Interview With Grocery Delivery Mogul, Tejas Viswanath
Tejas Viswanath was originally a member of the cutting-edge tech accelerator Y Combinator. Through hard work and innovative methods, the big ideas he had back then have become reality. Now, Viswanath stands as the founder of Chaldal, one of the largest and most efficient grocery delivery services in Bangladesh. Chaldal uses a futuristic method of micro-warehouses to sort and deliver orders in as little time as possible, and the company plans on offering 15-minute delivery in the near future.
We had a rare opportunity to speak with Viswanath about some of his most notable accomplishments, as well as the goals he’s keeping in the crosshairs.
You’ve been able to revolutionize an entire industry in Bangladesh. Here in the States, are you constantly analyzing different industries for opportunities to updates and innovations?
Viswanath: Yes, this is one of the strengths of Chaldal having a U.S.-based engineering team. Having one foot in Silicon Valley allows us to stay on top of the trends and then take the best of the those and apply them locally. Today we're using A.I. on GPUs running on Google's Cloud to predict our hourly perishable sales so that we can stock our warehouses accordingly. We have top-tier advisers from Y Combinator and other companies helping us on robotics. Our apps are built using the latest tech coming out of Facebook, and we buy biometric hardware purchased in San Francisco to control access to our warehouses.
Was Chaldal your first idea for a major business or were there other ideas that you decided to put aside for the moment?
Viswanath: I have always believed in a connected world from as far back as I can remember. My goal has been to build a very large connected platform where we can overcome inefficiency by connecting thousands of simple systems in order to make people's lives easier. I've spent most of my time over the last decade in research, and eventually I needed to apply my ideas, and this was one of the reasons I had for founding Chaldal.
While Chaldal appears to be a grocery delivery service from the outside, that's merely the tip of the iceberg. Underneath, there is a very large and growing interconnected network of vendors, distributors, manufacturers, wholesalers, and retailers running on our software, and it is this network that puts the cheapest and the highest quality groceries in the country at our customers’ fingertips. We're continuing to work on this network to reach further back into the supply chain and go as far back as farmers, and touch all other areas of commerce, and we’re eventually planning on also getting involved with imports and exports.
Do you follow any specific philosophies or guidelines when it comes to the management of Chaldal?
Viswanath: Simply, do what is right, no matter how difficult it is. Often we're tempted to take shortcuts to ease the workload on any given day, but when we are forced to think of the cost of these short-cuts, and their true impact, we realize that we're simply inviting pain for tomorrow. I keep reminding my team that we're not a simple online shop, and we're not a luxury service. There are hundreds of thousands of households that rely on us doing our job the right way, and that means never cutting corners.
Have you had the opportunity to speak with customers of Chaldal to hear about how the service has positively affected their lifestyles?
Viswanath: Yes, the entire C-team and the engineering team do deliveries so that we can understand our customers better, and respond to their feedback. This is one of the most important responsibilities of a founder. Those who wall themselves off in the higher floors of their companies will eventually lose touch with what's happening on the ground. When we meet our customers, we see both painful truths about where we need to improve, as well as heart-warming feedback. For instance, we encounter single mothers who are so stretched thin over taking care of multiple kids and aging parents, that the convenience and cost savings we add to their lives becomes significant, both on a financial and personal level. They rely on us to save them hours of work, since grocery shopping in Dhaka is an ordeal, to say the least. These are the moments when we know we've made a difference, and that encourages us to double down and provide even better service.
Did your family play a significant role in encouraging you to pursue your passion for technology and business?
Viswanath: My dad was an entrepreneur himself. He built an automobile manufacturing company in India. He was also a hands-on engineer, having spent well over a decade as the Chief Engineer aboard various large oil tankers. From a very early age, I was inspired by both of these qualities: having a business, with complete freedom to execute your plans, while at the same time being a hands-on engineer and knowing exactly what you're working on. While I manage a team of engineers today, I spend over 70% of my time directly involved in programming, and I doubt I will ever outgrow this, as many technical managers do. It is just too much fun, and it helps me stay grounded, close to where the technology is really happening.
Do you have plans to implement Chaldal’s methods and structure in other countries?
Viswanath: Yes, our technology of micro-warehouses and urban logistics can be deployed in any urban center in the world, and especially shines in areas with high population density. We're eyeing Jakarta, Kuala Lumpur, and Manila as our next targets, and we expect to expand to at least some of these in 2019.
While still in the process of starting the company, what was the most exciting moment for you personally?
Viswanath: There was a day when we hit over 100 orders, when we were still operating out of a small room that had bags of rice stacked on one side, various groceries cluttered all over the floor, and a small office table. There was a sudden panic and a realization that we'd outgrown this room, and that we needed to expand to a bigger warehouse. It meant that we were growing and that if we didn't do something about it very soon, we'd die. We've had a few more of these grow-or-die scenarios since then. They're simultaneously the most exciting and panic-filled moments.
We’d like to hear more about your time with Y Combinator. During that time, was there a specific atmosphere or tone that had an effect on your work or your outlook?
Viswanath: As entrepreneurs, you get used to working by yourself, and you don't have any peers to compare yourself to. This could be fatal, as a start-up has a sweet spot, normally two years, during which it needs to validate its concept and find a product-market fit. This requires the team to move very fast. When we started our Y Combinator program, we had to report our weekly progress in groups, and this automatically threw us into a competition. We didn't want to be that team that had no user growth during the week. Being that low on the ladder can be embarrassing. However, we very quickly realized that we were one of the few companies that already had a viable business model, and this pushed us even further to stay on top. We had a very successful three-month program where we were ranked amongst the top 10 companies graduating, and a very successful investment round followed.
Tell us about your personal relationship with the tech community. Do you often speak with other company leaders and programmers?
Viswanath: I love speaking to and mentoring young engineers, especially those who are passionate about writing code and don't view programming simply as a way to get rich, which unfortunately has become more common these days. It is so much easier to learn programming if you don't have an agenda and just focus on having fun. I regularly meet such programmers, and have lengthy conversations with them, and some of these programmers end up joining Chaldal.
I also like to encourage entrepreneurs to invest in developing countries since I believe this is the best way to have an impact around the world. Often, when we think of projects in developing countries, we take the approach of charity. But what very few realize is when such projects are approached from a business perspective rather than as an act of charity, it actually helps the economy of these countries far more, while also being a great business opportunity. It’s a win-win. GDP growth in developing countries such as Bangladesh, Vietnam, and Indonesia is far higher than it is in certain developed countries. I predict the next big tech companies will be those that think globally.