Q&A with OLIO co-founder Tessa Cook

Tessa Cook grew up on a dairy farm in rural North Yorkshire so she saw firsthand where her food came from. After studying abroad and meeting her partner co-founder Saasha Celestial-One, they founded OLIO, a food app that is committed to solving one of the biggest social problems, food waste. OLIO’s clever app is to designed to bring communities together and gives them a platform for neighbours to connect with each other, for local businesses and individuals to redistribute their excess food.

We speak to Tessa about some of the responsibilities and challenges she faces as a busy co-founder, what skills she finds essential within social entrepreneurship as well as some career advice for aspiring entrepreneurs.

How did you adapt to your new responsibilities as a first-time co-founder?

Moving across from the corporate world, perhaps the biggest adaptation was the realisation that at the very beginning you have to roll your sleeves up and do a lot of unglamorous, tactical activity — even a digital business can’t be built by just sitting behind your computer screen, and requires a remarkable amount of ‘boots on the street’ type activity.

What have been some of your biggest challenges and how have you overcome them?

One of the biggest is how to grow the user base with a marketing budget of close to zero — that’s where our Ambassador program of volunteers spreading the word about OLIO in their local community, comes into play. At the moment we have over 23,000 Ambassadors and have reached over 700,000 users, so it seems to be working well!

Perhaps our biggest challenge though is encouraging more of our signed up users to take the leap of faith and add or request their first item! It can be hard to believe that anyone will want your surplus food, but they most certainly do as 40% of all food added to the app is requested in less than 1 hour and 75% is requested in less than 24 hours!

What skills did you pick up in previous roles that you’ve applied to your startup?

Leadership, strategy, planning, people management, user research, analytics, marketing, business development — all picked up in previous roles and all invaluable to OLIO!

What are the most essential skills that aspiring entrepreneurs should learn?

To have a ‘learning’ mindset, and to see it as your objective in the early days to experiment and iterate as quickly as possible. You also need an enormous amount of grit/resilience/determination as it’s a long and very challenging road — but incredibly rewarding too!

How did your overseas/living abroad experience shape influence your career?

Living in a different culture helps you to see the world completely differently! And therefore to recognise the value of diversity of thought, perspective and background. This means that I have worked hard to build diverse teams and I believe my businesses have been stronger as a result.

What career advice do you have for aspiring female co-founders?

Make sure to pick your co-founder carefully, as it’s an incredibly important, and powerful relationship, and helps support you through the twists and turns of the journey. Make sure to start small, test and learn — with real user feedback — before investing a large amount of time or money into building something.

Who are your mentors and can you recommend any good London-based networking groups for female founders?

I recommend the Mayor of London’s International Business Programme, in particular, because they host an annual Mission to Silicon Valley for 15 female co-founders. I have met some incredible entrepreneurs — who happen to be women — and learned a lot!

Do you have an idea that will make a positive impact on the world? Would you like to learn how to apply commercially minded strategies to your social entrepreneurship? Aspiring social entrepreneurs can apply for our Community Impact Scholarship where you can save up to 50% off our eLab Emerge and eLab Advance programs — we aim at fostering a supportive learning culture that will shape your business idea to directly benefit your community.