Driving Results: InstaShop Founder And CEO John Tsioris Wants His Work To Speak For Itself
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One of the first things I noticed about InstaShop founder and CEO John Tsioris as I chatted with him on Zoom in September is that he didn’t seem to be particularly interested in the conversation we were having. While I had put on my sunniest demeanor for the purposes of this interview, I felt like Tsioris was cautious about interacting with me, with him choosing to keep his replies to my questions and prompts extremely concise, to the point, and nothing more. As a journalist, I found this situation to be a little disconcerting- during my time working at Entrepreneur Middle East, I must confess I’m more accustomed to interview subjects who, to put it quite frankly, seem to love the sound of their own voices, and have zero qualms about droning on and on about themselves and their achievements.
And yet, here I found myself with Tsioris, who, while having every right to toot his own horn -he did, after all, lead his five-year-old Dubai-headquartered grocery e-commerce platform to be bought by Berlin-based global online food ordering and delivery marketplace Delivery Hero for a whopping US$360 million in August this year- doesn’t seem at all interested in doing anything remotely like that. In fact, I’m almost certain that he wasn’t keen on chatting with me, and that he’d much rather have preferred his time to have been spent on something else- like, well, his actual work. And this impression of mine gets further solidified as I persist with keeping the conversation with Tsioris going- here was an entrepreneur who, quite simply, didn’t want to be doing the talking; he wanted his work to do the talking for him.
“Personally, I’ve never really cared too much about what other people think about me, about InstaShop,” he tells me. “I always think that we should speak through our actions. We just put our heads down, work hard, and drive results- and the results will speak for themselves. It doesn’t matter what people tell you; what matters is what you convey to the world, to society, and so on, and we’ve been very consistent in that. We’re not a marketing-focused company, we never really were the particularly PR-heavy, bragging company. I always hoped PR would come naturally, because we had value.”
John Tsioris, founder and CEO, InstaShop. Source: InstaShop
This is the sentiment that seems to have underpinned Tsioris’ decision to launch InstaShop in the first place, in 2015- the Greek entrepreneur remembers having to call stores to order groceries for himself then, and he found the process to be ineffective and inefficient, and, not to mention, frustrating as well. “The experience was sub-optimal, and effectively, I was never happy,” he says. “And before long, I was like, I’m done with this, let’s create an app, and take this experience to the next level.” At the time, Tsioris was just bringing down the shutters on his first entrepreneurial outing (a voice social network called Vound), and he launched his new enterprise with a team of just five people, while bootstrapping the company to get it off the ground. InstaShop’s business model was (and remains) pretty straightforward- it’s essentially a marketplace that connects customers with vendors. The platform facilitates the purchase and gives users a hassle-free experience with respect to getting the groceries they want, while the shops take care of the delivery and logistics themselves. Of course, it’s hard to miss InstaShop’s appeal in the world of today, which, thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, has made e-commerce ventures almost indispensable to us getting on with our lives despite the circumstances that surround us.
However, back in 2015, Tsioris remembers the reception to his fledgling venture to have not been as enthusiastic as he’d have liked it- retailers did take their time before signing on to be a part of InstaShop then. But Tsioris doesn’t believe this aspect of his entrepreneurial journey was anything out of the ordinary. “Everything is difficult in startups, especially if you don’t come from a strong financial background, or if you don’t have experience, or if it’s your first time,” he says. “So, it was hustling; it was mainly a lot of hustling, a lot of chasing. Every single step of the entire process required extensive pushing to get to the next step. Even onboarding the first shop was a big process of convincing the shop owner that online groceries is a thing that can actually generate value for them, and that it’s not just a charity or something nice to have; it’s really going to have a significant impact in the future.”
It may have taken some effort then- but Tsioris and his team at InstaShop are certainly reaping the rewards for that now. As of the second quarter of 2020, the company has managed to generate nearly $300 million in gross merchandise value, with more than 500,000 active users in five countries across the Middle East. And InstaShop has done this all with a comparatively modest amount of external investment- Tsioris tells me that the company had raised $7.5 million in funds from Athens-based VentureFriends and Dubai-based Jabbar Internet Group in the five years since its inception. Speaking about the investors he got on board, Tsioris notes that both VC firms were both quite clued into the long-term potential of his startup.
“Jabbar was very, very interested, and they had already identified the opportunity,” he says. “So, there was quite some passion from their side. It just so happened –[due] to a certain extent, luck, and so on- that we met, and our passions for online groceries converged. We presented the idea, they were already excited about the area, they saw the future potential, and they went into it. VentureFriends was considering investing in our previous startup, and since we were converting and going into the new concept, they explored that, and they joined it also. They were also very excited about the potential of online [groceries]. It’s a very tangible concept, right- it’s easy to explain: you order your groceries, and they’re at your doorstep in under an hour.”
The InstaShop team. Source: InstaShop
Now, the concept may sound easy- but let that not take away from the amount of work that needs to happen for it to happen as seamlessly and smartly as InstaShop does it. And that would explain why this startup continues to make its presence felt in this market landscape, despite the steady rise of competition in this space from both small and large players. “The way we see it is that the industry is extremely complicated,” Tsioris explains. “Even though it’s at a nascent stage, and there is potential and so on and so forth, the reality is that cracking the nut of the complexity of online groceries, and a functioning, healthy marketplace is extremely difficult. So, while we do see a lot of players that are going to be playing around [in this sector], and in general, competition is fine and healthy, we do [expect to] see a lot of them realizing that maybe the effort and the focus required is way too high, [and that] they will eventually focus back onto their core business. That’s what we do see. Because this is a business that’s not for everyone. There are different dynamics that really make a company able to thrive and grow in the online grocery segment, and that’s something that you can’t find easily.”
And Delivery Hero’s acquisition of InstaShop does look like a validation of Tsioris’ analysis of the matter- in a statement, Niklas Östberg, co-founder and CEO of Delivery Hero, noted, “As a leading player in the grocery segment, InstaShop has built a service customers love, and their expertise is a great addition to our quick commerce expansion. Together, we will continue to invest to drive the future of delivery by pushing the standards for speed and convenience.”
As per the deal’s terms, InstaShop will continue to operate as an independent brand under the Delivery Hero umbrella, with the startup’s immediate focus being on “driving growth within its current geographies,” while also looking into opportunities that could have it expand its footprint on a global level. As such, the acquisition is certainly an achievement that Tsioris and his team should be proud about- but it’s interesting to hear the founder admit that this wasn’t an end goal he’d envisioned for the company. “It wasn’t our goal to be sold at all; we were quite happy building the company independently,” he says.
“It just so happened that we crossed paths with Delivery Hero, they’re also very active in the region, and the moment we crossed paths and started drafting and discussing, we saw a huge overlap in our culture, in our style of working, in our values. They’re also an organization that’s very passionate about growth, very passionate about supporting local entrepreneurs, and independence was key for us. So, they gave us, basically, absolute independence in operating the local organization, making sure that we’re absolutely relevant and localized. That was extremely important for us- also, for myself as an entrepreneur, I wanted to be able to act in the region -and beyond the region when we grow- by doing what we’ve been doing best over the last few years. So that’s the uniqueness of partnering with Delivery Hero.”
According to Tsioris, Delivery Hero is going to be “an enabler of growth” for InstaShop, and he is confident that his company’s offering could work not just in newer markets in the Middle East (it’s currently operating in the UAE, Qatar, Bahrain, Egypt, and Lebanon), but anywhere else in the world as well. Indeed, InstaShop’s performance amid the COVID-19 crisis can be seen as an indication of how strong it is as an enterprise- while Tsioris admits to him and his team feeling ambushed at the onset of the pandemic, they had already been working towards scaling up their operations, and so, they were ready to tackle the surge in demand, despite the challenges presented in this period. “We experienced significant constraints in the supply of our shops, and at the same time, we experienced a significant surge in demand- it’s a very difficult combination,” Tsioris says. “But we have a very strong network of partner supermarkets, we have very strong technologies to manage adversities from an operational perspective, and so, we managed to provide a reliable service overall, even when we were facing extreme chaos and peaks in demand.”
At this point, Tsioris has only praises for his team who rose to the occasion and kept InstaShop running in these tumultuous times. “The team is young overall, so they get excited with adventures; it’s not that difficult to keep them going,” he says. “The more you pressure them, the more they get excited, to some extent. But the reality is also the pandemic offered us a mission, and a true purpose. A lot of our users actually, suddenly, exclusively relied on getting their grocery supplies on InstaShop. Other people were very worried about going outside; they didn’t want to go to supermarkets at the peak of the pandemic. They were heavily relying on us, and we understood that we had a very serious role to play in order to keep the population at ease, as much as possible. That really motivated all of us to keep working harder.”
It’s this ethos that Tsioris hopes he and his team will keep building on as they work on InstaShop’s next chapter of growth, and that is something he’s personally looking forward to as well. “I guess we’ve combined a very healthy group of people that are very performance-oriented, but are also have very strong integrity, and are, overall, very nice people,” Tsioris notes. “For us, we really put niceness above skillfulness, and we don’t really care if someone is skillful alone- they won’t stay in the company if they don’t have the right cultural fit in terms of the values, in terms of how to interact with the team. We do seek skill- but skillfulness alone is not enough.”
From a personal standpoint, Tsioris is keen about developing himself as an entrepreneur- five years ago, he was fueled by a desire to start something on his own and make a success out of it; now, he’s more excited about what growing what he has built, and the new set of lessons that will come with the process. As he himself put it: “Everyone sees me now as a successful entrepreneur, but the reality is that there is a lot more to learn to be a globally successful entrepreneur.” Of course, Tsioris does seem to be ready for the ride ahead- and we at Entrepreneur Middle East can’t wait to see how far he will go.