A couple years ago, a good friend of mine, who was in charge of operations at a food delivery company, got laid off after a merger - they kept the guy from the other side.
He decided to start his own thing. He personally knew and had earned the respect of many restaurant owners in the town. And the delivery guys just loved him. People would follow.
Just one problem: he didn’t have the software or the money to build it. He got a few quotes, all beyond his budget and reached out to me to make sure he wasn’t getting ripped off. He was not. He’d get a website, an admin panel, mobile apps… in 3-4 months. He didn’t have the time either.
So I did what any developer friend would do - I said I could build it over the weekend. It was Friday. Whatever we did that weekend made it possible for him to onboard the first restaurant on Monday. But this story is not about me being a superb engineer, which I am not. It’s about scaling down.
And down we scaled!
When you hear a “food delivery app” you probably imagine something similar to what you already have on your phone: list of restaurants with menus, placing orders with a few taps, tracking how your food moves on the map, tipping couriers and leaving feedback. We didn’t have any of that. We didn’t have push notifications or online payments either. In fact, there was no mobile app at all.
We had to work with some serious, immediate constraints: we only had that weekend as I was working full time back then. And even if we had the time, neither of us knew how to build a mobile app.
So we “scaled down” all the way to B2B. Turns out, more than a few restaurants in town would gladly handle the sales and marketing themselves and keep 100% of the order value minus fixed delivery fees.
All we built was a basic web app with a couple forms, and this is how it all worked:
- Restaurants would accept orders by phone, Facebook, Whatsapp, Instagram… Didn’t matter.
- They’d then fill in a form in our app with customer address.
- The app would assign the order to a free courier, triggering an email. Their Gmail was our mobile app!
- The courier would then pick it up, deliver, take cash on delivery, and mark themselves as “available” again.
- At the end of the day the couriers would bring in the cash, minus their cut.
- At the end of the month, my friend would wire the money to the restaurants, minus his cut.
This CRUDe (pun intended), ad-hoc and free MVP functioned for over a year, keeping all sides happy and profitable. Later my friend was able to afford building a fully-fledged app and eventually, to exit on his terms.
Each time I start a new project, I remind myself of this story and the important lesson I learned from it. It’s not about making friends with a developer, although having me at his side did help my friend save a few bucks. No, it’s about embracing the constraints. They proved to be his true allies, pushing him towards less features, faster launch and a better business model. Pushing him into profitability from day 0.
When you have the money and the time, it’s tempting to throw them at your problems. That way you have a good chance to get what you expect. But when all you have is your creativity, you might end up with something much better, something you would never expect.