By Kishan Vasani, Co-Founder & CEO
This is the very first post on the dishq blog. In fact, it’s the first blog post I have ever written despite having worked in Marketing for almost 10 years. Not quite sure how that happened. Anyway, here I go…
I wanted to share my experiences during this incredible journey. Not only is this the first tech startup that I have founded, but I’m also doing this in a “foreign” land. Yes, I am of India origin but I was born and raised in London and only moved to Bangalore 2.5 years ago. While I miss many things about London (like Pret’s mature cheddar and pickle sandwich, don’t judge me), I’ve found a new home in Bangalore. It’s a great city, not only because it’s ground zero for tech startups but also because of the relaxed, unpretentious culture and great climate.
But the story of dishq begins well before I arrived in India. Rewind back to 2013. I was working as Head of International Marketing at Just Eat. Just Eat is the world’s largest online food ordering company (currently worth more than $4bn). Working at Just Eat was a lot of fun (how many times can you say that?), and I feel lucky to have worked for some truly inspiring and creative people (former execs CMO Mat Braddy & CEO Klaus Nyengaard to name a few).
While Just Eat’s tech platform was reasonably good, our rating and review system was fairly primitive (for some reason we had a 6-star rating system) and I was personally frustrated by the lack of progress with this part of the product. One of the improvements I wanted to see was the ability for the user to rate and review individual dishes. In my opinion, it made a lot of sense as we had authentic data (i.e. the transactions) and significant scale so that there would be ratings and reviews for most dishes. This would allow users to make better food choices and therefore hopefully have a better experience. But as with all tech companies, there was a strict product roadmap and there were more critical projects to work on.
Early in 2014, I transferred to Just Eat India as COO to focus on Product, Sales & Marketing. I was responsible for the product roadmap but once again, there were many higher priorities to address and dish ratings and reviews would have to wait. Ironically, I felt that the Indian consumer needed this feature more than Brits as a typical restaurant in India has 120+ dishes on its menu and so the diner is overwhelmed by choice.
Fast forward to Jan 2015 and the food tech startup boom was well underway, especially in India. Every second startup was food related and investors would happily write cheques for FOMO. But we all know how that party ended. Bucking that trend was Just Eat, who unlike Facebook, Uber and Amazon, decided that India was not their next growth market and that their investment dollars were better spent consolidating leadership positions in key markets. So they sold their Indian operation to Foodpanda, who at the time was doubling down in India having recently acquired TastyKhana (another Indian online food ordering marketplace).
Personally, I felt shortchanged. I was only 9 months into a 3-year contract that I loved, working in the most dynamic and price sensitive market I had ever seen. None of us in the Indian management team knew what Foodpanda had in store for us. I really couldn’t see myself working for a rival brand but I wasn’t ready to go back home to London.
Soon enough their global execs met with us in Bangalore and to my total surprise, they offered me the role of Managing Director of Foodpanda Singapore. It was too good an opportunity to turn down, living in Singapore, leading a strategically important market for Foodpanda, and I wouldn’t be competing against Just Eat (they are not present in Singapore).
I stayed in the job for a grand total of 7 weeks! Working for Rocket Internet was an educational and intense experience, to put it politely. Despite the local team being young and hardworking, the bottom line is that the company wasn’t for me.
One of the people that I particularly connected with was a German called Gerrit Mewes. Like me, he was also looking for his next passion project having traveled around Foodpanda’s markets to put out Sales & Ops fires and further drive their growth. He left them shortly after I did but we agreed to meet again the next time we were both in Europe to see if there was an opportunity for us to work on together. It didn’t take long for that meeting to happen. By May 2015, I had returned to London to attend some family weddings and in June we met up in Gerrit’s home town of Dusseldorf.
The agenda was simple, find a real problem to solve. Joining us for the ride was Gerrit’s good friend Joss. The three of us just sat in a sun-soaked park for a few days and threw around dozens of ideas. We came up with all sorts of stuff across many different verticals, from fitness to immigration. It was a blast. During this time I shared my idea about how dish ratings and reviews could help diners make better meal choices, and they agreed that there was an opportunity worth exploring, but we had also just come up with another 60 ideas, many of which needed further investigation. Therefore, we decided to split up our favorites and do some preliminary research.
After we completed our research we narrowed our list down to two finalists. They were both food related and one of them was the “what should I eat?” problem. I made no secret of which one of the two I wanted to pursue and ultimately the consensus was that food discovery had huge potential and was a market that lacked innovation.
A month later, Gerrit and I met in London to map out our plan of attack. While we had some great discussions and debates about the product roadmap and launch strategy, we ignored the elephant in the room. That being that we both lived in different countries and neither of us was willing to move. So, unfortunately, our joint venture ended there. I was gutted because I really believed in the idea and thought we would make a great team. At that time I wasn’t willing to fly solo with the idea so I did the next best thing, join a startup solving a problem I cared about. Enter Osper.
Osper is a fin-tech startup that provides a pre-paid debit card and app for children so that they can learn how to manage money. Given that I was useless at looking after my pocket money as a teenager I really believed that this service could make a real difference in the lives of young people. The Founder & CEO, Alick Varma, is a great guy and he had also hired a former colleague of mine, Harry Irby from Just Eat, so overall it was a no brainer for me to join as VP of Marketing.
But it was another false start for me. Four short months is all I managed. Why? Well, this time it had nothing to do with the company not being the right fit for me. Osper had a super team and a genuinely game-changing idea. But that itch to start my own venture, that idea around food discovery, would not go away. In fact, working closely with Alick just made it clearer to me that I had to jump off the cliff just as he had done.
And so I left Osper at the end of November feeling pretty bad that I had let the team down having joined with lots of enthusiasm and ideas. At the same time, now that I had decided to finally go for it, I had no time to waste. My first priority was to get back to Bangalore and find a Tech Co-Founder.
In the six months that had passed since Gerrit and I stopped working on the food discovery idea, the startup environment had shifted significantly. The free flow of funding had dried up, particularly in India as investors began demanding a clear path to profitability. Several sizeable startups had gone bust.
My research over the Christmas period uncovered something both obvious and surprising in equal measure. I discovered that more than 150 startups since 2010 had attempted to tackle the dish space in one way or another, but that there had only been one success story of note (read exit), OpenTable’s acquisition of Foodspotting for $10m in early 2013. While this validated the opportunity space, it simultaneously raised tough questions as to why so many had failed.
Regardless, I was highly motivated and excited about the journey I was embarking upon. I promised that I would give myself up to 18 months to get serious traction or I would shut it down.
The New Year had arrived in no time and I was back in Bangalore within the first week of 2016. While I had the best part of 3 years to let this idea simmer and sink in, my first task was to convince a super smart techie to join me on this adventure within 3 weeks!