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FounderFuel: AMA with Deepak Ravindran, cofounder of Oddbox

At a recent FounderFuel LIVE event, we sat down with Deepak Ravindran, who co-founded Oddbox, alongside his wife, to talk about what it’s like scaling one of the UK’s most loved mission-driven brands and their quest to combat food waste.

Oddbox is a certified B-Corp, has raised over £20m and has revolutionised the Direct to Conscious Consumer space. They have delivered over 8 million boxes of surplus food to customers nationwide and rescued the equivalent of over 96 million meals – equating to over 40,000 tonnes of fruit and vegetables. In our conversation, we talked about the early days getting Oddbox off the ground, the painful scaling journey, and developing a resilient ‘thick-skin’ as a founder.

Oddbox is a strongly mission led company – tell us about that mission and where it came from.

My wife and I went on a holiday in Portugal. If you’ve been to Portugal you would probably agree that the produce is amazing. We came across this ugly tomato while walking in a food market – it was utterly delicious but so ugly looking, and it spurred the question “why don’t we get those sorts of tomatoes in our supermarket? Why is everything perfect-looking and in plastic packaging”. This led us on a journey to understand where the ugly looking fruit and veg was going.

This led to the problem: Over £2bn of food gets wasted worldwide with £20m of this being in UK, before it even leaves the farm. With 1 in 4 children going through food poverty, we thought this was a problem we could solve through accessing this massive food waste problem. That’s where the mission started.

Now, we work with over 150 growers across the UK and EU. We source misshapen and surplus fresh produce and bring them directly to people’s homes in the shape of a subscription fruit and veg box. That allows customers to give back, save on waste and understand climate change.

Recent research suggests that if we have exposure to entrepreneurship early on, we’re much more likely to be entrepreneurial. Did you have entrepreneurial influences earlier in your life?

Yes, my dad was an entrepreneur. He had an accounting firm where he hired several people. I joined his firm when I was 18, and when I was at university I helped set up his business in a new city, with a new team. This was, in fact, my first exposure at team management – I sucked at it then, I suck at it now. This experience gave me good exposure in terms of growing businesses and understanding that people are the biggest asset in a business, but also they are the most painful part as you scale.

Let’s look at Oddbox in the early days – how did you get it up and running?

It’s a real bootstrapping story of doing anything and everything to get going between 2016 and 2018: Starting in 2016, I still remember us sitting at our bedside, putting boxes of fruit and veg together, and taking pictures to put on the website. To be able to deliver boxes to our very first customers, we went to the cheapest possible cardboard manufacturer, got our first brand by going on Fiverr and got a local grant of £30k to help us to grow. We wanted to be profitable from day one – we didn’t know about fundraising at the time.

I still remember the embarrassment of being outside our local tube station in Balham with flyers we’d designed through Canva, and got printed as cheaply as possible. I was trying to speak to the busy commuters on their way to work. They’re asking me to get out of the way, while all I wanted to do was share this amazing idea. That struggle made me realised I needed to change it up, and I decided to take the flyers direct to the homes. I delivered thousands!

…and give us a snapshot of growth since then.

Later we went on to raise investment starting with angels and then progressing right up to Series B. In terms of team size, it all started with just Emily and me, and for the first two years there were four of us, and we were delivering about 30,000 boxes. We went up to around 100 people when we landed our Series B, but the market took a tumble around covid, and we have gone through two rounds of restructuring, settling at around 60 people working directly for the business, and another 100 either delivering or packing the boxes. We now deliver around the 8.5m boxes in the UK.

The quick fire round:
  • Which stage have you had the most fun?– The first 3 years
  • Where did you learn the hardest lessons?– That was the covid lockdown
  • Which was the biggest challenge for you personally?– Just after our Series B, when my role was questioned and I came close to being kicked out
  • And what keeps you at it on a bad day? The Why! Build it clearly so you can keep coming back to it. I would also recommend taking a walk in an open park, it helps a lot!
Growing a DTC brand isn’t easy, tell us how you got traction at the start?

Door-to-door flyering worked very well for us in the beginning. The strategy we used was starting in southwest London, where we lived, and then slowly expanding. As we are an operationally heavy business (i.e. we deliver boxes) having that control over geo-expansion helped us grow in a cost-efficient way. Rather than delivering, for example, one box in Balham and one box in Birmingham, which doesn’t make sense, we focused on slowly expanding geographically.

We also tried a lot of Facebook ads in the start which was a lot of money down the drain, and to this day I haven’t come across a single agency who has managed to crack it for us using paid social media ads. That said, social media is now our biggest channel as we’ve really worked on organic growth, in particular through Instagram, making fun posts like adding googly eyes on vegetables.

Local markets were also a great strategy for us, as you can have conversations with local people, and showcase a farm that can talk about their business and how the boxes have affected them. There is nothing more inspiring for people buying your brand and story with evidence-backed examples!

Finally, PR has been incredibly effective for us (we do it in-house) There’s a formula that we used to approach journalists. We focused on food waste, so we looked at publications that customers may be reading with similar articles on the subject. This then helped us to source journalists who wrote about this in the past. I compiled a spreadsheet of these journalists and cold emailed them, added the details of our business and included hooks the journalist may be looking at. I got in touch with as many independent journalists as possible and used our hook (as well as making a ‘local’ connection where relevant too). It was massive at the time. Then, once we’d been published by independent publications, we used that for the next campaign with bigger publications. Mostly you don’t get a response (that’s PR) but when you do, it’s free!

What’s the craziest marketing tactic that’s worked?

First things first, we hired a small marketing team and they came up with great ideas and helped us grow. They suggested influencer marketing – Emily and I weren’t into that as we are old school dinosaurs – but we did as they suggested! We sent free boxes to celebrities in the area like Made in Chelsea and those on Celebrity Juice – we didn’t get any traction at the time, but one of the celebrities was Holly Willoughby, who is on ITV This Morning. She got the box and never responded. But, fast forward a year later, and they were discussing a segment on recipe boxes. She said she didn’t like recipe boxes but that she did like this box called Oddbox – my jaw dripped! The Google traffic jumped right up on the day! Holly talks about you and you get a massive boost and it goes from there.

In the scaleup phase you branched out into the more traditional advertising – tube, train and buses – tell us what you learned from that experience.

We created ads for the tube, bus and print as a brand building activity, rather than an acquisition activity. We had high acquisition costs at the time – about £100 – and the ads helped improve on that and drive a lot of organic traffic to our website.

The beauty of these ads is that it looked like we were growing in a large way, as people would see them across different touch points – and we all know the adage of a customer needing to see you at least seven times before they convert. For us, it was how you create brand awareness, and understanding which customers converted with a different call to action that mattered. We also looked at other ways to get customers including shareable free recipes, which worked well for us to grow brand awareness too.

You’ve crossed the chasm of startup to scaleup, what were the biggest challenges navigating the transition to scale?

Operationally, I think about people vs systems: When it comes to the people in a business, scaling a team is one of the hardest things to do. When you go from a handful of people, who are really on side with your mission and your vision, to suddenly hiring people and not knowing the names of everyone in the room, that is a big shift (and occasionally leads to embarrassing moments!)

At this point, you need to start building systems and processes: The stuff that worked before like the “believe me, I am a founder, follow me” mentality, doesn’t work anymore. You need to not only bring a story, but also a structure on how it will work too. For us that meant senior leadership, heads of departments, and a hierarchy too, with little kingdoms – for example, we had a “Sainsburys” team, who had 20 people within it. This was quite hard for us as a startup having this hierarchical style, as you want to be agile and be able to move quickly. For me, the biggest challenge has been how we still feel like a startup but we have become more bogged down with the bureaucracy and hierarchy we have in the larger team.

What you’ve learned about culture and developing that culture – in particular going from a small team, up to 100, and down to 60 again?

Culture for us boils down to the values we have had from the very start. I used to work in corporate, where we had the values on the wall, “integrity, honesty, trust” but it doesn’t run through the core of the business. At Oddbox, we had an opportunity to solve a problem and create a solution from scratch, with the values at the core. Emily and I didn’t think about values in the first 2 years, but as we developed a strong team, we took the 4-5 people around us, and looked at what the behaviours we were displaying consistently.

These were not aspirational behaviours, more qualities we actually were displaying every day. Our values are – Transparency (we are always transparent about our why), Inclusivity (everyone’s ideas are welcome no matter where you came from/your position), Mindful (we are always mindful about the impact our actions have on other people), and Entrepreneurial (always come to us with solutions rather than problems).

Once we had the values, we didn’t want them just sitting on the wall, we actively started including them in our hiring process – asking questions for potential recruits, for example “tell me about a situation where you display this value”. We then included it in our onboarding process, where we would talk about values and what that means on a day-to-day basis in the business; and we have weekly shout-outs, where we highlight how a team member has displayed these values. We want a high performing culture grounded by these four values.

As a founder and a leader, what has given you the most sleepless nights?

The most sleepless nights I’ve had are about conversations with people in our team: The fact that the business is going through challenges doesn’t cause me sleepless nights. But worrying about conversations I have to do, or thinking about a conversation I have had and thinking how I could have done that better… that’s what keeps me up at 2am. That has been the most stressful thing and the biggest personal growth area for me – communicating and leading a team effectively.

Talking about people, how to bring investors on board and along for the journey has been a big learning journey too, and painful for me at times. Investor have invested money into your business, and they want ROI (as they should) but you have to remind yourself that they are not your friends. The communication becomes so important, and I feel that mistakes in communication, or landing the message, has been done incorrectly by me in the past. Don’t land the message with a surprise, build it up, and rubber stamp it. Basically, becoming a better communicator is the biggest growth I have had.

Thinking about all the different stages of your journey so far, what have the high points been for you – the ones that make you think back proudly?

It can be very difficult as a founder to see the positives and celebrate them. One of the biggest wins for me has been proving people wrong. In the early days there were a lot of naysayers, who when we took on the project, just didn’t believe in it. This inspired me to work even more diligently to prove these people wrong.

At first, we had a lot of resistance from growers. So it was a champagne moment for us when we managed to gain our first grower who was based in Kent. I called them, saying I was heading to Kent to meet with another grower (I wasn’t!) and I wanted to discuss an opportunity and to meet with her while I was there. She accepted, inviting me to have tea. I rushed to Kent, and three hours later, she was talking about supermarkets being evil, how they grow all the produce and then can’t sell their hail stone damaged apples, or that the grower nearby lost 50% of his farm. It was in that conversation we realised that we are on to something – and it snowballed from there.

What was your hardest lesson to learn? 

The moment you bring on investors, you become a salaried person in your own business. This was a truth that took me a lot of time to digest and dissolve. With a board of directors, you get questioned “what’s your role” – and anything that goes wrong in your department lands at your feet. I found that quite hard, especially as originally it was two of us making these decisions as business owners. It’s a mindset change. You have to realise you don’t own your business 100% with a board of investors. It can be a hard pill to swallow, but that’s what happens.

Founder resilience is critical – with most founders saying it’s the number 1 requirement – how do you stay resilient?

I learned early that my routines were what made all the difference to my ability to take on what landed at my door. So I wake up early, I exercise, and I do focus on taking care of himself in that way.  The book “Atomic Habit” was the lightbulb moment on that one, I tried it out and I can see the difference my routines make to me.

I also have to remind myself sometimes that “It’s only fruit and veg” (i.e. not the end of the world). As a founder, there’s a lot that can feel like the end of the world. But at the end of the day – you still have your family, your health and many other things. And linked to that, I dedicate time to having fun and being present with my daughter too!

And finally, what would you say to the younger version of yourself when it comes to the marathon of founderhood?

Go for a walk. Remember it’s not the end of the word. And make sure you’ve got a great support group of other founders at a similar stage as you.

 

About FounderFuel LIVE events

Inspiring stories and practical strategies for how you can perform at your best as a founder and startup leader. During these events for those in our founder family and invited guests, we dive into the notion of performance and resilience to inspire you with more FounderFuel.

We talk to leading experts on how to train the mind to perform, hear from some of the world’s sport and peak-performers on how they achieved what they did, and sit down for deep and real conversations with inspiring founders – exploring how they survived and thrived as founders on the journey. Find our FounderFuel LIVE events line up here.

Written by Christina Richardson, founder at weare3Sixty
Founder coach & trainer | Startup exec-team coach | FounderCircle® creator & head-coach. Passionate about sustainable founder performance, wellbeing and the leadership transition from founder to C-suite.


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