Olio and also doing something entrepreneurial.

I had a choice between a role that was perhaps a very prestigious role, heading up a very big brand that was only growing very incrementally and it was very much business as usual, versus something that didn’t have the prestige, it didn’t have the brand or the logo, but there was a really gnarly challenge to be addressed or a fundamental change in the business model that was going on. I would always choose the latter.

Chris: And was there a moment that kind of forced this kind of change from the corporate side where you then said, “Right, enough is enough, I’m moving on.” Or was it over a period of time?

Tessa: I would say I had a period of roughly five years at the end of my corporate career where I was very fortunate to have those organisations invest in me and send me on various leadership courses and retreats and stuff like that.

And I found myself going to those events and listening to these incredible speakers who are brought in to inspire us and challenge us and all that jazz. And I can remember so vividly sitting in the audience, being so inspired by these other people, and then stopping and reflecting on myself, my life, my CV, what I had achieved, and feeling profoundly uninspired.

And I started to reach the point where I just got sick and tired of being uninspired by myself. I wanted to be inspired by myself and what I was doing. And so, that really started a growing entrepreneurial itch.

So, for several years, I knew that I wanted to do something, build something, take it from zero to one, something that was my baby. But I didn’t have an idea. Retrospectively, I realised I wasted several years because I beat myself up over the fact that I didn’t have an idea. I was almost expecting an idea to drop down from the heavens.

What I have realised now is that I was going about it entirely the wrong way. What I should have been doing was going out into the world, not waiting for an idea to hit me. I should have gone out into the world looking for a problem to solve and a problem that I’m really passionate about.

Thankfully, I was kind of saved from myself through a seemingly inconsequential moment in my life eight years ago when I was living and working overseas, and moving back to the UK.

And on moving day, the removal man told me I had to throw away all of our uneaten food. And the inner farmer’s daughter in me said, “No way. I’m not prepared to put perfectly good food in a bin.”

And so, instead, I set out onto the streets with my newborn baby and toddler hoping to find someone to give this food to. And unfortunately, I failed miserably. I returned back to the apartment feeling very despondent but not to be defeated.

When the removal men weren’t looking I smuggled non-perishable foods into the bottom of my packing boxes. And that was the moment where I thought, “Tessa, you really have taken this too far. This is ridiculous. Your hatred of food wastes meant that you are now cross border smuggling.”

Given that I’d worked in the digital space for over a decade at that point in time, I knew there’s an app for everything. I couldn’t believe there wasn’t a simple app to connect with my neighbours to share our spare food.

And that experience then took me down a rabbit hole of researching the problem of food waste, having my mind blown by that, sharing this idea of a neighbour-to-neighbour food sharing app with my co-founder Sasha, and both of us resolving that we wanted to solve it.

Chris: So, your co-founder, how did you two actually meet, and how did you take the next step from idea to actually starting the business?

Tessa: Sasha and I met over 20 years ago now. We both went to study for our MBAs at Stanford Business School in California. After we graduated, we both moved back to London, and we were the best of friends.

We had a whole social group of us that partied far too hard, drank too much. We then at the same time, I think three months apart, had our first children and we’re very much, we’re kind of the best of friends, we’re now also business partners.

We had decided that we wanted to do something entrepreneurial. When I pitched the idea of the neighbour-to-neighbour food sharing app to Sasha, her parents are hippies in the Midwest of Iowa. So, she immediately got the idea and we resolved to work on it earlier together.

So, it took us exactly five months to the day from sharing the idea of Olio with her to the first version of the app being launched in the app store. The first step that we undertook was desk research to discover whether the problem of food waste was anything larger than just my personal experience. The short answer to that is, yes, it is.

It’s one of the largest problems facing humanity today because globally, a third of all the food we produce each year gets thrown away, which is worth over a trillion U.S. dollars. If it were to be a country, food waste would be the third largest source of greenhouse gas emissions after the USA and China.

And in a country such as the UK, half of all food waste takes place in the home. So, this idea of a neighbour-to-neighbour food sharing app that’s tackling half of that enormous problem of food waste definitely ticked the box of are we solving a real and significant problem.

The next thing we did was a market research survey, which we shared all over Facebook groups. And what we were trying to find out with the research survey was whether anybody actually cared about this problem.

And one of the core insights coming out of that was that one in three people told us that they were physically pained by throwing away good food.

Chris: Do you think your MBA was beneficial in all of this?

Tessa: Yes and no. Yes, in terms of, I definitely would not have been able to do this without Sasha. I did not have the confidence, the conviction to start something up by myself. And I think a big part of that is because there are just very few female role models.

Certainly, when you think of entrepreneurs and entrepreneurship and even now, eight years later, it’s still very much … The image that springs to mind is a young guy in a hoodie from the U.S. who’s dropped out of university, who’s living on ramen noodles and coding all night.

And absolutely no part of that image relates or corresponds to me. So, I would only have been able to do something like this with the companionship and the support of Sasha and we complement each other extremely well.

The other thing I think an MBA is good for, although to be honest, both Sasha and I did get this through our careers as well because we were both strategy consultants at one point, but it is good for the strategic work and strategic thinking.

But I really do feel that in terms of entrepreneurship specifically, I learned 90% plus of what I have applied on a day-to-day basis at Olio through listening to podcasts and through reaching out and speaking to peers and founders who are a stage ahead of me, and learning from them.

Chris: So, you think that mentorship piece has been a really kind of pivotal element for you?

Tessa: When I think of a mentor, I think of someone that’s a long and an ongoing relationship with. Often, you both would identify as mentor or mentee, whereas I never had that.

But I have much more of a mindset of learning from absolutely every single person I meet and every single person I talk to. Therefore, I haven’t had a single ongoing mentor. Everybody is my mentor, they just don’t know it.

Chris: How would you cultivate those sorts of conversations? So, you say if someone’s further on in say the fundraising journey than you are, is it a case of identifying them and then kind of very naturally having a conversation and just trying to pick their brains over a cup of coffee type thing?

Tessa: No, I think you’ve got to be quite careful about picking your brains over a cup of coffee. Because the reality is that people are very busy and want something a bit more targeted.

So, what I do, is if I have a specific problem that I am trying to solve — so for example, if we’re introducing a freemium business model into the app, then I will reach out to other founders who I know who’ve done that, specifically asking for 15 minutes of their time just to talk about that issue.

And generally, if you just ask for a very short period of time about a specific topic, most people are happy to give that to you. But if you email someone and ask to pick their brains over a cup of coffee, that’s too vague and it’s a big ask as well.

Chris: If you are coming up with something deliberate like that and you are quantifying it, you’re going to get a much higher likelihood of saying yes. And I assume that was exactly what a conversation you did have with someone based on the app, no?

Tessa: I have people reaching out to me almost every day who want some of my time. And I only respond to people who have a very, very clear and specific task. Because I haven’t got enough hours in the day to meet with everybody who wants to meet with me.

Chris: Interesting.

Tessa: And I certainly don’t do face-to-face unless it’s extremely clear that this could be a really important strategic ongoing relationship. In that case, I would maybe meet face-to-face.

Chris: In terms of legacy, do you ever kind of think about that, and how do you want your impact on the world to be viewed?

Tessa: So, I’m very driven by legacy. And for me, what does legacy mean? It’s not sort of my name on a plate outside some big fancy building.

For me, legacy is when I lie on my deathbed, will I be proud of what I have achieved? Will I be proud of the positive impact that I have had? Will I feel that I really gave it my best? I gave it my all and I made the most out of this incredible gift and opportunity I was given, the gift of life sort of in the 20th and 21st centuries.

That motivates me a lot. And that again, was part of what led to this growing angst at the end of my corporate career. Because I realised that if I were to lie on my deathbed tomorrow, whilst I had a CV that looked fantastic and head-hunters loved, it wasn’t something that I felt proud or motivated by.

So, I do think legacy is important. Also, when you look at behavioural psychology, I remember listening to a podcast talking about legacy and actually, it’s massively motivating for a lot of people.

In particular, when you’re trying to get people to work with you, support your business, invest in you, then hinting at legacy can really help increase your conversion rates.

Chris: If you could leave our listeners with one key takeaway or a piece of wisdom from your journey, what would it be and why?

Tessa: Just get started. I think too many of us are paralyzed by the desire for perfection. And what you just need to do is take that first step, that first baby step, which then leads to the next step and the next and the next. And if you do that in every aspect of your life, then you’ll find yourself achieving things you could never have dreamed or imagined.

Chris: We ask our guests on the podcast to leave one book on the Uncommon bookshelf for listeners to kind of look upon and hopefully be inspired by. What book would you like to leave and why?

Tessa: Well, I guess it’d be cheating if I said The Lean Startup by Eric Ries because we’ve already covered that. But there are two other books, if I may be so presumptuous, that I have found really instrumental on the Olio journey.

The first one is a book called The Mom Test by Rob Fitzpatrick, which is all about how to do market research with your end users in such a way that you’re going to get the real truthful insights, not just what you want to hear.

And the second one is a book called The Culting of Brands by a guy called Doug Atkins who really sort of deconstructs how to build a brand that people are truly and authentically passionate about.

And I really enjoyed reading that book because I think that Sasha and I had done very instinctively at Olio, and it was really great reading some of the science and some of the other case studies behind other brands that have built incredible followership and support from their communities.

Chris: They both sound super interesting. So, I’m going to enjoy reading those. So, I think there’s a lot of learning there. Thank you very much Tessa.

Tessa: My very great pleasure.

[Music Playing]

Chris: Tessa is truly inspirational. Her drive and energy alongside her authenticity is infectious. And I hope someone listening is inspired to bring their idea into reality.

I’ve loved hearing her talk about her daily routine and how sacred it is to her. I too try to have a morning routine and I can vouch that it sets you up for success in the day.

And lastly, I really like the simplicity of Olio, and how their business model is not only scalable, but adaptable to other markets. Therefore, presenting a fascinating opportunity with endless reach.

I hope listening to this story has inspired you. And if you haven’t already, follow Alive With Possibilities wherever you get your podcasts, as there are different learnings in each and every episode.