To mark the start of Zero Waste Week, we spoke to Hjalmar Ståhlberg Nordegren, CEO and co founder of Karma, about the inspiration behind the food waste app and why he is taking the brand on the ultimate mission to ensure that great food is never wasted.
What inspired you to launch your app, Karma?
We know that ⅓ of all food produced globally is wasted, and we wanted to do something about it. As a team of experienced entrepreneurs, we knew that together, we could apply our knowledge of building successful businesses and create something with real value and purpose. Myself (CEO) and my co-founders Elsa Bernadotte (COO), Mattis Larsson (CTO) and Ludvig Berling (CPO) started Karma initially as a deals app, and after seeing the demand for food related deals and offers, we asked ourselves, how can we make this better? Looking deeper into the issue of food waste and researching its global environmental impact, we felt compelled to innovate within this space, and this brings us to the Karma you now see today.
What are your sustainable priorities for the business?
We believe in leading by example, so the team are working hard to get to a place where they themselves generate zero food waste; both by using our app and also through smart tips and tricks like freezing fruit to make smoothies and using old bread as croutons in salads. We also believe it’s important to compensate for any emissions you cause when running your business, so we’re enrolled in goldstandard.org and make sure we are climate neutral.
What has the reaction been like since you launched in 2016?
We’ve been delighted to see the response and support from our Karma community. We’re pretty confident that we have some of the best restaurants, cafes and kitchens in London using Karma as a way to make their businesses better (these include Caravan in Fitzrovia, Aubaine, Detox Kitchen and Island Poke). In our native Sweden, 5% of the population have embraced Karma and use it for everything from smoothies to sushi. We’ve recently launched in Paris and are very much looking forward to seeing Karma work within in a city known for its outstanding cuisine.
Image: Karma co-founders Elsa, Mattis, Ludvig, Hjalmar
How has the attitude towards food waste evolved over the past couple of years?
We know that most people hate the idea of food going to waste, however up until recently, there hasn’t really been a premium offering that gives consumers great food at a great price, and also provides a solution to the amount of perfectly good food that gets thrown away at the end of each day from food establishments. I think this is part of Karma’s success; we make it transparent and easy for people to do their bit.
What have been the biggest challenges to growing the business so far?
The start-up world is always challenging, but as they say, “if it was easy, everybody would be doing it!”. One of the most important things that you learn very quickly is the power of a strong team. We’ve been very lucky to have a myriad of people apply to work at Karma, which has made our quest to find the best and brightest way easier. Today we’re at almost 70 ”Karmeleons” in three countries, all with the same vision of creating the first zero food waste generation.
What have been your biggest milestones and triumphs until now?
There have been so many! As mentioned, in three years we’ve managed to engage 5% of the Swedish population and get them to use Karma; Karma’s 725,000 users and 5,200 partners have diverted an average of 485 tonnes of edible food from landfill and reduced CO2 levels caused by food waste by 725 tonnes. In April of this year, Karma reached a huge milestone of 1 million items saved. In Series A funding, Karma raised $12 million to expand its mission to counteract food waste across the globe. Karma appears on Fast Company’s Most Innovative Companies List, Wired’s top 100 startups in Europe, and I’m really proud to say the team have been namechecked on the Forbes 30 under 30 list, as well as by Barack Obama and The Obama Foundation earlier this year, and it doesn’t get much bigger than that…
What advice would you give to anyone hoping to launch a sustainable business?
Firstly, just go for it. Starting a business isn’t the biggest challenge, building it is! So there’s no need to think about if you should or shouldn’t, just do it and if you fail that’s not the end of the world. Most successful entrepreneurs have several failed ventures behind them.
Secondly, make sure the business model is sound. This goes for any startup. While you don’t need to have everything figured out when you start, it’s good to know that you’re not slowly building a charity. Unless that’s what you’re going for! Many startups I’ve met lacked a basic business model at their core, meaning that however great their ideas and products were, they never got there as they had a hard time making the financials of it all work mid-/long term.
Which other sustainable businesses have inspired you?
The recent government initiatives spotlighting food waste in the UK have been a great way to get all the players together to discuss our shared goals. It’s a small world fighting food waste together and the best part is that we all work collectively to solve this climate crisis. For example, a food waste fighting friend of ours is Toast Ale, a beer brewed from surplus bread, and we’re big fans of the work Rubies In the Rubble are doing with restaurants and innovative food vendors too.
You’ve recently expanded from Sweden into London and Paris – what’s next for Karma?
It’s been an incredible journey so far and we’re just getting started! We’re not only planning to expand further geographically (it’s top secret right now, so all we can say is watch this space…) we’ve also got some exciting product developments rolling out later this year that will give you access to save more surplus than ever before.