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How food sharing start-up OLIO uses Amazon Web Services to run its digital infrastructure

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The popularity of smartphone applications has helped create a string of niche businesses that succeed by meeting customers’ everyday needs. Thanks to a relatively low cost of entry and new working methods, these firms can get off the ground and begin trading quickly – one such business is OLIO.

OLIO was founded by Tessa Cook and Saasha Celestial-One as a free app to tackle the problem of food surplus. OLIO launched in the UK in January 2016 and globally in October of that year.

The app connects neighbours so they can share surplus food. Users take a photo of their food and publicise it in the app; people see this through alerts, make requests and arrange pick-up via private messaging. The app also runs a programme, where volunteers take food surplus from local businesses to redistribute in the community.

OLIO is a new style of business. The start-up is run with a team of just nine staff. To keep costs low, there’s no office, and each staff member works from home, across the country. As resources are limited, OLIO also chose Amazon Web Services (AWS) to help it deliver its service to users.

AWS is a suite of more than 90 cloud-based services aimed at helping businesses big and small run their own services in an easier and more cost-efficient way. Notably, it alleviates the burden on businesses such as OLIO by freeing them from the need to run their own digital infrastructure.

“Essentially, there are two big benefits of AWS,” says Tessa Cook. “Our lead developer doesn’t have to spend lots of time worrying about things that aren’t driving the business forward, and much of the less glamorous work is taken care of for him.”

Despite the size of the team, and the short time the app has been available, OLIO has grown rapidly. It already has more than 250,000 users and often sees big traffic spikes that could test the capabilities of a business of its size. Thanks to AWS, however, OLIO can handle the demand.

“Any time we’re on TV, we have thousands of people download the app in a matter of minutes,” says Tessa. “We need to be able to very quickly spin up new servers and bring stuff down; with AWS this happens. We’re only paying for what we’re using – that’s been very helpful in terms of being quick, responsive and flexible to spikes in the business.”

Like many new tech businesses OLIO is ‘pre-revenue’, but to make money in the future it will charge firms as it helps them reduce food surpluses. In fact, it’s just taking on its first paying customer of this kind. In addition, OLIO expects to run paid-for ads in the app and charge ‘super users’ a small subscription.

As the business grows, increased usage could place significant technical demand on the app. However, OLIO’s use of AWS means it can scale up quickly without being beset by a range of infrastructure problems that could otherwise eat up valuable resources and cause it to focus less on core functions.

“The way we see it, [technical] performance is a hygiene factor,” says Tessa. “As our team is small, we don’t want them to focus on hygiene factors, we need them to focus on things that are going to add value – new features, code, new capabilities within the product…

“My advice to other small business owners is not to overthink using AWS, just do it. It’s such a well-established path and you’ll benefit from massive economies of scale that can’t be achieved by yourself.”