Originally Published on Nov 15, 2018
Building a company is an amazing and wonderful experience. It is also quite a special one at that. You see, every company only ever starts once. Even if its business model or technologies may appear similar to others, the circumstances when a particular company is started is unique; pivotal in shaping the entity it will become. This is why every company is different from every other company, often along multiple dimensions. There are billions of people on this planet, and each one is unique, different from each other in one way or another. Companies are bigger, more complex, “super-entities” in that they are the combination of the ideas and effort of multiple unique individuals as well as of different and evolving technologies.
We have been in the middle of this journey of building a company for more than 2 years now. During that time we have: piloted our idea for Grocerease, left our jobs, dived into cryptocurrency, started mining, learnt to build software, launched our MVP on Android, redeveloped our technology and then launched our new version six months later in the Sandton market. In the 5 months since then we have been operating as a live company while managing operations, growing demand, fixing bugs, talking to customers and improving our product. Looking back, it has been an incredible ride building Grocerease to what it is today.
When I first started writing, it seemed premature to talk about Grocerease. There was still so much to figure out, to accomplish (there still is). But, when I stepped back, I realised the goal is not to give advice to other entrepreneurs, friends and followers from the podium of success. The goal is to include all the people who have an interest in what we’re doing, who care, in this journey with us. It is to share our thoughts and ideas and hopes and strategies in real-life situations where the outcome is uncertain. We want to document this process, to give you a view of what it’s like being at the forefront of business and technology.
This exercise of writing is also quite helpful. It allows us to be able to step back and breathe. We all know how easy it is to get caught up in the day-to-day of life. When you’re always facing forward, focusing on the the next challenge, it is easy to forget all that you have already accomplished and the growth and experience that came with it. This is why we all need to periodically reflect on our experiences and the learnings that came from them. It reminds us that we are not static beings, that we overcome obstacles and grow as we adapt to this world. It reminds us that the things that scared us back then now empower us and are integral to our own story and being.
In these past few years, my co-founders and I have learnt many lessons as we’ve gone about building this company. Over time, our thinking and abilities have evolved to make us even better at what we do. What was perceived as difficult then, now seems easy and trivial. Some of the things we’ve learnt have become so internalised as habits that we don’t even notice them. Our memory, after all, is fungible - it changes over time. This is why the advice from someone who’s already achieved success needs to be taken with a pinch of salt. People have a different “view from the mountaintop” as described in this post by Sol Orwell.
We do not want to tell you stories from the mountaintop. We want to write about our experience as we are trying to summit this mountain. We want to share our stories with you, to bring you along this adventure of ours. This is so you can understand what it takes to build a company from the ground up. So you can be the proverbial “fly on the wall” in our company as we go about attempting to disrupt a R500 Billion industry.
But, I don’t want it to end just there. I want these posts to also reflect the deeper, more universal learnings we have gained in this process - not the nuances that's constrained to our company or industry. This is why each post will revolve around a certain theme, highlighting some quintessential aspect of what it means to build a company from the bottom up. As we share more of our story, we hope that you will be motivated to carve out a more entrepreneurial path of your own, wherever you may be and whatever your circumstances.
In this world, not everyone can be an entrepreneur but everyone can be more entrepreneurial. All you need is the right tools, the right frame of mind, that lets you see the world differently.
Mental framework: the Iceberg Illusion
I think we can all agree that icebergs are dangerous. Those that have watched Titanic will tell you so. But, do you know why they are dangerous? It’s because the majority of its mass, about 90%, lies hidden underwater. When you see an iceberg, you can only see the tip of it (as normally applies), and its an impressive sight. But once you understand that it’s real size is actually much bigger, you are truly in awe. When people say “That’s just the tip of the iceberg”, they mean that there’s a lot more to the story you haven’t seen yet.
The Iceberg Illusion can be explained as follows: What you see is only a small part of the full story. There is still much that you do not see.
Knowing the full story is important to our survival. We make decisions based on the information we know about a particular problem. Decisions made on incomplete information often result in unintended negative consequences. We do not want that. We want to make correct decisions. We want to move closer towards our goals and to achieve our ambitions. To increase our chances of success, we need know as much as possible about a problem before reaching for solutions.
When looking at others, it is just as important to seek the full story. Their achievements are that much greater when you understand their struggle. Their joy is that much realer when you understand their sadness. We crave to know the details and the nuances that add character to people and their lives. It’s why movies today feel rushed and condensed compared to a Game of Thrones season. When we know how people have truly achieved the things that they have only then can we fully appreciate their accomplishments. Only then we can really admire and aspire to be like them. Only then can we fully understand the attitude, creativity and willpower needed to face the challenges in our own lives.
This Iceberg Illusion is often applied to a successful individual. The great mistake most people make is assuming that someone who is successful was destined for it from birth. They mistakenly believe that these people are different from ordinary humans, that they consist of greatness and success and that failure and hardship are foreign to them. What they do not see is the part that is submerged. It’s the hard work, the blood, sweat and tears, and the countless failures they had to overcome to reach the position they’re in today.
Usain Bolt is the fastest man in the world, but it is too easy to dismiss his accomplishments as being lucky enough to be born with good genetics. He had to put in decades of work. He had to run everyday, till his muscles gave out. He had to do everything in his power to push himself towards victory, to gain any and every incremental advantage he could. Those 20+ years are behind him, and in him, every time he runs. When he stands at 1st place, gold in hand, it’s not because of what he accomplished in the few seconds of the race. He stands victorious, as a world champ, with the weight of what took him decades to achieve.
The biggest part of the iceberg will always be below water, unseen to most. Likewise, the biggest part of a person’s success lies below the surface, unseen. But it is still there, in everyone you meet, as a real and quintessential part of what makes the person who they are. As the saying goes; “It takes 10 years to become an overnight success”.
“It takes 10 years to become an overnight success”
There’s this story I heard recently about how Chinese bamboo can teach people about success. The Chinese bamboo is a unique plant. To grow it, one has to water it and fertilize the soil regularly. The problem is that the plant stays underground during its entire first year. It lies dormant again, still, for the second, third and even fourth year. In the fifth year, though, something amazing happens. In a short period of only 5 weeks, the bamboo shoots up out of the ground and grows to a height of 30 meters.
Now the question is: Did it take 5 weeks for the bamboo to grow 30 meters tall, or did it take 5 years?
I think you know. It took the entire 5 years. The care and nurturing of the plant during that time enabled it to grow underground and built a strong root system. If this was not done, if the plant was disturbed or the nutrients depleted or the water dried off, the plant would not have emerged and reached the height it did. It was essential to the growth of the tree.
Water your bamboo. Nurture and care for it. Don’t be discouraged in the years it lies underground. Be patient, success will come.
Businesses, being even more complex entities than people, are even more fallible to the Iceberg Illusion. Much of a company’s life, it’s creation and it’s years of youth, remain unknown to the people outside the few that helped build it. It is during these years that a company changes the most as it figures out the entity it wants to become. It is at this time that the norms and values of the company are set. It is here that the vision is defined and built. For the companies who succeed, what comes out on the other side is a great product that solves a need. For the companies that fail to make it; their struggles and lessons are forgotten, lost to the past. They would be far better useful as lessons for others to follow, helping them reach even greater heights of success by lighting the way from the pitfalls of failure.
Business schools often pride themselves on case studies. Stories of how some gigantic companies were beset by crises and failed to survive while others embraced disruption and came out on top. Are there lessons to be learnt from these giants? Yes, definitely. But there are still many stories missing about companies who have just started. Stories of those who have tried things with no guarantee if it will be their winning ticket or just another failed attempt. We do not want the story of Grocerease to be one of those lost to history. We want to share the lessons learnt, to illuminate the path for those that come after.
We are still in the beginning of our story. We are still building out our vision for the future, while aiming to maintain the best service and experience possible to our customers. Most of what we do happens below the water, unseen to most, but we want to change that. This blog post, and the many to come, is your very own view below the water at the iceberg that is Grocerease.
Let’s break through the Iceberg Illusion.
At Grocerease, there is a lot of work that needed to happen “below the water” before we could even surface some sort of product that solves the problem. To deliver an exceptional product and experience, as is our aim, we needed to make sure that the critical parts that make it all happen work as smoothly as possible. This is the reason we spent the first 5 months of the year focusing solely on building a user experience that is better than anything the market offers. But that is still one aspect of our entire business.
In actuality, there is a lot of varied and technical work needed to build a mobile app. In the specific business of mobile grocery e-commerce, the difficulty is compounded even further when taking into account the sheer amount of data and operational complexity needed to pull off a successful order. The systems that need to be built to handle this are often the non-obvious parts of our business.
For most of this year, we have been working on the things that will cascade up to delivering the best user experience possible. We have been building the infrastructure and systems that would culminate into a quality service that is also scalable. Each of these things can be written about in posts themselves, so we’ll leave the detailed explanations for future posts.
Here are the things we have been working on and achieved for 2018 so far:
Above the water:
Below the water:
So, in short, Grocerease is officially live! We had a “soft-launch” in June this year, meaning we didn’t do any marketing around the event. The reason was simple - we need to maintain the best user experience possible, while growing the demand from our customers. We knew that when customers start using our product, there will definitely be bugs, and so their experience would be less than amazing. We want to limit our customers’ exposure to this. We also want our product to get better as we get more customers on our platform. To do so, we have developed a process to quickly understand our customers issues and to work quickly to resolve it. Now that the product is live, we cannot solely work “under the water”. Instead, we have to balance our time between the continuous improvement of the app (seen by our customers as the tip of the iceberg) and the work needed to improve the rest of the company (the part that’s below the water that enables the best user experience).
We have chosen Sandton as our playground and laboratory. It is often referred to as Africa’s richest square mile and it is exactly where our target market is. People work hard here, often for large international companies. They’re climbing the corporate ladder in banks, legal firms and consulting houses. These are the people that are highly qualified and have specialised in their careers. They earn great salaries, but work long hours every week. They seek convenience and are willing to pay for it. They want to eat healthy but they have limited time to shop themselves. These are the people that need us - that need this solution - and so we will work together with them to create the easiest, most convenient grocery shopping experience.
Sandton is a discerning market, which is why we are carefully growing our customer base. We are making sure that we, as a company, are attending to their needs. We are steadfast about maintaining an excellent quality of service. These are people who expect international standards of excellence. Uber, UberEats and Mr D Food have set the benchmark for service and ease of use. We will build on their example and use the feedback from our customers to create something truly world class. This is part of our “continuous improvement” principle and the multiple iterations of the app we’ve released since launch is testament to that. At the end of the day, our goal is simple - to create the best user experience possible for grocery shopping. To do so, we are working together with you, our customers, to build an amazing product that makes online grocery shopping the best way to shop.
“Our goal is simple – to create the best user experience possible for grocery shopping”
As it stands, our app delivers exceptional value. While rough around the edges, we’re proud of what we have brought to market. Through our app, you can:
1. Shop from multiple retailers (Pick n Pay, Woolworths and PnP Liquor) in one basket in a matter of minutes
3. Quickly find the items you need through an amazing search feature
2. Get your groceries delivered in as little as 90 minutes later
4. Get live updates on your order, and communicate your preferences in the event of a stock-out
5. Save an hour of your time that would be spent grocery shopping and pay as little as R40 for it
There are bugs in the app, new ones popping up everyday, and areas that are obvious to improve on. But that is expected in a tech startup, part of the process of continuously working towards something better. What matters in this process is how we listen to our customers and adapt to their needs. We care about solving our customers’ problems, and want to create the best solution possible. This is our guiding philosophy, day-in and day-out. Some days we’ll be working “on the top” of the iceberg, with our customers. Other times we’ll be “under the water” with our designers, developers, shoppers and drivers.
We’re here to solve this problem completely, which is something that will take time. It is not something that happens overnight. It is an ambitious task. One that will take millions of rands in capital and many years to pull off. This is why we have steeled ourselves to the long journey ahead, and made a commitment to ourselves to do what is necessary to make this a success.
There have been naysayers in the past, yes, and there will be more to come. That’s fine, it’s expected. It’s welcomed even. They keep us on our toes. They critique us and help strengthen our resolve. We listen to their words, but most do not carry any weight. Most of their words are spoken from a limited view of the company. A limited view of the food and beverage industry, or of the developing on-demand markets. A limited view of the growing trends of urbanisation, increasing middle class wealth and of what we are actually building.
They don’t see the iceberg we are building, they only see the tip. But that’s when it’s most dangerous of all.
Welcome to the world of startups.