As featured in HSF Alumni Magazine

Richard Oliver always wanted to be an entrepreneur. As a teenager, he came up with a number of business ideas, some of which he would suggest to well-established companies who he thought would be interested. “I wrote to Marks & Spencer and Richard Branson of Virgin with two ideas and always received polite refusals,” he remembers. But decades later his persistence paid off. These days, he runs two businesses – one selling ‘truly’ sustainable, plastic-free free, home-compostable food and beverage packaging, from grass straws, to lunch boxes, to e-commerce mailers and coffee cups (and everything in-between) – and the other a fashionably cool and comfortable lifestyle flip-flop brand. 

In Richard’s case, he didn’t immediately want to go into business via the law route. After studying law and business at university with the intention of going into the world of commerce, he was offered a training contract. Thinking that legal expertise might come in useful, he found himself not just qualifying as a solicitor in 1999 but also enjoying the work. He was made a partner at a large Manchester law firm, concentrating on corporate and commercial work.

He then moved to Australia in 2007, taking up an offer to join Freehills in their Melbourne office. What persuaded him to go to Australia was an advertisement in The Law Society Gazette showing someone on a boat with Sydney Harbour in the background with the tag line, ‘What’s your daily commute like?’ Richard says, “Looking out of my window on a grey, drizzly Manchester evening, I thought that looked much better!”

At Freehills, Richard was with the Melbourne office of the Corporate department for five years, principally advising on private equity transactions. He had by then gained significant experience of working on a wide range of corporate transactions that would help him as and when he became an entrepreneur. “Being able to draft your own legal documents, having a good understanding of corporate and commercial law, gaining insight into the commercial world and the process of investing, as well as developing analytical skills, have all proved incredibly useful.”

As a consultant for Herbert Smith Freehills, Richard had plenty of opportunity to travel in Asia, and it was on these travels that he came up with his business ideas. The first was on a trip to Myanmar, when one of his flip-flops broke (Richard had picked up the very Australian habit of wearing flip-flops whenever he could). He took his “thongs” to a local cobbler who sold him a pair of traditional Burmese velvet sandals. Richard thought that not only were they comfortable, they were stylish

After buying several pairs, he headed back to Hong Kong and set to work redesigning the sandal to create a hybrid between the Myanmar version and the more recognised Brazilian version and found a ready market (using the sales pitch “Luxury flip flops for the global explorer – Chic for your Feet”). “Pagodas” are now sold exclusively online globally.

His second business also came about by chance. While drinking a kale smoothie at a hotel in Ho Chi Minh City, he observed that he was drinking through a grass straw. Further enquiries revealed that a local young farmer had come up with the idea, to make use of the long lepironia grass weed that grows in paddy fields. Richard immediately knew that these grass straws were far better for the environment than plastic straws – because they can be very quickly home-composted in a matter of weeks – whereas a plastic straw can take over 500 years to degrade. He created a new company, Sustainabl. Planet (deliberately without the ‘e’), and started sourcing these grass straws. The company now supplies them on a non-profit basis throughout Hong Kong to restaurants, hotels and other outlets.

That led to Richard considering what other environmentally friendly products he could supply. In particular, he saw scope for “planet positive” packaging that was both recyclable and home-compostable. He now supplies “bagasse” pulp made from agricultural waste and FSC paper products, including lunch boxes, wine boxes, coffee cups and soup bowls among 300 or so products that are plastic-free, hard-PLA free, home-compostable and recyclable.

“My benchmark is, if our products end up in Hong Kong harbour or any other coastline around Asia, they must degrade in a matter of weeks and not wash up on a Southeast Asian beach years later,” Richard says. 

The company is also actively minimising its carbon footprint so sources from regions close to Hong Kong, its base, even though the products might be more expensive to buy. “We are also working to promote a circular economy in Hong Kong, to encourage composting or products with food waste and reduce waste going to landfill,” he adds.

Richard also notes that his companies want to be different: “Sustainabl. Planet is a holistically sustainable company. We aren’t just selling for profit.” 

Both Richard intends to grow their business organically. Richard originally funded both his businesses himself, but has since taken on some seed capital for Sustainabl. He is gradually taking on more people and currently has a team of nine. As he explains, there is always something of a time lag between hiring new people and seeing that work through into revenues. 

Advice to others

Growing organically helps both Richard to keep a check on costs. “I have seen too many start-ups using up their initial investments on expensive office space and taking on too many people too quickly. I was very clear I didn’t want to make the same mistake,” Richard says.

He has also found that he has been able to outsource many of the back-up functions necessary for a start-up, everything from accounting software to design, branding and marketing, through the magic of the internet. Quality may, of course, vary, but he has been successful in his choice of third-party platforms, including Canva for graphic design and Xero, an Australian accounting software program. He firmly believes that social media is invaluable for marketing, especially Instagram.

His third piece of advice is to test ideas on friends, family, peers and especially random people on the street to validate your ideas. Richard adds, “If you think you’ve got a good idea and you have tested it, take the leap sooner rather than later but be cautious giving up your day job.”

As featured in HSF Alumni Magazine -