Isn’t selecting a good caterer for a party such a daunting task? We spoke with Anup Agarwal, the co-founder of CaterNinja, a catering marketplace in India and learnt how it is trying to bring credible solutions to the catering industry.
Every year for birthday parties, identifying a good caterer and placing an order used to be a nightmare and consume a lot of time. There was no way to separate the wheat from the chaff as many discovery platforms had 1,000s of caterers listed in the city, and we have no clue about how many of them are just ghost.
Anup recalls, “Even at the end of the selection process, there are still problems. Once for my kid’s birthday party, the caterer didn’t turn up on the day of the event as someone in his family was hospitalized. We were not even intimated, it was such a panic situation for us. That’s when we realized, today we order furniture to food at the click of a mouse, why can’t catering be done so easily with some accountability put in place. The germ of the Idea had been sowed.”
Background of the founders
Anup Agarwal (37): More than a decade of experience of Investment Banking having worked with organizations like Credit Suisse, Kotak Investment Bank, PwC. Last served as an Associate Director at PwC before taking the plunge in full-time entrepreneurship.
Anurag Mishra (41): More than 15+ years of experience in financial services. Very passionate about food and have ventured into the restaurant business in the past too.
Rahul Nanda (44): More than two decades of experience in the hospitality industry and financial services industry. Experience of starting and developing business verticals in the past.
Laying the foundation
The current core team is of 3 members. Anurag and I go long back and have worked together at Kotak (Erstwhile ING). We both use to discuss business ideas and had the itch, however, due to my home loan, I was not able to take the jump.
Anurag, however, was brave enough and finally made the call and started a restaurant venture with two more partners. We still use to be in touch and discussion used to be free-flowing.
Anurag is very passionate about food and I brought the understanding of tech and business. One thing led to another and we finally started giving shape to our discussions in the form of a new venture in 2016.
We were looking for 1-2 more partners who could align with our vision, that’s where Anurag introduced me to Rahul who had just come out of a venture which didn’t go far and was looking for something more promising. When Rahul was onboard, the three of us started embarking on this journey called CaterNinja – Catering Made Easy. The Core Team is taking shape with currently 6 members.
The initial investment put in for the startup
We are bootstrapped, having worked in the investment banking industry and have prepared 100s of business plans for various companies, one thing I realized, ‘Cash Flow’ is more important than ‘Cash Burn’.
In the beginning, we had to sacrifice growth for creating a long-term and sustainable business model. More importantly, since the challenges were huge and issues were coming up on daily basis. (No wonder it had not been tried yet!)
We had to re-invent the organization and the processes on daily basis. This ensured we created an ecosystem which could address such stubborn challenges. We did almost 3 re-pivots before finalizing the business model and are now poised for rapid growth given the right support and resources available.
The three most important challenges in the initial phase
The biggest challenge the industry faces is Trust as there are many discovery platforms but there is no way to figure out the Good quality and Reputed caterers. Therefore, CaterNinja is an attempt to create a curated platform with good pedigree caterers and give it an e-commerce spin.
At CaterNinja, you could place a catering order for a small gathering of 20 friends or for a wedding or corporate party of 2,000 guests with the click of a mouse or simply through a web chat.
Catering market is highly unorganized with a very confusing and time-consuming process (typically 6-10 man hours) to place a catering order. We are taking a crack at solving the problem of ordering catering food.
Today an order process which involved hours and required multiple interactions can be done in minutes with trust and service guarantees.
Another big challenge we faced was, everyone we spoke to in the industry thought it’s not possible, our vendor partners were reluctant to join as they thought it’s not possible to take catering orders online as the process is too complex. We had to spend a lot of time to make them understand the process and to convince them and we were finally able to do so as they realized that they had nothing to lose if we don’t deliver, as we made the entire listing completely free.
Age in the market
The entire 2016 went into doing market research, speak to various stakeholders including, finding technology related solution and implementing the understanding and build the technology.
We serviced our first order in Jan 2017.
Factors that worked
There existed a latent demand for our services, however, no one knew what or how it could be done. Therefore, every customer who interacted or used our services gave not just an awesome review but also their blessing and support even when we faltered initially.
We are completely bootstrapped as of now and all growth has been generated using internal accruals.
We are currently operational in top 3 cities and plan to be operational in 10 cities by end of 2019.
Existing competitors and how CaterNinja is different
There are no direct competitors, however, there are many discovery platforms where you need to submit your details first before you get just the mobile and email details of caterers and then starts the Cold Calling Nightmare.
We are an e-commerce platform where you can place catering orders directly without having to interact with any of them and yet get the service guarantee without having to pay 100% advances.
USPs to drive customers
At CaterNinja, one can see some of the best caterers in their city; compare menu and prices across various caterers, shortlist the caterers on the basis of your budget and cuisine, customize your menu and place the order online.
Moreover, you can place the order with options like 50% Payment or Cash on Delivery; without having to pay upfront. BEAT THAT!
Bringing in trust and transparency in an opaque and unorganized industry is the biggest USP. Moreover, we have taken a successful shot at solving the catering woes and made it possible today to place catering order online.
It has been an uphill task and steep learning curve but the head start we have created will go a long way in building a formidable pan-India catering platform in India. It’s not just about aggregation, it’s about delivering on expectations and create a business model which drives a service satisfaction model.
Startup mistakes you made
Every day was a learning curve for us during the entire 2017 with issues of quality control, on-time delivery, service related issues, vendor management, customer expectations, tailored solutions, small events, etc.
There hasn’t been any touch point where we didn’t commit mistakes during the first year of operations, even after the significant amount of research before starting. However, we are much more confident today and by ensuring that we don’t repeat the same mistakes again, we have built a good and very promising platform which leverages technology and data analytics to match demand and supple and has great experience in make catering easy and online.
The biggest dilemma and crisis
Having worked in financial services and having to deal with top CXOs on an everyday basis and adjusting to this completely unorganized and proprietorship driven market was a challenge for all of us.
Communication and interactions were very different and took some time to adjust. The everyday problems we were solving kept us going and the support we had started receiving from the customers and suppliers gave us the belief that we can do it.
How do you meet your fresh produce requirements?
It is a big challenge, especially in a price sensitive market. Given that farms are going further from cities, and needs are ever increasing, getting fresh produce direct to table has both logistical and economic challenges and therefore at CaterNinja we have also tied-up with many health food focused partners who take this challenge seriously and come up with options tailor-made for such situations.
However, this is just the tip of the iceberg and we believe there is much more we can do and deliver in times to come.
How many happy customers have you served to date?
We have been getting great acceptability in the market, every single customer of us, whether a corporate or a retail customer has at least once said WOW to us! Even the ones who have for some reason not transacted with us have shown great appreciation for the solution we are providing and the services we are offering.
We have serviced close to 5 Lakh meals so far and are growing