When entrepreneurs recognize just how well their skills complement each other, there’s no limit to their potential for success. Into their third year together, Ericka Billingslea and Tatiana Grant are feeding Detroit by growing Flash Delivery at a steady pace.
Call it the "spaghetti and meatballs syndrome," or, in more familiar terms, the intense desire for a huge plate of pasta, preferably with a side of garlic bread, to appear on the table just when you want it most. We can all relate.
Thank goodness there is a cure.
, a two-year-old startup founded by D:Hive Build Institute
graduates Ericka Billingslea and Tatiana Grant, is a Detroit-based food delivery service that connects customers to their pasta fixes, plus a lot more.
"Our goal is to provide anything you have a taste for," Billingslea says. "It might be Italian one day, Mexican another, soul food, Thai, or sushi. There is no reason you shouldn’t order from Flash Delivery."
Billingslea and Grant actually started as competitors, individually shopping their businesses to Detroit restaurant partners. In an example of Detroit's supportive startup environment, they were introduced by the owner of 24grille
and decided to join forces.
"Personality-wise we were very different, in a good way," recalls Grant, who also owns Farmington Hills-based Infused PR & Events
. She considers herself to be the extrovert, while Billingslea’s accounting background means she’s laser-focused on operations and logistics. "We figured out that we could leverage our skills sets and build the business together. Our personalities blended well. I'm absolutely glad it worked out that way."
Two years in, the company has expanded both its service offerings and its delivery area. Customers in Greater Detroit can now get breakfast, lunch, and dinner delivery from 24 unique restaurants, as well as groceries from local markets.
By measurement of orders placed, Flash Delivery grew 30 percent over the last year, even through the relatively lighter summer months. "This is amazing because in the summer, people go to food trucks and spend more time outdoors," says Billingslea, noting that a polar vortex can be Flash Delivery’s best friend.
"From November 2015 to February 2016, we grew nearly 200 percent," she says.
By all accounts, Flash Delivery is poised to grow and compete with national delivery services that have set up shop in Detroit. And they are finding that a home-field advantage doesn't hurt, either.
"Detroit is so united and businesses are willing to work (with us) to increase their bottom line," Billingslea says. "Some of our competitors have come here to deliver and have not had success with getting restaurants to work with them. I have had restaurant partners say, "Oh no! I'm working with local services only.'"
Their days are hectic, but we caught up with Grant and Billingslea, and they delivered the dish on their business model, what they’ve learned along the way, and what the future tastes like.
In 2014, you won first place in the lifestyle category of the Entrepreneur-YOU business plan competition. What did it mean to be recognized?
We have learned that people don’t understand the concept of delivery, so it was good to get that reinforcement that people understood it. It was a morale booster from the perspective that we weren't the crazy people starting a business that only a few people wanted. From a resource perspective, we got $5,000 in cash to launch our mobile app. We also got accounting, marketing, legal, and ancillary services, and being a small business, it was great because we couldn't afford these at the time.
Wait… people don’t understand delivery?
That's right. We’d go to conferences and meet individuals who have lived in New York or Chicago or another market and they get the concept that you can get anything delivered. People here don't understand it, though. It has been a big education and behavior change challenge to get people into the mindset of getting food delivered instead of picking it up. New customers still ask how it works.
We are still teaching people about restaurant delivery services. They call us confused, thinking they have to call the restaurant too. People are starting to recognize and understand and that's wonderful. We explain on our fliers that we are a one-stop shop. Go through us and get your meals.
How can the region better support you?
One challenge is that we still haven't been able to get a special permit for our delivery drivers. Downtown Detroit has a problem with a shortage of parking, and our drivers are incurring tickets. You will drive around on a regular basis and see a FedEx truck blocking a lane of traffic and they aren’t getting parking tickets, but our college student drivers are getting $45 tickets left and right.
We have a lot of mentors who have been successful in this market across the nation and many have strong support from their cities and municipalities because they are instrumental in helping attract and retain talent. Flash Delivery is one of the game-changers that people look at when they consider relocation, a service that comes with being part of a big metropolis. As we expand, (the municipalities) need to get that we aren't just trying to deliver food, but create a platform and a footprint with the amount of money we bring to restaurants. Only one is a national chain, but the others are small independent restaurateurs. We are a local or regional partner, here to boost the economy to make it a great place to live and work, when all is said and done.
How has your business model changed?
One of the biggest things we realized is to not dump resources into hard marketing costs but into retention. We'd like to continue to grow with new customers, but also continue to grow loyalty of customers who maybe could use us once a week, rather than just once a month.
We also have had to stick to our fee structure with our partners. At first, restaurants didn't want to pay us for our services. Once it got to the point where we could show value, they got it. But we had to buy into our own value rather than looking at ourselves as an underdog. There, we stuck to our business model.
What advice have you received along the way?
We have learned to tap into those who are better than we are in their respective areas. We have had to lean on others to fill gaps that we have in our own skills sets. We have learned not to be intimidated in our space, not so much in Detroit, but across the nation. This market is booming and there are others who are funded by venture capital to hundreds of thousands of dollars. We are doing great here, and our customers are loyal. We know that if a national company comes here, we will continue better and stronger.
We have learned to keep our customer service first and to retain the customers we have. We have also learned not to grow too fast. We see how wide the market is and have been conservative in our growth. We are a food delivery company, but really a logistics and operations company of food delivery. We can get ourselves into trouble if our operations are not sound and we don’t have systems and processes in place as we grow.
What does the future look like?
We are in the process of expanding our base, and we are starting to acquire restaurant partnerships in south Oakland County. In the fall we plan to launch into the University District, Palmer Woods, and Ferndale areas.
We are working toward helping our restaurant partners expand into catering where they haven’t leveraged their catering opportunities. We are creating catering packages for people to order for at-home birthday parties, luncheons, board meetings at a particular location.
We are also focusing on "Features," which are a unique way for an office or a business to order together.
How does a Feature work?
Say you are a boss and want to recognize your staff for doing a great job, for really killing it all week, by paying for lunch on Friday and everyone can choose what they want. An admin assistant can put into our system the email addresses of everyone, a deadline for making their orders, the day and time for delivery, and even a dollar limit per person. It’s all coordinated instead of someone going around with a Post-it note.
Is the sky the limit with your business?
Customers are now asking for their laundry or dry cleaning to be picked up and delivered. They can give us the day and time and we will respond with the cost. We are really expanding our services based on our customers' needs and requests.
One customer called and wanted to celebrate his girlfriend’s birthday, so in addition to food delivery, he wanted rose petals and candles brought to the hotel. And we made it happen for him. It was so sweet.
Do you have a storefront?
We do! We are on Woodward, next to the Hudson Cafe
, and near Nike. We have it really only for promotional use because we are a virtual service and it defeats the purpose of delivery if you have to come in to do it.
We will continue to figure out creative ways of expanding our exposure as well as that for our partners. Right now, for example, at Woodhouse Day Spa
, you can have food delivered for your spa appointment. We continue to look at ways of letting people know who we are.
What does Southeast Michigan offer small businesses that maybe are lacking in other similar-sized cities?
Detroiters love to support one another. When we look at how much support we got at launch, it was amazing. The whole lifting one another up and supporting them part is very unique. I don’t know other cities that do that. There are other underdog cities that don’t have the same mindset. But as a local company, as a small business, people know we will work our tails off, and they are willing to go the extra mile with us.
What about investors?
We are completely self-funded between the two of us, and that was part of our original plan. People look at us like we are crazy because we have something that is technically investable. Other companies are getting money and they aren’t doing as well as we are doing. But we prefer this, especially this early in the game.
What are the difficult days like?
Ericka and I have to keep ourselves motivated. Certain days are great. Ericka will send me a screenshot of dispatch and there will be all orders for a new restaurant partner and that’s huge—a restaurant will go live and in two hours will have six lunch orders from us. Days like that we are on cloud nine, and there are days where it is like being on a rollercoaster without a seatbelt. But it’s a rollercoaster that is worth it in the end. We definitely embrace it and ride it out and sometimes we just have to laugh. We are happy that we are starting to see the fruits of our labor.
Claire Charlton is a Metro Detroit freelance writer. Connect with her on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter.