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Startups

Seoul's Kurly remakes home cooking with overnight food delivery

Ex-Goldman banker brings passion for fresh food and quality service to logistics

Sophie Kim, founder and CEO of South Korean grocery delivery startup Kurly. (Photo by Ahn Seong-Bok)

SEOUL -- Sophie Kim, founder and CEO of fast-growing South Korean grocery delivery startup Kurly, began searching for her mission in life when she was a teenager. Her quest for something to which she could devote herself took her to the U.S., where she studied at Wellesley College and began trying to carve out a fulfilling future.

Kim, who also goes by the name of Kim Seula Sophie, developed an impressive resume which includes jobs at Goldman Sachs and McKinsey & Co. But she never found her true calling until she started Market Kurly, an online grocery shopping and delivery service, at the age of 31.

Market Kurly provides overnight grocery delivery in Seoul, South Korea's capital, and surrounding areas. It offers farm-fresh produce and premium ready-to-cook dishes for its customers, mainly single-member households and married couples who both work.

The business is growing fast. With the number of double-income families on the rise in South Korea, the service has won 5.8 million users, more than 20% of the population in the Seoul metropolitan area. The company racked up 430 billion won ($392 million) in sales in 2019, up 170% from the previous year.

The service is growing by delivering on its promise to make sure that customers can place an order for fresh groceries by 11 p.m. before going to bed and wake up to find the goods on their doorstep by 7 a.m. the next morning in paper sacks and boxes carrying the name of the service in purple lettering.

Kurly's vow is to deliver fresh vegetables, fruit and seafood to households within 24 hours of harvesting. But to make its business model work in the real world of inevitable human error and unexpected obstacles, the company has built up a highly efficient logistics system.

Its delivery management is designed to accomplish the goal with a combination of accurate demand forecasts and early morning delivery to avoid traffic jams.

And as in any country these days, South Korea is also seeing fierce jockeying for position among online shopping services.

But Kim stresses that Kurly is not focused on competition. If it expands its line of items simply to beat rivals' offerings, she says, then the company won't be able to maintain its business model, which is centered on delivering just harvested food. If it tries to undercut competitors, she adds, it will become impossible for the business to generate sufficient profits to support its operations and contracted farmers and fishermen. As a result, she maintains, Kurly will fail in its most important objective: customer satisfaction.

Every week, Kim spends a day and a half discussing new product ideas with 40 members of the product development team. When Kurly developed a ready-to-cook malatang, a popular Chinese street food, 31 adjustments for improvement were made before the product was ready to be offered to customers.

Kim makes a point of traveling around the country to build personal ties with farmers and fishermen to secure high-quality produce. "Our mission is to select really valuable products on behalf of our customers and deliver them in the best possible condition," she says.

Kim speaks at the RISE 2019 tech conference in Hong Kong.   © Getty Images

Kim was born in 1983 to physician parents in Ulsan, an industrial city in the southeast. While she had a passion for eating good food, she also spent a lot of time in her youth thinking about questions such as the discrepancy between rich and poor countries. In high school, she began to dream of working at an international institution to help "enrich people's lives."

To help realize her dream, she persuaded her anxious parents to allow her to study in the U.S. and at the age of 20 she enrolled at Wellesley College, noted for its excellent liberal arts education for women.

Studying hard with an eye to working for organizations like the U.N. or the World Bank to support economic development in poor countries, Kim witnessed the rise and growth of many new, innovation-driven companies during the first five years or so of the new millennium, especially the bevy of tech startups that emerged from Silicon Valley.

She realized that such up-and-coming tech companies could change the world far faster and more dramatically than any international institution, so decided to join Goldman Sachs at the age of 24 as she wanted to work at "the most innovative company that would train her in the hardest possible way."

She worked day and night at the investment bank's office in Hong Kong and "learned a lot" while acquiring problem solving skills. Despite that, she couldn't find her life's mission there.

Kim's passionate pursuit of a career that can satisfy her ambition to make a truly meaningful difference in the world has not been easy in South Korea's male-oriented society.

While the overall employment rate among South Korean women has been rising, many still opt to quit their jobs in their 30s. The ratio of women ages 35-44 who have jobs barely budged between 2000 and 2019.

The professional ambitions of many South Korean women often face invisible but very real barriers to promotion and pay raises. Kim has her share of experiences in which she was not treated fairly because she is a woman. In such cases, she even blamed herself, thinking that she had not worked hard enough.

But Kim says she was able to keep going because of her tendency to look toward what she could do in the future, instead of allowing herself to be disillusioned by the harsh reality of the present.

"My husband is my biggest supporter," Kim says. "I have been able to overcome all my setbacks because I have a person who supports me unconditionally."

Following her marriage, she returned to South Korea for the first time in 13 years and started working for the South Korean unit of U.S. investment company Bain Capital.

After spending more than a decade abroad, life back in her native country posed one simple, yet intriguing question: Why are South Korean consumers in large cities unable to enjoy the kind of delicious vegetables she ate from her grandmother's garden when she was a child, even though South Korea has become so much wealthier?

Trying to solve the puzzle, Kim found that today's food distribution system, designed for mass production and mass consumption, places priority on efficiency at the cost of freshness. That means consumers lose out as they cannot find high-quality food on store shelves.

The realization drove her to craft a business plan that would solve the problem, and Kurly was born.

The coronavirus pandemic has pushed consumers to shift to online retail. But Kim has no intention to compromise on her company's basic business principles in order to fulfill the growing waves of orders flowing in. In fact, Kurly stopped accepting orders for some items when it was impossible to meet its quality standards.

The company adheres to its founding credo, which requires it to place top priority on maintaining long-term relationships with customers based on mutual trust.

Many investment funds declined to back the company because of its business policy of pursing greater customer satisfaction even at the expense of short-term profits.

But the food delivery startup has still been able to finance its expansion with a total of 420 billion won provided by investors who accept its strategy, which echoes Kim's own life mission of enriching lives through excellent food.

Kim's remarkable success can also be an inspiration to many South Korean women struggling to carve out their own career paths. Women account for 55% of Kurly's workforce and its rapid growth may be a sign of change in the South Korean economy, which has traditionally been driven by big conglomerates.

Despite her tight work schedule, Kim also chairs Korea Startup Forum, an association of entrepreneurs. She said she did not hesitate to take on the responsibility.

"I may be able to serve as a 'role model' as I was able to start up an online business even without being a tech savvy person," Kim said.

Na Kiyoung in Seoul contributed to this report.

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