Stories from the new model: Interviews from Co Working space in East London.
Lead with pleasure: allplants’ mission to spark a plant-based revolution
The third in our series of interviews with purpose-driven businesses, leading the charge towards better, more responsible, business. Meet Jonathan Petrides (JP), CEO and co-founder of allplants, a plant-based meal delivery startup, with a clear vision for the future, and how they get there.
This year I’ve had the opportunity to interview entrepreneurs behind some of the most exciting mission-driven companies operating today. Companies who were created to fix or enrich the world we live in.
My hypothesis at the start of the project was this: while there are many companies who will claim — honestly or otherwise — to be purpose-driven, there is a rarer group who are using the pursuit of that purpose to build companies which will leave single-minded incumbents behind. An optimism that companies who seek to enrich the world can not just be successful, but they can be more successful than those who exploit it.
But for all the talk on the importance of purpose, there is remarkably little understanding of the mechanics of how you turn an intention to make the world better into a company with superior methods and products. That’s what these interviews were for, to try and learn from entrepreneurs who appear to be able to do this and codify it so others can follow their lead.
I was aware that for many, it was going to be instinctual. A mix of passion, creativity, hard work, and a talent for storytelling, that created an indeterminate recipe for success. When a friend recommended I interview Jonathan Petrides (JP), CEO and co-founder of allplants, a plant-based meal delivery startup, I didn’t know much about the company and its vision. It turned out to be a brilliant recommendation. JP was crystal clear on the company’s vision for the future and how they plan to get there.
Allplants has a fairly simple business model: nutritious, delicious, chef-quality meals, frozen and sold directly to consumers at a price cheaper than a takeaway. The £7.5m Series A funding the company raised in late 2018 is the most ever by a UK plant-based startup — a sector which Europe has been slow to move on. The incredibly successful IPO in May by US plant-based startup Beyond Meat, with shares soaring over 500% in value since going public, has shown that the time is now, not tomorrow, for the plant-based revolution.
Below is an extract from my interview with JP.
RJ: What is allplants’ mission?
JP: Where this all started, and where we continue to be focused, is that we believe that if we shift the whole planet from eating meat, fish, dairy, and all manner of animal agriculture outputs, to plant-based diets, it would transform our planet in an extremely positive way.
And those benefits would be manifold, but there are three we zero in on. Firstly, it’s the impact it would have on the environment. From emissions avoidance, rewilding and better land use, it could slow down and ultimately reverse the destruction we’re wreaking on our planet. The second is health and wellness. There’s now consistent high-quality research showing the medicinal benefits of a wholefood, plant-based diet. Lastly — and this is slightly more hippy-dippy — we believe that the slaughtering of 50 billion animals every year is having an untold impact on our psyche, and our ability to live peacefully and harmoniously on this planet.
So then the question was, how do we make that happen? And we realised that no matter how much logic and science, or guilting and shouting you try to do, there’s only a very small proportion of people whose behaviour you can change with a stick and a placard. The way to change people’s food habits is to make unbelievably delicious food. To focus on pleasure, because that’s what we make 95% of food decisions based on. So that’s our mission, to make delicious plant-based food, and then make that pleasure abundantly available and easy for everyone.
RJ: Do you ever describe this mission as being a big business opportunity?
JP: No, it’s not a business opportunity. It’s a greater purpose.
The commercial opportunity that exists is just a vehicle to be able to deliver impact on the problem. It allows us to build a scalable solution. If we can continue to completely reposition the V-word as something that is aspirational and cool and delicious and fun, then it will allow us to greatly impact our greater purpose, whilst building something vastly scalable and global.
We believe companies that can do this will completely replace the 20th-century food companies who are not forward-thinking and do not have a planet-positive purpose instilled in what they do.
Whether it’s the Krafts, P&Gs or Unilevers, who largely feed us — or the supermarket white label stuff that we all eat — if we substitute all of that food with food from organisations with a much more deliberate purpose, it would be extremely positive for society.
RJ: Those companies probably claim to be driven by a sense of purpose too. How can we distinguish between them and allplants?
JP: Existing corporations utilise purpose as an adjunct. Companies are very quickly realising that it’s important for a modern brand to talk about a purpose. But it’s just hot air. It doesn’t actually take root in what the organisation decides to do, or how it does it. It’s still all about profit for them.
We see profit as fuel. We want to inspire the next billion plant-powered people, so that means we’re on a crazy long journey. Like a mad road trip, where we’re meandering in every direction, sometimes having to go back to go forward. And people keep joining you on this journey and so you build a bigger car, but to get to the end destination you need to keep fuel in the tank. If you can create a profit margin that puts fuel back in the tank, it allows you to keep the car on the road.
RJ: What makes you confident that you’ll make it to the end of this journey?
JP: Hands down the most important thing is the people. It’s all about who you bring into the journey and ensuring that they have their own personal reasons to feel not just mission-driven, but mission-lit-up. It’s not just giving people the opportunity to be the best engineer they can be or the best chef, it’s giving them the opportunity to do in pursuit of a greater purpose. Everyone at allplants was looking for a way to align their personal values with their personal growth and capabilities.
It’s all about who you bring into the journey and ensuring that they have their own personal reasons to feel not just mission-driven, but mission-lit-up.
We’re now 70 people, and we still haven’t brought in an HR person. What’s holding it all together — apart from a lot of dog work from me and a few others — is the culture. People bring their own thrust to work, but they also share an approach to work, they’re allplantspeople.
RJ: What makes someone an allplants person?
JP: It’s about being good to one another, but also sharing a way of communicating and making decisions. It’s how everyone juggles the challenge of making a great product with one that is also truly good for the planet, and good for people. It’s a restlessness.
It’s asking yourself, “ok this looks great and tastes delicious, but have Ireally worked hard to make sure it’s as eco-friendly as it can be?” That challenge has pushed us to do some things that have never been done before.
At another company, some of our ideas and innovations may have been dismissed as idiotic. For example, our delivery boxes are fully recyclable, but it’s such a waste if they only get used once, and we thought “wouldn’t it be cool if we could get all this packaging back.” So we experimented with including a CollectPlus returns label with them, expecting maybe a few people to send them back. Well in the first year more than 50% of them came back. It’s become a massive operation, and we’re getting people in just to process them. Now our insulation, which keeps our food fresh, has been on 10,11, 12 tours, which is mad.
RJ: So do you think this sense of purpose is making you more innovative than the competition?
JP: 100%. We’re not a packaging company, right. We’re a startup with no people and no resources. By conventional wisdom, we should just be buying off-the-shelf stuff. But we’ve been searching the far ends of the Earth find solutions to things that no one else is able to solve yet. We don’t have time for it, but we have to do it, otherwise, it wouldn’t be right, it wouldn’t fit with our whole reason for existing.
That doesn’t mean we’re not ruthless about procuring things at the best price. But when you stack up our compostable cotton insulation with polystyrene, for example, even though polystyrene is 3X cheaper, our insulation has equal, if not better, performance, customers love it, and it’s way, way, way better for the planet, so we decided we couldn’t compromise on it. You have to enable your team to understand why that matters.
RJ: Allplants is a certified B Corp, which means you meet certain levels of environmental and social performance as a business. Are there any targets, outside of B Corp certification, which you are focused on at the moment?
JP: We’re on a really aggressive path to becoming the first zero-waste food manufacturer in the UK. Which really isn’t easy by the way. We’re also very close to being the first prepared meals company who are truly using 100% recyclable packaging. It’s something everyone talks about, but it’s hard to do without compromising on quality, and the big companies really struggle with the cost model too.
But the thing that gets us really excited is how many meals we’ve served because we know the majority of our meals are substituting meat, fish and dairy. That’s the biggest impact we can have on the planet. We survey new and existing customers on a weekly basis to calibrate what proportion of them are meat-eaters. The most important thing is to get those impact metrics to be a part of everyone’s key goals.
RJ: And finally, what single piece of advice would you give to another entrepreneur who wants to scale a world-positive company?
JP: I guess fundamentally what it always comes back to is something I learned from working with IDEO many years ago. They call it Human Centred Design.
It’s almost putting down that you have a mission, and that you want everyone to eat a certain way, or shop a certain way, or whatever it is you want them to do. It has to be all about what people want. And if you spend a shitload of time basically being like an ethnographer, deep in the details, interviewing, observing and understanding, what actually drives customer decisions, it’s going to be more valuable than trying to work out what can we tell people to make them want this.
In our case, customers are trying to eat a delicious dinner in the evening when they don’t have time to cook, and they’d like it to be healthy if possible. That’s pretty much our use case. And from there you do a lot of research and a lot of painful experimentation and testing and failing and learning.
Oh, and get a product or version of your product out there as soon as possible so you can start learning because that is the most important thing you can do.
This interview is part of a series of interviews Richard Johnson has conducted for a new guidebook for entrepreneurs exploring how to build sustainable, purpose-driven companies which outcompete the competition. The guide will be published by x+why and Volans in September 2019.