WHY WE INVESTED
Ula’s e-commerce platform gives more than 20,000 mom-and-pop shops across Indonesia a better way to stock their shelves in the midst of the pandemic.
For the longest time, keeping up with inventory across her five shops in Surabaya, Indonesia had been an all-consuming task for Bu Nanik. Since opening her first shop selling staples like soap, snacks, and medicine when she was just 17, Bu Nanik has had to track down inventory from an agent, rent or borrow a truck and haul the goods back to her store herself. All of that changed last year when she discovered the Ula app. Suddenly, she was able to use her phone to place an order online and have it delivered to her door within two days. Bu Nanik started buying and replenishing her inventory daily on Ula. As the threat of COVID-19 spread through the crowded markets she’d had to navigate before, she was now able to get everything she needed delivered right to her door. It was a game-changer for her and her family’s business.
Bu Nanik’s storefront is just one of the 20,000 shops across Indonesia using the Ula platform to source inventory. Small family-run shops, called “warungs’’ in Indonesia, are commonplace throughout the country and much of Asia. In Indonesia, nearly 80 percent of all retail spending happens via traditional in-store shops, making these small family-run stores integral to daily life and an important economic pillar across the country.
In Indonesia, nearly 80 percent of all retail spending happens via traditional in-store shops, making these small family-run stores integral to daily life and an important economic pillar across the country.
But the way these shop owners stock their shelves has been the same for generations. Often shop owners must close their storefront for hours at a time when they need to replenish inventory, track down wholesalers at crowded markets and haggle for better pricing. Because the process is so time-consuming, they buy up inventory for weeks at a time, needing to shell out money upfront for goods they might not sell.
Figuring out how to get these low-price goods into the hands of small shop owners has been a question on Ula co-founder Nipun Mehra’s mind since 2013 when he was working at e-commerce retailer Flipkart. Back then, Mehra was stumped by the question of how to sell low-price items online without losing money on shipping. After working as an investor with Sequoia Capital and overseeing product and strategy at Pine Labs, India’s largest offline payment company, he started to cast about for potential markets where e-commerce was ripe for innovation and came across Indonesia.
The traditional retail market in Indonesia is estimated at upwards of $250 billion, growing at a rate of $15 billion a year — and retail spending is expected to exceed half a trillion dollars in the next four years. Mehra saw an enormous opportunity.
In 2019, he flew from Delhi to Indonesia and spent five months traveling around the country, talking to hundreds of small shop owners with the help of a translator to learn how they do business. What he saw was a lot of determination to compete, but few tools to help them establish buying power like “big block” stores have in other markets. It was then that he met Derry Sakti, Ula’s CCO and co-founder, who had also been thinking of ways to help small retailers while he was working at P&G. “The mom-and-pop stores aren’t going to go away and get replaced by a Target or Walmart in emerging economies,” says Mehra. “But here the small retailer is still the most vulnerable. They are not like a Walmart with lots of buying muscle. These are the little guys.”
Mehra, Sakti and fellow co-founders Riky Tenggara (formerly of Lazada, now Ula’s COO) and Alan Wong (formerly with Amazon and Booking.com, now Ula’s CTO) were each determined to figure out a way to give the small retailers more buying power without fundamentally changing the traditional small shop system. “When we started going down this path, we saw there was a huge opportunity,” Mehra says. One way or another, they knew the retail landscape would have to change dramatically in the future to enable small shops the ability to compete.
In 2019, with a first round of funding from Lightspeed and Sequoia Capital, the co-founders set about building Ula, and in January 2020, after another successful round of funding, they launched a simple e-commerce platform. It resembled a barebones version of Amazon and included just 35 products. Shop owners could easily order the goods they needed, have them delivered to their shop within two days, and pay for them upon arrival.
Shortly thereafter, COVID-19 began spreading rapidly across Asia, straining businesses and supply chains across the continent. The company was growing and hiring quickly but had to do so in the midst of a global pandemic. “We needed to figure out how to hire and onboard people we’d never met and ensure safety for people out in the field when masks and sanitizer were in short supply,” he says. “Metaphorically, we were a small boat in a giant storm.”
To power through the challenge, Ula focused on sourcing and providing warungs with necessities — starting with consumer packaged goods — understanding these were the things most in demand at the time. Working directly with suppliers, they were able to aggregate the buying power of many small shops to command better wholesale prices. “If you add up all the small guys, it gives you the buying leverage of a big retailer and you can go to the main supplier,” he says. By cutting out two to three additional layers in the supply chain for shop owners, Ula was able to offer them better prices, enticing more shop owners to join. Today the platform offers closer to 3,000 items and works with 20,000 small shops across Indonesia with plans to expand into new inventory categories down the line.
Quona Capital was delighted to lead the $20 million Series A round in Ula earlier in 2021. “Ula is transforming the entire retail value chain with its retailer-first approach,” said Ganesh Rengaswamy, co-founder and Managing Partner at Quona Capital. “They empower the small retailer by offering them a wide range of products, best prices, doorstep delivery, and critical pay later options.”
“Besides Ula’s tremendous growth momentum, we are particularly excited about the company’s distinctive level of innovation. Product extensions like pick-up-spots will add meaningfully to productivity and efficiency of the supply chain,” added Dan Bertoli, Venture Partner at Quona Capital.