It was January 17th when I woke up to a text from my wife, Bianca, that linked a New York Times article entitled, Three US Airports to Check Passengers for a Deadly Chinese Coronavirus. Bianca continued to say, “This is very disturbing to me. When you wake up, please read and reassure me”. Meanwhile, I was on a beach in Diani, Kenya living large. I honestly didn’t think much of what was going on. I thought to myself,
“This is a tragedy for China, but how could this possibly impact me. It will surely just pass.”
I shrugged off Bianca’s worry by saying, “This travel ban is only for people traveling from China, this shouldn’t impact me”. I then continued to eat lobster on the beach and slurped down another Watamu Oyster.
As a startup founder, I had no idea how significantly this pandemic would affect the economy or my core business. It wasn’t until the last few weeks that I realized how this situation would present major challenges to both buyers and suppliers I am working with.
My startup, E-Fish, is a digital marketplace for efficient and transparent sourcing of Seafood. We are on a mission to empower fishermen (currently working with Oyster, Clam, and Mussel harvesters in the NE) with the tools to move into internet 2.0, while bringing chefs closer to the source of their ingredients.
How does COVID-19 Impact the industry?
Restaurants: Small businesses all around the world are getting crushed. Low foot traffic combined with the global markets plummeting, led to low demand for eating out. The cherry on top was when many states across the US banned dine-in experiences.
Shucking oysters and cooking clams at home, just doesn’t happen!
While take-out seems to be barely holding many restaurants up, I want you to think of the last time you ordered oysters or steamed clams for take-out. It just doesn’t happen!
Harvesters: While restaurants are getting hit hard by all of this, harvesters of seafood arguably have it worse. With declining demand for their products from fish markets and restaurants, they’re in a difficult position. Many of them are sitting on product, that they have already paid to extract, but have little to no buyers. In addition to their overhead remaining constant and reduced revenue, they’re also experiencing returns from their buyers!
Time to Adapt
As an aspiring online seafood marketplace for restaurants, everything about today’s economy put us at a standstill. We had to make the decision of whether to continue banging our heads against the wall or do something to support buyers and suppliers. While it seemed like a lot of people were working to support local restaurants, it seemed like harvesters got left by the wayside.
While it seemed like a lot of people were working to support local restaurants, it seemed like harvesters got left by the wayside.
After a long day of being locked indoors watching a marathon of Survivor on Hulu, my wife and I decided to treat ourselves with a walk around the Charles. We spent the time brainstorming ways to help restaurants and fishermen. That’s when Bianca came up with the idea to ship products to individuals who were in isolation. I initially pushed back pretty heavily because that’s not the core of our business. We’re B2B, I thought. This would just lead to time spent away from our core. In thinking of what my entrepreneurship professor, Bill Aulet, might say, “That’s not what disciplined entrepreneurship looks like!”.
“Focus on the problem you’re out to solve, not just the solution!” — Dip Patel
After sleeping on it, I came to the realization that supporting harvesters is my core! Although we would be shipping to retail customers instead of chefs, my wife’s idea wouldn’t really be a detour from our core. I decided to text Harvester Stephen at Chatham Shellfish to see what he thought. I said,
“Hey Steve! I wanted to let you know that we’re here for Chatham Shellfish during these crazy times. If you want to talk about creative ways to move product, I’m fully available to be a sounding board. I definitely have a lot of classmates that are stuck indoors that I could reach out to and send to your website. Let me know if you want to chat”
Within two minutes I had a response back from Steve, “That sounds good. I hope that some e-commerce could help ease the pain. Thank you!”
I then posted the following message to a few Whatsapp groups at MIT:
Within an hour I had to lock down the site because we had already reached capacity. I was getting messages from people I had never heard of, who didn’t even go to MIT that were interested in signing up. It quickly scaled across the Charles to the Harvard Business School campus as well. By the end of the night I had multiple classmates helping me pull this off. From Connor McLane optimizing my delivery route and recommending the shipment capacity, to Emily Meade who helped organize the spreadsheet to help me track the order to send to Steve, the MIT Sloan motto of Sloanies helping Sloanies really came together. The cherry on top was my classmate Javier Renna who spent the next day (8 full hours) driving me down to Cape Cod to pickup the orders in his car.
Making the Deliveries
When the dust settled, we had sent an order for 24 packages, totaling over $1,000, to Chatham Shellfish. After much planning, Javier and I drove 2 hours south to Chatham, MA. In his mid-sized SUV, we weren’t even sure 24 boxes would fit! After 2-hours, we had arrived. We drove along the broken oyster-shell covered driveway to arrive at Chatham Shellfish.
We walked into the small shack on the water to find Farran Jalbert finishing off the packaging. She was running a tight operation with all 24 boxes lined up with the orders written in Sharpie on the side of the box. Each order was a mixture Oysters, Mussels, and shucking knives. She did a tremendous job hand-packing each box and managed to keep track of it all. She was telling us how the day before they had a return of 3,000 oysters from a distributor because restaurants just weren’t buying, so this was a nice change of pace for her.
Javier and I loaded up the car and hit the road back to the city. We then spent the next 4 hours driving door-to-door making deliveries. The results speak for themselves. We got graduate students to cook mussels and shuck oysters, while putting over $1,000 into the pockets of a local fisherman.
Once all of the packages had been safely delivered, it was show time. I had promised these customers a tutorial of how to shuck oysters and how to cook mussels. I got the Instagram live loaded up, the ingredients organized and took the plunge.
It’s show time
To be honest, this was a ton of fun. For a second in time, all of the worries of what was going on in the world around me had dissipated. These random acts of silliness have the ability bring out the best in a community. Not to mention, my classmates made some insane meals!!
I was and still am so shocked by the abundance of support from my classmates throughout this time. From Javier Renna dropping his Wednesday self-isolation plans to drive his car 2 hours south to Chatham to pickup the packages. To Emily Meade and Connor McLane keeping me organized all along the way — This would have been incredibly difficult without all of your support. Most importantly, the 24 students that opted to order-in products (Mussels and Oysters) that they likely have never cooked before, truly supported a harvester when he needed it most.
Building a startup is an insane roller-coaster of mixed emotions, anxiety, and even some fulfillment. Founders must stay focused, but not too focused that they miss the broader world changing around them. Always remember what you set out to do. If you are there for your customers in the lowest of lows, just maybe they will remember you through the highest of highs. This experience helped me to realize who my core really is. We are in business to support harvesters, no matter the times or circumstances. Stay healthy and stock up from your local harvester.