The man behind The Maine and Barbary has achieved success with unlikely concepts in unlikely locations. And he’s ready to open two new restaurants in 2019
el Grocer CEO Nader Amiri on what his startup brings to the market
How long has it been since you started your company? Describe your business.
We seeded el Grocer in May 2015 and launched our beta in January 2016, but it feels like just yesterday. We started it as a small pilot project, but we were amazed at the opportunity and decided to accelerate the growth from July 2017, when we closed our first funding round.
el Grocer is a grocery delivery platform that connects shoppers to supermarkets in their area for delivery within 1-2 hours. All that, ordered with a sleek, modern, user-friendly app that doesn’t keep you scrolling after items for days.
Our app learns your previously purchased items and has a unique multi-search feature that searches for your whole shopping list at once. The results for all your queries are delivered in just one page, at once. Imagine giving your grocery list to the supermarket staff and then entering an aisle with only the items you are interested in — that’s our multi search feature. For many of our customers, we also handle quality picking and delivery as part of our service.
Where did the idea for your business come from?
It came as a result of both personal and professional frustrations. On a personal level, it was tiring to spend hours every week buying almost the same products and brands we need… I thought there had to be a better way.
While on a professional level, having worked in the FMCG industry for 12 years, I found it hard to accept that it’s easier these days to order a laptop or TV online than your daily drinks, food and home-care items. Inspired by the food delivery segment, which was witnessing a lot of disruption, I started el Grocer. Groceries are ubiquitous; it’s a daily chore. It should be easy, it should be fast, and it should be convenient.
How did you finance your business?
Our seed round was funded by friends and family. I was actually surprised because I haven’t planned to raise funds but was simply sharing the idea and found a lot of excitement from people around me who said they’d invest.
Then, our first funding round was done in quite a different way — we crowdfunded! We had heard of a nice platform called Eureeca and after some quick preparations, we initiated that round. We were delighted by the response, as we exceed our funding target by 190% and in just eight of the 12 weeks… In June 2017 we became the largest crowdfunded startup in the Middle East!
At what point did you have a clearer idea of how you would turn your passion into a business?
Actually, it all happened without a plan… the passion to innovate and create was always there, and there was no lack of ideas, but when it needed to happen it happened! Now my only regret is not to have started sooner. I think most people wait too long to act on their drive. Of course, you need some fundamentals, it needs to be somewhat planned so you are financially and mentally prepared, but mostly it needs a bit of courage to make the jump...
Having worked for great companies like Kraft Foods or Coca-Cola (before I made my transition), I understand it’s hard to leave the predictability, but over time the motivation was to create my own team, culture and product/service inspired by the founders of those great companies in fact. Eventually, after our beta and while we were raising our crowdfunding round, it became clear to me that this is the moment I was waiting and preparing for.
How difficult was the transition from full-time employment to start up?
It’s been quite a journey! Nothing can truly prepare you for it until you feel it yourself. It’s surely not less stress or pressure, it comes with freedom, but also with lots more responsibility…The transition itself was not difficult, in fact, it was sometimes more of a challenge moving from one corporation to the other. It became easier as I approached it more like an adventure than anything else.
The work can be very similar, but the mindset or approach is different as the motivations are different. I’ve always been passionate about the brands and companies I worked for, and I’m confident my colleagues and ex-bosses can vouch for that. But moving to a start-up — especially as it’s my first — put things in a different perspective. I finally had the opportunity to build something from scratch.
The adventure fuels you, each milestone and success tastes a lot sweeter when you’re the artisan that builds it, brick by brick, order after order.
What are your biggest challenges?
The biggest challenge is keeping a balance, both from a work point of view and personal perspective.
From a daily work angle, balancing between the structure and processes you learn at corporates versus the speed and agility of a startup — both are crucial, so finding the right balance is essential. It’s a tricky one because you don’t want to miss critical things while moving fast (and end up crashing), nor should you get slowed down, as speed is critical. Also, balancing between “urgent” distractions and key priorities is another skill you learn. As a young company the number of opportunities and issues are massive, so applying on the spot decision-making to manage my and the team’s time is an ongoing process.
As for the personal perspective, the challenge is finding some family, social and personal time. I’m the type that gets so absorbed by what I’m doing that I can tend to forget other aspects of life. My wife says it’s because I’m a geek at heart. Thankfully, I get through these challenges thanks to a great network of friends and family, and my wife, of course, that help remind me to take a moment out the hustle.
What are the advantages of being your own boss?
I’ve had some great bosses who always encouraged me and gave me freedom at work but being my own boss has been tough! You realise your real metal on how demanding you are when you become your own boss. It’s surely more fun, as you can focus on what really matters and work with a great team to get things done for the customers without more fuss — you need to have the patience and resilience to manage the consequences of the decisions, though. What I hope for is actually to be a great boss to my team and leave an impression on them for years to come.
What would your advice be to future entrepreneurs?
Most importantly, don’t wait too long — plan for the worst case but take the risk; have courage and confidence.
Some other practical tips I’ve given before to people looking to make a transition as I had done would be:
- Connect’ to the startup network/scene to explore that world. Attend startup events, meet founders, follow/read related content — many different resources to start getting plugged in.
- Get your hands dirty with some startup experience to get a feel for what you’d get into. Just be sure to be committed so it’s a true experience and value add for whoever you’d be supporting.
- Be patient. It’s not easy, especially in the UAE. Unfortunately, many people here think short term: how can I make a quick buck/success. You can surely hack your way without being hasty. You need to be in it for the long term.
Who is one to watch on the start-up scene?
I’ve recently been introduced to some great founders at the Series A programme I’m attending at Sheraa startup hub that I believe are all ones to watch. Among them are Mr Draper, Tabeeby, Boksha and Hotel Data Cloud.
We’ve also been doing some creative collaboration with another great platform, mrUsta, who are doing some great innovative initiatives. Keep an eye on them too.
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