Guillaume: Hello everyone. Guillaume Le Tual here, host of the Ecommerce Wizards Podcast where I feature leaders in e-commerce and business. Today’s guest is Omar Soliman, the co-founder of Couryah. Today we are talking about an online startup story. So starting an online grocery delivery platform of service and reaching the first $1 million of online orders. So before we get started our sponsorship message:
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All right, Omar, thanks for being here today.
Omar: I am super happy to be here. Thanks for having me.
Guillaume: Well, can you give us a brief background about yourself and the initial creation story of your company?
Omar: Yeah, absolutely. I am. We reside here in Halifax, Nova Scotia, in Eastern Canada. I am originally from Cairo, Egypt. We moved to Canada with my family back in 2007. My background is from e-commerce. So I have a Bachelor of Commerce with computing info systems and finance. Back in 2018, my brother was working overseas and decided to come back to Halifax to start his own business and that’s when we joined arms. We were sitting pretty much in the living room trying to decide on some names. We wanted something unique. Anything that was popular out there like grocery delivery probably cost in the 1000s. So we started to think, you know, we want to base our business on delivery. It was booming at the time. We knew couriers were a trusted type of people. My brother started thinking of the word “courier”, and that’s where the name came from. I think at the time it was $10, we bought that domain and we incorporated the company. And that was officially back in November 2018.
Guillaume: That’s pretty rapid growth. Congrats there.
Omar: Yeah. Thank you very much. We have come a long way since then, for sure. I’m excited to tell you about some of the milestones and some of the stories that we’ve been through today.
Guillaume: Yeah, because in the pre-interview here, you told me about, for example, going very drastically up in sales when COVID arrived. So perhaps you can tell us a little bit about this, like going from like 10k a month to like 100k a month in 30 days when COVID arrived?
Omar: Absolutely. We started pretty small and we started by testing. Any entrepreneur, if you know everything when you start your business, then you’re starting too late. We didn’t know everything at the time. We started our soft launch in May 2019, which was about a few months before COVID rolled in, towards the beginning of 2020. We were pretty much doing everything. We were wearing all the hats, from talking to new partners, managing, accounting, marketing, trying to improve our platform. That was all done between me and my other co-founder. In 2020 things started rolling pretty quick when news of COVID started coming to Canada. Around March when the actual pandemic hit and the first warning came out, that was very big for us. We were pretty much in the stores trying to fulfill orders and all we got was tons of orders coming in. At the time we didn’t even have time slots. So orders were just coming in and we didn’t have many people to fulfill orders at the time and so it was super crazy. We had to worry about fulfilling orders, hiring new people, training them in the middle of the chaos. It was masks, sanitizers and everything in between. At the time we were almost on autopilot trying to serve as many people as possible and trying to stay within the rules but also to grow. So during the day it was pretty much about delivering and talking to customers, and at night it was updating our website, adding on deals for people and trying to get a new variety of products so that more people can order and use the platform.
Guillaume: So with the happening of COVID sales just naturally exploded, you didn’t have to add additional marketing techniques or marketing channels. Online grocery delivery was so popular that people were just finding your site and placing orders?
Omar: Absolutely, it was the number one hot topic at the time. Any grocery delivery service that was available was probably four, five, six days busy and you couldn’t order for that long. We wanted to make sure that we are not lagging behind so at the time we focused on hiring a lot of people really quickly. So that way, we were able to get to these people within at least 24 to 48 hours, which is a lot faster than what our competition had at the time. And like you said, sales started rolling in pretty quick, we went from almost $10,000 a month to over $100,000 within a span of 30 days. At the time I remember we slowed down marketing because we were behind on operations and we wanted to keep up with operations before we almost opened up the pipe for more orders to come through. But it was a wonderful time as much as it was really challenging. It had a lot of challenges at the time but it was a wonderful time because it gave us a ton of real time insights we learned from our customers. At the time, we didn’t have a lot of the features that we have now. So by understanding what the market needs we were able to implement those things based on the actual things that are happening in real life.
Guillaume: Great. When we go on your website, I mean, you ‘add to cart’ and you ‘choose products’, and you sort of ‘checkout’. So how does it work in terms of things like, storing inventory or anything like that?
Omar: Absolutely. We don’t actually store any inventory at all because we don’t have a physical location. What our platform does is, our customers can go online to shop from various grocery retailers and various grocery stores around the city. Once they pick the stuff that they need or the items that they would like and add it to cart, they’ll select the time they will be wanting it delivered, we would send a shopper to the store and the shopper would communicate in the store with the customers to make sure that they if there are any items that are out of stock, or anything like that, make sure we deliver the full order. And then off you go, they head to the customer to deliver the order on their doorstep. It’s a very seamless process. Our customers love the convenience, they’re young professionals, busy parents, and everybody else in between. Like you said, grocery delivery became the hottest topic and we definitely wanted to make sure that we’re there for our community during that time of COVID.
Guillaume: So from a startup point of view this is really brilliant. Because you don’t store any inventory, you have no capital tied up in inventory, you have no produce going bad on you, percentage of losses maybe like 5% or something in loss of products. So you’re also saving and this is extra profit, you don’t have the 5% of loss in fact, it’s 5% of profit. Then you also don’t have the cost of caring 08:49 paid on capital and paying interest and all that stuff. You’re just sending somebody to shop at those local grocery stores, so it’s really a convenient service. You place an order online and somebody goes to do the shopping for you in the city and brings it to you. It’s pretty interesting. It’s a very smart way of starting a business. I guess in terms of capital, even though you do have an online platform it might not be too capital intensive. Did you have to raise money to start this?
Omar: No. You’re spot on there. At the time we were a couple of entrepreneurs and we had our corporate jobs but we didn’t have a lot of savings and we didn’t raise money initially. So we wanted to make sure that we were starting with a lean model. As a small business owner you always want to test the market first. Start small so that you’re not opening yourself up for too much risk or exposure early on in the game. And that’s exactly what we did. We said let’s build the platform ourselves and move on from there. So we did not raise any money until we hit our first million dollars in sales. So Everything was Bootstrap, we pretty much wore many different hats, we also did customer service. I remember earlier on, a lot of the times I would be in the store shopping for an order and I would be chatting with customers online through our chat. That’s what it means by wearing many hats. You’ve got to be able to understand every single aspect of your business and the only way to do that is by actually doing or being down in the trenches with your people. So doing delivery, hearing from our customers and understanding their needs, we wouldn’t have known what we know today if we weren’t doing that. If we had raised money very early on maybe we would have hired somebody to do these jobs and we wouldn’t have known what we know today. So I’m grateful it went the way it was. Once we hit the first million in sales we wanted to turn our scale after that or grow our platform, that’s when we started looking at outside sources for fundraising. But before the first million in sales it was all bootstrapped.
Guillaume: Yeah. I do agree with this business philosophy that as much as possible the owners and partners should know how to do every job in the company to some degree. Of course, if your business model has the need for a surgeon you don’t need to know that specific trade, but you should still understand at a high level what’s going on. The more you understand hands-on every single sector, from the lead generation, the marketing, the sales, the product sourcing, the supply chain, and everything, the better the company will tend to operate because you really understand hands-on what’s going on. And you can give authentic feedback to a new employee. Like, I can train a new employee on anything in the company except programming now. I’m not I’m not up to date on that one.
Omar: Exactly. Eventually we started actually hiring though, we had a marketing partner come into the team. As the pandemic rolled through we hired over 40 couriers at the time, which was crazy. We had couriers and shoppers in every single grocery store around the city. At times we had shoppers inside the store for the full duration of day just shopping for orders because of how busy it was.
Guillaume: It brings up a potential operational challenge. I’m curious, how are you dealing with it since your store is listing other stores’ products, how do you stay in sync with them in case of price changes like when the price is not the same as last week or whatever?
Omar: Early on we had a bit of a different structure where we utilized a major grocer here, the Atlantic Superstore. 90% of Atlantic Canadian are within five kilometers of the Atlantic Superstore, which is why we utilized their store mainly for our grocery catalog. They had over 19,000 grocery products. My partner was the one that was mainly responsible for database management and he would spend some time each day looking for new weekly deals. Prices at the time weren’t changing as frequently as they are now with inflation, so it wasn’t too bad maintaining our product database. Later on we changed our structure a bit whereby now we are more transparent to our customers, we are offering the same in-store prices and pricing and deals. Our system also allows our shopper to update pricing in-store. For example, let’s say there’s a price online that may be more or less when the shopper is shopping in-store, they’re able to update that price and it will update into a permanent price on our online database. So moving forward it’s updated and it stays in there and the customer gets the best pricing, and we make sure that our margins and our products are always updated.
Guillaume: Pretty neat improvement there. And of course, you have fewer suppliers but you still have other ethnic and specialty stores that people can order from. And by not having too many stores it’s easier for the courier so that they don’t have to run around the whole city to pick up a lot of stuff for one order.
Omar: Yes, we’ve been building our system, earlier on we were just on the website. And just recently, about three months back we launched our full tech suite, which includes three iOS apps and three Android apps, an app for our customer, one for our partners, and one for our couriers on the ground. And what that did for us is it enabled us to be able to add more and more partners moving forward. So the exciting part for us is we can now grow our supplier site and grow our merchants. However, our focus historically has always been on the Atlantic Superstore and the main goal for us is to ensure that we have a full unique variety and offerings and stay consistent with it.
Guillaume: It’s pretty neat. And how’s the competition in this market? Things like Instacart is the famous name that comes to mind? How are things going there?
Omar: Absolutely. The thing with Instacart is that they still have their own turfs. They’re the hottest supplier in the US. Aside from that, Instacart mainly focuses on national suppliers and that’s why, you know, based on their resources and their partnerships they’re only focused on the big guys. And about 30% of their market consists of ethnic and independent grocers and that involves Canada. These are offline merchants and offline suppliers that we are focused on and we want to make sure that we’re digitizing their stores, we’re bringing them online, we’re giving them the right tools to enable them to sell and reach more customers than ever. That has been a big focus for us recently and now we’re able to focus on different segments from what our competition offers and offer a different type of products.
Guillaume: All right. Is there any last thought you would like to share with everyone about this journey, building the company, and what you’ve learned?
Omar: The best thing that I’ve learned in this business is, first of all, nothing is impossible. When we went into the company it was a big project and we didn’t know where we’re going to be in three years. We started small and built on it. We tested the things that we were talking about so it wasn’t just theoretical. We wanted to make sure that we’re testing, we’re talking to our customers and we wanted to build a company based on trust. That helped us build a reputation and loyalty within our customers and that’s a big thing for entrepreneurs. Try and be out there, don’t be scared to take risks. At the same time make sure you’re not opening yourself up for exposure and you’re staying within a lean model, something that you are able to grow as you grow yourself and your team. That’s the most important part. We’re excited to continue serving our community and to grow beyond and we’re looking to see where this takes us.
Guillaume: All right, Omar. So if somebody wants to get in touch with you, what’s the best way?
Omar: If they want to get in touch with us they can reach out to my email, my email is [email protected], or they can head over to our website and head to the ‘Contact Us’ page and they will be able to reach out to my team and they can certainly reach out to me through there.
Guillaume: All right. Thanks for being here today, Omar.
Omar: I am super excited to be here with you. Thank you for having me.