Founder's podcast #1: Rob Wilson | Toast Ale

Welcome to the Sustainable Workspaces First Founders Podcast.

We will be bringing you short talks with the founders of the sustainable startups we host in our space to get a glimpse into their stories. 

We will discuss what made them get up one day and decide they want to start something new and how they turned an idea into a successful company.

Last week we got to talk to Rob Wilson, aka ‘Chief Toaster’  and CEO of the amazing Toast Ale, a company that is saving surplus bread from going to the bin, only to turn it into delicious and successful beer. The company celebrated two years last week, and we wanted to learn more about the time of its birth.

 

 

Hi Rob, thanks for joining us. 

So tell us a little bit about the beginning, when and how did you join Toast? What were you doing before that?

Rob: As a way of introduction: we're on a mission to prove that the alternative to food waste is freaking delicious and pint sized. We brew our TOAST beer using perfectly good but surplus fresh bread that would otherwise go to waste, and we donate 100 percent of our profits to charity. The whole idea started two and a half years ago now.

Actually it was a friend of mine, Tristram Stuart, who had the idea. He's a food waste campaigner, best selling author, a real character who has done more than anyone to really tackle food waste globally. He started an organisation called Feedback which has helped change government policy, retail behaviour consumer behaviour, real strong stuff.

About two and a half years ago he took a trip to Brussels where he tried a beer called Babylon that was brewed with bread. It's called Babylon because the first ever beer recipe that's ever been discovered was brewed with bread, about 4000 years ago and that's how beer was made for millennia. When he came back to the UK, he and I were having a chat. 

At the time I was running an organization called Ashoka that supports social enterprises and social entrepreneurs. Tristram was one of the Ashoka fellows that I was supporting and he said he has this idea of starting a beer company: "let's get wasted on waste, let's see if we can tackle food waste head on, bring up surplus bread. Bread is the biggest food waste in the UK - 44% of the bread that's baked is wasted! Let's put all the profits into a charity Feedback". And I was just like: "mate, this is a wicked, awesome idea! Definitely you should do it!"

 Toast Ale. 2015. With a freind :) Courtesy of Louisa Ziane. 

Toast Ale. 2015. With a freind :) Courtesy of Louisa Ziane. 

Tristram was one of the Ashoka fellows that I was supporting and he said he has this idea of starting a beer company: “let’s get wasted on waste, let’s see if we can tackle food waste head on... Bread is the biggest food waste in the UK - 44% of the bread that’s baked is wasted! Let’s put all the profits into a charity Feedback”.

I just said: “mate, this is a wicked, awesome idea! Definitely you should do it!”
— Rob on how Tristram Stuart introduced the idea behind Toast

I was instantly thinking and scheming as to how I could muscle in and see about getting involved. In those early days, through Ashoka, I managed to provide some support and joined the advisory board. We had an amazing team to get TOAST started. Louisa and Julie, who are still in the team today were really the ones that were hands on getting Toast up and running in the early days.

It was about six months in that I had another conversation with Tristram and said: "my advice this time is that I should run TOAST." Very egotistically and arrogantly. He foolishly took the advice and said "Okay what the hell let's do it, Rob".

So I ended up joining the team, and it's been an awesome whirlwind ever since. It's been a real team effort of several of us who have been involved in different ways since the beginning and now the team is just growing every week. 

 

How much did you know about beer making then?

Rob: Not huge amounts... I'm keen beer drinker and home homebrewer but not in any kind of a professional level, I've toured breweries and things. So beer enthusiast, but not commercially. I do have a great interest in fighting food waste. Food waste is one of the most urgent issues that we tackle. It's by far one of the biggest contributors towards climate change and the environmental disaster that we're currently facing. Unless we start to do something about it.

You usually think of the energy industry or the transportation industry, but it's the food system that ultimately is the biggest contributor, as it uses those other industries. The thought that we're wasting one third of the food that we produce is something I've always been incredibly passionate about because of the urgency of the issue but also the simplicity of the solution that we can actually tackle this issue. And producing delicious beer felt like a fun way to start. It's not the whole solution but it is a fun way to start tackling that problem.

 July 2018. Louisa, Rob, Paul and Tristram. Photo:  Mr. Kirby

July 2018. Louisa, Rob, Paul and Tristram. Photo: Mr. Kirby

 

Eventually you chose to set up a business in a market that has quite a lot of competition. Especially people in this country are very picky about their beer. What made you think you can succeed in this kind of market.

Rob: So at the beginning I guess we didn't know. We hoped, as all businesses that are just starting out. You hope, you have a drive and have your ambition. You're also pragmatic enough to realize that hey, maybe it won't work out. It is a crowded market. We're very aware of that but what we realized then and we realize now more than ever, is that consumers are thirsty for products that have more than just great quality. More than just great presentation. More than just a great price point which we have all three of. They also want a product that has purpose, a product that has authenticity a product that has personality. And again we have all of those. When you look at the market now, consumers want all six of those things. And if you can provide it then there's a huge growing market for that.

Once we recognized that, that's where we built a four part mission where basically every decision we make in our whole business is on the basis of:

  1. We're making delicious beer.
  2. We're going to tackle bread waste.
  3. We're going to communicate about food waste to millions of consumers in a fun accessible way. 
  4. We're going to pour 100 percent of our profits into food waste charities.

So we are business with regular business. We pay ourselves pay our staff. We know we're going to reinvest money back into the business as we grow, but all of our distributable profits that would otherwise go to investors to shareholders basically get donated to charity. And yeah that's the model that we we've chosen to go with that charity Feedback are going to be able to address food waste at the systemic level.

 

That sounds amazing but you did leave kind of a steady job in an organization and went off to start this beer company. What kind of support did you get from family and friends? 

Rob: It was terrible timing from a personal perspective. I was expecting my second child. So Thomas was already kind of 2 years old. I was expecting number two. Matthew is now one and a half years old.

I remember saying to my wife: "Hey, so you know Tristram from Ashoka? He has this idea of starting a beer company, I think I might dive in and run it..." She was just like "WHAT? This sounds, one: crazy, two: You're going to bankrupt the family..."

We had some savings which isn't a huge amount of money. Obviously we're in our 30s, so we don't have a huge amount of money, but we have some life savings that would start to sort of build up. You know, just to make sure that we can have some money for a rainy day. I was like, I think I'm going to put that into Toast as well, just to kind of get that started and see what we can do there. Tristram had put some money in as well. So yes, definitely got amazing support from immediate family. They gave me the freedom and permission to do this. I have a really understanding wife who understood the risks but she's very entrepreneurial herself so we're both as guilty as each other. Getting too excited about new ideas she's running an awesome business called Ten of Zen. It's all about mindfulness for mothers so she totally gets it.

In terms of friends I've got a track record of starting a few different social enterprises and charities. Ever since I was very young and so I've always had an understanding group of friends that keep me grounded and take the piss, and remind me of what a proper job should be like.

Ashoka was a pretty steady job at the time and loved my time at Ashoka. But there's something so exhilarating and rewarding about building your own social business, a mission driven business where you're growing your team and your impact. You're motivated every single day. It's just something so remarkable that for me far outweighs the potential risks.

 Photo:  Mr. Kirby

Photo: Mr. Kirby

 

This all sounds good but eventually you do need to get paid, so at what point did you set out for fundraising? 

Rob: So we obviously we put a little bit of our own money in. I think the business obviously it's all about just making sales as quickly as possible and getting your invoices out, actually starting to accrue some cash flow. I think that is the advantage of setting up a business. We didn't have a huge capital expenditure when we started. We haven't built our own brewery, we developed our own recipes, but we then outsourced the production to another facility where there's a lot of excess capacity in the brewing industry and so that wasn't a big outlay but when we did want to grow and expand we crowdfunded.

So we went to Crowdfunder.co.uk, put on a crowdfunder, got support from hundreds of friends and family but also wider toast fans. And yes, that worked incredibly well too. That was about a year and a half ago, so about a year into our journey where we did a big Crowdfunder just to boost the cash flow take us to the next scale and next level. At the time there were four of us in the team but we just have one SKU. We just had a pale ale. We wanted to produce a lager and an IPA. We were also about to expand to the U.S. And so we we raise cash to kind of achieve that.

Now two and half years in we've just closed a round of equity investments that we've called Equity For Good. We kind of developed our own equity investment structure where we've raised a far more significant amount of money to take TOAST to a global scale. But we realised that with equity investment, unless you had some influence over how your investors would spend any capital gain they make from your business, you risk them going off and spending the gains on a business that might be doing more harm than good and all the good news created with TOAST may end up being overridden by the harm that they spend their gains on. We were naive to this when we first started the process but quickly realised that we could tackle this ourselves so we developed a pledge that we called the Equity For Good Pledge. All of our investors have signed this pledge, stating that any capital gains made from TOAST they will reinvest in our mission driven businesses. It's super important to us that at every level of the business we're making sure we're creating additional value.

 

Equity For Good Pledge. All of our investors have signed this pledge, stating that any capital gains made from TOAST they will reinvest in our mission driven businesses. It’s super important to us that at every level of the business we’re making sure we’re creating additional value.

— EQUITY FOR CHANGE is a new investment scheme TOAST has created
 

That sounds great. Seems like a lot of thinking is going into the way you do business. I guess one of the biggest problems of a CEO or founder is a growing team. Your team is now growing fast - How do you keep it productive? How do you keep everyone aligned with the company?

Rob: It's the million dollar question. I would love any advice or support on this on myself, and ourselves. So we were four people in the UK at Christmas. It's now July, we're 15 people in the UK. We were one in the US at Christmas. We're now 5 or 6 now actually in the US. And so we're still a small team, but growing very rapidly.

We are very conscious of team culture, our team wellbeing. We've definitely experienced already the consequences of burnout and putting your all into a startup and I've seen colleagues really struggle with that over just two years in recognizing that we need to be so conscious of each other and our personal wellbeing. Largely because we need to put limits on ourselves where we're all so motivated so driven there's a purpose behind this that sometimes it's hard to put your work down. So we've done a couple of things where we went paddleboarding on the Thames for World Environment Day. We did attempt to litter pick while we were paddleboarding and clean the Thames up of plastic and that for us was kind of perfect alignment. We're looking at other sort of volunteer days we making sure that the whole team have a couple of days a year to get out of the office and do some volunteering. To do that collectively as a team. Really just using technology as best as possible to get ideas and tips. How do you make this the most epic organisational culture ever.

Moving in to this office space, not just because you are interviewing us, but the Sustainable Bankside space has been an absolute game changer for us in terms of our team culture. Being here in heart of London and the energy you get being alongside other startups. Having Nix and Kix a few tables down and sharing examples and stories with them about retail. This is all massively helpful for team morale and team building.

Moving into Sustainable Bankside has been an absolute game changer for us in terms of our team culture. Being here in heart of London and the energy you get being alongside other startups... This is all massively helpful for team morale and team building.
— Team building and the coworking space
 

You can kind of learn from others. People are also going through certain challenges but also certain successes and through this kind of osmosis - you share their energy and enthusiasm as well. So few different things, but we also know we've got a ways to go.

We're looking at our organizational structure at the moment. Our whole team are reading this book Reinventing Organizations. We're looking at whether we should strip all hierarchy in the organization, how do we bring our organization to be as alive as it possibly can be, how do we make each and every one of us feel most vibrant and alive at work. And yet challenging ourselves to think through that. So yes in front of mind right now actually right.

 

There sure is a lot on your plate. Thanks for taking the time to talk to us.Last question for you before you go: Five years from now, where do you see the company?

Rob: So I'd love to say world domination. We're a mission driven business where we are determined to end food waste. We're determined to eliminate bread waste through the beer industry. Like I said 44 percent of the bread baked in the UK is never consumed. There's this bread surplus that before it ever ends up as waste could be used in brewing that's hasn't happened for thousands of years. We open-sourced our recipe that's already been downloaded thirty five thousand times.

 
It would be awesome if in five years time what we do wasn’t so novel and unique, but we’ve managed to mainstream this and return the beer industry to its roots.
It would be awesome to fund Feedback to the point of sustainability so that they can just do the awesome campaigning work that they do without needing to spend time fundraising
— Looking ahead
 

We want to connect bakeries and breweries in every corner of the world to tackle this issue collectively. We see a scenario in five years time where the concept is so mainstream that it's no longer such a unique story. 

At the moment we get a lot of media attention which is awesome. We've been on Japanese TV, Indian newspapers etc. It would be awesome if in five years time that wasn't so novel and unique, but we've managed to mainstream this and return the beer industry to its roots. It would be awesome to fund Feedback to the point of sustainability so that they can just do the awesome campaigning work that they do without needing to spend time fundraising, because we're able to bring them the cash that they need to transform retail, transform government, transport consumer behaviour when it comes to the issue of food waste. And I hope to be a company reaching millions and millions of consumers in every corner of the world enjoying beer brewed locally. We're already brewing in South Africa, Iceland, Brazil, the US and the UK. We're never going to do export. We don't believe in export. We're going to brew locally in many many markets around the world and yet who knows. Hopefully everyone will be saying "Heineken who?" And Toast will be the business that people want to turn to, or the beer that people want to turn to and drink. 

Raise a Toast to ending food waste one beer at a time. Thank you.

 

 Photo:  Mr. Kirby

Photo: Mr. Kirby