A child of “Iowa hippie entrepreneurs” who made up her surname, entrepreneur Saasha Celestial-One grew up with a mother who taught her how to salvage discarded or unwanted items for use or resale. “Letting nothing go to waste is built into my DNA,” says Celestial-One, who received her MBA from Stanford Graduate School of Business in 2004.
The idea for OLIO — named after a synonym for hodgepodge — came from Celestial-One’s cofounder, Tessa Cook, a fellow 2004 Stanford GSB grad who had a lightbulb moment after cleaning out her refrigerator during a 2014 move from Switzerland to London. Cook had six sweet potatoes, a whole cabbage, and some containers of yogurt that she didn’t want to throw away, but she had no easy way to connect with someone who could use the food.
Cook told Celestial-One about her idea for a food-sharing app, and in February 2015 they founded OLIO, which offers a free app designed to connect neighbors and local businesses with each other so surplus food can be shared rather than thrown away.
Their research suggests that one-third of all food is ultimately tossed, and many people, like the cofounders, are “physically pained” by the idea of discarding perfectly good food.
Cook and Celestial-One have since raised $2.2 million. Their app has been downloaded by 177,000 users — 89% of them in the United Kingdom, 4,200 in the United States, 5,200 in Sweden, and the rest scattered in 80 countries.
We asked Celestial-One about the lessons she’s learned during her dive into social entrepreneurship.
Can you share a few memories from your unusual childhood, and tell us how that relates to what you’re doing with OLIO?
I grew up relatively poor, and my mom was extremely resourceful about making ends meet. The two of us became micro-entrepreneurs, salvaging things of value to sell. I remember going to the dumpster behind a local nursery, climbing in, and handing all of the plants to my mom. She’d take them home, repot them, and put them on the front lawn for sale. We also went to houses that were being torn down and salvaged toilets. At one point, we had six or seven toilets on the front lawn, and of course I was mortified.
What were some of the startup challenges OLIO faced?
The problem we’re trying to solve is particularly challenging. We have created a hyperlocal marketplace for items that are often of low transaction value and/or perishable. Because surplus food is so low-value, we knew we’d have to reach the scale required to make it work. It’s particularly challenging because we’re not a charity. Everyone wants food to go to people who are really, really hungry, and of course we do too. But the fact is the scale of food waste far exceeds food poverty. So from an efficiency perspective, it’s just doesn’t make sense to dispatch a volunteer across town to pick up three bananas. The only efficient outcome is to have someone within walking distance come by and collect it. There’s this perception barrier to overcome, convincing people to use the app who think their three bananas don’t really make a difference. But at scale, they do.
Your first investor was SimpleWeb, a British app-development agency. What was your approach to getting that initial backing?
Neither Tessa nor I comes from a tech background, so we knew we needed a developer to build the app. Tessa approached other entrepreneurs in our network and asked whom they had worked with. We got an introduction. They’re a small startup themselves, and they loved what we were doing, but they couldn’t just give us cash. So they took a small equity stake in OLIO in exchange for building 50% of the minimum viable product.
You’ve attracted a number of investors since then. What do they have in common?
If within the first 10 minutes of hearing our idea they feel compelled to share a personal anecdote about being traumatized by food waste, we’ve found that they’re a kindred spirit and we can probably find a way to work together. If not, it’s highly unlikely they’ll get what we’re trying to do.
What do you wish you knew starting out that you’ve since learned?
We haven’t pivoted, per se, but we have made huge strategic changes to what we first envisioned. We thought our users might feel like we were abandoning our original idea. I wish I’d known that users and investors will roll with you through those changes as long as you explain your thinking. They’re incredibly forgiving, and it might spare you some agony to know that when it comes to making big strategic decisions, your users won’t flock away and your investors will support you.
How do you and Cook divide responsibilities?
As CEO, Tessa focuses on the app, fundraising, recruiting, and strategy. As COO, I focus on building the network of users and volunteers, HR, finance, and legal.
As you expanded your team, what were you looking for in terms of experience, skill, passion, and cultural fit?
With the exception of our three in-house tech developers, all of our team members started out as volunteers. They proved themselves irreplaceable, and we found roles for them that suit their skill sets. The most important thing is that they share a conviction as strong as Tessa’s and mine and an appreciation for the enormity of the problem we’re trying to solve. That’s what gets them out of bed at 4 a.m. on a Friday to go to the wholesale fruit market to collect the food that would’ve been thrown away, and handing it out at dawn.
Any advice for other entrepreneurs who want to do good while also doing well?
It’s absolutely critical that your social impact metric and your commercial metric are in lockstep. With OLIO, it’s a network, so the more users we have, the more value it has. And by definition, the more things that are shared, the fewer things that are going to landfills. Also, don’t just think about traditional paid routes for promotion. There’s a lot of value to be had from working with large organizations that have corporate-responsibility objectives. Hello Fresh, the ready-to-make meal delivery service, is a good example. They put a flyer for OLIO in 10,000 delivery boxes for free. Normally you’d have to pay for that. But you can persuade people to do things if they’re convinced it’s the right thing to do.