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From Waste to Profit: Small Business Interview Series with TreeDots

Singapore wastes about 800,000 tonnes of food every year. To address this issue, local startup TreeDots has begun redistributing unsold food to organisations such as restaurants, caterers, charities and various corporations.

As Asia's first wholesaler of unsold food, TreeDots is attacking Singapore's food waste problem head-on. This startup sources its inventory of underappreciated, but perfectly acceptable food from both food producers and suppliers. Often, these suppliers are overstocked or have food approaching its expiration date. This is where TreeDots comes in and is able to resell the food to businesses, which prevents perfectly good food from going to waste. Additionally, the company also has a number of social initiatives, further proving its dedication to making the world a better place. For example, its Food Fund initiative ensures that families in need are able to access healthy meals. In general, TreeDots has been quite successful; the business has saved more than 40 tonnes of food in total. We believe that this exciting business is interesting to other small businesses and entrepreneurs seeking inspiration. To learn more, we caught up with Co-Founder Jiacai Lau to learn more about this impactful startup.

When, why and how did TreeDots begin its operations?

TreeDots started about 14 months ago, officially incorporated about a year ago. It was an idea that was shared among me and my co-founders, Nicholas and Tylor, over a casual catch up session (3 of us are secondary school friends). All of us have different experiences with food waste and it was the same goal of reducing food waste that got us together to do this startup. For me personally, I did an exchange program in Germany when I was studying for my degree 2 years ago. During my time there, I saw many green initiatives that are in place there to tackle the issue of food waste. One such memorable one is that where most supermarkets in Europe have a corner for food that are nearing to expiry dates which are retailing at hugely discounted price. Back in Singapore, I don’t really see such initiatives happening and that was what led to the conversation with my 2 co-founders and the rest was history.

How do you measure your business's impact on the environment? How would you rate your progress so far? What are you most proud of, and where could you improve the most?

As a business with a goal to reduce food waste, we definitely measure our social impact by the amount of food saved. We are proud to say that till date we saved about 40 tons of food which is not an easy feat for us and that is something we are very proud of. However, at the moment we are dealing more in meat and seafood products and have yet to really grow in terms of fruits and vegetables, though huge amounts of them are thrown away on a daily basis. That is something we are looking to target in the future.

What are the most challenging and rewarding aspects of TreeDots work?

As a social enterprise, the challenge is definitely to convince people that our products that what we are selling are perfectly fine for consumption, if not near perfect condition. Many people will think that our products are rotten and very ugly; but actually most of our products look exactly like a normal product. Usually, they are usually dumped simply because of oversupply or because they don't comply with industry specifications, for example chicken being smaller than 1.2kg. Such knowledge is not publicly available and not easily accepted by our buyers. However, what is rewarding is that buyers are slowly starting to see our value and are more willing to come on board and join us on this mission against food waste. It is heartwarming to see that we are able to bring the change in Singapore

Do you have advice for other small businesses that seek to adopt sustainable practices?

My only advice will be to persist and continue with it till the end. Many times, it is not easy at the start to adopt sustainable practices since many of the things required to do are counter intuitive and people will feel uncomfortable. However, after some time, habits can be formed and it will be easier.

Why did you choose to operate in Singapore? Did you consider any other locations?

For the 3 of us, we are all Singaporeans and for such a novel idea, we feel that it has to be tested in a home ground that we are familiar with, hence Singapore. We have considered other locations for expansion such as Indonesia, Korea and Japan, but that is for a later phase of our business.

ValueChampion aims to educate entrepreneurs and small businesses about best business practices, especially about financial topics. With that in mind, we are interested in Tree Dots' financial journey. How did your business first obtain funding?

Ironically, we did not obtain funding. We bootstrapped the business from the start. All our tech were developed in house because I was the programmer of the team as well, and hence we do not have to incur cost on those. Till date, we have not obtained any funding yet and have been running on grants as well as competition prize money that we won. However, that said, it is quite unique for us to be able to do this because our business model allow us to be profitable from the start.

Did TreeDots ever require additional financing later (e.g. working capital loan, asset purchase loan, equity, etc.)? If so, why?

Yes, in the near future, we are looking for financing such as funding through investments or loans as we would need the fund for expansion. This is especially so for us since our business is one that require high working capital to scale up as we are basically in the trading business.

Did you consider any alternatives to traditional financing, such as crowdfunding? If so, was it helpful? Why?

Nope, we did not try crowdfunding as we do not think we have the right story to tell to garner the amount of crowdfund required.

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William Hofmann

William is a Product Manager at ValueChampion Singapore, helping consumers and SMEs find the best banking products through comprehensive analysis of data. He previously was an Economic Consultant at Industrial Economics Inc, where he conducted a variety of research and economic analyses. He graduated from University of Vermont with degrees in Economics and Psychology. His work has been featured on a variety of major media such as the Straits Times, the Business Times, the Edge, DailySocial, the Entrepreneur and more.