Mathew Joseph went to a government school near his home on the banks of Kaithapuzha lake, an extension of the Vembanad lake – the longest in India and the largest lake in Kerala. As a boy, he observed fishermen getting up in the wee hours of the morning, coming back with the day’s catch and the women going door to door selling the catch of the day. He was fascinated.
Each day on his way back from school, the boy from a lower middle class family also observed villagers look on with admiration as a black ambassador waded through the untarred village roads. When the curious youngster asked his father, he was told that the person in the car was a businessman. Young Joseph decided that he wanted to be a businessman. He wanted a black ambassador for himself that would garner the admiration of villagers.
Today, Joseph is COO and Co-founder of FreshToHome. He is credited with building the first online fish marketplace in India and world’s first online fresh fish market. The platform clocked revenue of Rs.1,200 crore last year, he reveals, in conversation with MediaNews4u.com.
There have been several ups and downs in the journey of what is today a D2C meat brand that inspires others. The seeds that were sown in Joseph’s mind as a young boy found direction when he landed up as an accountant in a seafood company after his pre-degree.
In Awe of Ambani
His shift was from 9am to 5pm. But Joseph stayed back at the fish processing department till 2am the next day.
“Curiosity about how the whole process was done inspired me to do that. Months passed and no one ever questioned me for being in a different department. This continued for around two years and one day the MD of the company called me. He said that one can get an accountant easily, but someone who has so much knowledge and passion about fish and the entire process is rare. In the early ’90s I was promoted as the Assistant Manager – Purchase. My journey started there. I travelled across the harbours in India. If you ask me what my investment or biggest achievement is, it is the relationships I have built in each harbour during my stint with that company. Even today if I go to any of these harbours, there will be at least one acquaintance of mine,” says Joseph, reliving his early days.
After 11 years, he decided to move on from the company and venture into business. He took a train to Gujarat to meet Dhirubhai Ambani.
“The only wish I had at that moment was to meet Ambani and shake hands with him. I consider him as an inspiration in my entrepreneurial journey. From a humble background he went on to become one of the richest men in the world. My Hindi was so poor, yet I decided to take the plunge and took a train to Gujarat. But I was informed that he has moved to Mumbai – that was indeed a disappointment,” he notes.
That didn’t stop his entrepreneurial journey, which started as a supplier to seafood exporters in Kerala’s Aroor, a hub even today with over 100 factories.
“After running the business for over two years, I started facing hurdles. The exporters were not prompt with their payments. This made me think of starting a seafood exporting company. A friend informed me that Dubai has a lot of business opportunities for fresh fish. In 1999, I took my first international trip to Dubai, stayed for two weeks to study market opportunities. It was the right time to launch the business as the Cochin International Airport was inaugurated. My first business venture Atelier Exports was launched,” he explains.
A Game-Changing Conversation
The seafood was packed in thermocol boxes, one side of which had the company name and contact details. Thanks to which, with no marketing, Atelier started getting orders from Singapore, Saudi Arabia, Taipei and Australia. Word on the quality of its products spread.
Business was smooth until 2008, when the global recession struck. The aftereffects were telling. Clients started reducing prices, payments were delayed.
“You can call it passion or madness; despite the situation I continued the business at the same pace for another two years. Within that period, I lost everything – the savings I had till then, land, vehicles, other properties etc. I was on the brink of bankruptcy. I had a family to take care of and I vividly remember; I sat down at the dining table with my wife and kids and narrated the situation,” reveals the entrepreneur.
Little did he know that a conversation he would have with his wife that night would change his fortunes forever and herald online fish marketplaces.
“My wife, Lillamma Mathew, asked me whether the recession has affected the fishing harbours in the country. She asked why we can’t start a business in India. I am what I am today because of that question she posed,” he recalls.
While the prices at which fish was sold at harbours was coming down, demand for the product was going up. Therein lay an opportunity Joseph would not miss.
The First Customer
When the entrepreneur started researching, he realised that the Indian seafood market during the time was valued at $50 billion. And the most modern way of selling fish was through outlets. His plan was to start four outlets each in Delhi, Bangalore, Kochi and Trivandrum. When he started visiting an outlet at MG Road, Kochi, he realised that it was not the way forward. When the plan to open outlets was abandoned, the idea of selling fishes online popped up. Joseph registered the company and a small software company in Kochi built the online platform. While looking for similar ventures, they found none.
SeaToHome.com was launched with technical help from the software company and three students from Kerala University of Fisheries and Ocean Studies, Panangad, in 2012. It launched in Delhi, Bengaluru, Kochi, and Trivandrum. On the first day, the portal got five orders, the first of which was from Joseph’s friend Dr. Natarajan. The business grew through word of mouth.
After four months, he got a call from Forbes magazine. During that conversation he realised that SeaToHome was the first online fish marketplace in India and world’s first online fresh fish market, recalls the unassuming business leader. It was the first brand to address the branded seafood market in India – and his friend Dr Natarajan, the first person in India to buy fresh fish online.
The word spread; Joseph started getting featured in different media. The day Malayala Manorama published an article about SeaToHome, the site had around 1,000 visitors and crashed. The site kept crashing thereafter. Without access to more advanced technology, Joseph decided to shut the site in 2014. Destiny had something else in store.
SeaToHome To FreshToHome
Shan Kadavil from Bengaluru ,the current CEO of FreshToHome, then Country Head of gaming major Zynga and a regular customer of SeaToHome, called Joseph.
“He asked me why the platform was not functional. I narrated my situation and the technological challenges the brand was facing. After multiple meetings I understood that he is the best person my brand can have. The brand had a makeover and we decided to add meat products to the platform, hence renamed it as FreshToHome in 2015. I will give Shan and the team the entire credit of making FreshToHome what it is today,” underlines the Co-founder.
D2C Meat Challenges
It is common knowledge now across the industry that some of the D2C meat startups have burnt their fingers – while burning up investor money. We asked the veteran who has been through global recessions and tech challenge-induced shutdowns about the current state of affairs.
Joseph believes that for any D2C fish and meat brand to succeed, the supply chain should be intact. Many emerging players are losing out because of lack of planning and management, he opines.
“There is a lot of expense involved from the first mile to the last mile of running a D2C brand. It should be controlled well with the help of technology and professional management. For seafood businesses like ours, I manage everything personally and when required I will be present in the harbours in the wee hours of the morning. But there is a limitation for me reaching there personally, hence we introduced an app,” he explains.
The app is exclusively for fishermen. If there is a particular fish available at one harbour, the fisherman will click its picture and details like weight and rate. Since not every fisherman might be able to read, these are colour-coded. If FreshToHome wants to accept the quote, it will send a green reply, else red. FreshToHome has received a patent from the US government for the app.
In terms of scale, FreshToHome has 41 collection centres in India and is doing business in 150 harbours on a daily basis.
“To turn profitable in this kind of business is a tough journey. FreshToHome is profitably running in our matured cities like Bengaluru and Delhi. In 2018 we attained breakeven in these cities. By next year, Kochi and Mumbai will turn profitable. In cities like Hyderabad and Chennai we started operations last year, as of now the business is faring well in those cities as well. The UAE market which started operations two years back has already attained breakeven,” explains Joseph.
Bengaluru contributes 30pc of the business followed by Mumbai and Delhi. With the brand witnessing 100pc growth in Tier 2 cities in Kerala, Joseph plans to expand operations in more such cities in the state.
The company, which counts Zynga’s founder Mark Pincus, Google Ventures’ CEO David Krane, Fortress Chairman Pete Briger, Mashreq Bank Chairman Abdul Aziz Al-Ghurair and Sequoia’s Rajan Anandan as early backers,is eyeing an IPO.
Joseph notes, “News about global recession is emerging, so we don’t have any clue of what is going to happen next as our investors are from the USA and Europe. As per our plans, within two years we will be going for an IPO.”
In Growth Mode
Global recession didn’t keep Joseph down and it doesn’t seem like it will in future. In the Covid-induced lockdowns, the category of D2C meat saw phenomenal growth, for obvious reasons.
The brand onboarded actor Ranveer Singh as its brand ambassador and launched a campaign featuring him during the T20 World Cup on Disney+ Hotstar. A new campaign has been planned around March 2023. This of course would depend on future funding and the global recession.
The marketing spends are aligned with revenue flow. At times itis 20pc of revenue while the number can go down to as low as 5pc. The brand is eyeing a revenue of Rs.1,500 crore within 2023.
FreshToHome acquired Doodhwala.com in 2019 and started FTH Daily, an online platform for fresh vegetables, fruits, groceries, functional in Bengaluru , Hyderabad and Pune.
“We are planning to expand FTH Daily to other markets as well which will be decided soon. The platform is working well for us as of now,” notes Joseph.
The brand is also planning to expand the business to Saudi Arabia and Oman from the UAE, while studying opportunities in the USA and Europe.
Asked whether he regrets giving away stakes in the company, Joseph says, “Never. I believe that is one of the negative attitudes of some Indian businessmen. Some of them are reluctant to giving their 100pc into the business but want to hold on to 100pc of the shares. The company will have limited growth if that attitude is followed. Take Flipkart and Binny Bansal as an example. During the time of sale, Bansal had only 6.5 pc of the share. If he and Sachin Bansal would have kept the shares to themselves then Flipkart would not have achieved this humongous growth. We have to open our minds and hands for the business to flourish. We must accept and provide chances to newcomers; they are full of innovative ideas.”
A lot has changed since the young boy watched the ambassador pass by. The roads in Joseph’s village are tarred now. A luxury car drives through them today, carrying a businessman who dreamt of a different future.
(Content powered by www.MediaNews4u.com. Simultaneously published under exclusive arrangement by The Free Press Journal BrandSutra.)