Delivery driver’s $500m business empire
A food delivery driver, who just five years ago was dodging downed trees on Melbourne's soggy streets to reach customers, is today a millionaire commandeering an army of similar drivers delivering breakfast, lunch and dinner - and more besides - to people in cities all across the world.
But if your phone is clogged up with apps from the likes of Uber Eats, Deliveroo and Menulog, you might be missing out on a true blue Aussie competitor that's now been valued at $500 million and is used by hungry locals in Tokyo and London as much as Melbourne and Sydney.
When Melburnian Jie (Jason) Shen founded the company now known as Easi in 2015, Uber Eats hadn't even set foot in Australia. Now Easi is muscling on Uber Eats' international strongholds with its next outpost cranking up in the Canadian city of Vancouver.
The company reckons a combination of better rates for restaurants and drivers, deals with big brands such as Dominos and Crust, as well as some unique extra services to customers, could prise people away from the foreign-owned food delivery giants which dominate Australia's $280 million food delivery market.
"In the beginning it was just one bike and me as the driver," Mr Shen told news.com.au who sold his car to fund the firm.
"I just thought I'd do a good deed for Melbourne. I didn't imagine we'd go nationwide or international".
Mr Shen arrived in Australia with his parents in 2001 when he was just 16 from Nanjing, 300km east of Shanghai. He said he swapped the city that was once the capital of China for Melbourne, once the capital of Australia.
By 2015, Mr Shen was running the Yabby House seafood restaurant on King St in the CBD when he created an app to expand his business. When customers ordered from the app, he would jump on the bike to deliver to them the crispy prawns, spicy lobsters and steaming noodle soups.
"My initial funding was $20,000, which I got from selling my car. With that I bought a restaurant and then invested the proceeds from that in the app.
"The model was a BMW E30 M3, a classic which is worth $150,000 now so sometimes I do feel a bit of regret in selling it so cheap," he laughed.
WORKING ALL DAY AND NIGHT
Slowly, other Asian restaurants came on board Mr Shen's app, then simply called Melbourne Delivery, tempted by a rock bottom commission.
"It was definitely a struggle at the beginning but I found a way to make it work. During the day I would serve my restaurant partners and then when their restaurants closed at night mine would open up until 4am. If an app user wanted to place a late night order I was the only restaurant."
That meant being out in Melbourne come rain, shine and sometimes the odd fierce storm with fallen trees and flooded streets.
"I was doing deliveries myself so sometimes I would come home at 5am and be up again around 10am.
"That was seven days, and during holidays it was even busier," he said.
"But there were no other competitors so I was just hanging in there and doing an important job to serve Melburnians."
Mr Shen said the focus on Chinese and other Asian restaurants made sense. It was not only a market he understood, but Chinese was a language he understood too.
"I didn't think my English was very good so I preferred doing something I was very confident in".
After two years, Mr Shen could take his foot off the pedal and take stock of what he had created.
BETTER DEAL FOR DRIVERS, RESTAURANTS
Mr Shen said the business, by this point renamed Easi, took off because the restaurants and drivers were making a buck too.
Easi has said its commission from restaurants is 15-25 per cent; lower than the larger brands which can charge up to 35 per cent.
The core niche for Easi, which now operates in 11 Australian cities, remains east Asian food. When you open the app you get dumplings, bubble tea and Korean food options, among others. But pizzas and burgers are there too as the firm aims to widen its customer base and bring on board big brands like Pizza Hut as well as Chat Thai, 85C Bakery and Sushi Hub.
HOW EASI WANTS TO TAKE ON COMPETITORS
The company reckons it has another ace up its sleeve which will see it compete in Australia against the likes of UK-Dutch owned Menulog which has 45 per cent of the online food delivery market and America's DoorDash which is trying to make inroads. It needs it because competition is savage, with Foodora leaving Australia in 2018.
"Easi doesn't just mean takeaway; now we can deliver groceries and can arrange facials, massage, pet grooming and lawn mowing. Anything that makes life easier, we're doing," said Mr Shen, who still runs the firm but no longer holds a majority share.
Easi has 60,000 drivers on its books, 20,000 of those in Australia. Its yellow boxes, perched on the back of bikes, can now be seen scooting through Los Angeles, Auckland, Tokyo, Vancouver, London and Kuala Lumpur. It's opening in Osaka next as well as investigating entering India and South Korea.
Very deliberately, the Melbourne firm has initially expanded to cities with high numbers of residents of Chinese background.
"When Chinese international students go overseas they expect a company that can deliver the same kind of service they get when they are at home," Mr Shen said.
"And food delivery is very popular in Asian countries where some people may use it not just for a couple of meals a week, but several a day."
Again, the aim is the same as in Australia. Use the lucrative east Asian food market as a starting point and then expand into other cuisines and services which can be accessed via the app.
Easi has said that the successful rollout at home and abroad, together with its expansion prospects, has led the firm to be valued at $500 million. Not bad for a company whose genesis lies in flogging off a $20,000 BMW.
"I'm very happy with the company and with my growth and personal wealth," Mr Shen said.
He was circumspect about exactly how much he personally had made from Easi, but when asked if he was a millionaire, Mr Shen replied: "Pretty much, yeah."
Easi's ambitions are set on the overseas market but Mr Chen said the company won't forget where it all began.
"Melbourne is our home town."
Originally published as Delivery driver's $500m business empire