Two of Supie’s backers have fronted up to the Herald, answering some of the biting questions raised by the social media mob - and raising some bigger ones about where we’re heading as a country.
Angel investors David Oliver and Ben Kepes were both small shareholders in the online grocery start-up, which went into voluntary administration on October 29, owing more than $2.1 million, after a failed attempt to raise $3m in new capital.
In total 120 staff were sent packing, without their final fortnight’s pay (subsequently covered by a mystery donor). Liquidators were appointed shortly afterwards.
Kepes, who has put seed into multiple start-ups, also has an outdoor wear business Cactus, among other interests, and is deputy chairman of state-owned enterprise Kordia.
He was on Supie’s board until the final 48 hours.
He earlier explained that he and fellow board member Hadleigh Ford quit ahead of the voluntary wind-down because they were in different cities, and founder Sarah Balle could expedite the process as sole remaining director of the Auckland-based firm.
Oliver and Kepes spoke to the Herald at Amazon subsidiary AWS’s giant re:Invent conference in Las Vegas last week, where they were networking and supporting Kiwi start-ups including Yarken, which counts Oliver as one of its directors. (It should be noted that the 18-month-old Yarken has already landed marquee customers and has not had to tap any outside investors. Founder Ravi Kuppan has been able to self-fund after making a big score with the sale of his previous venture. We’ll have more on his firm shortly).
The Herald: About six months ago, my wife said we should join Supie and I said “Are you sure? How can such a tiny operation take on the big two supermarket chains on a single-millions budget. How long can it last?” It didn’t need $3m. It needed another $300m to take the incumbents. How was it ever going to work?
Kepes: Can you point to any startup that wasn’t undercapitalised at some point early in its journey?
History is made by those who have the courage or stupidity or naivety to take on those big challenges. I mean, 25 years ago - I’m sure Jeff Bezos heard 1000 times - “Walmart, you’ll never going to be able to take on them.”
Yes, it does take a couple of hundred million dollars to get to that point [where you can go head-to-head with the two major supermarket chains] and we thought we had a methodology to get to that.
We were halfway to break-even, so we thought that we would get to break-even on the capital that we had raised, and then we’d have some options. We had talked to a lot of big players who said: “Once you break-even, we can talk seriously about big investment.”
Oliver: It was always going to be a tough challenge. To be honest, I invested as a show of support. I believed in someone who was taking on an audacious goal. She was always going to have to execute brilliantly and get milestones and then get more money.
If Supie was half-way to break-even [a point that needed the scale of maybe 120,000 customers] then why not tip in a bit more money so Sarah [Balle] could get all the way to that milestone; that point that the potential $200m investors were watching for?
Kepes: Don’t get me wrong. I can put food on the table. But never in a million years would I have a million bucks let alone three.
[Angel investors typically put between tens of thousands and hundreds of thousands into an early stage company. Earlier, Robbie Paul - chief executive of Icehouse Ventures, Supie’s largest shareholder with a 26 per cent stake, certainly had the wherewithal. His firm has raised more than $95m this year. Icehouse and shareholders had chipped in another $1m in the grocery challenger’s final months. But Icehouse was willing to contribute to what turned out to be the last-gasp bid to raise $3m if the fund was also supported by others. In the event, a potential new backer - angel investor Kirsty Reynolds - was on the brink of tipping in funds but pulled out at the last minute after she got a closer look at the books.]
Oliver: No, I wouldn’t have invested more. I invested as a show of support but didn’t agree with their strategy of taking on the big boys directly selling day-to-day items. I was hoping they would focus on premium, organic products with low food miles.
That’s a point that was also picked up on by a number of people on social media. Why didn’t Supie charge premium prices, and sell itself on quality or organic product, and convenience?
Kepes: In the first year, the focus was kind of influencer marketing, kind of top-end. And, frankly, that didn’t hit. We got a lot more traction when we focused on the weekly shop and price. So yeah, ultimately we failed, so I can’t say what we did was right. But, yeah, everyone has reckons.
Have those reckons hurt? Does it put you off being an angel?
Oliver: New Zealand needs people willing to risk stuffing up.
As an investor, I know that most start-ups fail. The reality is that the flaming that Ben got in the media - and Sarah - it doesn’t inspire other entrepreneurs to step up, and it doesn’t inspire people like Ben to go on the boards of these companies when they get given shit like that.
I am originally a farmer from Timaru who went to China for almost 20 years. I was the first foreign employee at Alibaba and met Jack Ma before he started the company.
I hate that most New Zealanders think the safest way to make money is to buy a house as an investment.
I became an angel investor to help grow the type of innovative tech companies that hopefully my 14-year-old-daughter will want to work for one day.
Agriculture will always be important. But if we remain a nation of farmers and house flippers we will never raise our living standards.
Chris Keall is an Auckland-based member of the Herald’s business team. He joined the Herald in 2018 and is the technology editor and a senior business writer.