‘Lack of the right team could break your business’: FreshToHome Founder shares his lessons

FreshToHome Founder Mathew Joseph

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Inspired by Dhirubhai Ambani, Kerala, India-based seafood veteran Mathew Joseph dived into the uncertain world of entrepreneurship in his early 20’s to become a well-known businessman. He started a seafood exporting company in the 90s but the journey was hard and he eventually had to shut down the business.

Then in 2012, when digitalisation was accelerating in India, he tried his luck again by launching an e-commerce platform for seafood in India. But that too nearly failed before one “good samaritan” came to his rescue.

In this post, Joseph recounts his roller-coaster journey in a first-person account as the founder of SeaToHome (now FreshToHome).

A big dream

I am passionate about fish, and my childhood ambition had been to become a well-known seafood businessman like Dhirubhai Ambani.

I started as an accountant in a seafood exporting company in my hometown at Cherathala in Kerala, South India. While my job didn’t require me to deal with fish/catch directly, I would still go to the seashore to see and enjoy the shoal daily and leave for home only after 2 am.

Seeing my love for fish, the company manager promoted me to Assistant Manager (Purchase). That’s how I officially entered the fish and seafood industry.

I now have almost 25 years of working experience in the industry.

There is a story behind my dream of becoming a businessman. There was only one car in our whole village, and it was owned by the only businessman in the area.

When I went to school, I saw this businessman enjoying his ride in the car and my fellow villagers thronging to have a glimpse of him. He drew all the attention and commanded more respect than our village government officials and professionals. I also wanted to be like him and be respected by my fellow villagers.

Starting with seafood export

Years later, I left the company as Manager (Operations). It was in the late ’90s. Then I started my own business with the INR 15,000 (US$180 now) money I had saved all those years.

There were over a hundred seafood companies and over 200 exporters at Cherthala, and I started by providing them with the raw materials. I started with clam meat. Over a period, I became a good seafood supplier. However, collecting money from these exporters was hard. This affected our daily operations.

That’s when I thought of starting my own exporting business. However, it required huge capital, which I lacked. This was when my friend told me about a massive market opportunity for fresh (not frozen) fish in Dubai. Soon, I flew to Dubai and stayed there for over two weeks to study the market.

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I returned to Kerala and started exporting raw fish to Dubai via the Kochi International Airport. It was a one-person show. I did everything myself, including cutting the fish, packing, and the logistics. It was hard, but I still didn’t compromise on the quality of my products and the packaging. But it was a success, and my customer base continued to grow because of the quality of the products. We then expanded into Saudi Arabia, Singapore, and Taipei within three months of starting it.

The business grew until 2008 when the economic recession struck the world. While my company wasn’t hit immediately, I started feeling the pinch by 2010. This was because the crisis started affecting the countries to which we exported.

Not to mention, we incurred massive losses, and eventually, the business collapsed. To repay my debts, I had to sell all my properties, including trucks, land, and ornaments. I was heartbroken. It was back in 2011.

One night, I told my wife over dinner that my dream of becoming a Dhirubhai Ambani (the billionaire businessman and the father of Reliance Chairman Mukesh Ambani) was over and that I would have to take up a job to make a living.

This was when my wife asked me why I should not export to various places in India instead of to foreign countries. That question struck me, and that was a turning point in my life.

Then I started studying the Indian market. The results of my research left me awestruck; the country’s seafood market was a whopping US$50 billion, which was US$2 billion more than the mighty Bollywood industry!

I then decided to open a few most modern retail seafood outlets in Delhi, Bangalore, Kochi, and Trivandrum to understand the market and the customers. But soon, I realised it would not be a viable proposition in the long term, and we dropped the idea.

Launching an e-commerce platform

The concept of an online platform for fresh seafood occurred to me towards the end of 2011. When I discussed this with my younger brother, he liked the idea and asked me to meet a software developer in Kochi to develop the portal. I met the developer and described all my requirements, and asked him to design a cool e-commerce platform.

A few months later, the software guy called me to say that he could not design the site because he couldn’t find a similar e-commerce site on the internet to take a cue from. He also said I needed to sit with his team for six months and share every minute detail, such as the pricing of each fish/seafood item, to design a site from scratch.

Long story short, we hired two interns, taught them about fish and the market and worked with them to develop a site with essential details, and then we tested it. Six months later, we launched the site for the public in 2012. That was the beginning of SeatoHome.

However, we didn’t have the money to do the branding, which was crucial in the early days. Anyway, we started with four cities — Delhi, Bangalore, Kochi, and Trivandrum. Our fish “travelled the fastest” and reached the customer’s table within three-four hours of the catch landing on the seashore.

To our surprise, the business grew on its own and without us spending a single dime on marketing. It was mainly word-of-mouth marketing.

As the word spread, I started getting calls not only from our consumers but also from the media because Seatohome was the first online fish market in India. We were the first online brand to bring fresh seafood to the market.

I had no looking back after that, and we were covered by multiple media outlets. SeaToHome was thriving.

Our “problems” started when a vernacular daily covered us. After our story was published, thousands of local people thronged on our e-commerce portal. The site went down because of the heavy traffic, and I learnt my first lesson as a founder:

You should not do what you don’t know.

I was not a techie and had no idea how to fix this problem. Nor did I have a tech team to fix it. While I knew how to cut, pack, sell, and export fish, I was a big zero when it came to tech and software. I didn’t even have the basic knowledge that the website would go down when thousands of people visited it at a time.

Since SeaToHome was a one-man show — I was the sole owner, the manager, and the one who cut the fish and packed it — I had no one to turn to for help. There was no team. I realised I could have addressed this problem earlier if I had formed a team.

So that was my second lesson:

The lack of the right team could break your business.

When the website was down, customers would call me. I was fed up with the calls. So I decided to shut down the site until I hired a tech guy. It was back in 2014.

After three months of shutting it down, I received a call from one Shan Kadavil (then the Zynga India Head). Based in Bangalore, he was one of our regular customers. He called me to ask why the site was down. I explained the reason to him.

A few days later, he flew to Kerala to meet me. I shared the whole story with him. He then returned to Bangalore.

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Two days later, he called me again to invite me to Zynga’s office in Bangalore. We discussed the way forward for SeaToHome, and he offered to help upgrade the site. With the help of his team, we relaunched the site under a new brand name, FreshToHome.

Then Kadavil and some other people joined me as co-founders of FreshToHome, and he wrote our first cheque. The site was back up again, and we bagged over 330,0000 registered customer base within two years of relaunching it.

Then came demonetisation. On November 16, 2016, the government announced the withdrawal of the banknotes of 500 and 1,000 denominations from circulation. It was a heavy blow for us, as nearly 65 per cent of our customers paid in cash, and only 35 per cent paid online. We were in trouble.

FreshToHome’s number of orders started declining in the following days. It occurred to us that if we didn’t find a way out of the cash crisis, 65 per cent of our customers would go away, and we would be left only with 35 per cent of customers. And it would be the end of the business. We knew FreshToHome wouldn’t last more than two months.

This is when one of our team members put forward an idea: let the customers purchase fish/seafood on credit.

Taking an enormous risk

It was a massive risk, but we were willing to take it because the business was falling anyway. So we sent a message to all our customers saying they could buy our products on credit and pay for them only when the effects of the demonetisation were over.

But that risk was worth it. Our credit scheme clicked, and the customer base soon doubled to 650,000 without spending a single penny on marketing. What’s more, the cost of our last-mile delivery came down to INR 33 from INR 46.

One challenge still remained: how to make the customers pay for their purchases.

After the effects of the note ban were over, we reached out to the customers again with a request to pay for their orders. To our astonishment, 99.8 per cent of our customers paid.

So demonetisation was a blessing in disguise for FreshToHome.

FreshToHome now operates in 162 cities, including the UAE and Saudi Arabia.

The next big challenge in front of us was the COVID-19 outbreak. By the time the pandemic hit, almost 65 per cent of our customers were making payments online. But when the pandemic hit, the number of orders started dropping. It was tough to find delivery boys as well.

Customers were concerned about the hygiene of delivery boys. After a few weeks of total lockdown, the government introduced social distancing norms. This was when FreshToHome launched something called contactless delivery, starting with Dubai. But a risk still remained: 35 per cent of our customers paid cash on delivery, wherein our delivery executives delivered the products to customers without making direct contact.

This was also a success; our business thrived in Dubai and India. From this experience came my third lesson:

No business can survive without adding the tech element to their product.

FreshToHome is now the leader in the seafood and meat e-commerce space. FreshToHome has raised US$256.1 million from 27 investors, which helped us scale the business and grow fast. We also acquired Doodhwala.com and rebranded it as F2H Daily, which delivers milk, groceries and vegetables.

Looking back, I feel satisfied that I have fulfilled my dream of becoming a businessman.

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