Tessa Clarke: On a Mission to Change the World

In this conversation with Mark at BoS Europe 2022, Tessa discusses some of the lessons she’s learned in creating and building a tech company that combines a worthy goal, contributing to making the world more sustainable, with a successful, sustainable and rapidly growing business. OLIO was fifth on the list of ‘top 100 businesses to work for in 2021’ and has attracted significant venture funding from top decile VCs.

Already an accomplished executive, she became an entrepreneur with a mission – to turn our throwaway world into a giveaway world.

This is a conversation that could have lasted a day. Tessa is both inspiring and insightful and she talks about: the challenges of developing a business model for scaling a community facing business with a ‘worthy’ goal; building a remote-first organisation with over 60% female employees; the power of neuroatypical employees; fundraising and lots more.

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Transcript

Mark Littlewood
I first came across OLIO, in probably early 2016. And I kind of looked at it, I was like, Oh, this is cool. So nice app for sharing the food that you don’t use, and we’ve got teenage children, and there’s always food that apparently sell by dates, all those sorts of things are really important. I don’t believe it. But yeah, kind of really resonated with me. And it’s really kind of cool ideas, shame is not going to work. Cuz it just felt too worthy to be honest.

Tessa Clarke
Worthy, or weird, I think.

Mark Littlewood
Worthy and weird. But the more I’ve followed you and tracked what you’ve been doing, the more weirdness has come out to be brutally honest, because I was female founding team. It’s completely remote. It’s a very mission driven organisation. It’s doing all the things that basically if you were talking to a Silicon Valley venture capitalist, they go.

Tessa Clarke
We’ve had a few of those.

Mark Littlewood
But it kind of works. And, you know, venture funding is never the measure of success. But that being said, and that’s something that we can talk about, as well, you’ve had very significant funding from top tier VCs who are not noted for the philanthropic gestures. So this is the anomaly that is OLIO, and Tessa. So it’s like blind date? What’s your name and where do you come from?

Tessa Clarke
I am laughing because actually, Sonali from Excel is one of our largest investors. And very early on, she just kind of looked at us. And she just said, You’re so non normative. And we sort of wear non normative as a badge of honour, polite way of saying, just weird. But yeah, so shall I explain who we are what we do?

Mark Littlewood
Lets start with you then OLIO

Tessa Clarke
Let’s start with me. So I’m a farmer’s daughter, originally. So I had a well spent or misspent youth, depending on how you look at it worked incredibly hard on my parents family farm up in North Yorkshire, there was no computer anywhere in sight. So I’m not sort of one of those entrepreneurs who grew up sort of coding; for me it was sort of cows and chickens, rather than coding.

Although having said that, I did learn a tonne of skills through growing up in a farm that actually, I think a massively helpful to being an entrepreneur, although at the time, I hated everything to do with farming. And I knew that I didn’t want to be a farmer or a farmer’s wife. So I proceeded to kind of get as far away from the farm as possible. So I came to Cambridge where I studied social political sciences. And that sort of fascination with the intersection of kind of people and technology and systems, and how does it all sort of come together as definitely something that is kind of really excited me. So throughout my career.

Still had no clue what I wanted to do after graduating from here. And so I went off to become a strategy consultant, which is a fabulous job to do, if you have no idea what you want to do. I did that for a couple of years and realise that sort of strategizing was fine, but I actually wanted to do stuff. And then I’ve spent a decade sort of in media, financial services, retail industries, always in the digital space, always in general management. And towards the kind of last couple of years of that sort of corporate career. I had a CV that looked pretty good on paper. But I just thought if I die tomorrow, I wouldn’t be proud of what I’ve done. I wouldn’t be excited by sort of the dent that I’ve made in the world. And I had this growing entrepreneurial itch. But the problem was, I didn’t have an idea. And so I spent several years sort of lamenting the fact that I didn’t have an idea.

I’ve now realised I was going about it completely wrong and advice to any sort of wannabe entrepreneurs: Forget about an idea, go look for a bloody problem, and try and solve it.

But that problem sort of came across my path through a seemingly inconsequential moment in my life seven and a bit years ago now I was living with my family in Geneva in Switzerland. And we are moving back to the UK. And on moving day. The removal man said to me that I had to throw away all of our uneaten food. Now obviously, the farmer’s daughter and me said no way, I am not prepared to toss perfectly good food in the bin and so much the irritation of removal men, I set out onto the streets with my newborn baby, my toddler, plus, clutching this food, hoping to find someone to give it to. And to cut a long story short, the lady who is normally always in this one spot for some reason, wasn’t there that day and I got a bit over emotional, I shed a few tears about the fact that I’ve gone to all this effing effort to share this food and had failed. But I wasn’t to be defeated. So I went back to my apartment and when the removal men weren’t looking, I smuggled the non perishable food into the bottom my packing boxes. And that was a moment where I thought I’ve been working digital for a decade, I know there’s an app for everything. Why am I resorting to this criminal offence of smuggling food across the border? Why isn’t a simple app where I can advertise it to my neighbours, and whoever wants it can request it and pop around and pick it up?

And now there is so that’s what OLIO does. We connect people with their neighbours, so you can give away rather than throw away your spare food and other household items.

Mark Littlewood
Amazing. So you went from being that boring corporate person and you did something. Did you leave to start it did you have a cofounder?

Tessa Clarke
I was on maternity leave at the time. And I told a few people about this idea of a neighbour to neighbour food sharing app. And pretty much everybody thought I was crazy. They thought that baby brain had got the better of me. And I really needed to go back to work. But luckily, I told my now co founder Saasha, who I’d met about 10 years prior studying for our MBAs at Stanford. And her surname is Celestial-One, by the way. So her name is Saasha Celestial-One her parents are hippies, from the midwest of America. So a hippie, of course, immediately thought this was a wonderful idea. The first thing we did was a mini sort of MBA, full kind of one hour super concentrated on sort of this problem, our potential solution scoping out the size of the market, thinking about business model, looking at competitive set, the competitive set was simple. It’s the bin. And after that hour, we were absolutely convinced that this was an enormous problem. And we were super passionate about solving it.

Mark Littlewood
Very interesting. OLIO, there’s two of you, you’ve done a little MBA, you’ve done your business model canvas or whatever, what was the business model?

Tessa Clarke
Well, I laugh, because, honestly, the business model has changed so many times. And that, for me was just actually a major learning was not ironically, for our tech business to batten down your business model too early, because the business model that we had originally assumed would be the one that would work with OLIO was going to be a commission based models. So people could sell their surplus, but it had to be at least discounted by at least 50% off the original purchase price. And then we’d just be a classic marketplace and just take a share on that. But we recognise that this was a model that would only work at scale. And we sort of had two developers initially, and we thought, well, there’s no point in having two developers trying to monetize the square root of nobody, let’s have two developers trying to build a brilliant product. So we kind of pushed off monetization, because we could demonstrate very clearly the size of the prize.

But thankfully, we didn’t waste their time building that model of monetization, because that whole sort of business model for marketplaces is fast disappearing. And actually, we’ve been through several other iterations of kind of each round of fundraising, we have kind of a new business model hypothesis, and then always seems to be a couple of weeks after the fundraising, we realised No, that’s not the right one. And the business model we’re monetizing with right now, which I’ll talk about in a minute if of interest is, is something that we would never have conceived, at that point of founding. So I think it’s really important in that kind of zero to one phase, to be just super exploratory. And your objective is just one thing. It’s to test, iterate, and learn as fast as possible and to and to spread yourself quite thin, right? In the early days, obviously, later on, you’ve got to really focus

Mark Littlewood
So we’ll ask the audience in a minute if they want to know about that business model.

Tessa Clarke
I’m sure we’ll come on to it. Since we’ve got 50 minutes left.

Mark Littlewood
When you started up, you’re kind of working with a hippie right?

Tessa Clarke
She’s a hippie who has also been been an investment banker and an ex strategy consultant. So she’s kind of hippie in her heart,

Mark Littlewood
It feels like it’s a very worthy cause. Did you ever think about this being a charity rather than an or a not for profit or for profit? How did you think about the kind of idea and the business as you were setting out because I’ve seen a few of these things.

Tessa Clarke
Yep. So we were super clear that we were not going to be a charity. And there are a couple of reasons for that. First of all, you know, just to give you guys some indication of the scale of the problem we’re trying to solve globally, over a third of all the food we produce each year gets thrown away, that’s worth over a trillion US dollars. And we were focused specifically on the problem of food waste in the home. And even in the UK, households are throwing away £14 billion pounds of perfectly good food every year.

And we also discovered that if it were to be a country, food waste would be the third largest source of greenhouse gas emissions after the USA and China. So we knew that we needed to get to scale and get to scale very quickly if humanity were to stand any chance of living in a habitable planet. And we just couldn’t see any charities that had scaled at the rate of Google or Amazon, or Apple or Dropbox, or Instagram, or, or whoever. And so we were very clear that we needed to be a business with a business model, and it needs to be a sustainable business model. And actually, we get very frustrated. And we think that the sort of the world is very much trapped in this very sort of paralysing dichotomy where we say, if you’re a charity, then you are doing good in the world, but you probably aren’t scaling, or having impact at massive scale. And if you’re a business, then you are probably growing at an incredible rate, that having all sorts of horrendous negative externalities on people and planet.

And our very, very firm view is that the new business paradigm, whether we like it or not, is the third route, which is profit with purpose. And at the moment, we’re considered an outlier. But it is my firm belief that if you’re a business that does not have purpose at your core, you will lose a licence to exist within the next I don’t know if it’s five years, 10 years or 20 years, that sort of, certainly within a fairly immediate timeframe. It is just not going to be accepted by society, if your sole business objective is profit at all costs. So for us, it was very clear that we needed to be a business and then also on a practical level, Saasha and I have no experience of running a nonprofit or a charity, whereas we do have experience of running businesses

Mark Littlewood
Very successfully.

Tessa Clarke
I think the other point I’d make sort of around that, actually. So we’re often asked you how do you balance, profit with purpose? And even the question couches it as if those two things are in conflict with one another.

And I’ve thought a lot about that and I encourage people to think about it via analogy. So kind of 20 years ago, so when might be sat on this stage being asked, “How do you balance treating your employees well, and growing a successful business?” you know, they were seen as sort of, is in conflict with one another. Whereas now today, we’ve really moved on beyond that. We know that to build a successful business, you’ve got to treat your employees well. And I believe that I’d like to think, you know, within the next five years, people will stop asking me, how do you balance profit with purpose, because they will recognise that the two are mutually reinforcing?

Mark Littlewood
So anybody want to know what the business model is? Would anybody like to know what the business model is?

[Audience Huzzah]

Tessa Clarke
Excellent.

Mark Littlewood
Yes, I’d like to know what the business model is

Tessa Clarke
excellent. So to describe the business model to you, I’ve got to kind of step back to the early days of OLIO. So we were a food sharing app. And we found ourselves in a really tricky conundrum, because our early adopters were people who hated food waste. So they downloaded the app in their droves. But they had no food to give away because they didn’t waste food. And on the other hand, you can see where this is going. And on the other hand, we had hoped that local businesses like cafes, and bakeries, and delis would use OLIO, to bring incremental traffic into the store at the end of the day, cross sell upsell benefit from the brand, Halo, et cetera. But we quickly discovered that they were far too busy running their daily operations to be messing around messaging all the members of the community and having them traipsing into their store at random times. So they too, also did not add food to the app. So we’re a food sharing app with no food, which I’m sure you’ll agree is pretty useless.

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So we thought, well, how do we solve this conundrum? And for us, that really was that kind of that cold start problem that I’m sure you’ve all heard and read about. And so how we did it was we said, let’s take these people who have loads of time and no food and match them up with the businesses who have loads of food waste, and no time. And that created something that is now today called our food waste heroes programme. So we have 45,000 trained volunteers who are members of our community. So just for sort of context, we’ve got just under 6 million people have joined OLIO, sort of all over the world. And 45,000 of them have trained up on our proprietary food safety management system. And so we basically kind of inject adverts into the app, and recruiting the right people to join the programme, we then train them online, on the Food Safety Management System, and then dynamically match them with their local business.

Tesco, for example, is our largest client at the moment, we’re supporting 2700 of their stores across the country, and also in Ireland now. And essentially how it works is once youre a trained food waste hero, you can claim a collection slot. So today is Tuesday show Tuesday, there’s probably a Tesco around here somewhere. So 8pm tonight, you can claim that collection slot. And so what that means is you leave your house, you go across the road, you go to the store, you pick up all of their unsold food, you take it home, you add it to the app, within minutes, your neighbours are requesting it and minutes later, they’re popping around and picking it up. So that takes that food from having been considered a waste stream in Tesco store, to an average within an hour being fully redistributed into multiple homes in the local community. Now at the moment, those businesses are paying a waste contractor to take that food off to livestock feed, anaerobic digestion, or landfill. And now they are paying us to make sure that that food is eaten not thrown away.

So yeah, we are working with clients in the supermarket sector, the quick service restaurant sector, and contract catering, and also the quick commerce companies, as well as schools and hospitals and places like that. So that is how we monetize. And those businesses are recognising that they have to get to zero food waste locations, one because they’ve got Net Zero plans now and they’re not going to hit their net zero targets while throwing away food at the scale that they are. Secondly, their employees are extremely upset at being paid to throw away perfectly good food every day, especially given that many of them are on minimum wage themselves. And then thirdly, customers are calling out these businesses, and in particular being very vocal on social media. And so businesses recognising it, it’s just no longer acceptable. They’ve got to get to zero food waste locations.

And so that is how we’re monetizing right now, the second way in which we’re monetizing is we have a freemium business model, which is still very much an MVP stage. So you can essentially upgrade to unlock a slim set of features in the app. And yeah, we’ve got a long way, sort of, we’re hitting industry benchmarks in terms of conversion rates for that right now. But it’s very, very early days for that, and then the next revenue stream that we’ll be looking to bring online, but probably not until next year is, in addition to connecting neighbours to give away food, and everyday household items, we now also connect neighbours to lend and borrow everyday household household items. Because not all of us need a cat carrier, or a disco ball or an air mattress, or a million fancy dress costumes.

Mark Littlewood
Have you been in my shed?

Tessa Clarke
Yes, exactly. And your shed is replicated across the country in the world. So really, we are about helping kind of reinvent how people consume and we will be introducing a small platform fee, so like a pound to borrow or five pounds or borrow, which will then unlock insurance to cover the borrow. So that’s where we’re at with monetization. And then the other bit about monetization, which potentially game changing but we’re very, very early on, is we’re working through a process of getting credited. So selling carbon credits, because we can very clearly calculate the enormously positive impact that we’re having in terms of solving the climate crisis. So if you look at our impact to date, we’ve had 45 million portions of food given away which has had an environmental impact equivalent to taking 135 million car miles off the road. And we’ve also saved 7 billion litres of water. And right now we’re doing like 0.01% of our full potential. So we’re very interested. Yeah, and got some really exciting work underway to get carbon accredited.

[Audience Applause].

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Mark Littlewood
That’s quite a ride in 5/6/7 years or something. So COVID comes beginning of 2020. Everyone has to go remote. How did you cope Tessa? I’ve done my research.

Tessa Clarke
That’s called a leading question. So we had always been a remote first business and actually, our team did not physically come together in a single location until after we raised our Series A so it was just such a wild moment to actually meet each other face to face and be like, Wow, kind of we’ve done this after several years of of being fully remote first. We will remote first by necessity we were to female founders who had young kids, and we didn’t live close to each other. And we just did not have the time, or the finances to be spending money and precious hours of the day commuting to somewhere where neither of us wanted to be. And we knew that perfectly efficient use of digital tools. So OLIO was built remote remote first, from the ground up. And Saasha and I, between us, we’d have kind of 40 years of corporate experience at that point in time. And we were just stunned every single day at how effective and efficient this way of working was. But then every time we met someone, and they say, oh, where’s your office, and we’re like, we haven’t got an office. And you can see this just disbelief of lack of comprehension and a massive cynicism. And they just sort of thought, you know, this can’t possibly work and blah, blah.

So we stopped talking about the fact that we remote first business, because we just couldn’t be bothered to try and persuade people. So it became our sort of dirty little secret, that we just sort of kept quiet and just changed the topic of conversation when people asked about our office. But obviously, then COVID hit. And so for us, there was no change to our day to day operations, we were able to continue sort of completely, seamlessly, and the rest of the world sort of realised, wow, there are some incredible benefits to this model of working. And, you know, for us, some of the sort of key benefits of being remote first, around talent, acquisition and attraction, because we were just suddenly able to tap, we weren’t competing in this very small, very competitive pool of developers in London, right, we could access the whole of the UK and beyond. So massive benefit in acquisition.

Another benefit that didn’t occur to us in the early days, but very, we’ve since really, really been wowed by continually is the impact it has on diversity. So you know, my tech team is just over 50% female, we have over 20% of our team is neurodiverse, like across every diversity metric, we are super diverse. And I really believe that the minute you start, or stop trying to ask, literally over half of the population to conform with this one paradigm and way of working and just free people up to work at the time that works for their body clock, for example. Like some people, early morning people, some people late night and stop forcing everybody to go commute and work in a horrible loud, noisy office. So great preposition, great for diversity. Fabulous for retention, because the other thing that we do being sort of remote first is we don’t try and replicate the office in a remote environment. And I think that’s mistake a lot of businesses made through COVID.

Mark Littlewood
How do you control all your people, then? How do you make sure they’re not being lazy?

Tessa Clarke
Yeah, exactly. And that’s the question. I would get the whole time. And I was like, wow, you clearly haven’t experienced remote working for a company that has our – I’m not allowed to say sh*t, am I -how about S H I T together? We really invest in management basics. So, yeah, so managing people, we kind of recruit the right people, we recruit against our values. Everybody has to be mission obsessed. And we really invest in the management hygiene factors. If you do all of that, which quite frankly, I think every business should do, then you will find yourself not with that problem, you’ll find yourself with the opposite problem, which is, how do I stop my team from working so hard? How do I protect them and make sure that they’re not burning out? So that’s what keeps me awake at night? Absolutely not worrying whether people are kind of working hard enough, or if I’m getting my pound of flesh or not.

Mark Littlewood
How many people are in the team now?

Tessa Clarke
We’re growing very rapidly. So as of today, I keep having palpitations, when I see how fast we’re growing. We’re at 91 people

Mark Littlewood
A year ago?

Tessa Clarke
Well, at December 2021, we were 66 people the December 2020we were at 30 people. But we’re going through this massive sort of metamorphosis, really transitioning from being a scrappy startup. So we had that kind of mentality of 20 or 30 people even as we kind of expanded up to the 60 people. Now, we’re breaking ourselves to pieces, and we’re rebuilding the whole company kind of from the grassroots up to kind of be a scale up.

But the other point I didn’t fully answer your question about COVID. So from a company perspective, in terms of our operations, it didn’t impact us at all. We didn’t skip a beat. But in terms of the business model, and whether a neighbour to neighbour food sharing app could continue to operate through a global pandemic. That was extremely hair raising. For the first sort of couple of days once the lockdown was announced, do you know when it wasn’t clear that you could continue to connect neighbours to share food? But Saasha and I, I think the most important thing we did was actually listen to our community. And our community told us in no uncertain terms, they said, You have a responsibility to keep operating through the pandemic.

And that really told us what we had to do, we have to find a way around this. And so we then worked with our food safety lawyer and our environmental health officer, to figure out a way to keep operating through the pandemic. And the thing that we did was we basically switch the model to make all pickups be no contact pickups. So you just kind of pop the item down outside a few minutes before the other person who is due to collect it arrives. And for the first of two weeks of the pandemic, we had a dip of about 20-25% in listings coming on to the app. And then from that minute onwards, in May or wherever it was, we then started to experience this incredible hockey stick that we’ve fantasised about for goodness knows how many years it was happening shame, it took a global pandemic. And it we kind of grew more than five months than we did in five years.

And I think that because the pandemic reminded us of what it is to be a human being. I think we just reconnected with humanity for the first time in a very, very long time. And people instinctively wanted to connect with their community, they wanted to help other people. And staying home to help didn’t feel like enough. So yeah, we saw this massive kind of outpouring of sharing. And people were sort of Marie Kondo in their homes and, and it was also something to do as well. And we see that continuing, even post pandemic, so many people are living and working from home and OLIO is a really great way to meet someone with a kind of really low commitment requirement, that to meet someone else in your local community. And that’s what people love about OLIO. They tell us they join Aereo because they hate waste. They keep using OLIO. Because they love that doorstep connection meeting someone in their community. And we did some research at the end of last year. And it showed that over 40% of our community said they felt less lonely, since joining OLIO, and also over 40% of our community said that they had made friends since using OLIO and that for me is what’s really exciting. And it’s that intersection of technology and humanity, technology and community. And then you put in the third circle of kind of solving the climate crisis. And that, for me, is the definition of impact, right? It’s that kind of intersection, those three things.

Mark Littlewood
Are there any companies that you looked at as models when you were thinking about how you grow your business? And particularly from a remote first perspective? Where did you do that?

Tessa Clarke
No, no, I mean, sadly, so I’d say roughly half of what we’ve done at OLIO has kind of leveraged mine and Saasha’s corporate experience. So at least half of what we did, we thought was so valuable, that then half of it, we thought was utter crap, and we binned it with, you know, with with great happiness. And with the sort of remote first, I mean, we couldn’t find many/any models. I mean, I think we kind of knew of kind of the GitHub guys, and perhaps basecamp, you know, but like, you can also count on one hand, and they were over in the US. So we just had to do everything ourselves from kind of first principles, and following kind of our instincts.

Mark Littlewood
I wish you had found our previous BoS talks from before. There’s a load of them Zapier’s 250 people. Todoist, which is a couple 100 people now, there’s this Balsamiq It’s weird, that pandemic arriving and we’ve been talking or people been talking at BoS about remote for over a decade. And then all of a sudden, it became this thing. And for a lot of people now going back into how to go back into the office, and how do you deal with hybrid offices? I know there’s a few conversations I’ve had here with people where some teams are remote and some aren’t. And you’ve got a weird building that’s very expensive.

Tessa Clarke
Hybrid sort of gives me the heebie jeebies. Because it is so inclusive is our number one company value, and it’s just really not an inclusive way to work because it is inevitable. If we have a just a super clear rule. It’s like one screen, one person. That is it, because it just it just doesn’t work. But what we have done is we have really kind of leaned into – so we’re we have no office, we have recently subscribe to a service called Hubble, which gives our team all over the world access to co working spaces. And that is purely to give that kind of social interaction that many people want from their work especially, we find, although not always kind of the younger employees were perhaps kind of earlier on in their careers.

And then we come together as a company kind of four times a year. And I was just saying to someone earlier on over lunch, originally, when we used to come together, we’ve come together twice a year, sort of post Series A, we used to sort of do work on our away days. And then through COVID, we realised that actually, there is just no work that can be done more efficiently than remotely. And so actually, why are we even pretending to do work in our away days, so we just rebranded it, it was a retreat, and it was just three days of just leaning into what face to face sort of OLIO Jolio. Yeah, there we go. We go. Yes.

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Mark Littlewood
I’m gonna see if I can con you into coming back and doing one of our online conferences, sorry, invite you to take part in one of our online things when we talk about kind of operating systems for remote businesses, because there’s other people there that I think you’d really enjoy spending time with. So now that’s done, and we just sign here.

Diversity. What should we talk about? First, let’s have a little vote. So there’s this diversity thing. And I think diversity on many levels here. But also don’t know how interesting fundraising is in fundraising as it is as a female,

Tessa Clarke
but also an intersection? there

Mark Littlewood
Who wants to talk about fundraising? Who wants to talk about diversity? Who doesn’t have any arms? Do us two minutes on fundraising and and your experiences there; What are the what are the things that you take away, and then we can dive into diversity,

Tessa Clarke
Brutal, soul destroying, I have massive like post traumatic stress as a result of the experience. I’m sort of laughing now. But if I genuinely allow myself to go into that place, I will be crying. It’s it’s extremely challenging, being a female co founded business fundraising. So you might or might not know the stats. But in Europe, just 1% of all venture capital funding goes to female co founder businesses. 89% goes to male founded businesses, and 10% goes to mix teams. And I believe that a third of all startups are founded by female founders.

So you are kind of going into battle very much against the odds. And it’s extremely challenging, often because investors invest in things that excite them, and in problems that they can relate to. So we were going and talking to all these incredibly non diverse VCs, who were predominantly male, who looked at us in just utter bemusement, as we tried to explain to them this problem of food waste in the home, and that the average British family was throwing away £730 of perfectly good food each year. And you could tell that they’ve gone nowhere near their kitchen. And food was generally served to them by a woman of some variety, whether it be a waitress, or an air hostess, or a housekeeper, or their wife. And so they would often have to say, Well, I have to go and ask my wife about this, which sort had to stay calm, because obviously a rich VCs wife was not our target audience.

But yeah, and nor should she have to represent 3 billion people or whatever. But yeah, so it was extremely challenging, but to flip it on to the kind of the so whats, like, how have we addressed that? How have we countered that there are several kind of very practical things that we did. So the first thing I remember for our Series A was it was very clear that on every level, there were just millions of biases against us. And so the first slide sort of in our deck was a essentially, a bunch of sort of stamps of approval from other organisations that said that Saasha and I were legitimate. We weren’t girls because we’re often referred to as girls by everybody. MBA from Stanford, Boston Consulting, group, McKinsey, etc, etc. All are kind of seals of approval, to hopefully make them sit up and listen and sort of take us seriously for the rest of the pitch. So I definitely think that’s quite really important for female founders to over index on on bring their credit to the front, not the back not to be shy.

The other thing that is really important, I tell everybody who is not just female founder but diverse founders. And by the way, I have a kind of point of principle never to talk just about female founders because the problems that I’m sharing are not unique to female founders, they’re the experience of diverse founders of all sort of all varieties. So I tell every all diverse founders to watch an amazing video by a lady called Dana Kanze, a professor at LBS, and she did some analysis, which figured out why female founders don’t get the funding? And the answer is, in a nutshell, that female and diverse founders get asked prevention questions. So these are downside questions about what happens if Google or Amazon decides to copy? Or what happens if this doesn’t work out? What is all that negative stuff? And the male founders are asked promotion questions. How big can this be? How fast can we go? What happens if we put in 10x?

And the solution to find yourself in that situation is to answer prevention questions with a promotion response. And I just found that incredibly powerful. And you know, and I could see it happening in a meeting and I could see an email, I’d be like, prevention, prevention, prevention, prevention, and prevention question. Excellent. I’m now going to spin this all around and respond with a promotion response. And then the other things you have to be aware of are kind of, I guess, some of the unconscious biases as well, like people assume that if you’re a female founder, you’re not particularly commercial. So you have to kind of just over index on that sort of stuff.

Mark Littlewood
Guys are really good over index

Tessa Clarke
I’ve encountered some of the male founders, and I’ve just had to move like, Oh my God. Wow, that’s what that’s what I’m up against. That’s what the VCs are seeing all day long. No wonder I feel a bit weird. So yeah,

Mark Littlewood
So the last person I was just as you were talking the last person I sat on stage with an did a talk like this was Steve Shirley. And Steve Shirley is who’s got a BoS squirrel. Everyone’s got a BoS squirrel. So our little BoS squirrel there, the mascot for the conference is called Steve the squirrel. Steve Shirley is Dame Stephanie Shirley, who founded a company in 1962. And changed the name from Stephanie to Steve, because every time she wrote someone to get a coding job, she got no response. So she called herself Steve and worked on Concorde navigation system. She was doing remote in 1962, when you sent letters to people was the fastest way of communicating.

Tessa Clarke
I think if I had a magic wand, the thing you know, the VC industry kind of laments the fact that these figures aren’t changing, and the various sort of, you know, office hours for diverse founders, etc, which are great. But I wrote an opinion piece recently saying female founders need money, not more mentoring. And you know, what would change that century of funding that goes to female founders overnight, would be if VC firms had to have 50% of their investment committee being female, that would solve the problem overnight. And it’s no use, or it doesn’t have the impact, stacking your lower ranks with more diverse investment professionals, it’s helpful because eventually they should get there. But like, it doesn’t change anything right now. Because I’ll then pitching to a female analyst or whatever. And they are all principal and they’re super passionate, they’re super excited, and they come smack up against their all male IC, and the deals kind of thrown away.

So diversity amongst the gatekeepers of capital, would transform the funding landscape. And the reason why I feel so passionate about this, not just because I’m a female founder, is because when I look at the profile of founders who are solving the largest problems facing humanity today, they are such an incredibly diverse group of people. And so by shortchanging female founders and diverse founders, we are shortchanging humanity, the largest problems are just not being solved. So if I look at say, the climate space, the sustainability space right now, there is no shortage of women or people from different ethnicities or different social classes or whatever it might be; it’s such a diverse group of people, but they’re just not getting the funding. And that really should concern all of us.

Mark Littlewood
Those office hours are valuable. VCs time is very expensive, Tessa.

Does Tessa have any tips for asynchronous communication? I don’t know. Tessa?

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Tessa Clarke
Well, I mean, I think most important thing is having a conversation at a company level, about how important this is or isn’t to you. And then if it is really important to you committing to it, and it’s very easy to kind of slip away and slip back from that. And so we have some kind of champions within the organisation who are really responsible for helping to keep us sort of on on the straight and narrow there.

But we we’ve definitely got a journey to go like we’re not completely asynchronous at all. But we’re moving more and more in that direction, as our team is expanding geographically, but to be honest though, it’s not a massive step from us, because we were remote first in the first place to be remote first, you are kind of transparent by default, you document by default, because you have to. And because your primary way of communicating is via documentation, it just makes asynchronicity if that’s the right word, much easier.

Mark Littlewood
Yeah, I think that’s, I think that’s seems to be a very common thing. Just on remote – before we go into diversity – there’s one other question, which is, how many of the people in your team have never worked before?

Tessa Clarke
Oh, never worked? I honestly don’t know the answers that question. But do we have quite a lot of employees who are less than 30? Yes, like, it’s probably a third of our workforce less than 30. And I’m sure we have had some kind of first job as well, first or second job is, but that’s why we have gone down that route of Hubble at giving them access to a co working space, because it is important for them, and also, you know, again, you just have to recognise that we’ve got we’ve got every end of the spectrum in our organisation, we have extreme extroverts, and we have people who are literally housebound. You know, and sort of everything in between. And so it’s just really important to make sure that everybody feels they have time for them.

Mark Littlewood
I mean, it was a slightly pointed question, because there’s an argument to say that successful remote first companies are actually sucking up some of the talent from across everywhere and they are, but they’re relying on old fuddy duddy office based organisations to kind of come in and give people training.

Tessa Clarke
Well, I mean, sort of yes and no. So, I mean, we, whenever we recruit, we’re really, really looking for people who just have oodles of initiative, and who have a growth mindset. And if they have those two things, then irrespective of whether they’ve been to predominant office base before or not, if you’ve got those two qualities, and if they say that they want to work remote first, then chances are it’s going to work out. So I do believe you have to over index and I say on initiative on growth mindset on all that kind of stuff. But I do think, you know, we are in such a rare and privileged position of we are overwhelmed at the calibre of people that want to join OLIO it is so humbling. And the reason for that is because we have an incredible mission, like people want to do work with impact today. And because we are remote first, and so I feel like we are accessing sort of the cream of the crop as a result of this, this model

Mark Littlewood
Diversity, what does it mean? Why is it so important?

Tessa Clarke
it’s super important to me. So we have just four company values is really simple. You know, not a single one of them is on a poster or a mug. But boy, they are truly lived in our organisation. So there’s just four so no one has any excuse not to be able to remember them.

  • They are inclusive,
  • they are resourceful,
  • they are caring,
  • and they are ambitious.

And inclusive is the number one company value and just for very simple, common sense reason or it seems simple and common sense to Saasha myself. So if we want a product that’s going to be used by a billion people and that’s our target by the way we want to be billion people consuming by OLIO by 2030, we want a product, it’s going to be used by a billion people, then it has to be built by people who are as close as we can get to reflecting that 1 billion people.

The quality and the calibre of ideas, and the work is just so much higher when you have the opposite of group think. And so I really enjoyed the sort of stepping out in the session earlier on about kind of psychological safety. And that’s an environment that we’ve worked super hard to foster at OLIO, because we have this kind of like foundation where, to join OLIO, you can’t just be mission aligned, you’ve got to be mission obsessed. But then also, we look for that culture add piece that was mentioned earlier on, if you’ve got that sort of foundation there, then it gives people the freedom to really kind of be themselves and to have a healthy dialogue and debate and can conflict. And I think there’s there’s multiple points of view, build a better, stronger product and team?

Mark Littlewood
How do you get that across in your job advertising and your career opportunities and the way that you’re promoting them? And how do you filter for it?

Tessa Clarke
Yeah, so you know, let’s get sort of practical for a minute. So, at lunch break I was like Oh, I wonder, we’re just migrating over to our first ever HR information system, which I’m quite excited about – we haven’t needed one until now. And it will kind of spit out our diversity data, I kind of went on to our org chart. And I wonder what you know, what portion of our tech team is female right now, and it is over 50%. And that hasn’t happened by accident. So our first two developers were two guys. And I just knew probably cause I listen to a podcast somewhere, that if we wanted diversity organisation, you have to build it in from as close to day one as possible, because no one wants to be the token, anything. It’s just a really horrible, unpleasant place to be.

And so when we went to work with recruitment consultants, I said to them, I kind of put myself into their shoes, and I want female developers and I was like, hmm, I am probably asking them to work two to five times harder than they would have to on a normal search, right? Because finding females that just are less of them, that’s gonna be really hard for them, that’s gonna make their business model kind of not stack up, I’m not gonna be a profitable client for them, they’re not gonna want to do it. Like, they just want to bang through these recruitment. Okay, I need to make this worth their while. So I was like, listen, we will give you a higher commission. Bring me female candidates. And at every stage of our recruitment process, we’ve had different types of diversity that we are really specific, like, Oh, we’re under indexing on this sort of, type of person. And this is really important, we have this voice in our organisation, and we’re just really, really explicit about it. And we talk about it as a senior management team. I just think it’s essential. And then it becomes self fulfilling, right? Because then the female developers, they will look at our website, they will look at our team, and they will see, I’m going to, you know, fit in here. I’m not going to be constantly having to justify my view on the world. That’s exhausting.

Mark Littlewood
It’s funny, you sat next to Bridget this morning. Do you remember when you had a little conversation with the guy that was like, Oh, I’m always looking for female? Literally every slide he had was like a football slide, or war slide or something.

Tessa Clarke
my problem is a lot of these recruitment consultants, again, they’re just following their grooves that they’re already in and the muscle memory and they’re going to this same spot and this same place, there is no shortage of diverse talent, you’ve just got to look somewhere else for it. And it requires hard work and effort, but you will get the dividends back 1000 times

Bridget Harris
Mark, can I just because I completely agree with Tessa. And we do very similar things. And I can just give people a sense of the statistics on this. So in you can book me, we’ll put out an advert for a developer. And we will get hundreds of applicants from we work remotely and they’ll all be 98/99% of them will be white men, which is fine. We have plenty white men who work for us inside the company. I’m not against white men, by any means. But the problem is, is that if you just go to that one pool, that is the one type of application you’re going to get. So we also incentivize talent sourcing and recruitment. We also pay a higher commission for people who come from a non stereotypical background and in the end what happens is you put all your money and your recruitment efforts into a 30% of the shortlist. So if you’ve got 15 people you might end up with basically a 50/50 split as you whittle it down, you end up with, it’s happened every single time inside our recruitment efforts, we start with 90% of the applicants coming from white men 10% coming from everybody else, if you like. And then as you whittle it down, and you focus on things like an anonymous shortlisting, you address bias, you proactively look and reach out to communities that, you know, you want them to see your advert, you get down to an interview candidate list of about six people that say, and I’ve had this, where three of them are four of them are women, two of them are black, one of them is Asian, whatever, whatever you’ve got, you’ve had you’ve ended up with, it doesn’t matter who we hire now, I know we’re hiring from the top of the talent that we could get. But to get there, it’s the 80/20 principle that you know, 20% of your effort gets all of that 80% of the value into the into the process or the other way around. But the point is, is it’s it doesn’t happen by accident. And that’s what that happened with that guy in London, was that he was saying he shrugged his shoulders and said, it’s really hard to do. So there’s no point doing it. And I applaud Tessa’s, statistics of a 50% dev team, because that doesn’t happen by accident. And it’s really, really impressive.

Tessa Clarke
I think being remote first, really, really helps with diversity. Because the minute you release that constraint of you have to commute into a busy office in the middle of Central London, just that physical pinpoint, you put on the map excludes so many people. And the minute you remove that constraint, suddenly, you’ve got a whole wonderful world of diverse talent that’s available to you. That wasn’t before.

Mark Littlewood
And just something that made me laugh Zappier, who remote first company actually recruit people from Central London because they can get better, cheaper people there than they can in San Francisco, which this whole remote working thing really does change the way you do things.

Tessa Clarke
We’re even cheaper in Wales!

Mark Littlewood
So how do you filter?

Tessa Clarke
How do we filter? So our values are an integral part of our recruitment process? We continue to experiment with our process, what I’m loving, and what is working incredibly well, right now is, we do have a presentation round for everybody in the company. And the first question is for them to demonstrate a project or piece of work or something from their personal life that demonstrates how they live up to, you know, resourceful, inclusive, caring, ambitious. And through that part of the presentation, you very, very quickly figure out. So that’s the first question. The second question is sort of a technical question that relates to their area of expertise. And then the third question is around that mission obsession piece, and people have to answer a question that relates to that, is that

Mark Littlewood
a written presentation or a speaky?

Tessa Clarke
It varies from function to function. So for the developers, they don’t have a written presentation. That’s kind of a technical task. But for pretty much all of the other functions. Yes, it is a it is a written presentation or visual presentation, whatever you want to do. It is very clear brief to respond to.

Mark Littlewood
I keep asking questions, but I feel it’s only fair to open up

Audience Member
I’m at loose end it. I mean, this sounds amazing. For one thing, and on the environmental front, particularly, you said something really interesting about supermarket waste and how it gets used and you mentioned livestock feed. And I’m not jumping on a soapbox here, I eat meat. So I’m not about to do that. But that’s interesting, because do you know what proportion of supermarket waste goes to livestock feed?

Tessa Clarke
I don’t, but I’ll tell you something that might shock and surprise you. When you look at where food waste takes place. Half of all food waste is in the home. 2% is supermarkets and retail, 8% is hospitality and leisure, 12% manufacturing, distribution and 28% of the farm gate. So supermarkets which is where most people think most food waste takes place is just 2%. And we in our homes are 50%. So the amount of food waste that ends up for livestock feed is a fraction of

Audience Member
Okay, so because my next question was going to be well, we’re not making livestock feed from that waste food? What are we making it from, but clearly, it’s just a tiny fraction around? Yeah, exactly. Thanks very much. That’s really helpful

Audience Member
Okay, just To take off from his point, I wanted to understand from your mission, I like the mission, by the way, how do you aggregate taking the waste of home waste or from Tescos and ensuring that that don’t get to landfill? So do you aggregate these when you put for publicity that, okay, we’ve cut down these emissions and stuff. So how do you get that number? So is this realistically in cold? Or is it perceived?

Tessa Clarke
No, no. So those data points that I shared with you, our impact is something we’ve invested a lot of time making sure we’re measuring properly. So every listing sort of comes on to the app. So onto the back end system, we know what proportion of those listings get picked up with then do a combination of sampling analysis. Plus, we’ve worked with some universities on machine learning to kind of code up those listings, and then apply a dataset which can tell us what the carbon emissions are, what the water is that’s being saved. And then the carbon emissions, you can then translate into lots of different ways of thinking about it in terms of car miles taken off the road or trees planted or Yeah.

Audience Member
Okay, thank you. Last one. So this is more from a scenario where if I get the app, and I take the food off someone that’s advertising it, so do how I know this is hard. But how do we know I’m not going to waste the food, something like that.

Tessa Clarke
So it’s highly unlikely that you would message a neighbour request some food, arrange a pickup time, go round to their house, pick it up, and then take it home and put it in the bin. So I mean, I’m sure that probably does happen, that that’s an absolute sort of outlier scenario, the demand for food on OLIO is kind of off the charts. So half of all food listings requested within 21 minutes. And on average, a listing will receive multiple requests from multiple people. So there’s a very, very sort of high degree of demand and happiness that people feel when they are the person who has chosen to receive the item of food or that non food item.

Audience Member
is a really like, a really like everything you said, I am in a fundraising journey. In real life, the defensive sort of promotion questions, strategy, you know, fundraising, I get sometimes asked questions like, Who helped you wrote this AI algorithm? So so the question already says that no one really trusts and I don’t have the sort of the PhDs and the the sort of the MBAs and sort of this rubber stamps to put on my on my on my deck.

Tessa Clarke
So I would highly recommend that you choose who you’re pitching to. So if you go on to the about us page on their website, and all you see is a sea of pale male and stale, probably your probability of conversion there is very low. If you go onto a website and you see a really nice kind of diverse team looking back at you, probably your probability of conversion is much higher. That’s certainly been been my experience. And also that of many other diverse founders who I speak with.

Mark Littlewood
We could go on, but I’m afraid you’re gonna have to save it for the next one. Tessa, thank you so much. Tell me where we can find your website

Tessa Clarke
If you just search for OLIO.io you will find us. On Instagram, we’re at OLIO.app. And then I’m on Twitter at TessaLFClarke and also on medium at Tessa LF Clarke writing about a combination of things.

Mark Littlewood
Tessa. Thank you.


Tessa Clarke

CEO & Co-Founder, OLIO

Tessa is a farmer’s daughter from Yorkshire, who spent her weekends and evenings helping her parents bailing hay and milking cows. After graduating from Cambridge, Tessa began her professional career as a strategy consultant with BCG and then went on to spend 7 years with EMAP, breaking for 2 years to attend Stanford Graduate School of Business, where she met Saasha her co-founder.

She was Global MD Digital, CRM and ecommerce at Dyson for 4 years. Prior to founding OLIO in early 2016, Tessa was the MD of Wonga UK, responsible of leading its turnaround.

OLIO is a food sharing app with 5 million users who have already had an environmental impact equivalent to taking 80 million car miles off the road.

Find out more about Tessa


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