I got another email from a recruiter looking to staff up a startup. This is starting to get somewhat perplexing to me. It is June. Isn’t this the time of year that droves of new graduates are unleashed upon the job market? I feel like new graduates are going to have more enthusiasm for the prospect of taking a job with a company that has a good chance of failing in the next two years, as they are in the “build your skills and then move on” phase of their careers. Plus, the new graduates are probably all studied up on some of the irrelevant things that come up at job interviews.
The most recent startup that is not compelling enough to lure me away from my current job is in the grocery sector. At first when I hear the term “grocery store,” I think of large chains like Wegmans or Kroger which I’m assuming have pretty robust infrastructure that integrates their point-of-sale systems with their inventory and distribution operations. It took me a moment to realize that this startup is targeting the smaller stores. When I lived in Ithaca I did a lot of my shopping at the Win Li market out on Elmira Rd. because it was cheaper than Wegmans, and I was broke (WHERE WERE THE STARTUPS THEN???). The Win Li market, as you might guess, also appeals to people who prefer foods from Asia. This startup offers a plug-and-play online store for small groceries.
This company is pretty solidly in the B2B space and with a specialized niche. I’m not aware of any other companies offering similar products. As they note in their pitch, they compare their product to Shopify – but with the key difference that grocery stores have a lot more SKUs than your typical mom-and-pop small business and that real-time inventory tracking needs to be done both via the online order system as well as the point-of-sale system. If this product really is first-to-market and best-in-class, it’s a strong contender in this space. Switching to a different online storefront is going to be really annoying, so as long as they are good enough, they are likely going to have strong customer retention.
You can see from the careers part of their website that they are really concerned about the wide variety of SKUs in your typical grocery store. They are hiring people to come up with the taxonomy of all the products. With an emphasis on “ethnic” markets, this adds the wrinkle that not everything is known by the same name to everyone. For example, the winter melon has a lot of different names across various parts of Asia. When people buy their winter melons at Safeway, they are probably OK with them being called “winter melon”; when people buy their winter melons at the market that caters to people from “the old country,” they probably expect this gourd to go by its regional name.
What you can’t see on their website (so I don’t have any idea if they are worried about this or not) is a strategy to handle real-time inventory management. For something like produce – especially delicate, seasonal produce – you can’t keep too much on hand. If people are buying the items both in store and online, you need to update the inventory numbers after each transaction. Otherwise people will be sad when they order things online and it turns out that they are out of stock. This isn’t too much of a problem for small stores. As they reach out to larger stores, it’s going to take more sophisticated infrastructure to keep this data up-to-date. For me, these are the more interesting problems. I’m curious about how they manage integrating the online sales with the point-of-sale systems and maintaining an accurate inventory count.
The startup is a little bit coy about how the groceries should handle fulfillment and delivery of the online orders. They are also unclear about what they have been doing for the past seven years or so. They’ve been in business since 2013 and only started building out this product last year. What were they doing before?
Overall seems like an strong concept with interesting technical problems. This seems like the sort of company that could get purchased by a much larger company. They offer remote work and the sort of salary that one would expect from a VC-funded startup. I just wouldn’t join a company this small and a product this new unless I personally knew one of the people involved in the project.