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Perspectives

From ‘crazy’ idea to mainstream cool

Tessa Clarke OLIO co-founder
Tessa Clarke, co-founder & CEO of OLIO

OLIO is the world’s first neighbour-to-neighbour food sharing app. Before my Co-Founder Saasha and I launched the business, most people we spoke with thought we were absolutely crazy to launch an app that connects strangers to share food! However 4 years on and we’ve had 1.7 million people join OLIO, and they’ve together shared 3 million portions of food.

So how did we go from ‘crazy’ to ‘cool’?

Before we even launched the app, we did something which gave us incredible insight that’s helped us grow the business ever since – we ran a proof of concept trial using Whatsapp. We didn’t want to spend our life savings building an app if no-one wanted it! And so what we did was ask 12 neighbours who didn’t know each other, but who had completed our market research survey, if they would take part in an experiment for 2 weeks.

In this experiment we put them into a closed Whatsapp group and said that if they had food to share, they could share it there. After waiting with bated breath for the first 24 hours, food was thankfully shared multiple times during the trial! But what was critical was the insight that we got afterwards when we met the participants face to face – they all told us 3 things: 1) you have to build this; 2) it only needs to be slightly better than a Whatsapp group; and 3) how can I help?

How do you start a business from scratch, or grow your business and take it to the next level?

This quick and free exercise was so important because it instilled in us the discipline of talking to our users; it reinforced the importance of launching rapidly, iterating and learning; and it opened our eyes to the possibility of harnessing the power of our most passionate supporters. And today we have an Ambassador programme of over 40,000 people, helping to spread the word about OLIO in their local communities all over the world, which has been a critical factor in taking us from ‘crazy’ to ‘cool’.

Focus on delighting your first customers

The other thing we’ve learned on our journey towards mainstream adoption, is just how important it is in the early days to focus on delighting your first 100/1,000 customers. These are your early adopters who are extremely passionate about your mission, and who will forgive the fact that your first product is quite terrible. Without these early adopters, your business will struggle to get off the ground. I’ve also realised that at each stage of the journey there are what I call “steps of forgiveness”. This is basically the next cohort of customers – who are slightly less forgiving than the former cohort, but slightly more forgiving than the next. And so as a start-up working towards mainstream adoption, and ultimately consumer behaviour change, you basically need to hop from ‘stone of forgiveness’ to ‘stone of forgiveness’.

What this means is that your marketing, messaging and product development job is never done because each cohort is slightly different.

Customer cohorts

Lead with the positive

And finally, I think that it’s really important to lead with the positive and to engage with emotion and storytelling. We’ve discovered that our community enjoys good news stories and heart-warming content that demonstrates the magic that happens when neighbours are empowered to connect and make a difference in their local community. And whilst sharing some of the scary stats about the climate crisis also has an important role to play, it’s a secondary role, not the lead role.

Without a doubt, the path to mainstream adoption is littered with challenges and pitfalls. But if you listen carefully to your customers – both current and prospective – and learn as much as you can from others who have gone before you, then it’s a journey that your business can surely make.

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