How Cookups Plans To Be Your Destination For Homemade Food In Dhaka: An Interview With Namira Hossain, Co-founder, Cookups

How Cookups Plans To Be Your Destination For Homemade Food In Dhaka: An Interview With Namira Hossain, Co-founder, Cookups

Today, we live in a different world. Airbnb has made it perfectly simple for us to sleep in a stranger’s house, we are happily using someone else’s car to take a ride through the city, thanks to Uber or Chalo or Pathao or Amarbike and outsourcing our chores to Handymama or Sheba. So what about a platform that can take care of our cooking and connect us to people who want to sell home-cooked meals?

That’s where Cookups, a facebook-based (the startup is working on its mobile app) platform that allows its users to buy and sell homemade food, comes in.

We spoke to Namira Hossain, co-founder of Cookups, to know more about the homemade food marketplace. In this interview, she tells us how Cookups came into being from personal passion for cooking and food, how it grew from a small group of close-knit acquaintances to a community of 16,000 members and current state of the platform, challenges as the startup grows and competition in the market, and how the company plans to go about its future and why you should get rid of your ego while building a business and be ready for doing everything by yourself.

Future Startup

Briefly tell us about yourself.

Namira Hossain

I was born and raised in Dhaka. I had my schooling in Dhaka, I attended Sunbeams School and Scholastica School. After my A levels, I took a gap year instead of going straight to college and then in 2005 I went to the US for college where I studied Soc.

Upon my return to Bangladesh, I taught at a school for a while and then joined New Age and have been writing for New Age Xtra since then while also working on Cookups on the side. Although Cookups seems like a side project, but every day I end up working longer hours on it than a full-time job.

Future Startup

How did the Cookups come to exist?

Namira Hossain

The idea of Cookups came about because Misha Ali (my co-founder) loves cooking and also we always wanted to do more. Often we would have our friends over for dinner and parties. Naturally, we thought whether we could take it a little further.

Initially, the idea was to start a healthy food company where we would prepare and supply home made food. It did not fly because both of us have full-time jobs and it would be impossible to manage time for preparing food for others at the start.

That’s when we first thought about starting a platform, albeit a larger one, where everyone would share and sell their homemade food. We came to realize that we are not the only ones who enjoy cooking and food, it is a big thing in Bengali households. People love to cook and feed other people. That’s when we finally decided to start Cookups, a platform to connect cooks and diners.

We floated the idea in May 2016 with other directors, Tashfin bhai and Mukit bhai, to devise a plan to launch the platform. As usual, the discussion soon turned into one about developing app and website etc, but I was not convinced and instead proposed that before we develop an app we should test the idea to see whether there is a demand for this product in the market. After much discussion, we agreed to start a pilot. And after almost two months, we launched our Facebook group, Cookups Pilot, on 25th July 2016.

The plan was to start a group, invite some friends and family and see how it goes. Initially, it was only us and a few friends and acquaintances. From there it grew, mostly organically.

We are seeing a rapid change in family dynamics across the board. An increasing number of women are working today. The number of nuclear families is on the rise making it difficult for families where both husband and wife work full time to cook and manage food. All these changes are contributing to a growing demand for readymade food and take-out culture.

On the other hand, it has helped cooks on our platform as well. We have all kinds of people using Cookups to sell homemade foods. We have students who love cooking and wanted to be in the food business, we have housewives who probably used to work before or love cooking and now inspired by their family or friends trying to make some money out of their passion.

Most of these people are not aware of the nitty-gritty of running a business and would not want to take on such hassle. Cookups allows them to do what they love and earn without taking much risk or managing much hassle.

We are seeing a rapid change in family dynamics across the board. An increasing number of women are working today. The number of nuclear families is on the rise making it difficult for families where both husband and wife work full time to cook and manage food. All these changes are contributing to a growing demand for readymade food and take-out culture.

Future Startup

Please give us an overview of Cookups. How does it work?

Namira Hossain

We have around 100 cooks/merchants right now on our platform from different areas of the city, over 16,000 members and serve around 1500 orders a month.

We connect cooks and diners. Cooks upload photos of their homemade food to the group following our posting guidelines and the other members of the group, diners, order through commenting or messages. Once an order takes place, the respective cook/merchant collects address and other details of the client and schedule a delivery.

The deliveries are done by Oi khali, our delivery partner.

Although we are similar to a marketplace, we don’t take any commission on sales. We take a monthly subscription fee from our member cooks/merchants. The platform is completely free for the diners.

We have three different subscription tiers starting from BDT 600 to BDT 2400 depending on the number of posts/offers you upload in a month.

We maintain a strict screening process and conduct thorough kitchen inspection before onboarding new cooks. Quality is incredibly important for us. We have an entire checklist that you have to meet in order to sell on Cookups.

Future Startup

How big is your team now? How do people work?

Namira Hossain

Right now we are a team of eight people and growing.

Our teammates are very self-sufficient. Everyone in the team is self-driven and takes responsibility. We maintain a collaborative and flat organizational culture. Since we are a small team, everyone does almost everything.

We maintain a strict screening process and conduct thorough kitchen inspection before onboarding new cooks. Quality is incredibly important for us. We have an entire checklist that you have to meet in order to sell on Cookups.

Future Startup

What are the challenges for Cookups now?

Namira Hossain

We are a two-sided platform. We depend on our cooks for delivering quality food. But most of these people are not business people. They are either hobbyists or doing it for the first time and don’t necessarily understand intricacies of handling customers, customer service and so on.

This causes small problems like timely delivery, communication with the customers and the likes. We are working closely with our cooks to improve service quality that they offer to their customers.

We take quality assurance very seriously and conduct thorough kitchen inspection before onboarding a merchant/cook. Since we are a small team, this often takes longer than our expectation. As a result, we often end up with a growing waiting list of cooks. This is a high-quality problem to have but nonetheless a problem. We are working hard to speed up our inspection process.

The challenge for me as a woman entrepreneur is that people often don’t take you seriously. I struggle a little to cope with such situation because it often piss me off but that’s a reality that I get to deal with. Business is all about getting things done regardless of how you feel. So I try to be cooperative, understanding and help others.

Once we launch the app, the challenge I anticipate will be around migrating our Facebook users to the app. That’s one thing that we will have to figure out.

We will also have to invest in educating our users. A lot of our users are older women and women, in general, are not as tech savvy as male users. It will require significant work to activate these users.

That said, if we can make a product that stands out and effectively solve a problem, then the rest should follow.

Future Startup

What do you think about the competition?

Namira Hossain

We already have a couple of companies operating in the same space. But we don’t think much about competition. In fact, competition is good because it makes you work hard and get better and improve. It also helps the market to grow and customers to have the best service.

I don’t think we will be the only company in this space because that does not happen. However, the real question is how good you are at execution. Regardless of competition, our goal will be to out execute ourselves all the time and offer best possible service to our users.

Future Startup

How do you reach out to customers?

Namira Hossain

Over the past eight months, the growth has largely been organic for us. When we started, the Cooks and diners both were largely a close-knit community and it grew from there.

Food often resonates with a good number of people and the market for food, to some extent, is an infinitely big one. People often love to talk about food if they find it interesting. That’s what happened with Cookups. Our early users loved the platform and helped bring more users through word of mouth.

Apart from the group, we also run promotions through our Facebook page which also brings more people. So far, we largely use facebook for marketing.

Future Startup

What are the key lessons for you from the past eight months of building a business from scratch?

Namira Hossain

We have been very mindful of how we expand. We never wanted compromise our quality for fast growth. For any food business, particularly for us where there is a sort of network effect in place, it is all about quality if the quality is not good people would not return for the second time.

Prices on Cookups are reasonable to expensive. While you are paying good money for a product you definitely want to have really good quality. If you pay for something and don’t get the expected quality, it does not reflect well on the platform. That’s why we are so serious about quality assurance.

We constantly take feedback from our users and try to improve accordingly. So the first lesson is that be mindful of your growth.

Another lesson is that you should allow people work somewhat independently. You can’t micro-manage all the time. People need a certain degree of authority to carry out a responsibility.

Validate your idea before getting into full-fledged execution. No matter how great your idea is if there are not enough buyers for it, there is no business. If you are building a technology company you definitely should check your market and validate your idea before building your product or the platform.

At the beginning, you probably have to do everything. Get rid of your ego and recognize people who can do something better than you. Delegate and don’t keep everything to yourself when you are scaling.

Validate your idea before getting into full-fledged execution. No matter how great your idea is if there are not enough buyers for it, there is no business. If you are building a technology company you definitely should check your market and validate your idea before building your product or the platform.

Future Startup

What are the future plans for Cookups?

Namira Hossain

A Facebook group is not really that scalable because there are many limitations. You can’t have it your way or tweak things as you want. From a technical point of view, managing a group is quite complex because you don’t control the design and you can’t have a homepage or highlight a set of posts that you want to highlight. However, since we maintain certain policies and every post goes through a manual approval process it helps to ensure a smooth operation of the community.

We are currently working on our app. The backend is almost done, we plan to launch it in the next couple of months. Once we launch the app, we think we will be able to cater to more people.

Right now we largely cater to high-end customers for which market is relatively small. In order to make an impact, we have to serve more people.

Our ambition is to reach to as many people as possible and serve all kinds of customers. We plan to address the challenge once we launch the app.

Future Startup

What do you think about the food-tech in Bangladesh?

Namira Hossain

Food tech is a largely untapped market in Bangladesh. There are a few companies in the space but there are whole varieties of food tech companies around the world including companies that send you meal kit, homemade food like ours, ingredients for cooking and so on. The potential is literally infinite.

Moreover, as I said earlier, we are seeing a rapid cultural shift with the rise of working women, an increase of nuclear family and more. This supports eat out and readymade food culture. I think we are just getting started in the space.

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