It’s been nearly nine months since we announced the winners of the Make it Circular Challenge (MiCC), where 13 projects were chosen out of hundreds of submissions competing for recognition as one of the next big circular design innovations. Since then, the winning teams have been busy taking part in an intense acceleration programme, including (among other things) joining a coaching trajectory designed to help them achieve their business goals. Our partners at Impact Hub Amsterdam hand-selected mentors for each winning team, matching them according to their needs and fields of expertise.
What are these start-ups working on now, and how did their trajectories change as a result of the coaching process? To find out, I caught up with Hannah Standen of MiCC winning project Alterist, a platform for upcycled fashion designers, and their mentor Puck Middelkoop, who is the founder of Hulaaloop, a circular rental service for children’s clothing. Hannah called in from Annapurna, Nepal and Puck and I from our respective corners of rainy Amsterdam.
Chieri (What Design Can Do): How has your mentoring journey been up to this point?
Hannah (Alterist): We’ve been a part of the programme for a couple of months, and Puck has been a really good sounding board for us. Being able to go in once a month with a bunch of questions about what’s next, our biggest challenges, and what we’re really focussing on in the funding journey… She has been able to give us guidance and make some introductions for us as well.
C: Puck, can you tell me a little bit about why you decided to take on this mentorship role? What were you hoping to pass on in your role as mentor?
Puck (Hulaaloop): I have my own company called Hulaaloop, which is a kid’s clothes rental service. I started that six years ago based on my own needs. Mentoring [for What Design Can Do] is kind of a new journey for me because what I would do in my prior mentoring work was more validating concepts, and now with Alterist we’re really going for scalability. So it’s a different process.
I also find it really important to help other entrepreneurs. I know that it really helps me to have some people in my surroundings with different backgrounds; different types of people that you can just always reach out to in a low-key way, and I really appreciate having that [for myself]. So that’s why I said, ‘hey, I would like to help where I can.’
‘I find it really important to help other entrepreneurs.’
H: I think, often when you’re in the world of startups, you can be stuck in quite an echo chamber. We’re just two founders and we’re having the conversation between us all the time. You sometimes need an outside perspective to really help you work through some of the things that you need to work through. When you’re starting out, there’s a million people who want to give you advice, but it’s actually about finding the people who can give you good advice. Or who can help you in your journey. For us it’s been important to have people that we trust in, who will sometimes just listen, and who we can work things out with as well. And Puck’s really good at that. Sometimes we just get on a call and braindump and be like, ‘This is what’s going on, this is our biggest challenge, blah, blah, blah, blah, and Puck can help us work through it. So I think for us having someone that we can go to is really, really, important and I guess it’s helped us to be able to kind of progress to where we’ve got to now.
A look at how Alterist structures its collaborations and partnerships.
C: What do you find important about guiding a startup through a journey like this, Puck?
For me what is really important is that everything can be low-key. You should have the feeling that you can always reach out and it’s easy. It shouldn’t feel like a hassle. So that’s also why at some point we said hey, why not open a WhatsApp group so that if anything comes along, you don’t have to set up a call and plan? It’s so that you have kind of easy access to each other.
C: Are there any ways that you pushed the Alterist team throughout the mentoring process?
P: No, Like, it’s their business, right? It’s up to them. I’m there to help but I’m not gonna push. Like, I will give my honest feedback for a pitch deck, for example. But then it’s also up to them, right? They are the entrepreneurs. They are the ones in charge. So I should not be the one getting too involved—I can give my feedback but if they decide to go in a different direction, that’s also fine.
C: Puck, what advice would you give creative entrepreneurs who are at the start of their journey?
P: I think one of the most important things that I find is that you have a good problem-solution fit. So the other day I was reading this article about the entrepreneurial journey, and then there was this single sentence saying, ‘I fell in love with the problem.’ I was like, exactly that: you need to solve a problem and more ideally, to solve a frustration. I think that’s super, super important to keep in mind. You can make impacts when you have a good problem-solution fit because you can scale from there.
I also think that as startups one of the strongest points we have is that we can be really flexible. Compared to big companies that are making steps toward circularity, we have the advantage that we can really move quickly, be flexible and be lean and mean and really have this feedback loop of trying, failing, learning and again, trying, failing, learning. Things like the Lean Methodology and the Mom Test. These resources are great to come back to over and over again.
Left: Alterist’s ethos, ‘fashion is culture and culture drives change’. Right: A snapshot from Alterist’s pop-up event in July 2023.
C: Hannah, what’s the problem that you ‘fell in love with’ to create Alterist?
H: So, Martina [Sorghi] and I met working within the activism space and we were very much working on raising awareness about the problem with the fashion industry. Working within the activism space, you’re often calling for action, but you can’t offer solutions. We kind of felt that you can’t really move forward if you’re just telling people to change, but you’re not giving them viable solutions. And I think that through a lot of our work, what I began to realise is that one of the most sustainable things that you could do was upcycling.
So we put our heads together: we knew a lot of designers working within the upcycling space, but at this point in time, there wasn’t a platform in the UK that catered to them. Our mission is to reduce textile waste, so we decided to create a platform that was specifically working to do this. And the way that we were doing that was through selling items that were made out of waste. But also, rather than just saying that these were items that are made out of waste, they’re also high quality, on-trend fashion items.
We see fashion as culture, and culture has the power to drive change. So we’re using fashion as the medium to encourage sustainable behaviour, because sustainability being the only determinant of why someone is purchasing a product isn’t enough. What you need to combine is sustainability with the fashion elements. So all the garments are one of a kind. They’re made by incredible, independent designers, but they’re also made of waste. So we’re kind of attacking the problem that way.
‘We see fashion as culture, and culture has the power to drive change.’
We’re also solving the problem for designers that they didn’t really have a place to go to and a platform. So basically also really give them a platform to sell their beautiful stuff. We also want to work with brands, manufacturers and charity stores to help them find creative ways to repurpose their waste. I think the statistic is, out of 100 billion pieces of clothing produced each year less than 1% of it is recycled. So the rest exists in circulation. So we will do collaborations without our designers and we’ll turn all this excess waste into beautiful new products.
Hannah speaking at the WDCD Circular Showcase in Amsterdam and Martina on stage at WDCD Live in Mexico City, both in 2023.
C: What’s the biggest step forward you’ve taken since winning the challenge?
H: We started the challenge with the aim to launch our collaboration programme, and our first collaboration will be going live in February. We’ve got a campaign that will be coming out and we will also be doing a pop-up. So we started with the aim to launch this aspect of the business and we’ve done it with the help of Puck and What Design Can Do and Impact Hub, so we’re really happy.
The mentorship programme is almost wrapping up–we have a month left. Which is sad. Martina and I found that this is definitely one of the best accelerator programmes that we’ve been on and we’ve really enjoyed it. Also, the caliber of startups that we’ve gotten be a part of and to meet is pretty incredible.
P: They’re all focused on circularity, so that’s already something you have in common which is really exciting, actually.
H: Yeah, I think often you find with sustainable businesses, you’re often having to explain yourself a lot more to people who aren’t within the sustainable ecosystem and be like, ‘Well, no, this is why it’s a good idea and this is why it matters.’ So with this programme, we’ve been able to go in and people are like, ‘Ah, I get it. We know why you’re doing it. And that is a breath of fresh air.’
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.