Some of the best ideas happen when you are having a strong drink – and run out of ice.  Ashan Whittall and Mariam Moosa, husband and wife now, but courting couple three years ago when this lightbulb moment occurred, were drinking on the balcony of their home in Rajagiriya with a friend when the ice [...]

The Sunday Times Sri Lanka

Ice, ice baby – a cool idea calls for a Quickee


Ashan Whittall and Mariam Moosa on a ride to fame

Some of the best ideas happen when you are having a strong drink – and run out of ice.  Ashan Whittall and Mariam Moosa, husband and wife now, but courting couple three years ago when this lightbulb moment occurred, were drinking on the balcony of their home in Rajagiriya with a friend when the ice for their tipple ran out. It was late in the evening and the supermarkets were closed. On top of that, after a few down the hatch, driving in search of a bag of ice was also not a viable option.  “We wished how great it would be if we could just order some ice and get it delivered,” recalls Mariam. “It then struck us, instead of just indulging in wishful thinking, why don’t we do just that – create a company which would make life easier for people.” And this is how Quickee was born.

The shortage of ice crystalised into an idea which today makes it possible for you to call – the mobile app will be out soon – and order anything from a hot meal to toilet paper, or cigarettes to condoms and get it delivered to your doorstep 24×7. Well not exactly around the clock, the service is from 9 am to 3 am now. But plans are afoot to make it a 24-hour service.  “I believe the accident rate (motor vehicles) is down in Colombo because of Quickee,” laughs Ashan as he and Mariam take time off from a busy schedule to have a quick chat with me. Life seems to be one on the run for this carefree couple. A few months after that ‘ideas-filled’ drink on the balcony, they married.

Both had earlier quit their fulltime jobs to devote all their energies on the start-up. And in Mariam’s case, she had two children – daughter Madeena and son Asher – becoming pregnant with her second child eight months after her first was born. They would call that in the vernacular ‘pitta-pitta’, or perhaps aptly in the Queen’s English, a quickee.  “It has been hectic. We left our jobs, married, had two children and at the same time opening our own company,” says Mariam as she pauses for a moment to catch her breath from overseeing the call centre situated close to the Beira Lake and the hub of action as staff takes down orders.

Doorstep delivery
All you got to do is call 117324325 and you get your needs on your doorstep. If you want flowers or a gift delivered to your loved ones on that special occasion, or avoid the painful process of standing in queues and get your groceries from the supermarket, or else to ward off those midnight hunger pains by getting chicken cheese kottu from Pilawoos, all it takes is a phone call and for an extra 150 rupees (delivery charges) you don’t have to leave home. In early 2013, Ashan was working for an apparel company getting intimate with lingerie while Mariam was a clinical psychologist counselling people on how to stay married and not give up on each other.

They both resigned to reinvent their lives. “I’m more of a people person while he is more a techie, very good with the IT side of the business,” says former Bishopian Mariam, explaining the dynamics of their business relationship. It was the perfect fit. But a trusting nature from the inception almost led to an early downfall as the start-up met a huge obstacle soon after opening in March 2013. “I had scraped together 400,000 rupees – my savings as well as borrowing 100,000 rupees from my step-dad – and we started the business. We hired guys who had their own motor bikes (for delivery service) and a few people to run the call centre.

It began promisingly but soon we were up to our necks in debt,” Ashan recollects.  Things started to go wrong when his ‘right-hand man’ mishandled the accounts and started bad-mouthing the company with its suppliers. To add to the pain they were also paying their delivery guys too much. These teething problems resulted in debts of “millions of rupees”. Word got around that the company was in trouble and the staff also began deserting what they believed was a sinking ship.  “This was last year. I was also pregnant with my second child.

We thought our business was done,” Mariam remembers.  Fortunately not everyone lost faith. Three people, Abbas Sethwala, Dimitri Sheriff and Nadinka Sheriif (all directors of Quickee now) still believed in a good thing and decided to invest last December.  “They had been customers of ours and they came in and invested on trust. Their money cleared all our debts,” reveals Ashan. It also meant a new start. With the funds to buy their own bikes (20 and 21 riders, one guy still came with his own bike) and with a new business plan, Quickee was jump-started again.

New investors, new partners
Things are looking up today. Last month Laughs came on board as a partner. Delivering gas cylinders is part of the expansion plan. Dialog, Red Bull and Stassens are also in tow. Despite facing competition these days, Quickee delivers close to 4,000 orders a month. Last year they registered around Rs.40 million in sales and that figure is expected to double this year. The customer base in Colombo is more than 100,000 people with a large majority of them being women.  “We deliver mainly in Colombo city but can go even as far as Thalawatugoda, Peliyagoda or Mirihana and Ratmalana,” ticks off Ashan. With the money and backing, Quickee has big ambitions.

Among them to start franchises in every big city – Kandy, Galle etc – as well as to use drone technology to boost deliveries.  “Drone delivery will be a wow factor but we will have to overcome a lot of regulations to get that off the ground,” says Ashan with stars in his eyes.  Another visionary move is to deliver alcohol. For some people, the party train never stops but sometimes it runs out of fuel and Quickee, wise to that fact, is trying to get the necessary licenses to not only transport alcohol but also to sell it. The plan is to stock the booze so that when the shops close at night, they will still be able to satisfy customers.

“If we get the licenses from the Excise Department it will be huge for us and we can expect our business to boom,” Ashan believes. But with more people outsourcing and joining up with Quickee – they see them as an easy conduit to customers – things are looking up. “Everyone has a dream and my advice is not to give up. One must have the determination when you are down in the dumps,” is his advice to budding entrepreneurs. His wife adds: “We failed so much but at the same time we learned from our mistakes. If you believe in your idea, then you have to go with it.”
Especially when that idea hits you after a few drinks.

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