Captain Fresh: Building the future of fresh fish and Sea food
33 mins watch

21st Oct, 2021

Salonie:

Hi and welcome to Matrix Moments, this is Salonie and on today’s episode, we have Utham Gowda, the founder of Captain Fresh, a tech enabled B2B Sea Food Marketplace. Joining Utham in this conversation are Sudipto Sannigrahi, Vice President at Matrix and Tarun Davda, Managing Director at Matrix Partners India.

In this episode we cover Utham’s journey from a banker to a founder of a B2B Sea Food Marketplace. What trigged his interest in Sea Food space, the most challenging parts of this business and much more. Tune – in. 

Sudipto:          

Welcome, Utham, to the first of hopefully many Matrix Moments that we shoot with you together. For our viewers Utham is the CEO and founder of Captain Fresh which is a B2B seafood and aqua marketplace. Captain Fresh connects on the supply side fishermen to various forms of domestic and international demand on the buyer side. Before we delve into Captain Fresh and more into Utham let me confess something, that when I started investing five years back and although I’m a Bengali I never thought that a B2B seafood company would be one that I’ll be super excited about. 

And I remember when I met you for the first time, right, sort of our first call 18 months back I thought B2B fish company, what’s interesting in that? And let me be honest and tell you a little bit about our B2B Matrix thesis. You know, there are multiple B2B marketplaces out there, India is a one trillion dollar retail market so there are lot of B2B marketplaces. And obviously we like marketplaces that have large tamp, that has low working capital, high gross margin, good ROSI. 

But there are three things that we look in marketplaces that make marketplaces very interesting for us. First is the marketplace truly creating economic value by disintermediating middlemen which is connecting supply directly to buyers and you take the middlemen out and you create real economic value. Second, are you truly solving something for both the buyer and seller. Are you giving the seller more access to demand and for the demand are you giving him more choice and discovery. And third which is the most interesting if you see in a marketplace we get truly excited is is the marketplace solving for quality and trust which in an offline world it’s not possible. 

And interestingly when we spent more time with you we found all these three to be true for Captain Fresh. But that’s our point of view. How did you sitting in BKC in Bombay doing banking think about leaving that job and getting into solving the supply chain for seafood and aqua?

Utham:            

Thanks, Sudipto, thank you, Tarun, for having me here. It’s a great privilege to be here and Matrix Moments has been one of my favorite podcasts so super excited. So, yeah, BKC to Captain Fresh has been a five year long journey. I think there’s a lot of baking that has happened in those five years from the point in time where one of those days in 2015 when I was trying to look at market scan or scan the market and see which sectors to go after. And I vividly remember the framework that I’d used was the companies should be an unlisted company and it should have grown at least a 20 percent year on year revenue growth for the last five years.

Of course these are all mature companies, ROSI should be north of 30 percent and you should have a very, very nice balance sheet with a good leverage to equity mix. And on top of the heap you have this interesting set of seafood exporters that emerge and that was a I would say the start of the tryst with this whole sector where it kind of intrigued me in terms of what is this sector which I’ve never heard of because I myself having been in investment banking and consulting for more than 5-6 years, having covered so many sectors I had never heard of seafood. 

So it was very, very intriguing and that kind of piqued my interest and then I deep dived into this space. And I had a very, very ground up approach in terms of understanding this. I remember the next two or three months where I’d lined up meetings with the top ten promoters of the Indian seafood exporters. Went and met them and tried to understand what is this recipe, how are these guys staying under the radar to start with and then ability to generate these kind of profits and year on year. Some of these businesses are 40-year, 50-year old businesses, so they’re creating value every year. 

So I think that’s the start of this entire thing, post that I moved to Nekkanti Sea Foods which was one of the companies that I had taken, the mandate that I had taken to raise their equity capital. Then one thing led to another, I was hired into Nekkanti to help them on the IPO mandate. Having said that, yes, while I was busy with the whole usual drill that is associated with IPO which is filing RHP, doing road shows, all of that but I think on the side I also spent a lot of time in terms of tinkering around their GTMs for the US market, the China market. Spending a lot of time on the floor in terms of production of frozen shrimps and of course a lot of time on the procurement. 

So that gave I would say a good global perspective, global supply chain perspective, armed with what an operator who is successful in this trade for the last 45-50 years what has his playbook been, right. Those are some of the things that I could put together on top of the macro stuff that I’d studied for almost 3-4 years before going into this sector. So I would say that’s the starting point of my BKC to Captain Fresh journey which has taken almost 4-5 years to the point when I started. Yeah, so that’s how I started Captain Fresh. 

Tarun

Let me ask you one question and before that I’m going to follow-up to what Dada said earlier, he’s a Bengali he used to eat fish, I’m a Gujarati who barely eats eggs and I’m investing in a seafood marketplace. So you can imagine how much it has been for me. But, no, it’s been a fantastic journey so far and I know we’re just getting started. You know, before we dive in again this is not a sector that a lot of people intuitively think of. And even if they do just from the outside it looks like a very messy sector to get into with too many complexities on the ground with a lot of local nuances. What did you do to build conviction before you finally threw your hat in the ring and said this is what I’m committing to?

Utham:            

So if you look at my career, right, post my education if you see top half of my career was largely top down driven where I used to usually one of my favorite things was to read analyst reports of various sectors. And when I found that seafood from a top down standpoint was very, very attractive the big question on my mind just before starting up, November 2018-Feb 2019 before I really made up my mind that this is going to be the place where I’m going to spend the prime of my career.

In terms of solving the big question in my mind was, yes, look, this a $400 billion global opportunity, it’s a $30 billion India opportunity, why has anyone not created a large outcome out of domestic opportunity. To answer the analyst in me to say that look, this is the sector to go after I think I had this whole 100-day journey that I had going through the entire supply chain and I had a very simple holistic during that journey that meet 5-6 new guys on an everyday basis, try and understand the different nuances of the business. So I traveled all the way from Gujarat to all the way to Kolkata meeting pretty much I think some 30 or 40 companies that I would have met.

And then I went to entire almost the top ten cities, wet markets, the Chintadripet to a Crawford to a Howrah to a Ghazipur Mandi to a Russell Market and I think all of this pointed to one thing that this entire business has been very, very optimal at a local level. Nobody has tried to connect these dots at a global level, maybe because you need to have a lot of technology to be able to do that. So maybe now is the time where we can possibly connect all these technology dots and some of these things can come through together, maybe we can create a very, very optimal engine for a fresh supply chain.

So that was the start of the thought and I would say that in an industry where it’s not as well researched I think an entrepreneur like me can rely on a lot of primary research, lot of first hand information. I think for somebody like me a macro combined with this first hand information from the ground has kind of given me that instinct to make a lot of these design choices right in the beginning so that I reduced the amount of iteration that I do as we grow the business. So that’s been the key in terms of the approach that I’ve taken right from the start. Spend a lot of time with your stakeholders, travel, spend a lot of time with the stakeholders. 

Tarun

What terrified you the most when you dived in, if there was one thing that would have kept you away from this what would it have been?

Utham:            

Its enormous amount of complexity, right, enormous amount of complexity because the supply chain is very, very I would say hardcore, lack of better word. Fishing starts at night, auctions happen 4 am in the morning so you need to have a part of your organization which is up and running doing its best activities at night. And then the product comes into the city early in the morning and you do your deliveries that too very time sensitive delivery. Everybody wants fish between 8 and 10 am, right, so you need to build a true time sensitive aggressive engine which kind of delivers.

And then the entire collection engine which is post that the team takes over, so it’s like you’re running a 24 hour business and this is geographically so split, you know, spread out. Because you have your team from Gujarat to Kolkata to -- that’s the one which really scared me and just to be honest the largest team that I’d handled till then was three and all of these self motivated analysts would come through to me as a banker or a consultant. To actually build out an organization which is as disparate as this in terms of their background, in terms of their intellect, in terms of the amount of work they have to do and geographically spread across time zones.

That’s the thing was the complexity that kind of took me a couple of months to get my head around but I think end of the day it was the size of the prize and of course the purpose, the strength of the purpose that we had in front of us that’s what gave me the conviction to kind of dive in. So here I am. 

Sudipto:          

I know sometimes we say that bankers and consultants don’t do the real work and work on Excels and PPDs. I think you’re an inspiration to a lot of founders who’ll startup on how much hard work it goes to actually build conviction on the problem. But diving a little deeper, we all know that solving for perishable supply chains is probably the toughest problem statement because the shelf life is 4-5 days versus other sort of commodities where probably shelf life is 3 months, 1 year, 2 years, and your prices fluctuate daily. And typically it’s extremely difficult to solve these supply chains. How did you think about going about the problem of solving a perishable supply chain?

Utham:            

Yeah, absolutely. I think the points that you’ve pointed out, alluded to, right, they’re very, very critical. I think the most important advantage that I had when I started was that I had this five year of exposure to this sector starting with a very top down. And understanding a global supply chain like say the US and China and then working with an operator who used to handle the local nuances in terms of domestic procurement etcetra that kind of gave me a very simple clear set of objectives to optimize for. 

If I have to really distill, okay, what are those three or four objectives that we optimize for was scale was paramount. It’s like there’s nothing that is as important as scale in a supply chain business which is focused on a perishable. So entire business choices that we took was optimized for scale which meant that we said we will take large businesses first and then go after the smaller businesses later so we’re a high MOQ to low MOQ business. That is very counterintuitive when we began because we remember these conversations where I used to say why we’ve gone after large businesses this is such a chunky book to go after. 

Sudipto:          

And then I would continue to say that demand fragmentation is important, demand fragmentation is important. 

Utham:            

Yeah, exactly. That was the first critical choice that we made in terms of business model that we went after large sizes and then now we’re going down the curve. The second important thing in this entire piece is how do you grade the product. In fact this is one key insight that I borrowed from the global supply chain. Now if I say that to begin with I said that all the global exporters, frozen exporters had super normal ROSI which was 30-40 percent ROSI with no leverage.

And if you have to distill it down to that one or two important things that they’re doing which is resulting in that super normal profit is that they’re able to grade the supply. They’re taking supply as a bulk and then grade it into four or five segments and then ability to sell to a Walmart in the US and to a Nichirei in Japan or to a Delhaize in Belgium. That’s what brings that margin, super normal margin. So for me when I looked at domestic market clearly that grading as a element was missing because it’s so unorganized. So top down how do we embed grading into this entire design framework. So that was the second critical piece. 

Then the third critical piece is that comfort with heterogeneity because supply is in simplistic terms is act of God. You get supply in all forms and shapes, there are multiple dimensions of heterogeneity. And demand is also as nuanced. A Kolkata fish eater will not prefer what a Tamilian fish eater eats and in a cosmopolitan setup like Bangalore there are multiple micro markets. So how do you match supply and demand in a dynamic way on an everyday basis in a precise way is the third large problem statement that we thought that if we can solve one with for scale in a capital efficient way, second, you know, grade and then of course the whole supply demand matching. 

Maybe we can have a large winner for this market, that’s the three axis that we looked at. And in terms of technology I think if we have to again distill in terms of what is that that we’ve gone after to solve in the last 24 months that we’ve been around is again it’s it’s basically three things. We’ve tried to digitalize the supply chain so that whatever happens in Porbandar in Gujarat and a Digha in West Bengal we have the same view on a real time basis, right, that’s the first thing. 

And second, what we’re continuously thinking and investing a lot behind is automation. How do we reduce the amount of bandwidth that is needed to embed all these functions of grading, the supply demand matching and entire all of this in an automatic way. And third one is of course how do you democratize the channels, right, today this is one of the sectors you don’t find fancy entrepreneurs participating. I think thanks to some of our seniors who’ve come in and have raised capital and those are the guys who are really pioneering in this space in terms of bringing the glamour back into this frontend space but largely if you look at it it’s still 95 percent plus unorganized. 

So how do we enable more and more entrepreneurs to come into this space, so how do you democratize, how do you ensure that any guy can become a fish seller. So these are the three large dimensions in which we’re investing largely, both on the technology, people, asset, all of this combined, right, that’s where we’re investing. 

Sudipto:          

And I like the fact that you spoke about scale and grading because for most procurement -- if it’s a perishable procurement supply chain I think the juice to it is when you can go and buy everything that a farm produces or say a pond produces, right, because that’s the only time when essentially you can get the best quality price. But the challenge typically is you can buy everything if you want but how do you sell that, and what’s your answer to that?

Utham:            

Yeah. So I think I keep saying this internally as a founder if there is one business problem that I’ve spent enormous amount of time on is how do I sell my bad quality fish, right, that’s where I spend a lot of time. In fact there’s a joke that we have internally that you don’t need anybody to sell good fish, they sell by themselves. So I think the important piece is that we recognized that the heterogeneity part of this entire puzzle we recognized it very, very early in our journey and we have been very comfortable with the fact that this is not going to be a crack one city replicate everywhere business, this is going to be every city going to be an organism in its own way and how do one understand that and then design your strategy. 

So we were very comfortable with that approach from day 0. So even the way we have built out the distribution strategy has been very nuanced in terms of how do I enable multiple personas, multiple archetypes of sellers to work with us as a platform. That has been the constant line of thinking that we’ve had from day 0. So to give you a couple of interesting things that we’re doing in this entire distribution strategy is now we’re not thinking metro first. In fact we’re thinking how do I think of -- in fact we’re just in three metros but we’re in 25 towns and cities which essentially means that for a Bangalore I’m also in a Mysore, in a Tirupathi, in a Mangalore.

Because these also play a very important role in the supply chain of delivering fresh fish to Bangalore because whatever is not accepted in Bangalore there is a market elsewhere. So this entire thought process of how do you layer up a core market with multiple layers of next level markets, that is a key insight that we’ve worked with. And of course the second insight is how do you layer up multiple personas to come and sell for you. So these are the two critical things that we’ve thought of on the distribution side which has given us the competence to be able to say that if there is one competency that we’re building as Captain Fresh it is ability to monetize any kind of supply better than anybody else in the market. In a nutshell that’s the muscle that we’re building and we believe that if this muscle gets time tested and stress tested across seasons, across multiple products maybe we’ll have a flywheel in place. 

Tarun

So going a bit deeper, I want to pick up on the point you just made around these sort of filler cities or the satellite cities, right, if I were to zoom out the biggest challenge in any perishable supply chain is dump and managing dump determines whether you have a business or not. And that can change very quickly and can turn things around very fast. Now that’s something I know you spent a lot of time just structurally organizing different aspects of the business, to solve dump and make sure that it’s not an afterthought. So talk a little bit about that as to how did you think and what are the elements around which you’ve tried to manage this?

Utham:            

Yeah, absolutely. We always say in our business there are in fact two critical control points for our scale, right. One of the super important control points as you pointed out is the dump, the management of dump. But I think that’s true for any super perishable supply chain not just in India anywhere in the world. So if I have to unpack this concept of how did we approach this dump as a concept. So to begin with we said, look, how do we get customer insights as close to the source as possible.

That is very important as a thought process because today customer insights are all embedded in the wet market level, there is nobody who is taking it to the source, so how do I take it back. So that if I further unpack it means that how do I build a network of assets which has the ability to make this happen. And this network of assets also need to be layered with a tech layer which does a dynamic orchestration. Why I’m using all of these things is I may have built this out in a place like Mangalore and Malpe but then there is a flood so you don’t have supply there so how does my network or rather supply chain resilient enough to handle the same thing in Kakinada or a Chirala.

So how do you think modular in terms of transmitting this entire customer insight all the way back to the source in a very asset like manner in a modular manner where you have all of these things embedded. That’s the first thing and second thing is building out this muscle of saying that I will have the best grading capability in the market. One is I understand what is needed and second is how do I break it down and execute at scale where we have automations, where we have technology coming in, all of this need to be put together to execute at scale. So that’s the second dimension in which we’ve worked out where we bring in automation to do some of this grading. 

And the third thing is of course in terms of the choice of markets that we play with. Where we’re very, very heterogeneity first like I mentioned earlier that earlier we were thinking of only let’s say online archetype of players or modern trade archetype of players or say a general trade archetype of players. Now we’re releasing that condition and saying that okay, any archetype, any persona who has the need of making money who wants to be a micro entrepreneur so that set of -- and originally we thought that we will take only the large urban agglomerate. 

Now we said, no, we’ll release that condition, we’ll go to a tier 2 city or a tier 3 city. So that way we have got an entire spectrum of demand so that it matches up to the spectrum of supply that we’re getting in. So that’s the way we’re thinking about dump, I would say, yes, we’re in that path to solve the problem so I would say in the industry we’re possibly the best equipped to solve the dump problem but it’s a work in progress but I believe we have the thought process ready and at a business level if there is one problem that everybody is thinking about it’s the dump. 

Sudipto:          

Which reflects on your numbers, like you’ve been consistently been contribution margin positive and ensured that your working capital is less than ten days. And if I have to take this six months forward, right, you will probably be at $100 million of annualized scale. What do you worry then, what breaks then and as a founder how do you prepare for that?

Utham:            

So I think again I keep saying this that in this whole entire cricket match you have one abdomen guard and one helmet which is one is dump the other is collection. You get these two then you have the entire field to go after, you can play a front foot. So it’s exactly those two, which is how do I manage dump and how do I manage my balance sheet or a collection risk. So in fact these two are almost fungible, if you have to manage your dump you can go sell in your wet market because that persona can take any produce but it also means that you’ve just moved the last bucket from a dump to a collection because recovering money from wet market is an unsolved problem. 

So the way we’re thinking about this, if we can get these two engines or these two last buckets in control with multilayered strategy which is diversify your demand as much as possible, move from a 7-day credit demand segment to a cash on delivery or a pre order kind of a demand bucket so on that you have kind of derisked yourself on the collection side. And on the dump side we’re now in a very quality sensitive market how do you move further down in terms of adding slightly more quality or I would say open to taking a multiple spectrum of quality demand.

And of course there are multiple such demand pools if you look at it at a global level you have exporters, you have frozen, all of these demand pools. So how do you get this dump as you move into the next set of demand and match the two is where we believe as we scale we want to kind of go after this impossible mix of we’re scaling but our risk factors are taken control of which is both dump and collection we’re derisking on both these planks. So that’s the thinking. 

Tarun

So let me ask you another question, when we first invested the company was really young, right, you probably -- I remember it was you and every time I called you you were at a different port and up since like 4 am. Now over the last few months you’ve managed to attract some really good talent. A lot of what you said is highly complex, requires deep management and leadership bandwidth and it’s clearly not something that one or two or three people can do.

Now talk a little bit about how do you as a founder who’s building and architecting this business how did you think about what are the various roles that you needed to hire for, how did you go about figuring out what are the right people for these roles? How did you attract people, this is not an easy business to get quality talent, right, people look at it and say oh, it’s seafood, too complex, too messy, I don’t rate with it, whatever it may be. But to your credit you managed to actually pull people that would find it harder to go to any other company and you managed to still get them. So what has worked for you?

Utham:            

Yeah, I think I’ve been super -- if there is one thing that has gone right for us in the last 18-24 months it’s the quality of team that we’ve put together. Every day morning I’m super excited to get up and go back to office because the kind of people that I interact with and the kind of intellect they bring on table is really, really something that I enjoy. And not because Matrix is hosting this, I think one thing that I really want to credit is the powerhouse that you’ve built with your backend where you’re helping out companies like ours to one, continuously keep thinking about talent.

Because for a founder it is very hard to think about six months later problem or a one year later problem because you’re always busy with your day to day stuff. So thinking about talent and bringing that attention back I think that’s something that I’ve been very fortunate to have very strong set of partners. 

Tarun

Good, Utham, I’ll interrupt you there. I appreciate the compliment but I tell you what I told you this when you first had shared this sentiment is we do this across the board for everyone. What eventually counts is the ability of the entrepreneur to convert that talent. End of the day my job is to bring somebody to the table, they’re going to be working with you round the clock. And I think to your credit you managed to get people who have come from very diverse backgrounds but suddenly they all are super excited about solving the seafood problem. And so I think to your credit the conversion you’ve done probably the best job at it. 

Utham:            

Thanks, Tarun, I think if I have to distill in terms of what was my input in terms of getting this output. Two, three things, I think I fundamentally believed that I need better quality talent to solve this problem because the complexity is so massive. When I started believing it then it also meant that I really put a lot of time in terms of myself working before the interview to say that how best the story can be sold to this gentleman while I knew that yes this gentleman can really be of help to us as we build out this Captain Fresh.

That whole entire process and diligence in terms of building that story for that -- customized for that gentleman, and I think what has genuinely worked for us is one, of course there’s a lot of bandwidth that has gone. I think if you talk about Abhishek who has come in from Myntra, if you talk about Venu who’s come in from Livspace, or the bunch of entrepreneurs now we’ve got almost 4-5 entrepreneurs who has excelled, sold their companies off and in their own way being successful but still seeing that okay, they can be a part of this larger vision. I think what has worked in all of these situations is that they’ve found a large purpose that they can be a part of.

And we’ve been very authentic in terms of telling that story to them saying that look, it’s a very complex problem, and if all of us come together and solve this the prize that we get at the end of this entire journey is going to be very attractive. So it’s the same thing that goes into selling our story to a investor, the same kind of rigor has gone into selling this story to the employees that we’ve got. So today I think I’m super proud about the kind of technology team that we’ve built together for example today we have 4 people, the initial 4 hires, all of them have been head of engineering at 4 different organizations.

So if I’d thought about this 12 months, 18 months ago it was sounding super impossible to get a kind of talent especially in a kind of environment that we’re today where there is so much of capital available and tech talent. So I think that’s what has gone right where we’ve got the initial set of layers who are more than anything else they’re the believers. You get the belief part right I think they’re going to take care of the rest. 

Sudipto:          

Super interesting. And I have to agree, I think the kind of talent that has joined the company in the last four months is amazing to see. And you spoke a little bit about the vision, right, the vision which is inspiring people to join Capital Fresh. In your mind what’s the long term vision ambition for you?

Utham:            

So given I had this benefit of coming top down and spending a lot of time in the global supply chain and working with some of the companies like Nichirei, Movin and Trident there is a lot of I would say a global large thinking that we had in terms of how do you build such a large business out of India because India fundamentally is the second largest supplier in the world and this is a supply deficit market. You can’t get a better mix than this where the market is supply deficit and India is such a strong supplier or at least well endowed to supply. So how do you solve debottleneck some of these friction points and create a large supplier first community. 

So that is what the starting point was but I think as we peel off the layer of this opportunity what we’re also thinking and even our vision is getting emboldened is that this can be a global platform, it’s a global problem that we’re solving and already we’re getting a lot of inbound interest. Somebody in Ireland is reaching out saying that this is the same problem they’re also facing. So some of the choices that we’ve made in terms of tech and network design can that be borrowed there so that they can use this platform elsewhere.

So things like that are coming in which is essentially meaning that maybe we can build a largest fresh platform which is relevant to the entire world starting with India which possibly gives you the most complex problem to solve and after this believe that the problem will only get simplified as we move out of India. So that’s the vision where how can we build the largest animal protein company in the world which is supplier first in approach. 

Sudipto:          

Fantastic to hear. I know whenever we speak we speak for hours but I think we’re coming to the end of this chat. Before we leave what seafood do you prefer?

Utham:            

Actually to begin with when I started this business I was not such a big seafood guy but I think now I’ve started to like the white pomfrets, seers of the world so, yeah, I live the marine fishes particularly white pomfret here. Yeah. 

Sudipto:          

Got it. Fantastic. Thank you so much, Utham and Tarun for taking the time out for this. It’s a privilege to host you on Matrix Moments and I’m sure this is the first of many that we do. Thank you so much for the time. 

Utham:            

Thanks, Sudipto, thanks, Tarun. 

Tarun

No, no, we should thank you. And, thank you, like I said it’s the start of a fantastic journey. I don’t think we could be more privileged to be in business with you. I have learnt so much in such a short time already just working with you and seeing the way you operate and I think the joy in our business. You spoke about what keeps you excited, right, the joy in our business is when you find a passionate entrepreneur who is out there every morning looking to change the world and is doing it in a way where everybody around them is just wanting that person to succeed and I think you’re one of them. 

Utham:            

Thank you so much, Tarun. 

Tarun

Really, really excited about this journey and thank you so much for doing this. 

Utham:            

Thank you. Thank you, Sudipto.

Sudipto:          

Thanks, Tarun. 

Salonie:

Thanks for tuning in. For more Matrix Moments episodes, you can head to www.matrixpartners.in/blog. You can also follow us on Twitter, LinkedIn, and YouTube for more updates