It was in 2013 that Sami Ullah Sheikh, Abid Rashid and Ahmer Khan, childhood best friends from Srinagar, first began working together at their event management company. It didn’t take long for LoudBeetle to become a household name among the youth of J&K’s summer capital, some of whom became regular attendees at light and independent music festivals in a city that’s infamous for its lack of nightlife.
Not only was LoudBeetle able to rope in Nikhil D’souza for a drug de-addiction awareness programme at Kashmir University – the songwriter’s first visit here – it also organised Asia’s ‘longest iftar party’ in 2015, with over 3,500 people breaking their fast alongside the Dal Lake. Less than a decade later, Ahmer went on to become an award-winning photojournalist.
Meanwhile, Sami and Abid gave the Valley its first homegrown logistics and delivery service with FastBeetle. Having catered to more than 80,000 Kashmiri customers so far, the hyperlocal venture ensures same-day pick-ups and deliveries in over ten districts including Srinagar, Baramulla, Pulwama, Budgam, Anantnag, Baramulla and Sopore. In August this year, they launched their services in the adjacent Ladakh region, and a few weeks ago, in Jammu.
“The three of us had gone in different directions in 2016. While Sami was the operations lead at a Kashmiri ecommerce company, I left for the UAE to work for a tech-based firm. But we kept in touch, and I realised that he wasn’t happy; he had started noticing some gaps in the existing delivery model. We decided to address these issues together and in late 2018, we began interacting with our existing network of businesses,” says Abid.
“My previous work involved keeping in touch with farmers and artisans whenever we received a purchase request for their products. When I used to ask them to drop their products at our warehouse, they mentioned that they didn’t have proper logistical channels to fulfill intercity and intra-district deliveries,” Sami tells The Better India. “They used to ask us to pick up their products from their own warehouses, offices, or farms. It was a struggle to pick up, say, five orders from five different locations everyday, with only a couple of delivery boys.”
“But at FastBeetle, we have over 40 riders, so we’re able to ensure that about 300 (local) doorstep deliveries happen everyday, within 24 hours. If not, we waive off the delivery fees. For orders that don’t fit on a bike, we have mini delivery trucks. Helping out our community has always been the major goal. I knew I could oversee the operations with my prior experience, while Abid, with his technical background, could oversee our IT concerns. It was a rare combination; that’s how we started the company,” he adds.
The primary bulk of FastBeetle’s orders comprises the local B2C supply chain, but they also fulfil interstate B2B orders to cities such as Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore, delivering to over 19,000 pin codes across the country.
“We also ship international orders, about eight to 10 everyday, to countries in the Gulf Cooperation Council, the USA, Canada, and the UK. But our strongest point is that we deliver to remote villages in this region where big, private players aren’t operational. We’re working towards reaching every corner of Kashmir,” says Sami.
So far, FastBeetle has successfully delivered orders in the villages of Uri, about 10 km away from the Line of Control (LoC); Bandipora, Lolab, Kulgam, Shopian and Kakapora, among others. Since setting up base in Jammu, Sami adds, they’re hoping to cover the villages of Bhaderwah, Poonch and Rajouri within the next couple of months.
Earlier this year, FastBeetle also began fulfilling last-mile orders for ecommerce giants Amazon and Flipkart. “They have a huge customer base in districts such as Pulwama, so their vehicles drop off their goods at our warehouses and our riders take care of the rest,” he says.
‘We live in a conflict zone, but…’
With adequate research and resources in place, FastBeetle had launched its customer app in July, 2019. About two weeks later, however, the Centre announced the abrogation of Article 370, snapping internet, mobile and telephone services across J&K, only to resume them in a staggered way over the next year and a half.
“Sami and I were convinced there was no way out. Even [a few months] later, some of these businesses kept checking in frequently, asking about our next move. We told them we’re thinking about shutting down for a bit to regain our breath. Sensing our financial constraints, they requested us to not take up other jobs and even offered us their own savings. They told us we’d been their lifeline so far, and they needed us to continue earning more income. We were really touched,” says Abid.
“Internet is like oxygen to any ecommerce setup; [but] we live in a conflict zone. We made up our minds to not complain, manage ourselves and [come up with] solutions. We started asking our customers to place their orders on our landline numbers, and maintained a record of their data on excel sheets. Once 2G services were restored, we worked on making our app function even in areas with little to no connectivity,” says Sami, adding that FastBeetle has three apps for customers, merchants and riders.
Abid explains, “The optimisation of the delivery app involved making use of data in the last stage. So now, even if our delivery guy goes to a far-flung area without any internet, he can still upload the order details, but the information remains in a queue. It will get updated eventually as long as he finds himself in an area with 2G connectivity later.”
Even as they had overcome the hurdles of a communication blackout, the entrepreneurial duo was then in store for the COVID-induced lockdowns. But they made the best of their circumstances, once again.
“We had started receiving multiple calls from local farmers who had been storing huge quantities of their produce at their wholesale warehouses. We realised we could become a link between them and their consumers. All they had to do was share their quantity and pricing details, and we promoted them on our Instagram account, which has a good reach. We sold over 150 boxes of apples this way,” says Sami.
“During Ramadan last year, we delivered about 50 tonnes of apples from farmers in Pulwama to Srinagar and some other cities. That helped us receive massive support from the locals. Currently, we’re working with about 20 farmers,” he adds.
FastBeetle doesn’t discriminate between the magnitude of their shipments; the smallest order they have delivered was 50 gms of saffron. Most of their orders, however, come from entrepreneurs selling apparel, specifically crocheted caps from fabrics native to the region, that are a hit every winter. “Some others also sell cakes, photo frames and calligraphy products. We have completed orders for more than 800 online and offline shops, and about 60-70 per cent of these entrepreneurs are women from Kashmir,” says Sami.
Over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, the company also made use of its in house vehicles to fulfill food and medicine orders for stranded residents amid an overburdened and crumbling healthcare system. A huge chunk of these frantic requests, says Sami, came from people outside J&K and even the country, who couldn’t get a hold of their parents and elderly family members.
“During the second wave, we used to receive several SOS calls in the middle of the night. People used to tell us, ‘Humaare ghar pe sab positive hogaye hain, oxygen cylinder delivery ke liye koi nai maan raha’ (Everyone in our family has tested positive for COVID-19, nobody is agreeing to deliver oxygen cylinders). Since we had hardly had any business at that time, we made use of our in house cabs and bikes to get people whatever they needed,” he adds.
Retaining their team of delivery personnel, however, is a big challenge, says Sami. “Every couple of months, we find ourselves publishing advertisements for hiring, [because] there have been incidents when our bikes have been halted at checkpoints and detained overnight for no apparent reason. We ensure that our riders carry proper documentation on their person to avoid any issues. There has been peace for some time now,” he says.
The way ahead
Although FastBeetle began its operations with the help of financing from family and friends, it raised an undisclosed angel round in early 2020, following its selection at an incubation programme by ALSiSAR Impact, the transaction advisory company that played an instrumental role in their growth, says Sami. Earlier this week, in a landmark win for entrepreneurship in the Valley, FastBeetle also became the first Kashmiri startup to raise $1,00,000 in a pre-Series A funding round.
“Thankfully, the region has not seen as major an internet shutdown since 2019, but we’ve learnt our lesson,” says Sami. “For instance, we keep at least two BSNL sim cards and a spare BSNL internet connection at all our warehouses because the government has always restored their services first.”
He adds FastBeetle enjoys immense goodwill in their community and it’s not uncommon for the two to deliver orders personally. “We share good relationships with our merchants. Sometimes, if an order reaches our warehouse by 5 pm (closing time), they insist that I deliver it because it’s urgent and they’d incur losses if I don’t. I’m very bad at saying no and they always manage to convince me,” he smiles. “This happens a lot during the wedding season; people say ‘Kapde aane vaale the, iske bagar kuch nahi hai’ (I was expecting clothes for a wedding, there’s no point to attending one without them).”
“We really love what we do and want to keep building a great company. As we continue to expand geographically, we want to make FastBeetle the biggest logistics player in the region. Once we accomplish that, we’ll find something else and probably launch it as ‘SmartBeetle’,” laughs Abid.
For any enquiries, you can contact FastBeetle here.