Jahnavi Goel runs a small gifting business in south Mumbai that assembles everything from baby clothing, candy and marshmallow pop to beer, cocktail, miniature alcohol bottles and champagne bouquets. But until last June her J's Bouquets couldn't take orders from places like Andheri, in the west of the city, too far for her driver to go and drop the gifts. It was then that she came across GetMyPeon, as she browsed her Facebook pages. The start-up, a local errand-running service, promised same-day deliveries at Rs 200 a task; all mundane work from bill payments, to parcel pick-ups to getting movie tickets. Goel now uses GetMyPeon six to eight times a month, dispatching delicate bouquets to far-off places like Navi Mumbai.
Like Goel, many others in the 18 million-strong city need to get plenty of small tasks done but Mumbai's fast-paced life leaves them with little time. Until a few years ago, tasks such as bill payments or grocery pick-up were done by drivers and maids - both are now getting expensive. Also, drivers are difficult to come by with mushrooming taxi services such as Ola Cabs. GetMyPeon smells blood.
The start-up's command centre is near Eat Around the Corner, a European-style eatery, in Bandra's Pali Hill. The office is bustling with chatter. Between the posters of Mahatma Gandhi hung on a yellow wall and Steve Jobs a little away, sits the round-faced, clean-shaven and expressive Bharat Ahirwar, the company's 29-year-old co-founder. He enthusiastically talks of why Mumbai needed an errand-running company. "People are in a crunch for somebody who can do a reliable job and understands what he has to do."
The company is busy building credibility as a trustworthy organisation running all kinds of errands. An NRI from New York wanted to bite into a vada pav at the international airport, between flights. The pav was delivered from near Mithibai College in Vile Parle West. Someone forgot his iPad at the airport, so GetMyPeon picked it up. Yet another customer wanted his Tata Nano serviced. He handed over his credit card with the pin to a company employee. A dress, worth Rs 40,000, has been picked up from Mumbai and delivered in Pune.
The company is small enough for the founder to do all the job interviews himself. He typically asks his candidates to tell stories - about themselves, families, education, their likes and dislikes. Background checks are then carried out to verify the stories candidates tell. "If they are students, we see if they are really studying. Then there is police verification," Ahirwar says. "Our background checks of employees have been thorough."
The company, according to Ahirwar, has only spoilt one cake last summer. The cake melted because the customer insisted the GetMyPeon staffer travels by bus. The company's workers mostly take the train to deliver their parcels. In Mumbai, that's the fastest mode of transport - it also keeps costs under control for the start-up. Getting a handle on costs was a priority because the company is self-funded.
For a year after he started GetMyPeon, Facebook and Twitter were his only source of reaching out to customers. The company now has a good-looking website and a mobile app is coming soon. Venture funding will be required to scale, and expand to other cities. "Operationally, we are making enough to pay everybody's salary. We want to run 150 to 200 tasks a day consistently for three months before approaching VCs," Ahirwar says.
VCs Business Today spoke to had different takes on the company. Some thought it is a good model but are worried about scalability - like in information technology services, it is also a people business but at Rs 200 per transaction, is very low value. "GetMyPeon is a good idea. It's an example of a local business coming online. However, it is unlikely to scale nationally," says Sharad Sharma, Co-founder of software product think tank iSPIRT and an angel investor.
But V. Balakrishnan, a former director at Infosys who recently turned a venture capitalist, says any model that provides a greater user experience with convenience and low costs will succeed. "I think the GetMyPeon.com concept will resonate well with a majority of people who want to lessen their focus on mundane things. It will also tremendously help to improve their productivity by freeing up their time and focus on big things in life"
Ahirwar, however, is not connecting customers with workers. He employs them full-time. In any case, he disagrees that the model is not scaleable. It has worked elsewhere. The US-based TaskRabbit, which started in 2008, connects customers to workers at hourly prices. The company has raised nearly $40 million in venture funding and has expanded to 19 cities, including London.
"This is a field that cannot move online. Drones cannot do our job either. And there are international players who have justified this model," Ahirwar reasons. "I may not have a 1,000 people running around. But I will have at least 100. We will take it slow but we will do the right thing," he adds.
The founder is dreaming beyond India, too. The Gandhi poster in his office has a bold message: 'Man is product of his thoughts. What he thinks, he becomes'.
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