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Personal history, shaping herself, the transformation of Cookups, and entrepreneurship with Nahita Nishmin, CEO, Cookups Technologies (Part I)

Nahita Nishmin is the CEO of Cookups Technologies Limited, a Dhaka-based on-demand home-cooked food delivery platform. Prior to running Cookups, Ms. Nahita worked for a brief period with Unilever Bangladesh where she worked on sustainability and purposeful brand-related initiatives. Before that, she spent a long time working in the development sector including eight years at Swiss Contact’s Katalyst project where she managed agricultural portfolios. 

In this fascinating conversation with Ms. Nahita, we cover her personal history, how her upbringing and early life experiences have shaped who she is today, the influence of her parents on her, her parenting style, her experience of living and studying in the US, building a vibrant entrepreneurship ecosystem in Bangladesh, her path to entrepreneurship and running Cookups, upsides of working for large organizations and then coming to entrepreneurship, the state of Cookups’s business and operation today, the evolution of the company over the last few years, rebuilding the operational infrastructure of Cookups from the ground up, designing an organic growth path for Cookups, how Cookups work with its partners, Cookups’s ambition going forward, her work regimen and how she manages the operation and finds time for doing strategy, he realizations about work and life and much more. 

This was a much longer interview, so we had to divide it into two parts. This is part one. Please come back early next week for the final installment. 

I. PERSONAL HISTORY AND SHAPING HERSELF 

Ruhul Kader 

Thank you for agreeing to this interview. Can you please introduce yourself and tell us about your background and journey to what you are doing today?

Nahita Nishmin 

What I'm currently doing is running Cookups. I began my career in the development sector and spent a long time working in development organizations. I was with Swiss Contact’s Katalyst project for eight years. I managed agricultural portfolios for the company where my responsibilities were working with agro companies and farmers. 

Before that, I worked with Tamara apa at BRAC for a short period right after graduation. I also did some policy research work with CPD but quickly realized that it was not for me and decided not to pursue a research career. 

I mentioned this introduction for the purpose that before Cookups I was in the development field where orientation toward work is different. I also worked at Unilever for a little while where I was doing sustainability and purposeful brands. So throughout my career, I never really worked for “just business”. It was always more than business. That's how I see it. 

The philosophy of choosing a business is important to me. Why should I pursue a certain business and not others? Is there something to that business that's not just about making a lot of money? Of course, there's nothing wrong with making a lot of money. But beyond that, what else? Is there a purpose to the brand that you're creating? How does it benefit me as a person and the people who interact with the business? 

Ruhul Kader

That’s a great way to begin. Can you please tell us about your early life, education, and your family, etc? Where did you go to school and college? How do your childhood and upbringing shape how you see the world and work? The philosophy of work that you shared: business has to be more than a means of making money. There has to be some impact on the lives of people. How did you develop something like that? Was there something, an inspiration, in your childhood for becoming the person you are today?

Nahita Nishmin 

I did my undergrad in economics and international relations from Colby College, a liberal arts school in the US. I completed my undergrad in August 2004. I did my MBA from Berkeley, Haas. I went to Berkeley a long time after my undergrad — I went in 2016 and graduated in 2018. Before that, I was in Dhaka. I went to BIT for school. Zia and Waseem are my classmates from BIT. We have known each other for 25 years now! 

Ruhul Kader

That's a long time.

Nahita Nishmin

Yeah, it is. 

Family — as I have told you, I've just lost my grandmother, which is very sad for me. She was in good health. We lost her very suddenly. I just wrote my little tribute to her. So I've been thinking about family and family bonding. 

In our nuclear family, I have my father and mother. One is an engineer and another is an architect. They're also from the same university. They came to know each other from there. Outside of our nuclear family, my fathers are six brothers and two sisters — a big family. My uncles and aunts all are doctors and engineers including their partners. They consider education as one of the most important things. It doesn’t matter to them what I study so much but being educated is important. 

Growing up, we were discouraged from seeking external validation too much, but my family does care about traditions and society. I would not say that we are complete rebels, but we have our own principles that go beyond just people-pleasing. 

I grew up seeing strong female personalities. My mother went to BUET and studied architecture, which was rare in those days. She then married somebody who was her age, an equally rare thing to do. My dad's mother, my grandmother, was also a strong woman. My Nanu is also very strong. They were matriarchs and they ran their families. So when I think of family units, I think of the matriarch as the one who holds them together. 

Nahita Nishmin 

The strong personality of my mother played an important role in my life. I grew up in a strict household. The teaching was simple: whatever you do you should try to excel at it. You should try to do well. She is a very exacting mother. I think it was important for her. The same goes for my grandmothers. When you talk to them, you will understand that what's most important to them is their children. And also principles — having principles and being independent. 

But it's also important to recognize what kind of men I was raised by. My father is a strong, self-assured, secure, and confident man. He knows himself. The fact that he can be with a strong woman and appreciate the fact that that woman is strong and can make decisions on her own and doesn’t need him to make a decision, I think that says a lot about the kind of person he is. He's capable of doing so much at home. We grew up seeing that and he is unapologetic about it and does it proudly. 

I appreciate these nuances of feminism in my family more and more now. I didn't understand it before. I used to take it as something normal. For granted. 

We're very closely knit as a family, very emotional and sensitive. I wouldn't say we are cool-headed and collected and all of that. But because we are emotional and sensitive, we care about other people's emotions. When we do something, we always think about how it makes us feel. That's important for us. We just can't override that feeling. We're not very good at being simply calculative. 

Ruhul Kader

You have covered so many interesting aspects of your upbringing and your parents. It offers a window into the kind of people your folks are and the kind of person you have become. This is not on my list of questions. But I want to ask it anyways. Parenting has changed so much in the last couple of decades. Now strict parenting is like strictly discouraged. But I see a lot of people who have excelled in life talk about their fathers and mothers being super strict. But people frown upon strict parenting these days. What's your style of parenting? Many people want to say children should not be burdened with too much reading and strict rules and so on. There is a billboard near Banani Bazar put up by some NGOs that has a child carrying a huge stack of books with an apparent display of dismay. The billboard says something like Children should not carry the burden of books, they should have entertainment as well. What's your take on all these cultural changes around parenting? 

Nahita Nishmin

It's a good question. But I don't have a distinctive answer. I don’t think there's any one right way of doing it. What works for one person may not work for another person because we’re built differently. Our genes are different. What worked for me has not worked for my brother, for instance. So there is no one size fits all solution. 

For instance, for my parents, when I now think that they have done many things right and that I've learned so much from them, I also think that there are things that I wish they hadn't done or had done differently. I have a daughter now. She's six years old. I try to think okay, what are the good things that I learned from my parents and I implement those. And I also think about things my parents did that I didn’t like and I try not to do those things. 

For instance, strictness. I think strictness is important. I think that parents need to be strict. Strick does not mean that you instill so much fear in your child that he would not speak up or share anything with you. That's not what I mean. To me, strict means parents and parental rules can't be walked all over. 

Many times I see that kids simply don’t listen to their parents. In many instances, parents make excuses for their children, defending them and their upbringing. I don't think that as a parent you need to defend your principles, but you should be aware that your children will be reflections of what you taught them to a very large extent.  

I think that parents are there to help kids learn and grow. They're supposed to be the key influence in the early years. What are the parents for if you can't determine how your children will become as humans at least to a certain extent? Of course, there are other influences. School is an influence. Friends are an influence. Many things influence a person. But as a parent, your role should be important. 

At the same time, you shouldn’t take your parenting to the point where your children feel that I'm imprisoned, and don’t have any agency. For instance, a child should be confident enough to make decisions. helping your kids to build that confidence is important. The relationship shouldn’t be one-sided. I told you something as a parent but if you think you have a better idea, you should tell me and we can have a discussion about it. We should not just go and do whatever but we can always have a discussion. 

I think that one can be strict and strong without raising one’s voice. It's difficult to do at times. But that's a standard I would like to follow. I raise my voice all the time, but that is something I want to change. 

Ruhul Kader

That’s an interesting way of looking at it. I think that it's important to be strict but also compassionate. Because children learn things like love, and kindness from their parents. If we are talking about love and then beat them up the next moment, it's like, what kind of love is it? I have two more questions about your journey, and then we'll get to Cookups. I hope it's okay to ask about yourself a bit. 

Nahita Nishmin

Yes, I appreciate that. I think that we should do more of this with interviews. You interview a lot of people. And I want to see their personality in these interviews. And when you ask them about their upbringing, their principles, and how they work and all of that, it brings out their personality. And that's interesting. It sheds light on what they're doing, and what kind of leaders they are. 

II. CULTURAL IMPERATIVES FOR ENTREPRENEURSHIP & INNOVATION 

Ruhul Kader

Thank you. One question about your education in the States. You spent your undergrad there, and then you did your masters a couple of years apart. My question is about the culture of entrepreneurship and other cultural imperatives that you saw in the States and the culture that we have here in Bangladesh. One aspect of it is related to entrepreneurship and young people. My observation is that the US is a high-trust society, where people generally trust each other and the capacity of other people. It helps them in many ways. We are, compared to that, a low-trust society where we are a little skeptical of other people. And it has a lot of different implications. When people don't trust each other, they are always skeptical of helping each other, and so on. From your experience, culturally speaking, what are some of the good things that we may learn from the US, and also what are some of the areas where we are better than western cultures and so on? 

Nahita Nishmin

What we can do better is take more risks and accept different ways of doing things, which we don't. We are a conservative society in general. We like things done in a particular way. We have set ways of doing things in various areas of life. But let me be honest, the US you experience if you go to an elite school is very different from the general US. The general US is very conservative. I would say more conservative than Bangladesh. General US is very white. They think that's one kind of supremacy and all that.

I'm talking about the United States that you experience if you go to a good institution, the people you meet, and the kind of culture that you experience there. That culture is very assimilated. They like the differences and often they have diverse cultures. The institutions are built that way — they are bringing in people from abroad because they want their people to learn from the best and they want the country to be a melting pot. That's how we see the US. All the changes we see in the US, the population that's changing the country, they're usually people who come from these institutions. They're more open. 

If we could have this in Bangladesh, if we could have a more open society and accepting society, that would've been great. 

The other thing I think about Bangladesh is that we try to put each other down. I mean if somebody is doing something great, we can't ever appreciate it. I've been thinking about this phenomenon — why do we do it? It's probably because of limited resources. When you think from a game theory perspective, it's usually all or nothing. In a limited-resource environment, people perceive reality as all or nothing. It means when someone is doing well, he is taking it from me. Since we perceive things in that light, we're relatively malevolent. 

But it's not all or nothing. It’s never like that. We can never succeed at the expense of other people. Your competition should be with yourself and not with others. But it is a problem when I can't appreciate it when someone else is doing well and doing something good. I think it's predominant in our culture. That’s something that I don't like at all. 

The other thing that I found after returning to Bangladesh is that we are not a meritocratic society. Meritocracy and thinking that merit will be the measure that will take me forward, which meritocracy is all about, is not there. People who do well are not always the people who are the most talented or working hardest. That's unfortunate and harmful. 

We have built an entire system upon nepotism, upon the idea of who knows whom, and “power culture”. It has become a prominent feature in our society. It's everywhere and all-pervasive. It has limited our potential in terms of what we could have achieved and could have become as a nation. 

Nahita Nishmin

When I speak with my grandparents, my Dada and Nana both worked for the government, I feel that they had meritocracy then. Bribe culture was an anomaly in those days. Today, it is the norm. They were public servants and their intellectual capacity was at a different level. Their language skills in English, and Bangla and their views about the world show that they were of a different league. I think they were amazing and at par with other nations. But I can't say the same now. That's so unfortunate. 

Of course, there are good things in our culture. I'm an emotionally sensitive person. I know that we value people and family. We value living together. We honor our bonds. We care about people. It brings warmth. And that's how we survive. We are able to raise children and work in this community because we have parents who help us. We live in a communal environment where we care for each other, which is different from many other cultures. 

Ruhul Kader  

That's so true. The second question is about building a vibrant entrepreneurship and innovation culture. A lot of the vibrant communities and ecosystems for innovation and entrepreneurship are what they call clusters, both in terms of time and in terms of place. If you look at the historical data, these things seem to happen in clusters. There're ages when you have a bunch of people doing extraordinary work and there are also places where those things are happening. In today's world, if you look at, say, centers of technological innovation, it's Silicon Valley, or if it's in India, it's Bangalore. Do you have any take on how we can create an ecosystem where entrepreneurship and innovation flourish and genius happens? How can you replicate what Silicon Valley and many other places do so well? 

Nahita Nishmin 

If we talk about entrepreneurship, the kind of environment that we have built for entrepreneurship is terrible. It's difficult to do business in Bangladesh. As I said, there are cultural challenges where if someone is doing well, we try to pull them down. That sentiment is so predominant that it's hard to take collective action. 

Next, if we want to build a society that fosters innovation and entrepreneurship, we have to fix our business environment. And a lot of it falls upon the policymakers. 

In Bangladesh, one thing going for us is the people. General people are resilient. They do a lot of things without support. It’s a good thing to have a resilient culture but as a society, if we want to be a part of the societies that foster innovation then we need our policymakers to think broader and get the best practices to support entrepreneurship and innovation.

Today, if we look at India, of course, India is a large country, and all that, they are almost a self-sustaining society when it comes to startups, entrepreneurship, etc. They can fund themselves. We don't have that in Bangladesh. We lack policy. We lack infrastructure. We lack support. We lack knowledge. We lack valuation expertise in valuing startups. 

If we now want to improve the funding environment for our startups, we need our policymakers to say, okay, if you're going to invest in a local startup, then these advantages will accrue to you in the form of tax benefits or cash-backs. 

At the same time, the private sector has to think as a community and not just think about self-interest. There should be a culture of collective action. 

Then comes our education system. I think our education system is in tatters. We need to be better. If we want a meritocratic society, we have to improve our education system, and then we have to value that merit — who are the best people, and how do we make sure that they don’t leave the country and that they stay back because it's worth it for them to do so.  

If you want to foster any kind of good culture, innovation, entrepreneurship, or whatever, you will need the best people to stay, and then you have to make it work for them. Creating that environment is not just business, it's about everything. Like why would people stay? Because I can find good work and be evaluated properly. I know if I do good work, I'll do well. My kids can get a good education. My elderly parents can get good healthcare. There is law and order in the country, and so on and so forth. It's a lot about social, political, and financial infrastructure. For this to happen, we need the help of our policymakers. 

III. PRIOR WORKING EXPERIENCE & ENTREPRENEURSHIP 

Ruhul Kader

One more question about your journey, you have worked as you mentioned in the development sector for many years, and then you have worked at large companies like Unilever. When you decided to become an entrepreneur, how did you make that decision? And what are the upsides of working for large organizations and then coming to entrepreneurship? 

Nahita Nishmin  

In a way, it just fell into my lap and I took it. I just left my job at Unilever and was thinking about what to do and I also had a small child then. 

At that time Cookups had shut down. I was a customer of Cookups and liked their service. When Cookups shut down, Zia Ashraf of Chaldal, who is also my friend, I think spoke with Cookups founders, Namira and Misha. He thought that it would be good to find a way to work with them. So he spoke to Waseem and they had a meeting with Cookups management. Things moved ahead from there and Chaldal ended up becoming a majority shareholder in Cookups.  

But Namira was only there for a few days before she left for maternity, and someone was needed to run the company. And it was just given to me — it was like you feel strongly about this, you handle it. 

I was in very deep water. I had something like three weeks to take over. I didn't know anything about the company. Those few months were extremely difficult. 

So it happened like that. That's how Cookups came into operation again and ended up with me. That was one question, what was the other one?

Ruhul Kader

You have worked for large organizations before Cookups, what are the upsides of working for large organizations and then coming to entrepreneurship?

Nahita Nishmin

When you're working for a large organization, there's security for everybody involved. It's an established company. They have their finances sorted out to a certain extent and know where the company is going, so there's security and less uncertainty. 

The upside of working for someone else is that the risks are minimized. Obviously, you have to have a sense of ownership and do your work but you don't need to worry about the company's survival. Now I'm responsible for so many people. That's something that keeps me up at night but that was not the case when I was working for someone else. And, obviously, I was making a lot of money and that was a good thing (laugh). 

Ruhul Kader

The experience you had there, does that help when you're building a company now? Are there any upsides to working for big companies and then starting companies? Many people want to say that starting your venture with some experience is a good thing and vice versa.  

Nahita Nishmin 

You only asked me about the upsides of working there, right? You haven't asked me about the downsides. I told you the upsides. There are downsides. I chose this over all of those upsides, and there must be some reason. 

For your other question, when you're at a startup, you can get blindsided and think that this is the only way of doing things; since you run the company and you are the boss, you're always right. No one's going to tell you that what you're thinking is bullshit. 

But when you're coming in as someone who has worked on projects with many other people, then I think you have that as a perspective. You have a reference and you’re mature enough to question things. That's a big plus. 

Katalyst had an exceptional culture and people loved working there, I always think about what was so great about that. At Unilever, people were super efficient and hard-working, and I now wonder how to build such an efficient operation. 

When your perspective is flexible, you can be far more effective at what you do than most people. 

IV. THE EVOLUTION OF COOKUPS 

Ruhul Kader

Coming to Cookups, as you mentioned, you had this discussion and after some back and forth Chaldal decided to acquire the company, what happened after that? I think we may start with, you took over the operation and started working and you have little idea about how things work, etc. From there how did you manage that and structure the company then you may tell us about what is Cookups today.

Nahita Nishmin

Initially, it was a lot of learning for me. The company was shut down for three-four months. But when we relaunched, some of the people who worked before came back. I had a lot to learn from them because obviously, they knew more than me at that time. I wanted to know everything from order placement to delivery to working with cooks. I started with doing everything like calling customers, getting orders and feedback, speaking with the cooks, speaking with the riders, and then looking into how to place orders manually, how to do delivery route planning manually, etc. By the way, Cookups had very manual operations. From planning routes to managing orders, everything was done using excel. I wanted to learn everything from scratch so I understood the system and how we could do better. 

I'm very thankful to my teammates. They taught me so much. I gradually learned the nitty-gritty of the operations. As I learned more and got a better understanding of things, it was a matter of time before I started to think about how we could build a better system. Initially, it was overwhelming. There were so many things to take care of. Gradually, we solved those problems one by one. There were times when I thought everything would break apart at any moment. 

We had different types of problems. The operation was a mess. We had a due problem, which we had to collect but were failing to do. To address the challenge we executed a system where riders are allowed to keep only BDT 50 due at the end of the month. Otherwise, they're fined. There is no incentive whatsoever for them to leave uncollected dues. 

After a lot of trial and error, we've got to a system that works for us. This is for every part of the operations. Even these days I know that this system is breaking. We are constantly tweaking things to see what works and what does not. It is a continuous process. 

Once you get into operations, it's hard to get out of operations. One person doing both strategy and operations is difficult. If you look after the operations, you can't do strategy because you're doing operations for 10 hours, where do you get the time to think and strategize? Operation is a never-ending thing. You think something is working today, but there is no guarantee it’ll stick tomorrow. So you always have some work left at the end of the day. Taking out that time to do strategy takes a lot of discipline. 

I'm generally good at operations. I understand what we need to do and our challenges. I understand this is what we need to do to get through the year. But that's still not a strategy. Strategic decisions are super important. We have things relatively established now. But still, everything is breaking all the time. But I have made it a ritual that I take one day a week, a Friday when I think about the strategic direction of the company. 

I have built a lot of relationships with our staff and with the people at Chaldal. I need a lot of help from Chaldal and they take time out of their schedules to help us. I have to give them credit because I'm not giving them any compensation. Building these relationships has been important for us. Yes, Cookups is majority owned by Chaldal. But that doesn’t matter for most people who are not assigned to work for Cookups. This is extra work for them. I spend time thinking about how I can build relationships that can help us grow. 

The other relationship I have built is with our cooks. We have over 2000 cooks and have an excellent relationship with them. The kind of personalities I have got to know has been an excellent experience for me. They're so different and have so many interesting stories. Without Cookups, I would never get to know these women. Our cooks are mostly women, mostly homemakers. There are some male cooks as well. But the majority of women. When I talk with our cooks, when they share a glimpse of their lives, it's so different from what I have, and then there are similarities. It has been very interesting and inspirational for me. 

Now I can talk about where the company stands today and how it is different. 

Nahita Nishmin

One way Cookups is different from what it used to be is that it's a 100% compliant company in everything i.e. accounting procedures, VAT, Tax, everything. It has been challenging but we have managed to come here. We're now in a position where we can accept investment from any investor. I don't know of many Bangladeshi companies who can say that. 

Second thing is that we have a new app and website. We discarded the entire old tech stack and rebuilt it from scratch. The code base of the old system was not something that could be built upon. It was not scalable. It was poorly done and the code was not good. We have rebuilt everything. Right now, the standard of our tech stack is world-class. That anybody can come into this and understand and get to work. It's a great starting point for any tech company. 

We now have different capacity-building programs for our cooks. We've learned about the needs of our cooks over the years and incorporated all those things such as support for pricing, sales and marketing, photography, and a lot of other things. We're further formalizing the curriculum so that we can provide these supports more frequently.

We've launched our catering business recently for corporates, home catering, and larger-scale gatherings. We want to do more of those. 

Over the last two years, we've mostly focused on building systems, improving our operations, and finding strategic upsides with new products and ideas. 

Our revenue has grown almost 100% over this period, which we've done almost entirely organically. I think it’s a huge achievement for the team in a world where people are burning left, right and center. We had to think hard and creatively. We've become leaner and more efficient. We are now a team of 11 people. People are working harder and smarter. We've not taken the easy route. We've built things the hard way. That is something I'm proud of. 

In our quest to be leaner and more efficient, we have shifted our customer service center to Jessore. Chaldal has a big presence there. As a sister concern, we get certain advantages. These are business decisions that we have made to be more efficient. We wanted to be so lean that you can't go any leaner (laughs). 

Ruhul Kader

You are a marketplace. On the one side, you have cooks, who sell homemade foods. On the other end, you have customers who order and get deliveries. From the outside, it's quite simple. But behind the scenes, it is a complex operation. Can you talk about the intricacies of the operation? 

Nahita Nishmin

As I was saying, 99% of our cooks are female and a majority of them are homemakers. An overwhelming majority of them earned their first income with cookups, which is something that we stand for. We give them an identity. Not just the livelihood, not just financial mobility but also the identity that comes with doing something meaningful and getting recognized for it. It offers our cooks a feeling that what they do is important. 

We have a team of smart riders who know how to handle cooked food and how to communicate with cooks. Restaurants are commercial places. They do these deliveries all the time. It is their business. But our cooks aren't like restaurants. They have no formal training. They come from all kinds of backgrounds. So they need a different kind of rapport. 

Our riders know how to establish rapport and work effectively with the cooks. If some food is not packed properly, our riders know what to do and how to ensure that the food reaches our customers properly. We train our riders in these areas. If you ask our regular customers and cooks, they will tell you the difference between our riders from riders of other ecommerce platforms. 

Ruhul Kader

What is your relationship with the cooks and how do you work with different partners? 

Nahita Nishmin

Let me start with our cook onboarding process. Anyone and everyone can't sell on Cookups. If you want to sell on Cookups, there is a stringent process you have to overcome. First of all, we will inspect your kitchen. We have a long checklist for kitchen inspection such as refrigeration, cutting process, garbage disposal system, etc. If you qualify through our inspection process, it means that you maintain strong hygiene standards. After the kitchen inspection, there is a quality check when cooks send us their best food and we taste it. 

Once you start selling through Cookups, we have ratings that tell us about your quality. When the rating for a cook goes below 3.5, we get into serious work. We call the cooks and try to understand what's going on and how we can help to improve, and so on. 

You may ask why cooks put up with all this hassle. Because they trust us. They know that if we call and offer them difficult feedback, it's because we have reasons to do so. We have built enduring relationships with these cooks. From the first day of onboarding, we give them constant feedback. They understand it. They recognize that quality is important and why we go to such lengths to ensure quality. At every stage, there is someone from the team putting in the work. So a lot of human interactions take place and relationships get built over time. We continue to monitor and help improve kitchen hygiene and quality. 

We run capacity-building programs for cooks where our teams get involved, I get involved. So many of our cooks know me personally. If they want help they can take it from the team. If the team can't help, they can directly knock me and I try to help. 

Relationships are important to us. Since we predominantly work with women and homemakers, if they don't feel the connection, they're just not going to be there. So building that connection is important. We do this consciously and religiously.

We ensure value through our capacity-building and training sessions. We have a lot of other interesting programs such as Meet your Favorite Cooks every month and special selections and elections! 

V. COOKUPS AMBITION 

Ruhul Kader

What are some of the things cooks can do using your app and website? Obviously, they can put up their food and customers can order them. Do you also allow them to advertise on the platform? Are there any other added benefits?

Nahita Nishmin

First of all, they can sell their products using the app and website. Besides, they can get their full accounting in the app. Obviously, they have to cook, accept orders and prepare them on time. Everything else is our responsibility. We do logistics, sales, marketing, and promotion.

We help with various challenges. For instance, if someone is facing challenges with sales, we provide them advice, help them to strategize, change what they offer, etc. We guide them with pricing.  

For catering, we do the curating like menu selection. We negotiate with the customers. We put together all the requirements so that our cooks don't need to worry about anything. They just need to get the food ready on time. 

Our vision is that we want to be a complete one-stop platform for home cooks. We want to offer them everything they need. We want to integrate features like boosting social media for cooks. But we plan to take it to the next level where they can do it on the platform. We plan to automate all these things for our cooks.

Ruhul Kader

How does your commercial relationship with the cooks work? Do you take a commission? If so, is there any uniform commission structure? 

Nahita Nishmin

We charge a commission. But we have diversified our revenue streams. We don’t earn from commission alone. We charge a small delivery charge from our customers. Number three is inspection income. When we're onboarding we have an inspection process for which we take a small fee. These are the major streams of income. 

Our commission structure is very conservative compared to many other players. We offer a ton of value addition to our cooks for the fees we take. It is not only selling through our platform, it is also a lot of other services that we provide for them. 

Ruhul Kader

You provide your cooks with a lot of different services. These are all expensive. From a P&L perspective, how does it look? I'm not asking whether you're profitable or not. But from an individual order perspective, if you compare the cost centers, and the gains, does it look healthy?

Nahita Nishmin

When I said we wanted to be leaner and most efficient operationally, why is that? Because we wanted our unit economics to look better. At this point, it looks good. We've worked consciously to improve it. As I said, we barely do marketing. Our digital marketing is mostly organic. Our paid marketing is very minimal. We rarely do offline marketing. And that's because we wanted to get to a state where we're very comfortable with our unit economics and then we wanted to invest in growth.

So we're getting there. A major cost center for us is the human cost — salaries. But I don't think we can go any leaner at this point in time without heavy investments in tech. 

We share tech with Chaldal which is working well for us. Being part of Chaldal has both upsides and limitations. One upside is that we have world-class tech which is super expensive but we get it for almost free. 

Ruhul Kader

Coming to the demand side of the platform, who are your ideal customers? Another question is about your growth. You said you have mostly grown organically, what are some of the things that are working for you in terms of organic growth? 

Nahita Nishmin

When we envision someone being a regular customer of Cookups that customer understands the food. They are choosing Cookups over other platforms where they probably could get faster deliveries and still they choose Cookups because they understand that our food is better. It is a platform where you can get food that you can't get elsewhere. It's not restaurant food. It's people who understand that home-cooked food is different from restaurant food. It's people who understand something that my Nani and Dadi used to make, I would not get it in a restaurant but I would get it at Cookups. It’s people who want customization — I want my food in a certain way. 

The second thing is that, as I said, it's not just any food delivery. They're aware that it may not be super convenient for them because they have to pre-order and pre-plan. But they get great food and they are giving a cook recognition and support with the food they buy!  

You also asked about organic strategies that have worked for us. The number one thing is quality. If you don't have great quality, people are not going to give you second chances. We have worked hard to ensure quality. We provide something to our customers that they can't get anywhere else. 

The second thing is that we don't see our relationship with our customers as merely transactional. We see it as valued relationships. When a long-time customer stops ordering, we call them. Many of them like the fact that we remember them like family. 

Ruhul Kader

I think you have an interesting TG, people who prefer homemade food. Many of them probably are dual-income households where both husband and wife work full-time and many of them may want to have some sort of subscription food service. Do you offer any subscription services?

Nahita Nishmin

Subscription is something that we want to try. But we’ve not been able to do it because our app wasn't ready for it until recently. Now we've built technology but we're still waiting because we need some resources for it.

You're right, we have a lot of dual-income households. So once we have the technology and the designs ready, we want to do healthy meal subscriptions and regular meal subscriptions, and we want to do tiffin for children. 

Ruhul Kader

Your website says, "our vision is to create a homemade revolution". I think there is a subtle indication toward what we just talked about that people are busy a lot and they don't have time to cook food at home, etc. Can you please unpack this vision for us? Where do you see the company going in the long run? What is the core thesis of cookups? Because there are other food delivery companies where people can order, why should people come to you? 

Nahita Nishmin

I told you the cooks' side of our vision — that we want to be a one-stop platform for our cooks. We want to provide them with everything they need.  

On the diner end, we want to be a platform for home-cooked foods for all kinds of occasions. You can have it as an individual. You can have it as a family. You can take our catering service for various occasions and events. So we want to be the platform for home-cooked food for all kinds of purposes. That’s one. 

We also want to be a platform where diners can interact with each other — a social platform for foodies. We want people who understand and love food to come together on our platform because they think it's fun to be here and interact with other foodies. That's the vision. 

Ruhul Kader 

I think this is a good place to end this part of the conversation. Thank you so very much for taking the time to speak with me. I appreciate it

Nahita

I enjoyed this very much. Thank you so much. 

Note: This was a much longer interview, so we had to divide it into two parts. This is part one. Please come back early next week for the final installment. 

Mohammad Ruhul Kader is a Dhaka-based entrepreneur and writer. He founded Future Startup, a digital publication covering the startup and technology scene in Dhaka with an ambition to transform Bangladesh through entrepreneurship and innovation. He writes about internet business, strategy, technology, and society. He is the author of Rethinking Failure. His writings have been published in almost all major national dailies in Bangladesh including DT, FE, etc. Prior to FS, he worked for a local conglomerate where he helped start a social enterprise. Ruhul is a 2021 winner of Emergent Ventures, a fellowship and grant program from the Mercatus Center at George Mason University. He can be reached at [email protected]

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