Flashfood is an innovative app taking on food waste: in this episode, we deep dive into how it got started and what entrepreneurs can learn from the app’s fast growth.
Flashfood is on Fast Company’s annual list of the world’s most Innovative Companies for 2023, coming in at first place for Social Good. The Canada-born startup tackles food waste with a digital marketplace and app that alerts consumers to discounted and near end-of-date food products.
Customers can buy bargains directly through the app and then do a same-day pick up from a Flashfood designated store zone. Within 7 years since inception, the concept has spread to 1,600 stores across Canada and the US.
Flashfood founder and CEO, Josh Domingues, had always wanted to tackle environmental issues; “you turn on the TV and there’s just a different city under water or there’s a horrible storm. Whatever I was going to spend my time on through my working career, it was going to have to be something with the environment.”
But it was after he heard about an incident at his sister’s workplace that his journey as a Green Techpreneur began: “My sister was a chef, she called me after a catering event and said ‘I just threw out $4,000 worth of food.’ I started laughing; ‘Polly, you idiot. Why would you do that?’ She said, ‘oh, this feeling sucks, my boss was over my shoulder making me do it.’
“So I started reading about food waste and I learned that if international food waste were a country it’d be the third leading cause of greenhouse gas emissions behind the US and China.
“That led me to talking to store managers in Toronto and I learnt they’re throwing out fresh food that still has two or three days of shelf life because consumers won’t buy it. The idea I had was if there’s a way for the store to mark the price of the food down and send me a notification so I could see the deal on my phone, pay through my phone, and pick up from the store the same day – people would shop like that all the time.”
As it turned out, Josh was right: as prices surge today, his idea has helped many thousands of people navigate the cost of living crisis. To date, saved shoppers over $150 million on grocery bills, and diverted over 65 million pounds of food from landfill.
“We’re still so early in our journey in terms of what we can accomplish, it’s really humbling to think about,” says Josh.
“I don’t want to come off as if it was easy the whole time. This was basically impossible, this has been so hard to do at so many different levels. And even to be named in Fast Company’s list of most innovative companies…this was just an idea seven years ago and now looking at where we’re at, it’s just a wild journey.”
How does the Flashfood app work?
The Flashfood app shows which grocers in your area have partnered with the startup. It enables consumers to browse deals – directly from their phone – to save up to 50% off high-quality items nearing their best-by date, such as meats, dairy, seafood, produce, bakery items and more. When retailers partner with Flashfood, they enter into a revenue sharing agreement.
How did you first market the app and gain early adopters?
We offered free pizza to students
We got our first set of users by organising an information session and offering free pizza to students. Sometimes the simplest marketing tactics can be the most effective, especially when you’re just starting out.
We leveraged local Facebook groups
I leveraged local Facebook groups to promote the app. It was a great way to reach potential customers in our target market and establish a presence in the community. I went into hundreds of local Facebook groups and said “I’m Josh, we’re building this company that’s trying to solve food waste by partnering with your local store.” I had to keep changing the location on my Facebook to be accepted into the groups. That’s how we got lots of our early users.
Apps can be a saturated market, what gave you the conviction that the idea can work?
Prior to this, I was a management consultant and we did a project for a demolition company and all these companies were bidding $12 or $13 million to bring down a building. My company bid $3 million, got the job, and by the time they resold all the precious metals because there was so much copper in the walls, they made $20 or $22 million. That got me thinking there’s value in waste.
The value proposition is just so meaningful
Anything that drives the customer into a grocery store is valuable for the grocery store, and on the backside, the customer can save 50% off groceries, I just thought that value prop on both ends is so obvious if you can get this to scale.
We didn’t go into it thinking ‘we have to have so many downloads,’ it’s just make this process simple and easy and valuable to the end-user and it should theoretically work and fortunately that’s been the case.
What are your top tips for other Green Techpreneurs?
Keep asking why your idea won’t work
You have to be so bloody honest with yourself, especially in the early days. You have to come at it from the lens of ‘this thing’s not going to work. I shouldn’t do this.’ In the earliest days, we got people to poke holes in the business from so many different angles to make it better, and ultimately, the value prop stayed strong enough. Money has to flow to a stakeholder in a meaningful way for environmental companies to take off. It’s unfortunate, but it’s still capitalism, somebody really has to benefit financially.
Refer back to your mission and vision daily
Early in my journey, I thought mission statements were just fluff. Now we’re at 100 people and the mission of the company is to reduce the environmental impact of food waste and feed families affordably. You need to refer back to these things daily, especially with remote working, for people to remember why we’re doing what we’re doing.
Authenticity and belonging brings people along for the journey
When I sit down with grocery executives, I show them nobody cares more about this than we will on behalf of their company. When it’s authentic and you want to make an impact, that comes through and people want to be a part of the journey, everybody wants to feel like they’re belonging to something.
What were the elements of luck that made the business work?
Every time you hear about an entrepreneur speak about building a business, it often comes back to…’a few things just worked out in our favour’ and I believe in luck and that you have to work to build your own luck.
I got a chance introduction to a former executive at the biggest grocery chain in the country. That was just happenstance. I told her the exact same story I’d been telling everybody else for three years and she decided to give us a chance. We started with a three-store pilot and it turned into a massive opportunity to scale up the business and expand to 400 stores in just 5-6 months. It’s a testament to the power of networking and being ready to execute on opportunities when they arise.
If that introduction didn’t come and that executive didn’t take a chance on us, we would have never been talking today.
Did you ever feel like giving up?
Oh yes, like everyday. Every day in my life is the best day of my life and every day in my life is the worst day of my life and it’s just based on what email comes in. You just have to be even keel at all times and never get too high, never get too low.
What’s kept me going is the knowledge that if we don’t pull this off, nobody will.
I like seeing what our shoppers have said. One of our shoppers is a young mother with three kids. Her husband got laid off during COVID and she wrote us that without Flashfood she couldn’t afford to feed her kids. For Christmas we were able to get her kids a whole bunch of candy stocking stuffers and they didn’t expect to have anything, and their faces just lit up.
What does the future hold?
We have several innovations in the Flashfood app. The app is now accepting snap and EBT as a payment method, which are digitised food stamps in America. This is a significant development for the app’s partners as it expands their customer base and makes it easier for people to access affordable food.
Secondly, the app is ingesting data around dynamic pricing and progressive markdowns, which will help retailers understand what price points are most effective in different markets. This information will enable retailers to make more informed decisions about what products to stock and how to price them. This could also help reduce food waste by identifying products that are not selling and adjusting prices accordingly.
The app is gaining the trust of retail partners, which is opening up opportunities to connect them with other circular economy services over time. We have global ambitions to tackle food waste and help people save money on their food.
What daily rituals keep you going?
Exercise. If I don’t focus on challenging myself physically once a day at least, than over a span of 2-3 days, everything else gets worse, I’m more edgy. I don’t listen as well.
Do you have a favourite quote or life philosophy?
Yes. It’s tatooed on my arm – hold on to happiness.
My sister-in-law passed away after battling cancer for a few years. She had a playlist that we listened to in her last days and one of the songs was ‘Hold on to Happiness’.
You’ll have ups and downs, there’re going to be good times, there’re going to be awful times, but you decide the outlook you have in any situation and even when things get really difficult with the business; take a step back. Remember that we’re trying to do a really hard thing and we’re trying our best. And in the back of my mind, I remember to Hold on to Happiness and do what makes you happy because we don’t have a lot of time.
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