Making Sustainability Work
The founders of Dispatch Goods aren’t just trying to eliminate single-use takeout containers. They’re also building a model for more impactful and inclusive sustainability ventures.
In early 2020 frog partnered with Dispatch Goods, an innovative sustainability startup founded by Lindsey Hoell, a former surfwear entrepreneur, and Maia Tekle, former West Coast Partnerships Lead at Caviar. After witnessing the environmental impact of single-use plastics and packaging in these earlier careers, Hoell and Tekle forged a partnership. With Dispatch Goods, they’re working to eliminate single-use plastic waste by providing restaurants and consumers with sturdy, reusable takeout containers.
Hoell and Tekle recently joined one of frog’s Monthly Venture Hangouts to discuss their startup journey and their experiences as women entrepreneurs. What follows is an edited transcript of that conversation.
When Lindsey Hoell moved to Hawaii to follow her surfing dreams, she imagined a land of perfect waves and pristine beaches. It wasn’t long before she discovered the disappointing truth, which served as the inspiration for her next project.
LH: I always thought beach cleanups were to clean up after litterers, but they’re not. Source generation is the problem. We now have so much waste that it’s flooding into our waterways, and then our oceans, so that the most remote beaches are often the dirtiest. I got involved with Surfrider Foundation and ran a program called Ocean-Friendly Restaurants, where I helped restaurants transition to more sustainable practices. But soon I found that there wasn’t a sustainable option for takeout and delivery, and what I was showing them was just different shades of garbage. So I started to dream about the kinds of infrastructure that needed to exist to support reuse.
After researching various restaurant packaging solutions including recyclables and compostables, Hoell realized that reusable containers were the only truly sustainable solution. From there, the basic model of Dispatch Goods began to take shape.
LH: Looking at all of the lifecycle analyses available, it really shows that reuse is the best. It’s the gold standard. And the other component about reuse is that it’s a more delightful experience. I think we’ve gotten so used to eating out of garbage and we’re just now transitioning back to eating out of reusable packaging that has actual value. That’s the number one piece of feedback we get about Dispatch — that the experience is better than other takeout and delivery options.
But consumers were only half of the equation. In order to make Dispatch Goods viable, Hoell and Tekle needed to convince restaurants that the company could improve their experience, too. It turned out that reusables weren’t nearly as hard a sell as they’d imagined.
MT: What Lindsey and I found to be overwhelmingly true, and which we were surprised by, is how much of a pain point single-use packaging is for restaurants — from an environmental standpoint, from an economic standpoint, from a presentation standpoint. Across the board, chefs don’t like plating in single-use, they don’t like plating in plastic, they don’t like plating in compostables. So we found that if we make it easy for them, if we make it make sense economically for them, which we do, they’re eager to make the switch to reusables.
With a solid concept and buy-in from a few key local restaurants, Dispatch Goods was ready to start raising capital. But they soon encountered obstacles that many of today’s entrepreneurs don’t necessarily have to deal with.
MT: Venture capital doesn’t come easily to entrepreneurs, and it certainly doesn’t come easily to Black female entrepreneurs as readily as it does to our white male counterparts. Especially in building a logistics company, we’ve come up against a lot of biases and preconceived notions about us being able to even build a company that does what we do. Navigating that has taken us a little bit longer since Lindsey and I don’t come from well-connected places within venture capital, but we’ve found people that believe in what we’re building and understand our vision, and that has opened a lot more doors for us.
“There have to be item-based sustainability solutions. We cannot software our way out of the climate crisis.”
LH: The other thing is that there’s a lot of desire to find sustainability tech and clean tech companies, so we do have that going for us. But anytime you have an item-based service — and we have containers, we have warehousing that will need to be in every market — it’s just going to be a lot more difficult than software. So we have to find the right investors, who understand that this infrastructure needs to exist and that it can be very, very valuable. There have to be item-based sustainability solutions. We cannot software our way out of the climate crisis.
When the COVID-19 pandemic began, Dispatch Goods was just getting off the ground. In the first weeks and months of lockdowns, many small, early-stage startups closed their doors. But Dispatch Goods managed to pivot, not only surviving the pandemic, but expanding into new partnerships.
LH: Our business model before COVID was that we would partner with companies, who would pay for access to our containers for their employees, and then we would get all the restaurants on the company’s block onboard so that employees could order takeout more sustainably. When the pandemic happened, we had just started to hit this product market fit. We’re putting drop-off bins into these offices, we’re feeling like we’re on a rocket ship, we’re about to fundraise, and then everything closed. All these articles were coming out that reuse is dead, no one’s going to want reusables anymore out of fear that they might transport the virus. But the science was pretty clear early on that that was not the case, and so we just did many, many customer interviews and we found that people who wanted reusables before the pandemic still wanted them, and people who didn’t care before still didn’t care.
LH (cont.): That gave us the confidence to relaunch in August with on-demand takeout. At first we had just a few restaurant partners, but we quickly became the most popular modifier on their menus. We were beating plant-based meats, we were beating avocados, and so we thought, ‘okay, we’re more popular than avocado. We’ve got something here.’ We took that information to DoorDash, and it helped convince them to launch a pilot with us in September.
MT: DoorDash quickly saw that we weren’t just bringing them new customers, we were bringing more valuable customers, customers who ordered more frequently. And to DoorDash, that’s like gold. They’re the biggest player in the market, so it’s really valuable to be able to grow in that way, to lean on our brand as a trusted sustainability partner, since it’s not something that they’re looking to position themselves as.
Our current global economy is built to make consumption convenient, which means changing consumer behaviors is one of the greatest challenges facing sustainability ventures. Dispatch Goods is tackling the challenge by trying to make the transition to reusables as frictionless as possible for consumers.
LH: Our goal was to lower the barrier to entry to access reuse. So there’s no deposit, there’s no tracking. The option to use a Dispatch Goods container just appears on a menu and you can get it. And then after you get it, there’s a number you can text on the container to schedule collection or find a drop-off location. I think that we have successfully lowered the barrier to entry and we’re capturing a nice portion of customers, but there’s still one extra step for them, which is that they have to text us to schedule collection and find drop-off bins. It seems like that would be a small step, but we get plenty of complaints about what a hassle it is to schedule collection, or people don’t want to wait a few days. And that’s where we’ve found that getting people to correlate certain pieces of our business to existing behaviors is important. For many people, once we say it’s similar to recycling, they’re like, ‘right, I don’t expect my recycling to be picked up on demand.’
To create sustainable change at the systemic level, however, Tekle and Hoell understand that Dispatch Goods and other companies like it will also need to shift corporate behavior by leveraging their consumer relationships.
LH: There are mission-based companies like us, and we’re going to do the right thing. There are some restaurants that behave like that, too, where waste is a personal pain point for them. But at the end of the day, especially once you get into larger businesses, what will make them make shifts is the fact that customers are speaking with their dollars. The more you can vocalize how sustainability impacts your purchasing decisions, the more you support businesses that are making sustainable decisions, the more it makes the data case to larger businesses to shift to something that’s more sustainable.
Tekle and Hoell recognize that this effort to shift business behaviors is just the first step toward not only more sustainable industry, but toward securing climate justice for those communities and individuals most affected by overconsumption and climate change. As women entrepreneurs in the sustainability space, they make it a point to emphasize the intersectional dimensions of the climate crisis.
MT: Racial justice, climate justice and socio-economic justice are all intrinsically tied. There’s no real separation between them. Leaders in the climate movement are very frequently white, but if you look at the numbers and the data, the communities who are the most passionate and who engage with the climate movement in the highest percentages are Black, brown, indigenous and marginalized communities, because they are most directly affected by climate change. These communities often consume the least, but suffer the most in terms of health complications and other consequences as a result of our collective behaviors. So I encourage people, as you’re on your anti-racism journey, to look at the cross-sections where climate justice, racial justice and socio-economic justice overlap, and to challenge your preconceptions about them being separate, because they are all part of the same conversation.
Near the end of their conversation, Hoell and Tekle offered advice to other aspiring entrepreneurs and startup founders.
LH: You never feel ready. You’ve just got to take the first step, and that’s the hardest part. If you’re thinking about doing it, you just have to start. It’s going to be clunky and imperfect, and you’re going to embarrass yourself plenty of times, but you have to start.
MT: I never saw myself as an entrepreneur. I never thought I had the right qualifications or the right upbringing. I went to public school, and I just didn’t feel like I checked these boxes that you needed to check to be the founder of a company. But I realize now that if you’re thinking that way, you should throw those thoughts into the landfill, because they aren’t true. Anyone can start a business.
About Dispatch Goods
Dispatch Goods is a female-founded reverse logistics company based in San Francisco. They are committed to making takeout more taste-y and less waste-y by partnering with restaurants to offer food to customers in completely reusable packaging.