Tessa Cook is a co-founder of new food exchange startup OLIO, an app that allows people to share excess food and tackle the increasingly troubling issue of food waste. Once the MD of Ecommerce at Dyson, Tessa has a fascinating corporate background as well as an exciting new startup in the works.
We caught up with Tessa to chat about her career to date and her plans for the future…
“I did what many people do when they don’t know what to do – I became a consultant”
“My parents are dairy farmers so I was introduced to the concept of hard work very early on in my life, I think that has probably served me fairly well!” laughs Tessa. She goes on explain how she moved through an expansive set of high-profile corporate jobs after graduating from Cambridge University with an undergraduate degree in Social and Political Sciences. “After my degree, I had no idea what I wanted to do, so I did what many people do when they don’t know what to do – I became a consultant.”
After 3 years with the Boston Consulting Group, Tessa moved to EMAP where she held a number of general management positions, from Publishing Director, running a portfolio of magazines, awards, conferences and events to the Managing Director of a global retail intelligence business. After EMAP, Tessa moved to Dyson where she spent 4 years as the global Managing Director of all things digital.
During the maternity leave she took with her first child, Tessa and her OLIO co-founder Saasha Celestial-One, attempted their first startup. “We’ve always been very good friends. We were on maternity leave at the same time and we started working on a baby safety product. We took it so far, but the reality was that neither of us had enough passion about the product and we didn’t think it had enough potential to be really scalable. We learned that an essential criteria for our next venture was that it needed to be scalable and it needed to be have a really positive impact on the world.”
“I ran a mini Dragons Den on my ideas with my fiance”
It was during maternity leave with her second child, that Tessa began to embark on her current entrepreneurial journey with OLIO. “I wasn’t in a work environment, I had plenty of thinking time which is really important. I came up with probably 10 or 15 business ideas and then I ran a mini Dragons Den on my ideas with my fiance. I was definitely in the entrepreneurial headspace.”
The winning idea was inspired by a time when Tessa was moving country. She describes dashing wildly around Geneva, trying to find a way she could offload all of her uneaten food without throwing it away. Remembering how she could not bear the thought of throwing away perfectly edible food, Tessa was inspired to create an app that would enable people to swap their surplus food and make a real dent in the food waste issue. “When I explained the idea to Saasha, her eyes just lit up and the minute we started talking about it and brainstorming, we just knew that we had to do it, even though everybody looked at us as if we were completely bonkers.”
While maternity leave may have given Tessa the headspace she needed to focus on her entrepreneurial side, she’s the first to admit that balancing parenthood with a new startup is very difficult. “I have an amazing fiance, he’s been incredibly supportive of my career and he works quite flexibly so he’s able to provide that extra help and support. The most stressful thing has been childcare… when you’re bootstrapping, you’re trying to conserve your costs so you can’t afford to have a nanny. You have to be the nanny, plus the entrepreneur, plus you’ve got to meet people and be out there, so sorting out affordable flexible childcare is definitely the biggest stress.”
“Any time I go to a conference and see a woman on stage, someone is asking her how she manages to juggle it all”
There’s no arguing that Tessa is balancing a lot. A demanding new startup, a house to renovate, two young children and a great dane puppy are all vying for her attention. ‘Juggling it all’ is something all entrepreneurs have to do at some point, but Tessa has noticed an annoying discrepancy between how this issue is addressed among her peers. “One thing that I have noticed, that bugs the hell out of me, is any time I go to a conference and see a woman on stage, someone is asking her how she manages to juggle it all. It is a really valid question given that now I’ve experienced that and that’s what I’m doing, but no-one ever asks men that. I can’t help but think that until we’re asking male speakers how they juggle their lives, women are going to continue to struggle to be equal.”
For Tessa, the stress and the balancing act is par for the course and she acknowledges that she doesn’t really have the option for it to all be too much. “I know I just have to keep going because we’ve only got a certain amount of runway. We’ve given ourselves until the end of this year… we’re spending the rest of 2015 getting OLIO launched and out there and we need to demonstrate that we’ve got traction and raised funding in that time.”
“I’m motivated by bringing what we think is a great idea to market”
That’s not to say that the stress isn’t worth it. “It’s much more satisfying what I’m doing now, it’s much more enjoyable”, says Tessa. I’m working on things that genuinely, personally interest me and I’m motivated by bringing what we think is a great idea to market.”
As well as the support from her family, Tessa has been reaching out to her friends for that all important support and advice. “I started off by telling everyone in my own personal friendship network what I was doing. Most people can connect you on to someone else in their network. I’ve had the privilege of being able to talk to a number of CEOs and entrepreneurs within the sharing economy space, in the food tech space and I’ve been able to learn a huge amount by reaching out to people through friends of friends. I’ve been amazed at how much time people are giving me and I’ve found it incredibly valuable. Sometimes I worry that I’m wasting my time, because it’s not directly related to building the product, but actually you just get so much invaluable insight that it is a very important thing to do.”
On top of everything else, Tessa has found the time to give advice to others by mentoring smart home startup nCube, as part of Wayra, a startup accelerator programme run by Telefonica. “I absolutely love the whole space of entrepreneurship and businesses that are trying to figure out new ways of doing things, bringing new products to market, and grappling with new business models. I was connected with the team that run the Wayra programme and they invited me to be a mentor. So far I am absolutely loving it. I am technically the ‘corporate mentor’ but also, the guy I’m mentoring and I are exchanging notes about how to approach things like fundraising and social media etc.”
“Make sure that the time is right for you personally”
Through years of corporate experience, and her recent journey with OLIO, Tessa has learned a lot and has plenty of thoughts to pass onto other entrepreneurs. “It’s been so valuable testing our proposition before we started building anything – following the classic lean startup/MVP approach. We did a trial where we set up a group in WhatsApp to allow users to exchange surplus food before we even started building the app. We learned so much, even though it was a very basic approach. It saved us a lot of time and money in functionality that we haven’t built.”
One thing that Tessa does feel has helped her and Saasha to stay focused is their accelerated timelines. “The fact that both of us are trying to juggle kids and other things has meant that we’ve been incredibly efficient in everything we’ve done. We haven’t allowed ourselves to spend days and days on certain tasks and I think thats been an important discipline as it’s helped us to keep our burn rate low.”
Another reason behind OLIO’s success so far is timing says Tessa. “Make sure that the time is right for you personally, that your idea is of the moment – that it’s not too early, and that you’ve got the right cofounder. I wanted to do something entrepreneurial for many, many years and I probably prevented a number of failures through realising how important timing is, and not doing something until I felt that it was a strong enough idea with a strong enough team and that now was the right moment personally.
“I think also having a cofounder that complements you is key. Saasha and I complement each other very well, we have different expertise and experiences. There are things that we have some overlap on, but not a lot and that’s very helpful. We’ve very clearly divided up what she’s doing and what I’m doing and it works out very well.”
Finally says Tessa, “have fun. I think it is very easy to get very stressed and you have to take time to check in with yourself to make sure that you’re still enjoying this, that you’re still having fun.”