An entrepreneur from Athens whose London-based start-up was the darling of the British media for a few glorious weeks has written an inspiring, warts and all blog post about the highs he experienced riding the crest of a wave of publicity, the lows he went through as his business failed, and the “Pivot under pressure” that led to the successful launch of a new home-cooked food-delivery start-up which has already bagged $800k in investment and surpassed 1,000 orders per day.
Entitled “We’re F*cked, It’s Over”, a phrase coined by serial entrepreneur Ben Horowitz in his book “The Hard Thing About Hard Things”, WFIO for short, the post tells the story of Michalis Gkontas, an Athenian whose family sent him away to study in the U.S., France and China but who never learned to cook, despite his love of good food.
Inspired by the emergence of the “sharing economy” whilst he completed a Masters in Global Entrepreneurship, Gkontas hatched a plan to launch a start-up, a peer-to-peer marketplace for home-cooked meals, called Cookisto.
The idea was simple – hungry people could use an app to see who was cooking what in their local neighbourhood, and order some of it. Soon Gkontas had a co-founder, a childhood friend and chef par excellence named Petros.
As Gkontas puts it: “it was the fall of 2013, we had €10k, an idea and a name”. Cookisto was bubbling away nicely.
In the early days in Athens, everything went as well as the founders could have wished; Cookisto became “the talk of the town” (not bad for a city of 7m people) and soon Michalis and Petros had bagged £200k of angel investment and grown to a team of 6.
Perhaps hubristically, but certainly bravely, the team decided to relocate to London, “in order to learn from a mature market.”
Stuggling to gain recognition, “cold-emailing journalists didn’t work like it had in Athens, we were not the only story in town”, the team concocted the perfect journalist pitch – Greek entrepreneurs in London whilst back home, their country seemed destined to quit the EU. It seems a long time ago now, and heavily ironic, but “Grexit” was once the biggest story in town.
The journos bit, and soon Cookisto was being splashed across the pages, virtual or otherwise, of the BBC, Independent, Evening Standard, and even CNN, like confetti at a Greek wedding. In just a few months, the Cookisto app had been downloaded 40,000 times, and more than 16,00o portions had been delivered, “each paying us a modest cut”, recalls Michalis.
But in the section of the post entitled “Cookisto goes cold”, Michalis describes how the business, with publicity no longer fanning its flames, began to dwindle. The team tried everything to arrest the slide; “we became experts in analytics”, cries Michalis, “we became pretty darned good at hyperlocal marketing”, he wails, “we identified big residential buildings through Foursquare’s API so we could trigger personalized invite postcards residents of the building”, he explains with a founder’s eye for detail.
There was a resurgence – at one point Michalis had 40 Cookisto users in his own apartment block in Elephant and Castle – but sadly it didn’t last; “it could be a lifestyle business but not a mass movement that changes the way we eat. I was pedalling home for the last supper”, he remembers, “and we had arrived at the WFIO moment.” My kingdom for a late night moussaka? The pathos is only too palpable. If only the home-cooking had been more palatable.
They say success changes everything, but in Michalis’ case it was failure that proved the catalyst for change. With less than €35k in the bank Michalis becomes philosophical, quoting Horowitz;
“The Struggle is when you wonder why you started the company in the first place.
The Struggle is when people ask you why you don’t quit and you don’t know the answer.
The Struggle is when your employees think you are lying and you think they may be right.
The Struggle is when food loses its taste.”
Ouch! Don’t cry for me baked lasagne?
But Michalis took inspiration from the early struggles of start-ups like Airbnb, who famously had to pivot like a weather cock in a storm, as well as a quote from the book Only The Paranoid Survive: “Why shouldn’t you and I walk out the door, come back and do it ourselves?”
And that is what Michalis and Petros did. They “relit the fire”, and took their team (none of whom had asked to leave despite the turmoil) on a 3 day “huddle in the countryside”. Oh for a boss like Michalis, I hear you cry.
In one month they had returned to Athens and set up a healthy-alternative-to-fast-food-delivery business, codename “Launch Forky”.
Michalis was back on the motorbike helping out the delivery riders and “cold calling every lead offering them coupons to use our service”. The kitchen hit maximum capacity in August – a month when Athens is traditionally a ghost town – and Michalis and Petros completed an €800k seed round in January last year, led by Open Fund and Blue Wire Capital, and backed by the original Cookisto investors.
Has success ever tasted so good?
Today, Forky is something of a phenomenon. The start-up has partnered with Greek culinary giant Christoforos Peskias, who oversees culinary strategy, it employs 120 people, and has hired the ex-CMO of Delivery Hero Greece, the Rocket Internet backed “Unicorn”.
The company has surpassed the thousand daily orders “milestone”, invented the “Thermobox” for motorbike drivers and crucially, found “the sweet-spot between quality and convenience”.
“The path back from a WFIO moment is hard. We know, we walked it.”, concludes Michalis, before adding triumphantly, “Now we know We are Not F*cked and It’s Not Over!”
All in, it’s a truly inspiring and brilliantly written post that should probably be up for a literary award, and (in all seriousness) is also excellent on the technicalities of successful entrepreneurship.
Michalis’ epic is required reading for anyone who knows, or wants to know, what it is like to have lost everything, and slowly clawed it all back again. There are so many gems, (“Getting to product market fit is like getting high”) the HT won’t spoil any more of them for you.
Entrepreneur’s should make this story, which lurches from Homeric Tragedy to Kipling-esque stoicism, with a dash of “Boys own” adventure, bedtime reading for their kids.
They may well be Forking glad they did.