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Story of How barfi Came To Be

Story of barfi started with us working on an entirely different startup. A startup that was not quite taking off the way we wanted it to. We kept pushing for 2 more months. Shehryar, my cofounder quit his job to focus full-time on making it work. Alas it wasn't meant to be. We had to shut it down.

Our main lesson from this exercise was: focus on solving your own problems. We brainstormed a few ideas. One was building an app focused on turning neighbours into friends. Mind you this was the time when covid had killed almost all social hangouts and all of us felt strangers in our own cities. Another idea was to build a dating app. This was my problem. At the time I was looking to meet someone and dating apps were really not the answer. And so we considered solving that problem.

Around that time, Shehryar's fiancee was visiting him in Montreal in December. And it was like -40°. She wanted to make Biryani for him, as I recall. Only problem was there was no desi grocery store nearby. So they had to change two buses to find a desi supermarket an hour outside the city. Then they had to bring all those groceries back in that cold weather. The whole experience was excruciating. And this had always been the experience but we never paid it much attention.

when we did, we realized that THIS is the problem we need to solve. It was a problem we were most familiar with. So we knew what the perfect solution might look like (we know far off from that perfect experience). And it could be a business that would require effort not just in building great software but also in building great operations. For some reason that was very important for us. Don't ask me why. I couldn't tell you. But we wanted to own customer experience through and through.

Thus began our journey with barfi. We started in the simplest way possible: standing outside desi grocery stores, asking every desi who walked out of the supermarket if they would like their groceries delivered. They would ask us 'buddy do you have a website or an app?' and would tell them no. Mind you, we're both software engineers but it was a very active decision we made that we would build a website or an app only if customers validated they actually wanted this.

Customers would order through text. The next day we would a rent a car by the hour, do their shopping and then deliver their groceries. Now to this day, I don't understand why anyone would trust this shady transaction. But they did. I guess the problem we were solving for them was worth it.

customer order on whatsapp

Anyways, that's how found our first 10 customers.

It soon became hard to manage all of this through text and so, we proceeded to build a very basic website where people could order their groceries. We added only about 400 items. All of this happened over a weekend and then we proceeded to send the website link to all the customers we had phone numbers of. And i will NEVER forget this. We got our FIRST ORDER the SAME NIGHT. It was quite a feeling. We were off to the races.

We also started sharing our website on online fb groups of Desis in Montreal. The word started to spread because it was a rather small community. We were growing every week. Soon we ended up having to rent two cars to keep up with demand!

One big problem we noticed while doing all of their shopping was that one supermarket never had everything. For almost all orders, we'd have to go 4-5 different stores to find everything. It was clear to us that to really solve the customer's problem, we'd have to stock all of these items ourselves. Customers hated substitution even though it had become the norm with online grocery delivery services. But you could simply tell by the look on their faces when you either didn't find what they needed or substituted it with something else.

If customers wanted Amul butter, then you HAD to give them Amul butter. No IFS and BUTS.

With that clear, we wondered whether Montreal was really the place to do it. We absolutely loved our customers. They had invited us into their homes. We went for dinner at their houses on multiple occasions but like I mentioned earlier, Montreal had a very small South Asian population. We simply weren't sure if we could make that our base and still expect to be be a very big business. That was an important question to answer because if as a startup you don't have a clear path to becoming a very big company, you don't really have a shot at existing. No will fund you.

Rough Unit Economics Math on Whiteboard

Considering all this, we made a very hard decision to leave all of our customers behind and move to Toronto and start building there. Our customers were really disappointed. They would tell us how barfi(chalo then) would save them at least 6 hours in weekly grocery shopping trips. These customers had toddlers and they had babies. Our service was really helping them out. They even offered to help us build it in Montreal! Be it marketing, warehousing or operations! And so it was particularly hard to leave all that love behind with blind faith that we would find the same love in Toronto. But we decided to give it a try.

Believe it or not, we made our final delivery in the U-Haul we rented to bring all of our stuff to Toronto!

When we got here, we started the same way. By standing outside desi grocery stores and asking them if they would like their groceries delivered. But it didn't go as planned. We got kicked out of all desi supermarket parking lots. They even threatened to call the Police on us. Same with residential buildings. But we were adamant on finding our first users by simply talking to them. Everyone we knew kept pushing us to just use fb or insta ads but we just kept trying places, kept getting kicked until we settled on York University.

We would go to York every day and talk to desi students. Their cart sizes may not have been what desi families might have given us. But at York we found space to recruit our early users. We went from 1 recurring customer, to 10 recurring customers. And then 100.

Now as we move on to more sophisticated channels to find our users. we're glad we found our first 100 by simply talking to them. Today we know all of our customers' names. They're always a text away. They suggest what products to add, what features to build. We simply wouldn't have it any other way. barfi would not exist if it wasn't for the amazing customers we have and through all the hard days, they are the reason we are able to survive and pour so much of our lives into it.

We're also very grateful to people who've believed in us from day one. Our friends, our investors, who continue to support us. Without them, we would have no shot at this behemoth of a problem.

Here's to the next 1000. We don't know how we will find them, but we know that we will! And when we do, I will write again recounting that story as we set our eyes on the next 10,000.

Comments

Love the idea of your startup! I live in arlington texas and i just recently moved here from pakistan! Would love to work with/for you guys!
Tell me if you ever have any position available for me
Below are the details where i can be contacted
+1 (682) 218 6882
elqakhan@yahoo.com

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