Someone with a background in corporate banking might not seem like your typical organic produce entrepreneur, but the birth of her son in 2004 prompted Vasa Srbinoski to source fresh, affordable food of the organic variety.
Unimpressed with what was available, the Sydneysider launched ecofy, which is largely centred around a simple website.
Since 2008, ecofy has delivered fresh produce throughout Sydney on a weekly basis, in addition to delivering non-fresh produce throughout the country.
StartupSmart spoke to Srbinoski about starting up in what is tipped to be Australia’s fastest growing industry in 2011.
What convinced you ecofy would work?
My own experience and the experiences of people around me [convinced me it would work].
I spent four years just being a customer of organic food businesses. I used to buy things from different places and found that the quality wasn’t great… I was getting really dissatisfied with what was available in the market.
I talked to my friends, who also had young children, about this stuff and they had the same frustrations, and I found that I was telling them where to buy stuff from and they were coming to me to help them. That sort of planted the seed for the business.
I also looked at the growth of the industry. If you looked at the numbers back then, organics was growing at something like 30% per annum. And if you look to the States and Europe, you could see that we were way behind.
How did you fund the business?
It’s all been self-funded. The biggest cost has been in the website really – about $10,000 [was spent on the website].
The business itself is really the produce and when you have a business that’s efficient enough to receive its stock and get rid of it quickly, there’s no big warehouse or fridges or anything – it’s all just the process of getting it in and timing it carefully so that it comes in and goes out straight away.
Was your online presence always an element of the business?
Yes, that was one of the first things we set up. We started out through word-of-mouth and pretty basic marketing. Initially, we started out with a small customer base that was enough to kick it off and it’s been slowly growing since then.
Food is a highly disposable product. Does that impact on the upkeep of the website?
We’ve got pretty good shopping cart software; it’s really flexible. We manage everything ourselves – there’s no need to go to developers unless there’s a functionality change or a design change that we need to make.
With regard to the shopping cart software, we’ve worked out how to use it in a way that works for us, so there’s been very little customisation.
I think the biggest challenge was getting all the content on. It took a couple of months. Finding ways to make it really simple for people was also a challenge. If you look at other websites that do this kind of thing, there’s a lot of stuff and they’re very complicated.
Ours is extremely simple. When you look down the list of fruits and vegetables, you can see a little picture, it tells you how much it is and you can just order it.
It’s about using the real estate in a clever way so that it looks simple and it’s easy to use. People aren’t going to muck around – they want to do their order quickly.
Do you buy everything directly from organic farmers?
I do with some things – not everything. I’d like to buy a lot more direct from growers but to offer the variety that we do and to access all the premium products [means] some of that stuff comes through wholesalers.
How do you make yourself known to growers?
We just ring them up. They just see me as another buyer of their produce, but I do have good relationships with the growers.
I talk to them and they really love to get feedback on their produce… Building up trust with them has taken a few years.
How do you meet your delivery demands?
We do some deliveries ourselves and we outsource some deliveries. We use a courtier service to reach the outer regions of Sydney so that we can deliver throughout Sydney. It’s a very big business – they do Lite n’ Easy. Then for local deliveries we use our own drivers.
It was a bit of trial and error [to find an external delivery service] but the ones we’ve found now are very good. We’ve found couriers who were just unreliable and too expensive and they were terrible, but you have to kiss a few frogs before you find your prince.
[Having two forms of delivery] gives us good flexibility because we can map out where we need to go; it’s different each week.
Our basic thing at the moment is to limit our delivery days – it’s only one day a week at the moment.
Eventually, we’ll probably have two but we find one day works really well because people order by a Tuesday – a lot of them order over the weekend – and they get a big delivery of everything that’s coming fresh to us on the Thursday.
How many staff do you have?
We’ve got about six at the moment. There were two in the beginning – myself and a friend of mine who works in the business.
A lot of the packing is done by local mums who live in the area. It’s a source of income for them that they might not otherwise have because they’ve got their families to look after.
What’s your vision for the business?
We see ourselves as not just trying to increase our slice of the organic market – in Australia there’s estimated 4% of people who buy organic food regularly – but we also see ourselves as being able to take a slice of the market that currently only buys conventional [produce].
As organic produce does become more mainstream, how will you differentiate yourself within the market?
Our point of difference at the moment is that we’re not a traditional business. This market at the moment is full of shops that have massive overheads and staff that stand around all day – we’re not one of those. We don’t have those prices and those overheads to deal with.
At the other end of the market, there are market stalls where there’s really no accountability. You’re buying from someone who you might think is the grower, they might be a reseller, you don’t know if their stuff is certified organic – you’ve got no recourse to that business.
We make sure our growers are certified and that they can show that to you. There are eight certifying bodies in the country at the moment and they’re certified with one of those bodies.