Will someone else soon be doing your shopping?

Before they started their Masters in Innovation &Entrepreneurship, Alexander Ben Abdessalem and Sebastian Duyvendak had never met. They have since become the best of friends and are pouring all their enthusiasm into the start-up they share, Bask.it, a peer-to-peer shopping platform. How do they feel about the year they spent completing their masters, and what role has coincidence played in their start-up?

Focus on practical work

Alexander Ben Abdessalem - Bask.itAlexander and Sebastian believe that a clear focus on practical work is what sets the course apart from other masters degrees. “At university we did actually have to learn a lot of stuff off by heart”, Alexander explains. “Here we were genuinely tested on our ability to apply our knowledge. Knowing what a business model is and what a revenue model is supposed to look like is all very well, but drawing them up yourself is a whole different ball game. You really do find yourself immersed in the practical side of things.”

Sebastian nods. “Right, that is one big difference between this and a university degree. The teaching method is different too: it is much more interactive and took me right out of my comfort zone, certainly in the beginning. At university I didn’t often go to class. I mainly studied by myself. But in real life you can’t do everything on your own. You absolutely have to be able to work with other people. That alone made the masters course a useful learning experience.” Alexander feels the same. “All that group work, and the networking events as well, helped me develop my soft skills. I learned to give better presentations, work as part of a team, communicate and so on.”

Holistic view

“Of course some modules are more interesting than others”, Sebastian continues. “Personally I found Management Accounting and Design Thinking really fascinating. But I think they are all equally important. After all, you want to get a holistic view of a business. That means you also need the general subjects, to help you understand how a commercial decision, for example, impacts all kinds of other aspects.”

Busy neighbour

At the beginning of the academic year, students had the opportunity to pitch an idea for a start-up and convince other students to join their project. Sebastian put forward the idea for Bask.it and Alexander jumped aboard.

Sebastian Duyvendak - Bask.it“I’d been flirting for a while with the idea of making transactions that are going to happen anyway more efficient. The peer-to-peer business model appealed to me, but I didn’t have any specific ideas beyond that”, Sebastian tells us. “Preparing the pitch made me think harder. I had a student room near a supermarket and every evening I saw my neighbour rush out to do her shopping. I knew she was busy, with a full-time job, two kids and her hobbies. I was a student with plenty of time on my hands. Couldn’t people like me relieve other people’s stress by doing their shopping for a small fee? So that was the idea I pitched: Bask.it would be a platform for people with time to spare who would do the shopping for people who didn’t have time.”

“Then Alexander and I looked around to see if a platform like that already existed. That is how we found Instacart, a shopping service in the US whose growth had mushroomed in four years. That gave us confidence that our idea was viable.”

Meeting in downtown LA

Coincidence often plays a bigger role than we think, and the development of Bask.it was no exception to the rule. “During our trip to Silicon Valley, we visited a lot of start-ups and came into contact with local entrepreneurs”, Alexander recalls. “It was absolutely fascinating, quite simply one of the high points of the year. As it happened, the trip was just before the Easter holidays, so we and a few other students postponed our flight home and spent two weeks travelling in California. In Los Angeles we were invited to stay with a good friend of mine who was doing an internship at Innovation Protocol, a brand consultancy, at the time. I had told him about Bask.it and he said he could set up a meeting. And he did. From one day to the next, we found ourselves sitting across the table from the Vice President, General Manager and Director of Brand Development in a real business meeting. Once we had pitched our idea, they gave us incredibly useful feedback, as well as new ideas and perspectives that we were able to apply.”

The power of chance

So did things go smoothly from then on, or did the pair come up against problems? Sebastian laughs. We ran into all kinds of problems and are still encountering them on a daily basis. For some of them, you don’t find a solution. That is inherent to starting up a business, I think. But then you get an even bigger kick when you do manage to find a solution.”

“And sometimes you find it completely by chance”, Alexander chimes in. “We had the problem of paying for the service, for example. Of course the shoppers don’t want to advance the cost of the customers’ shopping. At the FinTech Bootcamp in London there was a guest speaker from Bankable, a firm that develops e-wallets. We had already heard of them, but the presentation encouraged us to find out more about them and we came to the conclusion that e-wallets were the best way to deal with the payment issue.

Existential crisis

Other problems were less easily solved. “Our starting point was the needs of the customer, so our business model was initially based on the fee that the customer would pay the shopper, from which we would take a cut,” Sebastian explains. “It soon became clear that that approach was not financially viable. The fee hinders growth, whereas you actually need as many customers as possible to benefit from economies of scale. That sent us into an existential crisis for a while... But when we included all the interested parties in our analysis, we discovered that the largest potential source of income lay with the retailers. It is impossible for them to organise a shopping service like this themselves in a cost-efficient way: if they were to deliver the shopping, they would have to plan a route that was as efficient as possible for the various drop-off points and guarantee an uninterrupted cold chain. That requires serious investment. Our peer-to-peer model offers them a cheaper alternative.”

The chicken or the egg

So how far have they got? What are the next steps they need to take? “We know what we want Bask.it to stand for”, Sebastian replies. “We are an e-commerce company and we will need to excel at business development. The trouble is that neither of us know much about IT, so we will need to rely on a software developer for the technical development of the platform. And that is a bit of a chicken and egg situation: you need money to attract software developers, but if you go and talk to investors or retailers, you want to show them a preview of the platform, which you can’t make without developers. For now we are trying to get as many retailers as possible interested and use their interest as leverage to get investors and IT talent on board. Co-development with a larger retailer is also an option: we have already got a meeting scheduled.”

“We have given ourselves until January”, Alexander says. “We want to see significant progress by then, and at that point we will decide whether to continue or not.”

Just do it!

Would they recommend the Masters in Innovation & Entrepreneurship? “One of my friends has enrolled this year, on my recommendation”, says Alexander.  So what convinced him? “I explained to him that it isn’t just any masters degree. The emphasis on practical work, team work and time management is incomparable. If you want to be an entrepreneur, if you’ve got an idea but you don’t know where to start, you should definitely go for it. After a year at Vlerick, you will know. And what’s more, you’ll make friends for life there. Look at Sebastian and myself.”

“A course like this opens doors at customers and investors. And even if you don’t continue with your project after that year, the course gives you an advantage on the employment market. You will find yourself in a stronger position: it gives your ideas credibility”, Sebastian concludes.

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