In the first of a series of articles featuring entrepreneurs, we focus on food sustainability start-up Beelong and find out about the founders’ motivation and challenges.
After graduating from EHL in 2012, Charlotte de la Baume wanted to turn her passion for food sustainability into a sustainable business. As a student, she had learnt how to manage budgets and food costs, but sustainability had not been part of the curriculum. So she began discussing the issue with the school’s chefs and that’s when the idea of launching Beelong came about.
We believed that the restaurant industry has a huge impact in terms of the amount of food that is purchased every day and as one of the top hospitality schools, EHL has to do something and show an example.
The school has supported the project with advice and facilities. As Charlotte and the company’s other managing partner, Mathias Faigaux, were able to sign contracts from the start and were given some financial support from the Swiss non-profit Genilem, they didn’t need to seek additional funding.
“When you talk about start-ups, the main key to success is timing and we were quite lucky with that,” Mathias says. Back in October 2014, when they launched the start-up, the canton of Vaud was seeking a partner to evaluate the environmental impact of its kitchens. “So we were able to have clients from scratch and we never had to go through a round of financing.”
“The market is smaller than what you can expect in the US,” Mathias says, “so it’s quite hard actually. Also because, as a company, you don’t have the chance to make an IPO (initial public offering) here. So either you have the chance to sell to industry or it’s really hard to raise funds.”
The company, which up to now has been operating in the western, French-speaking parts of Switzerland, audits food producers and outlets, and its indicator uses five main criteria (product origin, seasonality, method of production, climate and resources, and product transformation) to evaluate the environmental impact of food products, meals and procurement.
In its first year of operation, Beelong took on more than 50 clients and began hiring. “Then we figured out that our services were working properly (in terms of proof of concept) but we were lacking volume in terms of demand,” Charlotte says.
“The truth is that no matter how hard you try to understand your market before you go live, there’s no better way to learn how your clients want to work with you, unless you actually work with them,” adds Mathias. “So we really learnt a lot of things along the way and it definitely helped us to shape new services that were more suitable for the industry.” Those new services include training courses and consulting services.
Two years after its launch, Beelong has yet to turn a profit but that is not deterring the founders, even though other entrepreneurs might already be considering their exit strategy. At this point, they’re content to be able to make a living out of the venture and pursue their dreams – at least as long as the company’s finances hold out.
Mathias had previously worked for a Swiss bank, helping small and medium-sized enterprises or SMEs to finance themselves. “At the beginning I wasn’t thinking about entrepreneurship. But in the end, when you’re in that type of big company, you realize that what you do has probably little impact globally and you’re thinking what can I do?” Instead, he wanted an opportunity to be more creative and have an impact, and he felt he found that at Beelong.
For Charlotte, food sustainability is her passion. “I was just in love with the projects,” she says. “It was just for fun and because I believed in the values. And then the school believed in the values too. So they offered me the opportunity to grow the project and develop it, build partnerships as well, with more scientific partners and then it [became] a company.”
Transparency in the industry has been a major challenge for the start-up as its indicator needs detailed data for its evaluation process, but the business partners have sought to gain the trust of their clients through proof of concept as they looked to fill gaps in the market. Now, the company is setting its sights on expanding its operations to the German-speaking parts of the country.
“We are working with companies based in the cantons of Zürich, St-Gallen and Argau,” Charlotte says. “We have also just started to work with two major food distributors, who are now displaying the environmental grades for their products in their online stores.”
Beelong was born from a student project at the Ecole hôtelière de Lausanne, due to students’ concerns about the impact of daily meals served to the EHL community. Initially tested for several years on different parts of the campus, the Beelong indicator on the environmental impact of food was then the focus of a student business project (SBP) in 2012, led by Charlotte de la Baume.
From the beginning, the project has been very ambitious as the approach could have a lasting impact on the way we consume food, by providing practical tools to the restaurant industry.
As Beelong’s values are aligned with EHL's and the start-up is positioned as an expert in the sustainable development of the hospitality industry, the school’s management board decided to support this project for two years to allow it to test the indicator with external pilot restaurants, especially with the assistance of École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) and the Université de Lausanne (UNIL).