Interviews

When leading purpose isn't enough: Grub Club founder Olivia Sibony on learning from 'mistakes' and knowing when to move on

31 min read

26 November 2018

Editorial Director

Seed Tribe's Olivia Sibony opens up about life after selling Grub Club and why impact entrepreneurs can't change the world unless they're financially sustainable.

Fortune favours the brave. This is what has spurred Olivia Sibony along in her entrepreneurial career to date. From Goldman Sachs executive to founding global dining experience startup Grub Club and now at the helm of an impact angel investment platform Seed Tribe, Sibony’s path to fulfilment has had its share of ups and downs. In a candid interview with Real Business, Olivia Sibony opens up about life after selling her business and why she believes impact entrepreneurs are underrated fonts of knowledge that can actually change the world.

She agrees to meet me in a bustling independent cafe on Fulham Broadway, London, sipping on a cup of responsibly sourced coffee in her own reusable takeaway cup. She’s all smiles as I settle down and take out my weathered notebook.

“I don’t understand why people still drink from paper cups,” she says, shaking her head while taking another sip. “It’s one thing to incentivise people to use reusable cups, and another to outright ban paper cups.”

Sibony is passionate about sustainability and it shows. She left what many would consider a cushy job at Goldman Sachs to follow this passion. It wasn’t a sudden revelation that led her down the road less travelled, but a return to her roots. Her career spans the third sector, the public sector, public-private partnerships, and finally the private sector. “I feel like I’ve seen it from all sides. I’ve seen the whole journey, and I guess throughout my career, I’ve seen inequalities in the business world on every single side,” she says. “I’m not just talking about women. I’m talking about how you look at the supply chain and how supplies are managed along the way, how we manage our environmental impact, and how we manage diversity broadly.”

“The more I worked, the more it just made me feel really uncomfortable about how a lot of the world is run.”

The first step for her was leaving the flashy world of finance and setting up her own business, Grub Club. “I wanted to use food as a platform to change the world. It’s a website where you would search and book interesting dining experiences. Rather than people sitting down and just having conversations through their telephone, you could share a meal, and that would bring us to back to our most human roots of being together and sharing, talking and connecting.”

A happy outcome of her business was that using set menus cut down food waste. “The chef knows in advance how many dishes to cook for how many people. He knows there’ll be three vegetarians, two allergies to nuts or whatever it is. We were also maximising underused spaces rather than creating new builds for anything. Grub Club embodied all of that.”

Sibony invested long hours, sleepless nights and her own unbridled passion to build the business, but her biggest lesson from the experience was that she held back from making her values core to the business model.

“What I didn’t do is really, really, really invest,” she says. “I wanted to take it further in terms of how we manage the supply chain, where the food came from, the storytelling, et cetera. And I didn’t embed that into the core of the business.”

“As time went, with investors putting extra pressure on growth and numbers, I realised that it was one of the things that just couldn’t really be factored into the business model.”

Sibony had a vision to change the world, one meal at a time. And this meant supporting independent restaurants, giving individuals the opportunity to become chefs on the platform or to join in these dinners so that they wouldn’t suffer from social isolation.

She quickly realised that she’d have to compromise on her vision. That her business model and her margins just wouldn’t let her grow Grub Club the way she wanted.

“That’s when it hit me; I realised actually how important the whole lot is, creating an impactful business that has a positive social and environmental goal has to also be sustainable financially.”

“The business model absolutely needs to make sense and be sustainable in order to survive. And if you have one without the other, then I just don’t think a business can survive.”

So with those challenges, Sibony decided to sell the business. It was going well, but the more it was growing, the more she had to come to terms with the fact that she couldn’t have control over all the impactful elements. “I learned a lot from that direct experience, both in terms of the business model and in making impact your core mission rather than something on the side.”

“I grew up thinking money was religion”

Sibony’s happy childhood in Monaco taught her a lot about business. Her experiences as a teenager helped her ‘unlearn’ many of these beliefs and set her on her current path where purpose and impact go hand-in-hand with business. “My family and culture around me were adamant that money was religion. Money is equal to happiness. I brought in that background, and I remember just always feeling really uncomfortable about it,” she says.

“My maternal grandparents lived on a farm in the north of England, and I used to spend all my summers there. Everything they did was 100% sustainable.”

“I mean, my grandfather would chop the trees down in the yard in order to make the furniture. They would reuse absolutely everything. They would compost. They would sell their surplus food to the local people in the village, and I was never, ever as happy as when I’d been there.”

When she was 16, she spent time in Senegal with her friend’s mother, who was a nurse. That was another turning point for Sibony, who was slowly soaking in the beliefs that would mould her in later life.

“They would bring medicine, set up a little clinic, give basic healthcare training to a handful of people. My friend and I were the kind of secretaries, and we’d interview everyone about their medical history. It was the first time I was around actual poverty. It’s such a cliché thing, but I was like, ‘Oh, but they’re poor. That must mean that they’re really unhappy because that’s what it’s like, right?’ It was about separating money and happiness, realising that they’re mutually exclusive.”

She arrived at one village during that summer and it changed her mindset forever. “Everyone was super happy and unbelievably friendly and just so generous. It’s like, there’s the one chicken in the village. We’re going to kill it to be able to share that meal with you. There are not enough beds, so we’re going to give you our bed tonight. It was such a completely opposite mindset to what I’d ever been brought up on.”

“It was the most enlightening experience I’ve ever had because it completely challenged every single preconception that I was raised with. And suddenly, the world made sense to me, that actually, money and happiness don’t equate. Money doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re going to be happy, and there’s a lot more to life than just doing that.”

Finding a balance between purpose and the bottom line

Sibony moved on from that experience into the charity sector. This opened her eyes to the importance of financial sustainability. “You can’t do any long-term planning in that sector because you don’t know where your funding is going to come from. And you’re constantly begging for money. It’s going to have a bunch of strings attached,” she says.

“You can only plan, say, one year in advance, so that makes you make short-term decisions rather than long-term decisions. I just didn’t believe in that model, even though I do think there is space for charities in a number of ways.”

“I see money as a process. It’s true, it’s important to have money, but money is a vehicle to enable you to have a good life.”

For Sibony, money is fundamental to our society because that is that one international value that is a common language to all of us. “But it’s not the purpose; it’s the process by which we should get to something else, whether that’s renewable energy or social good, you know, those super cool businesses.”

“I made a lot of mistakes with Grub Club, but that’s really been a blessing”

Sibony’s first foray in the startup world was Grub Club, which came from a series of experiences and reassessing her worldview. The company is now a global phenomenon and was recently acquired by EatWith, which provides dining experiences in over 130 countries. Even so, it wasn’t the path Sibony envisioned for her business, which is why she sold Grub Club when she did.

“I made a lot of mistakes with running my own first business, but that’s really been a blessing,” she says. “Through those mistakes, I realised there is definitely a way that we could address some of the key challenges of the world and make money.”

“I’m really grateful for making every single one of those mistakes because I also feel like the learning process of making those mistakes is really important and helpful,” she says.

“The Americans don’t see failure as a failure. It’s like a feather in your cap. It’s like how many businesses have you launched. I feel really strongly about that, and I have just never looked at my mistakes as failures. I always just saw them as the most amazing learning opportunities.”

When she launched Grub Club, Sibony felt her own lack of confidence come through. “I was super nervous. I thought I would never manage to run my own business, and I didn’t have any kind of confidence. But I went in there thinking, ‘Okay, well I have 90% chance of failing,’ because that’s what the stats are, so rather than going in there any going, ‘Oh my god, I’m going to fail. I’m going to fail. I’m going to fail’, I went in there going, ‘Well, I will do the best I could possibly do. If it doesn’t work out, then that’s what the statistics would’ve indicated. Well, worst case scenario, surely I’m going to learn something after that.’”

And she did. While by no means is her exiting the business a failure, for Sibony, her vision didn’t pan out. “I learned how important it is to focus on the actual revenue model. I learned how unbelievably important execution was. I learned how important it is to prioritise. I learned how important it is to have your big vision as your compass, but actually, really all you care about is the next three things that you’re going to do. And then beyond that, it’s like, ‘Okay, well I’ll think of those when I get to the next three things that I need to be doing on my list.’”

The biggest lesson for her is to always be true to yourself. “Ultimately I’m in business because I want to do something that makes me feel fulfilled, not because I care about how much money I’m going to make. If I’m doing something that I don’t believe in, then I don’t really understand what the point in my living is, because I spend most of my day working, and if I could do something that I truly believe in, then that’s what makes me feel really complete.

“I totally don’t shy away from work. I was working 7 days a week, 16 to 18 hours a day for years. That was not a problem.”

The minute she realised she’d have to make compromises on how she’d run her business for it to survive was when it became incredibly difficult.

“Suddenly there was no more purpose for me to keep working like I had been all that time. Suddenly the long hours felt like really, really long hours and that’s when I realised I needed to change something,” she says.

“I stopped kidding myself and everything made sense”

Authenticity and purpose are the driving forces for entrepreneurship, according to Sibony. Her Grub Club days, while crucial to her journey, wasn’t her end-goal. “We kidded ourselves into thinking that it would be a lot easier to do what we wanted to do. That was quite delusional, and I do think we want to be a little bit delusional as an entrepreneur because you want to dream big, but within reason. And once you’ve had enough proof points in the market to validate your point, then brilliant. But if you haven’t, then just don’t be afraid to just take a step back,” she said.

“I told myself, ‘I made a mistake. I thought these things were true. They were not, and I don’t know how we can solve them. I’m not saying they can’t be solved, but from my perspective, I’ve tried every single possible way to address this challenge and I no longer know how to address it. So, I’m no longer the right person to do this. Maybe someone else can do it, but not me.’”

She then had the task of letting her stakeholders know.

“I think it’s crucial to be really honest to the stakeholders, to investors, about how you fit there.”

“You know, I’m still on unbelievably good terms with all of my investors even though I left the business. They all said, ‘If you’re starting a business, I’ll still invest in you,’ because I was honest about our challenges and where the mistakes were.”

Life after an exit

Sibony credits her smooth exit to luck, in part. “It was difficult. Part of it is total chance that our our US counterpart was looking to enter the UK market. So, a lot of it was luck because we went around a whole bunch of businesses trying to pitch it to them, and trying to convince them why the business was a good fit for them to buy. It was a lot of work. A lot of kissing frogs.”

After leaving Grub Club, Sibony spent time crystallising her plans for the future. She knew her non-negotiable beliefs and what drives her to work, so when the Angel Investment Network sought her out to run Seed Tribe, their new spin-out, she knew what she wanted from the outset.

The Angel Investment Network is an open platform connecting entrepreneurs and angel investors and has been around for 14 years. Earlier this year, the two co-founders decided to launch Seed Tribe to focus on impact businesses that need investing through a crowd model. Angel Investment Network has over 600,000 businesses and over 172,000 investors on the platform but Sibony’s vision for Seed Tribe is uniquely her.

Lowering the barriers to investment for impact businesses

Seed Tribe vets the businesses for its sophisticated high net-worth investors. It’s FCA-regulated; there’s the due diligence process, so that takes some of the risk out of the equation. “Of course a startup is always a risky investment, and we’re never gonna say it’s not, but we’re mitigating that risk by being really strict about what businesses we do bring onto the platform,” she adds.

“We realised there was a growing supply and demand of impactful businesses within Angel Investment Network itself. And it seemed like a good market to enter,” she says. “Using the crowdfunding model enables us to democratise that investment process so impact businesses can reach the same kind of investors and access growth finance like any other business.”

“Now, through the crowdfunding model, people can invest £100 minimum instead of £10K or £20K minimum, which most Angel rounds require. So that means it opens it up to a whole new bunch of people who may not have thought about investing in the past because the barrier to entry is too high, or that it’s scary and they don’t know how to dip their toes into it.”

In addition to helping impact businesses grow, Sibony sees this model as crucial to level the investment playing field for first-time investors or the notoriously labelled ‘risk-averse’ female investors. “There’s an increasing number of women who feel like they wanna start investing, but it feels unknown to them,” she says.

“A lot of women just feel that it’s not for them; they don’t have the right skill set; they don’t have the knowledge; they don’t understand investing. As a generalisation, women feel like they need to know everything about something in order to go into it. They need to feel like they’re complete experts.”

A part of her goal at Seed Tribe is to attract a new type of investor that can see the business model and purpose as two crucial parts of the whole. When you look at a traditional business, all you’re looking at is the numbers, Sibony says, whereas with impact businesses, there’s a story on top which makes it more compelling.

“I think certainly when a business has a story around it, you already just get a bit more interested and excited about it. Then it feels more approachable to be able to look behind the scenes and then break down that business model,” she says. “That’s when I will talk a lot more about the mission; when I’m attracting a new type of investor.”

“I think as a race we’re lazy. I don’t think we’re bad but I think we’re uneducated. We’re very misinformed about things and we want the easiest option. So you need to accept that there are certain human traits that are probably not going to change. If you bring convenience and you put certain things on a platter for them, then I do think that they would want to do it,” she explains.

“Like for like, if there’s the exactly the same product with exactly the same convenience and one is greener or more ethical, the choice is much easier.”

What kind of businesses make the cut?

Sibony’s process at Seed Tribe is two-fold. On the investor-side, she turns truly impact businesses into appealing investment opportunities by repositioning their offering. On the business side, she sifts through thousands of impact businesses to find the most financially lucrative triple-bottom-line companies that can give investors the returns they need.

“I first and foremost discount any business that is not genuinely a really good business opportunity. I look at the quality of the team and their experience, how they work together. I look at the business model, I look at the market size. I look at how the product market fits.”

“If that’s not there, I’m not even going to look at it, no matter how much I may love what the business is doing. Then of course, I ask myself ‘is its core mission impactful?’. Not like Tom’s Shoes, for example, where it’s like for every pair of shoes you buy, they give another pair to charity. That doesn’t work in my mind. Yes, it’s brilliant, they’re doing really well and giving away these shoes. But if they hadn’t done really well, that initiative would be the first to go.”

Sibony relies on the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals as her compass when vetting businesses. “It’s funny, I get all these applications from people who claim to be impactful, then aren’t. Someone came to me with this business and it’s a platform for beauticians. In the application form under the question ‘Do you see yourself as mission driven and addressing social issues?’ she wrote ‘Yes, I’m trying to find work for these beauticians.’ Sure, that’s important, but that’s not what we mean by impact businesses.”

In order to prevent her from using her own personal judgment, she relies on an external review framework like the sustainable development goals. “My opinion shouldn’t matter. It should be how it’s defined at a much higher level beyond me. So I use that, then I look at the goals, and I think, okay, does this seem to fit in the goals? Yes or no.”

Once she has vetted the businesses, they go to an investment committee for further research. Sibony then turns to the existing database of investors, but her vision is to attract a whole new group of investors she can then segment to match their goals.

“I really, really want a much more mission-driven group of investors to come on board. I think the lower barrier to entry means it’s more accessible to younger people. So that’s millennials who generally have a more social conscience,” she says.

Triple-bottom-line businesses are the future

In Sibony’s vision of the world, she’d like to see businesses that make money by doing good winning. These businesses are the ones with actual solutions to the world’s biggest problems. “In my view, we have no choice but to create businesses that are going to address all of the negative impact that we’ve made as humans since the beginning of the century.”

“Unless we all act as governments, businesses, and citizens, to try and address that, I don’t know where the world is going to go, but it’s not going to be great.”

In an ideal world, everyone’s going to start looking at impact and purpose, she adds, but it’ll be a slow process. “I don’t want to support any business that’s just starting just for the sake of it. I only want to support the businesses that are not gimmicky. I think there’s a really important reason to segment that, because we can focus all of our story telling, all of our education around how to do that.”

Sibony wakes up to the Today programme every morning, and the severity of the world’s problems end up weighing heavily on her. “I just come out of bed so depressed because the whole world is going to come to an end. That is just so depressing! All we know about is Trump, North Korea, Putin, Brexit, Turkey.”

“Then I get to work and my inbox is filled with all the entrepreneurs doing amazing things, with the passion and belief that they’re going to change the world one way or the other. It brings positivity we so badly need.”

Sibony’s parting words of wisdom may inspire a legion of entrepreneurs and investors alike. “Do what you love, what makes you jump out of bed in the morning, and do what makes the world a better place.”