Startup Story #11: Devaraj Southworth on how Thirstie is empowering the Cocktail Culture with On-Demand Technology
Throughout the journey of Startup Stories, I have often discussed how a plethora of on-demand startups are making their way into our daily lives. CB Insights recently published an article, ‘Unbundling Craigslist – $8.87 Billion Raised to Date by Startups’, in which they discussed the growing trend of verticalization of mobile/web on demand marketplaces. As multiple startups with similar services are squeezing their way into a single market, they are highly recommended to offer something extra and out-of-the-box. One such startup that is providing not just a marketplace but also extra goodies is Thirstie.
This on-demand wine and spirits delivery company is working towards connecting Liquor Retailers and Customers via web and mobile based application. Not only this, this on demand startup also offers cocktail recipes, wine tasting notes and other cool things to keep its customers updated with the latest cocktail culture.
In conversation with Devaraj Southworth, Founder and CEO of Thirstie.
Q: Tell us about Thirstie?
A: Thirstie is an on-demand alcohol delivery service allowing you to get wine, beer and spirits delivered when you want it, where you want it. We cater to consumers who are embracing the convenience of on-demand services. Thirstie is also the go-to discovery tool for those seeking inspiration and want to dive deeper into the cocktail culture.
At our core, we are a marketplace. The software integrates with merchant inventory and allows consumers to browse, select and pay for these products entirely within the app or via our website. Consumers living an on-demand lifestyle are looking for an easy in-app experience and online social validation. A frictionless payment transaction is baked into it—all payment/credit card info is saved locally in the app and order confirmation is sent prior to delivery.
Thirstie was created by tech and liquor industry specialists who are deeply rooted in mobile and tech trends; offering solutions for user intent and sales driven content. We combine drink discovery with instant shopping and the gratification of timely alcohol delivery.
Q: How does Thirstie work?
A: Thirstie provides those that live on-demand lifestyles with an option to have the tedious task of picking up alcohol to be instead delivered to their home or office in 30-60 minutes. We’re a national company servicing Austin, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Miami, NYC, Long Island, Washington D.C., Jersey City, Hoboken and Norwalk, CT with Houston and Dallas launching next. Thirstie also guides consumers to discover drinks new and old through our content discovery platform at thirstie.com and in-app recipes. More to come.
We partner with local liquor store partners that provide delivery services. Currently we are partnered with more than 115 liquor retailers in major cities across the U.S. We work side by side with each and every retailer to make sure the integration process into their system is seamless with minimal training needed. Thirstie strives to be a tool of convenience for the consumer, but also a marketing tool for our retail partners that will help them to grow their customer base and improve retention.
Q: What made you and your co-founder decide to come up with the idea of On-Demand Alcohol?
A: We realized there is global trend that embraces on-demand in general; and by in-large this is a convenience play. When the product is at your door in an hour, it is addicting and people love the experience. Thirstie was created to empower the growth of cocktail culture in an on-demand world. The wine and spirits industry has taken notice of cocktail culture’s return as a result of new technological advancements, culinary innovations, the craft evolution, and high-end spirits products that have helped inspire both the novice and experienced bartender. We give consumers a tool that adds convenience to drinking and helps fuel those in-home celebrations.
Q: What sets Thirstie apart from the competition?
A: Thirstie sets itself apart from others by focusing on the consumer’s journey down the spirits purchase path. We are differentiating ourselves by building a parallel path alongside the consumer; being there from their initial point of discovery, all the way through to consumption. To do this, Thirstie is emerging as a content company that will enable and enhance its e-commerce platform. Content drives traffic and has an incremental effect on the consumer’s “purchase intent” and driving their repeat usage.
Since our focus is engagement e.g. in-app cocktail recipes, we offer our users much more than a just a “menu of products.” We have a seasoned and well respected senior team with years of experience not just in wine and spirits, but mobile tech, on-demand sales, and spirits compliance.
Q: Put some light on the technology used to build Thirstie?
A: Our technology is based on the best-of-breed technology standards using an open source stack to build the platform. We are currently using MySQL for the database, Python/Apache/Tornado for the platform, and Pearl/Object C/and Java for the Presentation applications.
Built for scale and requires a minimal investment in hardware and database infrastructure to be scalable to 100M+ customers. The Thirstie process and technology allows us to optimize for a Mobile first development approach. Separation of customer facing applications (Customer’s delivery application and the Merchant Dashboard) from the platform enables us to build across multiple verticals on the same platform in the future.
Q: What was technically the most challenging part of developing Thirstie?
A: The most challenging part about Thirstie was ensuring a smooth User Journey across the entire platform and with our partners while at the same time building a scalable, secure, and fast service. To build such a robust platform we have to manage the operations with our stores, integrate with partners such as Glympse & Foodily, and ensure a safe e-commerce experience for our customers’ purchases. Thirstie follows a Domain Based architecture approach to ensure flexibility and scalability; enforces a strict security policy for encryption, data transmission, and persistence with our partners; and uses a proprietary routing and delivery algorithm to ensure quick delivery to our customers from our retail partners.
Q: How are you marketing Thirstie to make it a first preference in the market?
A: Since our focus is on providing a full discovery-to-drink engagement plan with our in-app cocktail recipes and content, we offer our users much more than a just a “menu of products.” Consumers are increasingly interested in being a part of the cocktail culture and this is reflected by people hosting more parties, going to wine and liquor tastings and attending mixology courses.
Q: How is Thirstie contributing towards revolutionizing the on-demand sector?
A: We’re helping consumers experience and discover spirits, and delivering to them in 30-60 minutes — in essence we are changing the way consumers celebrate. We’re also helping small retailers, who tend to have very small budgets to attract customers. We help retailers expand their footprint by providing them with a digital platform to reach thousands of new millennial consumers that want the convenience of a streamlined and efficient delivery experience (versus visiting a retailer in person). And, lastly, we support the spirits producers as they typically have no direct path to communicate with individual customers.
Q: How are you planning to position Thirstie against prospective competition, and how will you sustain your USP?
A: Early-on, we understood the shopper’s main digital purchase conundrums and knew that content is a driving force for any transaction-based e-commerce platform. Consumers need to be educated, inspired to make a purchase, and retained through an engaging/beautiful experience. If you take a look at Thirstie versus our competitors’ web landing pages, you will immediately understand what we mean.
Q: How difficult it is to manage 100 retailers in cities like LA, Miami, New York & SF and to keep a check on the quality?
A: It’s all about being laser focused on customer service. Every day our operations team works with our retailers to ensure their delivery persons are up to speed, performing to mutually agreed upon standards, managers have extracted updated inventories, and most importantly they are happy. We also make sure to regularly update all store owner on Thirstie’s progress as a business, so they are always in the know. Happy retailers mean happy customers. And we take the management of these partner relationships very seriously and to date have not lost a single retailer.
We have a dedicated Customer Service team that manages orders and if and when there is an “uh-oh” moment, they’re on it. Unfortunately we cannot guarantee that things will run smoothly 100 percent of the time, but we have developed a solid system to help manage the process.
Q: Thirstie raised $1.1M in a recent round of funding. What would be your future plans for expanding Thirstie?
A: Launch our service in at least 10 new markets this year, speed customer acquisition, enhance product development, release several of our industry differentiators, sign more affiliate partners, and provide additional customer support.
Q: Where do you see Thirstie 5 years down the line?
A: We see ourselves as a global company offering the convenience of on-demand alcohol delivery to millions of people around the world. On-demand businesses work best at scale, so we see ourselves lowering delivery minimums to virtually nothing, and eliminating delivery fees so our service becomes accessible, and even more appealing to a broader audience.
Q: If given a chance to go back, what would you want to do differently that you could have done earlier?
A: Businesses, large and small, face numerous challenges. Determining what to prioritize, when everything is a top priority, is the biggest challenge of all. If we could go back in time, we would certainly do a few things differently. One thing we would have done differently would have been to give higher priority to the development of our content platform. More to come.
Q: What is the biggest hurdle that you faced or are still facing?
A: Fundraising is a hurdle that we’re currently facing. Even though the fundraising process was very straightforward, it takes a lot of time and organization. It’s difficult to keep the balance between raising capital and working on the product. Though our process was very straightforward, it’s crushingly time consuming. Communicating the message to potential investors that we are purely a marketing platform versus an alcohol company had its challenges, and took a lot of work. Lastly, pitching and getting a commitment is just half the battle. Getting your investor to execute agreements and wire the funds can take weeks if not longer — for no other reason than we all lead extremely busy lives.
This greenfield market also causes some moving and shaking that needs to be watched closely. There will be competition from both small and large players, and as a first mover and market leader, we see this as an opportunity. There will be failures, consolidation and buyouts by larger companies watching the start-ups test the waters. To avoid potential future obstacles, it’s imperative to have a pivot strategy. It’s especially important to be flexible and nimble.
While this isn’t a hurdle per se, it’s important that we are balancing our efforts to make our stakeholders happy. We must continually focus on the consumer and ensure you’re keeping them happy. It’s just a business reality. Given we have two sets of customers, our consumers and our retail partners, we need to keep both equally happy. That’s where our industry expertise not just in consumer products, but also on the retail side, will ultimately drive a superior experience for both stakeholder sets.
Q: Which Entrepreneur do you admire the most?
A: I am a big fan of Airbnb’s co-founders Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia. Although they had their share of struggles, they never gave up. When would-be investors laughed at them and told them in 2008 that that there was “no way” their idea would fly, Brian and Joe didn’t take no for an answer. They had passion, believed they could disrupt a market, and look at them now. They recently reported raising a new round of financing that values their company at $20 billion. The alcohol delivery marketplace is going to be full of challenges for sure, and though we are on course for success, it was hard in the early goings. I’ll always keep Brian and Joe’s story close.
Q: Any words of advice for all the startups out there who are trying to make it big like Thirstie.
A: Look to solve a real problem, focus on a large addressable market, build a strong, experienced team, and spend the time needed to find role players and future leaders. Ensure you have either a technical or product co-founder, and lastly be prepared to pivot sooner than you think.