If a startup with a great idea but few takers can raise funding, then why not a Facebook group with over 50,000 members? Facebook group EatTreat raised $350,000 (roughly Rs. 2.32 crore) to become a full-fledged food portal. It's not the only one either, as other Facebook communities are slowly turning into active businesses.
While it may be easy to dismiss EatTreat as yet more funding in the 'hot' food-tech space - which has more than a few problems - EatTreat's founder Arjun Sawhney says that the problems in the space are with sites that don't actually offer any value to visitors.
"All these guys who jumped into delivery - what is the differentiator?" he says. Without naming anyone specifically, Sawhney says "dead sites" draw around 1.5 million visitors per month. He claims that users don't get any value from these sites. "There is a massive [lack] of content-driven websites," says Sawhney.
EatTreat, he says, aims to be a content-driven portal to address that gap. That fits in well with how the group was first created. "There were many [Facebook] groups coming up on food. I was a member of one of them. I went to a restaurant and wrote a bad review. The guy [restaurant owner] saw it and threatened me with physical violence," Sawhney says. "That's when I realised that there is no real content or discussion around food." He created the group as a place to generate that discussion.
The story behind Bring Me That From There (BMTFT) is similar. Its founders, Rahul Mansabdar and Vasudev Masur, started a Facecbook group in June 2014, to see if they could use travellers as couriers. "Within a month we organically grew to 2,000 members. We started seeing a lot of posts from people asking others to get items," says Mansabdar.
The idea is simple - if you want to buy something from the US or some other country, and don't want to pay an expensive shipping fee, then you could ask another BMTFT user, who is traveling that route, to help you out for a small fee. "We realised that there is an opportunity and launched the website once we hit 10,000 members," says Mansabdar.
The transition from a group to a website can be tricky, because there is a chance that members might not like founders trying to take ownership of something driven by the community. However, Mansabdar says BMTFT didn't face any such problems. "For our platform to be successful there has to be trust between members," he says. "To build that trust we made it mandatory for everyone to register with both mobile number and email. We introduced verified profiles, like those in Couchsurfing, where we manually check all information provided by users. This is currently free but we may charge for this later."
The new website also offers an escrow service where funds are parked until the item is delivered by the traveller to the buyer. Users can choose not to use this payment gateway, but verified profiles and the escrow service offer community members a reason to use the website. The Facebook group has over 18,000 members and Mansabdar says over 3,500 have registered on the website so far.
EatTreat is a bigger community than BMTFT, and as a result, wields more influence. "As we went from 0 to 60,000 [members on Facebook], we realised that the power of opinion was with us," Sawhney says.
He recounts the story of a woman who started a business via EatTreat. "A woman called Sangeeta Anand from Defence Colony called me and spoke about her biryani recipe. We posted the recipe and it became so popular that in a few months she hired a few people and started selling the biryani," he says. If Sawhney had any doubts about EatTreat's influence, this success story dispelled them.
As the group began expanding, Sawhney says restaurants and food ingredient companies started contacting him, asking if they could be featured on the group. This, he says, is a good monetisation opportunity. For example, instead of asking people to use green beans in a recipe, one could ask them to use Del Monte's green beans. Since EatTreat's plan is to run a YouTube channel too, its videos will also feature ingredients from sponsors, he says.
EatTreat's plan is to publish around 60 articles and 100 recipes per month. EatTreat has cooked and tasted each recipe published on the site, Sawhney says, adding that this gives them credibility. "All of our photos have been clicked in-house. Our focus is on presentation as well. We want to be the CN Traveller for food," he says. A triannual magazine, co-branded recipe books, and food festivals are all part of Sawhney's plans, built off the popularity that EatTreat has built on Facebook.
But if moving from Facebook to their own websites has enabled EatTreat and BMTFT to do much more than they were doing as groups, then it also means that the founders have much more responsibility than before. As a Facebook group, the most you have to do is to make sure that comments are moderated - something that Sawhney says was nearly a full time job by itself - but as a company, things are a little more complicated.
As a Facebook group, no one expects you to take responsibility for what members do, but if someone tries to seek illegal items via BMTFT's website, the founders will be held accountable. Mansabdar says a former Customs officer is an advisor and that they have ensured that people don't seek illegal items on the website. "We have a list of 20-25 categories and you have to select one of them before you seek an item. Liquor, medicines, and some other products are banned, in accordance with the law," he says.
People in India have been using it to get all kinds of goods, such as car keys, baby foods, electrical goods, among others from abroad. Interestingly, the site is also used by people in other countries to buy things from India. One product that's commonly sought from Indians by those living abroad is spectacles. Mansabdar says spectacles are usually a lot cheaper in India, which could explain it. What's perhaps most interesting here is that the users themselves develop the use cases - the founders didn't know what to expect when starting the groups, and it was the members of community who created value.
The community engagement that these groups provided has clearly proven to be a springboard for businesses - whether it was local businesses like cake delivery businesses that grew out of Facebook posts, to these new startups. So the next time you share a post on Facebook, you might be planting the seeds to the next big thing.