Forbes 30 under 30 Series
Event co-hosted by Enlightment & UCL Entrepreneur
Kyle Grant, one of the young social entrepreneurs among the 2020 Forbes 30 Under 30 list, is a former NASA engineer who founded Oxwash in 2017. Built upon strong social objectives, Oxwash is the first truly sustainable, net zero impact washing company in the world. It offers eco-friendly dry cleaning services for individuals and partners like the Marriott Hotels and Airbnb, aiming to decarbonize the unsustainable and toxic nature that permeates the laundry and washing industries. The comapny has brought a brand new model to the market, advocating for a hyper-local, carbon-neutral, and tech-enabled washing service, which will be the first laundry service on Mars.
Prior to establishing Oxwash, Kyle— as an engineer in NASA— was actively involved in researching the uses and effects of microorganisms for extended space travel. Upon completing his undergraduate degree in synthetic biology at Oxford and his graduate degree in biophysics at King’s College London, Kyle decided to embark on a journey of his own, which has gradually led to the success of Oxwash.
In this event co-hosted by Enlightment and UCL Entrepreneurship, Kyle will discuss with us how he has managed to turn a profit in Social Entrepreneurship, bringing a positive impact to society as well as sustaining business growth and profits under a competitive market.
Q1. What do you think is the main challenge in making profit and positive social impacts at the same time?
I believe there is a neat balance between profitability and social impact. When we try to find a solution by balancing both profitability and social impact, we’re not creating anything new. We don’t have to reinvent the wheel, but we take existing innovative ideas and combine them, adopting them into a new business model. And this is where we position ourselves.
There are lots of ways that making a social impact can be cost-saving; for example, in Oxwash, we adopted electric cargo bikes and tried to operate them motionlessly across the whole business. This means that we’re not doing any harm to the planet, yet at the same time, making business operations more efficient. Through savings from fuel costs and avoiding congestions, we can serve our customers on time and eventually retain more customers, while protecting our planet.
Q2. When Oxwash was first founded in 2017, it was actually born out of your frustration from the perpetually broken washing machines in your college laundry room— do you think successful business ideas come from these kind of real life problems, or do you think more of it comes from in-depth market research and trying to search for gaps in the market to fill?
Before technology and globalization occurred, the common practice was to find a problem and think of a solution. But nowadays, with a global market and a lot more creativity, another hundred people must have had the same idea that I had for Oxwash. Whether the idea will lead to successful business all comes down to execution and whether you can really implement your ideas.
As long as you experiment, analyse, refine and improve your ideas along the way, you will naturally solve the problem and find a market fit for it. But if you try to come up with a problem and a solution, it’s likely to fail because things are always changing. You want to be able to manoeuvre around changes, and this is more important than sitting down and doing market research day and night.
Q3. Oxwash is a company that brings sustainability, technology and business together. In light of today’s rising trend for business sustainability and technology transformations, and if businesses only had the financial capability to focus on one of them, which one do you think businesses should prioritize and why?
Climate change is a serious and urgent problem, and I don’t think businesses are moving fast enough. What we need is a paradigm shift for all organizations and businesses— both profit and non profit— to focus on becoming net zero or carbon negative as quickly as possible. The best case is when people create business models from scratch which has sustainability elements built into them, and as they scale up they become a benchmark and role model for other businesses.
Q4. When you were doing your degree and thinking about different possible startup ideas, how did you decide to execute this particular idea?
I was in a room at my college with a mentor who owns a very successful startup. We were brainstorming ideas, and what happens is that you settle on an idea and try to run it for two months. Then you see if it is a problem that people are willing to pay to solve— this gives you a root in the market. A good way to test the market is to start with a shadow campaign, repeat it a few times through different demographics and audiences, and see who is clicking through it. And the next step to bootstrap it, cuddle different ideas together, and launch it.
However, the idea itself often doesn't work in reality for reasons such as timing, demand, and market conditions. There are lots of factors that could come into play.
Q5. What would you envision the next step that Oxwash will take, and what are your future business plans?
The next step for Oxwash will be scaling the service out to the point where we can serve everyone in the UK. We want to explore more opportunities in the secondhand market, such as Vinted. The main reason that people are not actively purchasing secondhand products is because they’re not sure if they’re clean, and if we can absolutely guarantee that through our service and platform, there will be a huge market and potential. We want to become de facto logistic of washing that is built into every aspect of daily life. We want it to be built into everything, just like how Paypal has become embedded in every service.
Q6. Should you start a social enterprise based on your interests or your academic/career knowledge?
If you want to really drive forward and you believe in yourself, pick something that you’re passionate about and you will figure out the details later. You will realize that many things you learn in university don’t turn out to be so in real life. But what my experience in academia has taught me is that an experimental approach to test and evaluate is always the backbone of improvements.
Q6. When going into social entrepreneurship, how do you support yourself financially, at least at first?
I made the decision to start the business when I was still doing my PhD. This means that you need to devote more time into your business, washing items over the night, on only a few hours of sleep. But this gives you a sense of security. I tried to give myself enough time to start my business so that as soon as I finished my PhD, I would be able to support myself from investments and earnings from the business.
But if I were to start over again, I would participate in accelerator programs. Apart from the financial support, there are also many networking effects, workshops and guidance from experienced leaders.
Q7. What is your leadership style and has it changed with the growth of Oxwash?
When I started the business, I didn’t have a lot of business experience. It was a flat structure rather than a hierarchical one, where the team collaborated together on all projects. I have a laissez-faire and transparent leadership style with unbounded optimism, but I managed to gradually find a balance between optimism and pragmatism.
Communication is very important in leadership— it's to make sure everyone is on the same page rather than managing everything by yourself. You need to align your team on an objective rather than describing the task. Leaders should set an example and an end goal instead of describing the way to get there.
Q8. In terms of student entrepreneurship, what do you think is the most important skill to have?
The primary skill is assimilation: how quickly you can learn and assimilate things as you go along, form your opinion, regurgitate and apply to problems. It is the rapid learning process that makes an entrepreneur successful in the early stage.
Q9. What is an effective way to research the technicalities of something you are unfamiliar with?
The best way to research is finding out how existing players in the space are doing it, so that you can find out how you can improve it. Find someone who knows about this field and learn from them, even on LinkedIn. Arrange calls with them to ask if they could share their experiences. This is the best and quickest way to get advice from someone who has done it but has not necessarily written about it, so my advice is just to ask all the time.
Q10. What has been your experience fundraising for Oxwash? Do you have some key advice for someone looking to build a relationship with and pitch to investors?
Joining an accelerator is the advice I give to people, especially when they have a network with investors who are looking for the next big thing— these accelerators are becoming more and more sustainability focused. You should always ask for advice but never ask for money - the golden rule for raising money is not to ask for money, but to present your ideas first.
Another way is doing syndicates, where you present to a group of investors at the same time. You need to communicate and pitch your ideas, which is an art; it takes time to get good at it. At an early stage of business, people back the founder, not the idea— they trust you to figure things out. Show your determination and your passion in these syndicates, and there’s a larger chance you will get someone interested.
Q11. In terms of starting up a business, is it better to have a large scope at the beginning, or is it better to start small and gradually expand?
Absolutely start with a large scope! Dream big and work back from there. If we want to be the first laundry business on Mars, this means we need to be the best on Earth first, and we need to be the best one in terms of our product and service. It means we need to start from serving our customers on our current scale. You go from the large scale and build backwards.
Q12. What do you enjoy the most about being an entrepreneur?
The aspect that I enjoy the most is the people, the team and the culture. A business is nothing without people, and the best business has the best culture, freedom and responsibility, which needs to be emphasized at the same time.
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