“I always knew I wanted to start a business, but it needed to be one which aligned with my values”
So said new founder Eshita Kabra, who set up ethical fashion brand ByRotation, at our panel discussion alongside Oddbox co-founder Emilie Vanpoperinghe and Richard Johnson, one of the founders of the B Corop movement in the UK.
The event was all about impact: how we design, build and scale startups which make a positive difference in the world. How can business help solve the biggest, defining challenges of a generation?
The startups and movements represented on our panel were tackling problems including excess food waste in supermarket supply chains, the rapid consumption and waste in the fashion industry, as well as the foundations upon which businesses are built, putting impact alongside profit as a measure of their success.
With hundreds of founders and future founders watching online, the event uncovered the inspiration behind Oddbox and ByRotation, which were both ideas which came to their founders whilst on holiday; in Emilie’s case it was a trip in Portugal, and for Eshita her honeymoon in India. Both businesses were also twists on solutions which were already emerging, and both founders took inspiration from other businesses in the community trying to solve similar challenges.
What we learnt about building businesses which have a positive impact:
Work to make a small difference, and take it from there
A theme which repeatedly came up at the panel was the power of small.
Richard Johnson, who helped bring B Corps to the UK, reminded budding founders everywhere to take inspiration from companies like Patagonia, and keep their north star in view. Rather than setting out to change the world over night, focus on one problem, be driven by your purpose, and work on how your solution can create a positive impact on a small scale.
By staying true to your purpose, as Eshita tries to do at ByRotation, you can ensure that the decisions you take in your business are all aligned to your mission. She said:
“It’s not that I thought I was going to come up with an entire solution to consumption. I discovered over time that we could help people change their behaviour when it comes to fashion”
When you’re ready to scale, it will come with its own challenges, especially with maintaining a small carbon footprint, or keeping waste low.
As Emilie told us about her experiences with Oddbox, once they grew to a point when she no longer made the deliveries herself with her husband and co-foudner Deepak, they had to grapple with the challenge of using diesel vans to deliver their boxes. This isn’t ideal, and in the long term they want to change. Right now, it isn’t affordable to go all electric.
“We only deliver in small areas once a week, so trips are shorter, and we only deliver at night now – this way the streets are quieter which helps keeps emissions lower and costs down.”
Oddbox only expanded into new areas when they had enough demand, to ensure that deliveries could be efficient.
As Richard says, “build a business the way your grandparents would: go slow, take care.”
Measure what matters
Richard Johnson, from B-Corp, reminded us that, as businesses, being responsible is different from being impact-led.
Becoming a B-Corp means setting up policies to measure everything which companies should do to be responsible, including your hiring policies, the carbon footprint of your offices and the waste it produces.
Being impact-led relates more to the specific mission of your business, be it to reduce food waste in supermarket supply chains, in the case of Oddbox, or reducing the demand for fast fashion products for ByRotation. These metrics are the ones you’ll be creating yourself, for your business.
The really good companies, Richard says, do both. They are accountable, responsible, but also have their own purpose and ways to measure that impact.
Build impact in from the start
As startup founders, we’re at a strong advantage to more established corporates, when it comes to designing businesses which have a positive impact on society and the environment.
“If a big corporate’s business model doesn’t actually solve the broader problems which they proclaim they care about in their corporate communications, or their mission statement, then they are admitting something needs to change.”
Host Ben Keene reminds us to “drop the vanity metrics which aren’t actually doing anything, and focus in on the ones which will actually make a difference.”
As Emilie and Eshita both show us, baking a positive impact into your original business model means as your business scales, so does its positive impact.
It is much harder to retrofit purpose onto a business and can result in greenwashing. And in the age of the conscious consumer with a platform, businesses will get caught out – and called out - on it.
As startup founders, we have a blank sheet of paper in front of us, and we all want to change the world. How we do it is up to us.
What has always been true is still true today; the more we focus on our solution - and use this focus to guide how we build our business - we not only increase our chances of having a positive impact, but also ensure that as we scale our businesses, our impact will grow too.
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