Is it possible to build a local Amazon alternative? When the COVID crisis paralyzed global markets in early 2020, farmers found themselves with few options. Business from restaurants and caterers came to a sudden halt. Suddenly, the people working in the industry needed better access to local customers.
Like each participant in last April’s DMZ Hackathon, Mike Mastrella and James Jun went into the competition with a passion for solving problems like this. With a focus on building solutions with social impact, #HackTheCurve encouraged participants to think outside the box. One of the core challenges was creating a viable software solution that would allow the area’s farmers to deliver their goods online.
FreshFind sprouted from this challenge. The concept behind the service is a simple one. They wanted to create a local Amazon alternative. A shopping experience that would connect local farmers with local customers. Online outlets from AliBaba to Wish had changed consumer purchasing habits before the pandemic. FreshFind fed on that momentum.
James and Mike worked 100 hour weeks for months. Their main problem was supply chains. Namely, understanding how food was produced and how to get it to people’s doors.
“People had become used to 24 hour or even same day delivery from Amazon. How can you compete with that?”
The solution they arrived at was informed by their divergent backgrounds. Jun’s education in computer science was a valuable asset in his entrepreneurial endeavors. He later worked for a major technology supplier as a salesman. Mastrella, meanwhile, was a programmer at heart. Both of them wanted to create something that mattered. Together they worked with local farmers to create a solution that was good for producers and consumers.
Before the crisis, farmers markets were enjoying a spike in popularity. Locally-sourced products were in demand. But the logic of the modern food distribution system was heavily weighted against them. Massive supply chains controlled by large international companies made it more affordable to buy a tomato from Mexico then a tomato grown a kilometer away. But after COVID-19, those supply chains began to strain.
The spirit of FreshFind is marrying the accessibility of big-box stores with the benefits of supporting small business . In a world where same-day delivery has become an expectation, FreshFind makes it possible for local options to compete with industry titans.
James and Michael believe the FreshFind model can be scaled to serve much of North America. Farming happens in rural communities, but taking farmer’s markets online helps create new connections between those regions and cities. This makes supply chains much more resilient. And it contributes to the team’s core vision of a more flexible future. As a result, the service is primed for expansion. (There are plans in the works to bring FreshFind to Spain in the near future.) A decade from today, interconnected marketplaces like FreshFind could define global trade.
Looking toward the future, James acknowledges the potential of difficulties along the way. The duo places a high importance on an understanding of cultural norms and realities in the expansion of FreshFind. With prospective partners around the world, their stated goal of providing the right tool for the right time will be an exercise in continuous adaptation.
The challenge in developing any tool for widespread use is to find the optimal balance of usability and capability. According to the FreshFind team, the majority of their creative energy was focused on the front end. The first goal was to create a familiar shopping experience. In Jun’s view, making the utility as approachable as possible for both buyer and seller, they could ensure quick adoption and rapid proliferation. Pages were drawn out by hand using a digital rendering software, with a focus on streamlined simplicity.
Perfecting the Product
One of the enduring lessons of our time is that theory and practice can have a very casual relationship. Making FreshFind great would require meticulous attention to it’s capabilities and shortcomings. The team worked with the Kingston Farmers Market to create a local Amazon alternative. The pair then embarked on a month-long development boot camp. They hammered out the finer points while shadowing a local market manager.
Convenience is King
The success of the big-box stores is obvious. They are incredibly convenient. Consumers can access a vast array of goods around the clock at the touch of a button. This means that local options must not only compete with these companies on cost, but on convenience. That is the hardest thing to get right. But the goal is to make local food delivery as painless as Door Dash or Uber Eats.
Big Picture, Small Pieces
The eventual plan is to bring FreshFind to other countries. But for now James Jun emphasizes his focus on delivering at the micro-level. He says global supply chains are inherently unreliable. That fact bothered him at a fundamental level. Building a sustainable Amazon alternative became his obsession. Emblematic of this local focus is his eagerness to credit DMZ Innisfil, the program’s original platform provider, with much of the team’s success. The collective is able to connect with professionals on the ground in other areas of the world, gaining location-specific insight.
“What’s In It For Me?”
A great product has to be about what the end-user actally wants. Start-up businesses fail at an alarming rate.For Mike Mastrella, the most important questions that can be asked about a product center on what the end user wants. The rate at which new businesses fail proves that getting inside the consumer’s head can be a deceptively tricky prospect. What are the solutions a user is seeking when choosing your product? How does what you offer address them in an objectively superior or unique fashion? By understanding what a product offers to each prospective customer, more useful products result.
Remember when technology was supposed to save us time? The promise was that technology would free us from annoying tasks. It didn’t really work out that way. But Mike and James think it doesn’t have to be that way. They represent a new generation of entrepreneurs focusing on social benefits. Not just the blind pursuit of profit. FreshFind reflects this big-picture thinking.
Connect with the the FreshFind Team:
Email: [email protected]