UCLA Startup Duffl Uses E-Scooters to Deliver in Under 10 Minutes as Quick Commerce Competition Heats up

Maylin Tu
Maylin Tu is a freelance writer who lives in L.A. She writes about scooters, bikes and micro-mobility. Find her hovering by the cheese at your next local tech mixer.
duffl

David Lin wants to create a world where you can “boil water and then buy the pasta.”

He’s the co-founder and CEO of Duffl, a UCLA-based startup that promises ultra-fast delivery via e-scooter to college students craving hot cheetos or Guayaki—or as the company’s cheeky Twitter bio proclaims: “The only thing you want to come in under 10 minutes.”


Lin is a fourth-year student studying philosophy and economics at UCLA (he took last quarter off to run Duffl). He grew up in Jiangxi, China and Lima, Peru before landing in Los Angeles.

“I chose to come to L.A. because I thought it was the perfect amalgamation of Asian, Latino and American culture, which is who I am,” he said.

Lin was taking a philosophy class on existentialism during his sophomore year when he started to ponder his role in the world:

“I would leave class and I would just kind of think about ants and one of the thoughts I had was, you know, every ant has a role in the economy. I wonder what my role is? And I realized I'm a founder.”

He applied to Y-Combinator where he met co-founder and fellow UCLA student Brian Le. Together, they launched Duffl as a 10-minute delivery service for college students. The startup went through several iterations before landing on the current model in April 2020.

When they googled “entrepreneurship,” they saw images of kids selling candy bars out off duffle bags, hence Duffl without the “e.”

The early-stage startup raised a $12 million Series A round in October and it has big plans for the future, including partnering with scooter companies. They currently use Segway Ninebot MAX scooters.

Duffl joins other emerging brands in what market researchers have dubbed the instant needs (30 minutes or less) sector of quick commerce. These retail delivery brands are vertically integrated, unlike DoorDash, Instacart, Shipt or UberEats—meaning they stock their own hyper-localized inventory at micro-fulfillment centers, also known as “dark stores.”

“If you try to predict what you will want next Tuesday at 2 p.m., you will fail, most likely,” said Lin. “And people do this every week—they go to the grocery store and they try to predict and then they throw a third of their food away,” said Lin.

The startup operates out of a Westwood storefront and on three other college campuses, including USC.

duffl

According to Coresight Research, an advisory and research firm specializing in retail and technology, total sales for quick commerce brands will hit $20-25 billion in 2021. Other instant needs players include Gopuff, Fridge No More and Gorillas. Manhattan-based startup 1520, a newer player in the market, dropped out just two weeks ago after running out of cash. And JOKR, an NYC-based startup led by Foodpanda founder Ralf Wenzel, raised $260 million in its Series B, achieving unicorn status.

Third-party delivery platform DoorDash recently announced a new 15-minute delivery service in New York City through its Chelsea DashMart location. And Turkish startup Getir (valued at $7.7 billion) launched in Chicago in November and NYC this month.

John Mercer, head of global research at Coresight, said that in the future, we will see consolidation and acquisitions as companies drop out of a crowded field:

“They're probably burning through cash from companies that are funding them. And really, it depends how long they can retain funding force to stick it out in the market.”

Unlike other players in the space, Duffl targets college students and relies on e-scooters, rather than cars or e-bikes. Duffl’s employees—called “racers”—are college students with an intimate knowledge of their campus.

Colleges offer coveted population density and built-in word-of-mouth advertising among students.

Consumers are willing to pay for speed up to a point, according to Coresight’s report, but critics at Bloomberg CityLab warn that dark stores could turn urban areas into “dark cities,” eating up valuable retail space without providing in-person interaction and community.

Gopuff, the leading player in the instant needs sector (valued at $15 billion), also got its start on a college campus when co-founders Rafael Ilishayev and Yakir Gola started delivering snacks and essentials out of their Plymouth Voyager at Drexel University in 2013.

Mercer said there’s an obvious advantage to targeting any niche as a young startup, particularly college students:

“Once they graduate, then they can take those habits, they can take that brand loyalty to their working lives where their incomes will increase, their basket size may increase, as they settle down, establish families. So you're effectively building brand appeal among young adults, which hopefully they'll take through their adult life.”

According to Lin, the company’s first 500 square- foot space earned an impressive $3 million in its first year, three times the rate of industry leader Trader Joe’s.

“Facebook didn't start on college campuses intentionally, but they did take over the world,” said Lin.

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LA Venture: Emilio Diez Barroso On Why Everyone Isn’t Cut Out To Be A Founder

Minnie Ingersoll
Minnie Ingersoll is a partner at TenOneTen and host of the LA Venture podcast. Prior to TenOneTen, Minnie was the COO and co-founder of $100M+ Shift.com, an online marketplace for used cars. Minnie started her career as an early product manager at Google. Minnie studied Computer Science at Stanford and has an MBA from HBS. She recently moved back to L.A. after 20+ years in the Bay Area and is excited to be a part of the growing tech ecosystem of Southern California. In her space time, Minnie surfs baby waves and raises baby people.
LA Venture: Emilio Diez Barroso On Why Everyone Isn’t Cut Out To Be A Founder
Photo: provided by LAV

On this episode of the LA Venture podcast, Bold Capital Partner Emilio Diez Barroso talks about his entrepreneurial journey, what led him to become an investor and shares the qualities he looks for when investing in companies.

Bold Capital is a Series A fund that primarily focuses its investments in deep tech and biotech companies. But, like other funds, they make excuses to invest in other companies every now and then.

“We're always interested in things that have the potential to truly transform how things are done and uplift humanity,” he said.

In his experience with investing in early stage startups, Diez Barroso said “humility and vulnerability are assets and qualities in the journey, and you don’t feel like you have to have it all together with your investors.”

Which is why he looks for people who have “this capacity to take full responsibility for how they show up and they have a vision and they have the willingness to go and execute it.”

In addition to his work at Bold Capital, Diez Barroso also runs two family offices which provide him with a surplus of knowledge in the investment space.

“I wear two very different hats,” he said, “and I invest very differently when I'm investing for myself, when I'm investing for my family, and when I'm investing for LP’s.”

But before becoming an investor, Diez Barroso got his entrepreneurial start when he arrived in Los Angeles. He admits that he failed plenty of times because unlike in Mexico, where Diez Barroso grew up, he didn’t have the same access to the contacts or resources of his family business.

“I would say yes to every opportunity that came my way,” he said, “I had started or partnered with someone and co-founded and most of them I had no idea what I was doing, so most of them really failed and a few got lucky enough to succeed.”

After learning how these startups worked and investing his own capital into several companies, he soon realized he was a much better investor than an operator.

“I think we're not all cut out for the journey,” he said, “and I don't think we should all be cut out for that journey. I think that it takes a very different character to start something from scratch.”

Throughout his own journey, Diez Barroso acknowledged that he struggled with his own identity and need to feel like the smartest person in the room. Once he better understood his own motivations, Diez Barroso was able to see that he was chasing the next reward, the next carrot.

“It's fun to close the deal and it's fun to grow the business,” Diez Barroso said. “But what I hadn't been in contact with is how much of my fuel was derived from trying to outrun the idea of not feeling good enough.”

Of course, he’s not alone. “I see a lot of entrepreneurs, activists all across fields and I can tell the difference when they're running from this fuel that is sort of very quick burning because there is an anxiety that oftentimes makes us narrow minded,” Diez Barroso said. “We are so attached to what we think should happen that we leave very little space for the possibilities.”

dot.LA Reporter Decerry Donato contributed to this post.

Click the link above to hear the full episode, and subscribe to LA Venture on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.

This podcast is produced by L.A. Venture. The views and opinions expressed in the show are those of the speakers and do not necessarily reflect those of dot.LA or its newsroom.

Xos Receives Multi-Million Dollar Order for Armored EVs

David Shultz

David Shultz reports on clean technology and electric vehicles, among other industries, for dot.LA. His writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Outside, Nautilus and many other publications.

Xos Receives Multi-Million Dollar Order for Armored EVs
Xos/Loomis
The United States transportation sector is rapidly adopting electric vehicle technologies at every level. From aircrafts, to tractor trailers, to sedans and bicycles, no means of locomotion is off limits…even armored trucks.
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