Kurly was founded in 2014 in Seoul, South Korea, by Sophie Kim. She grew up in Uslan, a city in Southeast Korea. Although she had a passion for upscale food, she considered the discrepancies between rich and poor countries. In high school, her mission began to form, finding a way to help people live better with good food. These were the early roots of her company. Before circling back to her dream, she worked at Goldman Sachs and South Korean Investment firm Bain Capital. Even though she worked abroad, her heart remained with her native country, and she kept asking herself one question, why don’t people in South Korea have access to the freshest possible produce. As she began to delve deeper into the problem, she realized that mass distribution always won out over quality and knew that she needed to change that. Another reason Kurly has become wildly successful is that Sophie Kim founded the company because of a problem she was facing. Constantly, she would go to her fridge and see wilted vegetables or other things that had not been eaten soon enough. She realized she couldn’t be the only one with the problem. When the company started, they were known as The Farmers since, unlike other players in this vertical, they focused on farm-to-table dining and upscale products. According to the Wallstreet Journal, founder and CEO Sophie Kim tastes each product before selling it to her customers. It’s a unique business model because they put their customers before their bottom line. These are 20 things you didn’t know about Kurly
Kurly started with a single customer. According to their website, Sophie Kim knew someone looking for ingredients for a sauce they wanted to create. One of their key focuses was the quality of ingredients. She realized the need for a company like hers, focusing on the volume of ingredients; they focus on the quality and sourcing locally. As the business has grown, so has the websites recipes and offerings. Yet, no matter how big the company gets this story is the thread that runs through the business. Find the freshest ingredients and allow customer to have the freshest food at the best price possible.
2. Unicorn and a rainbow
Although the company is one of South Korea’s 13 unicorns, it’s not yet a profitable company. Another standout for this company is that even after seven years and multiple rounds of funding, founder and CEO Sophie Kim still owns over half her business. Aspex Management, DST Global, Sequoia Capital China, and Hillhouse Capital invested in the Series F round. CJ Logistics and Millenium Management also joined the previous investors.
3. Unique market
Especially during the Pandemic, people sought out food stores that delivered. However, many of them are run of the mill, and over time, people probably grew tired of the same old same old food products. Kurly elevates its offerings by not only supplying staple items like milk or eggs. The platform also focuses on foods that one would expect to find in specialty stores. According to Hani, one of the items Kurly offers for delivery is bread from an authentic French bakery, one that lines circle the block to buy. Another thing their website offers is freshly caught seafood.
4. Move over Jimmy Johns
With specialty items like this, one might think it would take longer for the items to be delivered. However, the company has a rapid turnover time. If groceries are ordered by 7pm, they are delivered by 11am the following day. In fact, the company is known as the “Amazon of South Korea.”
5. Glass ceilings
According to The Investor, Sophie Kim was listed as one of ten top female founders from around the globe. Additionally, the amount of capital she raised, 282 million dollars, ranked at the number on the list. Kim was the only woman from South Korea.
6. Supporting the local economy
There is a significant go green movement. Many people enjoy the convenience of an online grocery store. Yet, don’t want to continually fund companies that ship in produce globally and end up polluting the economy. According to Asia Nikkei, all of Kurly’s produce and freshly caught seafood arrive 24 hours after being captured or harvested. Additionally, Sophie Kim spent a lot of time looking at local recipes and beginning to craft recipes for items that may take longer for the customer to have fresh ingredients and save their time for something more substantial.
7. Disrupting the market
One of the things that makes Kurly so successful is that it cuts out the middle person. Owner Sophie Kim has formed relationships with the customers. She also buys products directly from them in advance, allowing them to focus on their trade and not about marketing or other things. This also helps Kurly keep its prices low because farmers typically keep their prices high, but the assurance of a sale allows them to sell at a lower rate.
8. Real marketing
Many times companies oversell their products and what you see is not what you get. However, instead of just using stock images or selling something that bears little to no resemblance to what the customer receives, Kurly employs what they call a “food stylist,” allowing them to take photos that reflect their fresh product.
9. Data matters
Since Kurly’s focus is on people and what they want, they always look at inventory and buying. This allows them to stock food and works with buyers for the items most requested. Additionally, the product doesn’t waste if they commit to purchasing something they will no longer need.
10. Keeping ethics
Although Kurly could scale faster than it has, CEO Kim doesn’t want to do that because she’s more focused on keeping her original platform built on quality and freshness instead of mass-produced foods shipped globally. Another thing the company offers is ready-to-eat meals similar to Hello Fresh or other similar companies. However, Kim takes quality control to even higher standards. Since she tastes all the food before selling it to her customers, she tasted one recipe thirty-one different times to find the best possible taste for her customers, according to Nikkei Asia.
11. There’s a face
Working with local people is one of Kurly’s biggest pushes. However, when they first started to work with these farmers, there was a lot of distrust. So, to help them learn to trust the company, buyers went to the farms numerous times, picking apples and other produce. Some even helped them by doing housework or helping their children with their homework.
12. Know where your food came from
When you walk into a supermarket or order products online, you probably don’t know the farm-to-table story. However, Kurly puts photos showcasing the quality and gives their customers the story of the farm where the item came from, how it was grown, and if any unique methods were used. It helps draw attention to the noble profession of being a farmer.
13. It does a body good
Many retailers will work with numerous distributors to find the best possible price, leaving quality behind. This company only has a single distributor for each of its products. One of the things they had the most challenging time with was milk. First, they set standards on what they expected. Unfortunately, they were unable to find what they were looking for. Yet, after more searching, they found a farm in South Korea that was shut down. So, they talked with the dairy farmer, and he agreed to open his farm again, which was non-operational because of plunging milk prices.
14. Quality, not quantity
According to Hani, when Kurly opened in 2015, they made 100 million dollars a month selling only seventy products. A year later, they were up to 1300 products and two billion monthly. Commitment to quality and building trust with customers and vendors is how Kurly has steadily increased its offerings while providing products that customers have come to trust.
15. Keeping customers safe
Last year during the pandemic, one of the company’s employees was infected with COVID. Instead of trying to sweep it under the rug, Sophie Kim addressed the problem head-on, stating that anything in their distribution center that couldn’t be adequately disinfected would be discarded to make sure their customers were safe. According to Korea Joongang Daily, she said: “I’m sorry for raising concerns to customers for the sudden emergence of a coronavirus patient.” Much like other parts of their platform, this goes against the grain of what most people would expect from an online grocery platform.
16. Creating demand
Since the company focuses on local products and farm-to-table, there are dips in the market to worry about and unforeseen natural occurrences that create supply and demand issues. However, since everyone who works as part of the Kurly team is a foodie, they add recipes on the site, enticing customers to try something new with better availability. Additionally, they stock their produce according to algorithms and analytics. After years of building the company, they know when the supply for one item goes up, another will alongside it.
17. Opting out
According to Korea Times, Kurly was planning on going public on the New York Stock Exchange this year. However, they ended up going public in only Korea. Many factors played into this decision. One of the things was that Korea Exchange relaxed regulations and Unicorns. Additionally, the company would need to be profitable before going public, and there is still the question of whether or not they are. Moreover, several rival companies had little to no success attracting investors, and Kurly did not want to make the same mistake.
18. Finding more quality
Since the companies primary focus is food, they are starting to branch out into offering kitchen appliances allowing their customers to have more options with the groceries they order. Much like their high standards for the food they sell, Kurly will be applying the same attention to quality and detail for their offerings. Essentially, the company is working on being a one-stop for the food-conscious person.
At the end of 2018, the company branched out from products sold in South Korea. According to Try Swedish, Kurly has added offerings from seventeen different brands from the country, including Abba, which specializes in marinated herring, and Finn crisp, which offers sourdough crisps. Nonetheless, each new product the company provides is committed to only a tiny amount of each thing because they will never sacrifice quality for quantity.
20. Beyond farm to table
Even though the main focus is to get the freshest ingredients to their customers, Kurly believes every piece of the experience matters. Everything they do is working towards a better future. The company has developed sustainable packaging material and makes sure that its distribution center stays freshly cleaned and everything they do is sustainable.
The online grocery market has expanded, especially since the pandemic. Yet, only a few companies focus on sustainable food and putting the environment, small growers, and other positive steps to helping the planet ahead of their bottom line. Sophie Kim’s company Kurly started based on a personal passion which has helped it thrive. Moreover, she has created a culture where doing good things is placed higher on her priority list them the cheapest fruit or vegetable. As she says, “I wanted to introduce the real taste to consumers who thought that only expensive ingredients would be good food.” From smashing glass ceilings as a successful female founder and CEO in a male-dominated world, Sophie Kim has created a unique business that is thriving because it caters to a fantastic group of people who are underrepresented in online shopping platforms. Kurly customers get quality and value while still being able to support local growers. All the while, they are helping the planet by purchasing from a sustainable company.
Written by Dominique Scappucci
Read more posts by Dominique Scappucci