What is the driving purpose with Eat My Lunch?
Our really big dream and mission is to make sure no kids go hungry in New Zealand. If you extend that out it’s really around making sure no one goes hungry, particularly the vulnerable, which is why we started with kids. They are the most vulnerable group as they’re placed in a situation where they really have no control or choice.
And it’s beyond just filling their tummies, but actually nourishing the kids so they have the right kind of food that will help them learn in class. From the feedback that we’ve had, the kids say their skin is better, they’re healthier, and it’s helped some schools with attendance. Some schools have said that they have seen the lowest rates of absenteeism since Eat My Lunch started because parents aren’t embarrassed about sending their kids to school without lunches anymore. Teachers who have been giving up their lunch time, or actually using their own money to provide food for the kids, have that time back and they can actually focus on teaching.
Also for some of the kids, having the security that they will get one good meal a day makes them feel safer, and heathier and happier.
What was the process of turning that dream, of making sure that no one goes hungry, into a business?
I’ve worked in a lot of big corporates and they often start out with making a product and then trying to fit value back into it or going ‘now we’ve got this product, and we are making money off it, how do we then give back?’. We started off with a big social issue around kids going hungry, and asked ‘how do we do something tangible and address this?’. We wanted to make something that was self-sustaining, rather than being a charity that would mean that constantly using our time to get funding or ask for donations.
I was drew inspiration from a lot of different organisations, like Toms Shoes. I’d been following them for some time and they do a one-for-one model on shoes and that’s grown into a multi-million-dollar business globally. I Thought: ‘If that model could work, how can we apply that to lunches and give people something that they can participate in, really simply and easily’. People eat lunch every day and particularly in this time poor environment that we all live in, no one really has time to go out and get lunch. Everyone is eating at their desk, and also convenience means sometimes a trade-off for healthy food, so often you are out getting something like fast-food or takeaways. Also, New Zealanders want to give back and do something good but they don’t necessarily know how.
Pulling all of those ideas together I thought: ‘What if you buy a lunch, we give a lunch’. From there we just worked out the financial model behind it and how we could make it work around costs.
The financial model was probably the hardest part, to go ‘how do we actually give away a free lunch and also deliver a really great lunch at the same time to our consumers?’ That’s one of the advantages of having worked in a big commercial environment; you are always looking at the numbers, the logistics, the supply chain and the marketing. So we were able to bring in those skills from the start, as well as the mission and values at the core of the business, rather than trying to fit it in later. By doing that, we found that people have been coming to us, like volunteers. We are really never short of volunteers, even though we are for profit. I think it’s signalled to us that people don’t care whether we are a charity or not, people just care about what we’re doing and our purpose.
You say the financial model was the greatest challenge. What were the other difficulties you faced when starting Eat My Lunch?
Being a really small business, we didn’t have the buying power of big businesses. Before we even started, we were begging suppliers and half of them didn’t even want to talk because we hadn’t sold a single lunch. We were saying to them ‘we can get to two maybe four hundred lunches a day’ but they don’t want to know you until you have proven yourself. So I think setting up those relationships to have that buying, or purchasing, power is a really big challenge when you are just a start-up.
Also, having access to capital to purchase all the equipment that you need. We were lucky we were able to do it from our home initially but moving into a commercial space, the investment was huge. I think access to capital and cash flow is one of the biggest challenges for start-ups.
How did you overcome those challenges?
We ran a PledgeMe campaign in August last year to help us raise money to move out of our home and we made $130,000. We had the largest number of pledges in New Zealand ever, double the previous records, so we had lots of people who were willing to get on board and support us. Having platforms like PledgeMe to do the crowd funding was really great.
We also just brought in a new investor who has a minor shareholding. He’s given us a lot of advice in terms of where to spend the money, how to manage cash flow, how to get to that next stage of growth and what the options are to get even more funding.
What do you think makes someone innovative?
I think that’s a really interesting question because I don’t think you ever go out with the intention of being innovative, it isn’t a goal or an objective like ‘I’m going to be really innovative’ or ‘I’m going to come up with a really good idea today’. I think it’s identifying a need or a problem and finding creative ways to address that. There’s nothing innovative if you break down the aspects of Eat My Lunch, the idea of buy-one-give-one, I got inspiration from Toms Shoes and the food delivery and subscription exists in other businesses like My Food Bag and Foodbox. So a lot of the ideas already exist, but I think it’s the ability to connect those dots in different ways and package them up in something that’s new and unique. The ability to see what those dots are and then being able to connect them makes someone innovative.
As well as getting ideas from Toms Shoes and My Food Bag, were there any other influences or any people that inspired you?
My parents were entrepreneurs, they came to New Zealand when I was two and didn’t speak a word of English. I think sometimes when you are forced into a situation, you have to be clever and think up different ways to do be successful so they opened up a restaurant. Neither had trained as chefs, but they opened one of the first Chinese restaurants in Auckland. Then they sold that business and opened up one of the first Chinese medical clinics where they offer Chinese medicine and acupuncture. They did it about 26 years ago when that wasn’t a real thing in Auckland.
They have always encouraged me and my sisters to have our own business and not to work for other people. I went against all of that when I went to work for big corporates and tried to climb the corporate ladder. But there was probably always a bug in me that wanted to do something else. As everyone always goes, you are ‘waiting for that perfect idea’ before you take that leap of faith.
When this idea came about, my partner and I said to ourselves ‘yeah that’s a good idea’ and we sat on it for a few months before we were forced into doing it. I had entered a competition for female business people who had their own ideas and the winner would get $5000 to start up their own business. I entered and, out of 400 entrants, was chosen as one of the top five finalists and my idea was posted all over Facebook. I didn’t win, but I realised that loads of people had seen my idea so I thought: ‘If I don’t do it, someone else is probably going to do it’. So we were kind of forced into taking that leap of faith and actually going for it.
It’s easy to come up with creative ideas, but then to actually execute it takes a lot of courage. You have to take that leap of faith and put everything behind it, and leave what you know. My partner and I both left big corporate jobs to do this and you never know where it’s going to go.
What are the key ingredients that got you to where you are today?
I think taking that first step, it’s such a cliché, is the hardest step to take. I always ask myself the question ‘what’s the worst thing that could happen?’ and in this situation we both left our corporate jobs and we had a massive mortgage on the house so we thought the worst thing would be we lose the house. So I think courage is a massive one and then always having that constant belief.
In New Zealand, one of the challenges I’ve found is this ‘tall poppy syndrome’. When Eat My Lunch started taking off, and even before then, people would say ‘oh that’s a really crap idea’ and ‘how’s that going to work’ and I think people don’t really want to see you succeed. I think it’s about constantly believing in yourself, moving forward in your path and ignoring all of that.
How important do you think is innovation in New Zealand compared to the rest of the world?
I think for a little country, it’s really important for us in order to move forward and to stay up there with the rest of the world. I think New Zealand has that number eight wire culture, as we are really innovative and we tend to punch above our weight and I think we have to do that in order for us to just keep up with everyone else. I think we’ve proven that time and time again so it’s really great to see a lot of the universities and education systems are now offering that as part of a degree or education because I think we need to start challenging people to think differently.
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