When Sophie Kim moved to South Korea after 15 years in the United States, she couldn’t find where to buy kale for her green juice. So he found a farmer, then built an app to help others find top-quality produce.
Next-day grocery delivery service Market Kurly founded by 38-year-old Kim is now one of South Korea’s top unicorn startups, last valued at $3 billion and slated for an initial public offering by February.
Kim, a self-proclaimed “foodie,” came up with the idea after she grew tired of endlessly going from store to store to find the high-end groceries she wanted in Seoul’s supermarkets.
But he knew the products were out there and began driving to rural South Korea to find them, for example visiting the famous meat market in Majang-dong to stock up on half-a-cow beef, which he then split with colleagues of .
“While I was trying to understand why it was so difficult to access great quality, fresh food in Korea, I met some farmers and fishermen who had the exact same problem of not being able to find customers.” he told AFP.
Korean farmers “are proud of the fact that they can produce such fine quality products, but it is extremely difficult for them to reach the consumer,” he said.
At first, Kim said she considered creating a farmers’ market, before abandoning the idea as too cumbersome and — more importantly — useless for producers, who don’t have the time to travel to Seoul.
It was a moment when Kim realized “if we can make this work for both consumers and producers, it would probably be a breakthrough for the entire industry.”
Kurly customers — originally urban workers but now a different segment of society — can order rare beef, artisan bread or choose one of more than a dozen varieties of local, hard-to-find apples until 11 p.m. guaranteed delivery by 7am next morning.
As with companies from Amazon to Uber Eats, express delivery relies heavily on gig economy drivers, and Kurly has not been immune to global complaints about overwork and poor conditions.
But consumer convenience has proven key to the app’s success — though Kim says she’s most proud of how the complex data-driven logistics network she’s built supports South Korea’s beleaguered farmers.
Kim launched Market Kurly with 30 products, including her favorite cabbage, which was sourced from farmer Hwang Han-soo, who has been growing organic vegetables for 30 years at his farm in Gyeonggi Province.
Huang told AFP that his cabbage was initially only popular among cancer patients for its perceived health benefits. He sold so few of these that he considered changing crops, but the pleas of one of his ailing customers in Busan persuaded him to continue.
Agriculture is difficult in South Korea, Hwang said, because of low profit margins and a reliance on hard-to-find foreign workers, amid declining importance to the industry by young South Koreans.
But working with Kurly helped.
“In the early days of Kurly, we sold about 20 to 30 bags every day (but now) our average daily sales is about 800 bags” of cabbage, he said.
Part of the growth can be attributed to changing consumer trends, with cabbage now popular among young women who see it as a trendy health food, Hwang said, but Kurly’s next-day cold chain logistics network also plays a key role.
“It takes less than a day to go from harvest to the consumer’s doorstep,” he said, adding that before Kurly came it would take two or three days for his cabbage to reach stores.
The next-day delivery services are “very helpful because it’s a system that goes directly from the farm to the consumers,” while Kurly also handled all the promotion and marketing, he said.
“I can focus on farming,” he added.
Hwang also said that reading reviews of his products on the Kurly app has allowed him to feel more connected to the people who eat what he grows.
South Korea’s next-day delivery apps, including Kurly and competitor Coupang Fresh, have been criticized for the strain they put on delivery drivers, with local media reporting occasional deaths from overwork as workers make multiple deliveries each day. night.
The rise of such services has also siphoned off gig workers from other critical sectors, including urban taxis, where the supply crunch is so severe that the Seoul government recently raised base fares in an effort to entice more drivers to provide late-night services. night.
It is important for South Korean unicorns like Market Kurly to consider the social costs of their business models, said Minister of Small and Medium Enterprises and Startups Lee Young.
“It’s very possible that these platform companies will contribute to society,” he said.
“Market Kurly is a very good example because they have created a very innovative concept and they have gone through many struggles to achieve the current success.”