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The Pikup Team. From left: Bharat Pulgam, Josh Chang, Sam Lerdahl and Ashley Klein.
The Pikup Team. From left: Bharat Pulgam, Josh Chang, Sam Lerdahl and Ashley Klein.

Pikup is an app that connects neighbors who need something with those who are already going to a store.

We’ve been talking about resilience in the face of adversity. I must admit that I love stories from startups because, by their very nature, they are resilient while undergoing sustained trauma.

One of my favorite movies is Shakespeare in Love. And one of my favorite lines is when the character Philip Henslowe says,

“Allow me to explain about the theatre business. The natural condition is one of insurmountable obstacles on the road to imminent disaster.”

That statement also applies to almost any entrepreneurial endeavor. And, no one would know this better than Bharat Pulgam, CEO of Pikup.

Pikup is an app that lets you ask for help when you need it and give help when you’re willing to help. It connects neighbors who need something with those who are already on their way to and from a store.

It has proven to be wildly popular during the coronavirus pandemic. But that was not always the story. First, Pikup had to overcome insurmountable obstacles on the road to imminent disaster.

The Lightbulb Moment

When Bharat Pulgam was a freshman at the University of Minnesota, he did something commonplace. He let a friend know that he was doing a Chipotle run. When Bharat returned to the dorm, other friends asked him, “Why didn’t you let me know you were going to Chipotle? I would have asked for something too.”

“That was when the lightbulb went off,” Bharat explains. “What if there was a way to take all the people who are going to grocery stores, or restaurants, and connect them with the people they live near?” From this simple idea, Pikup was born.

At first, Bharat and his co-founders built what he calls “A minimally loveable product.” They created a Facebook group to facilitate the pickup of goods from stores and restaurants. The people on the buy-side of the equation loved it because it was convenient and saved them money when compared to delivery services. However, on the side of the person doing the pickup, it was complicated. The person doing the pickup had to direct message people. They had to arrange a way to get paid. So, the Bharat and his team decided to build an app.

First, they built an alpha version of the app. “Talk about adversity – every payment that went through the system, we did manually.” They originally called the app Runerra.

Entry into TechStars Retail

During winter break of 2017, Bharat was on Target’s website and noticed a mention of the business accelerator TechStars Retail. They decided to apply.

“We went to a retail conference in Las Vegas. We’re eighteen years old. We’re looking at these other companies, and we thought, ‘oh my gosh.’ We didn’t think we had a chance.” But, against all the odds, they were accepted to the TechStars Retail program. But there was a catch. To work on the company, the founding team would have to leave school.

It took some convincing, but they got their parent’s approval to drop out of school and work on their company. At ages 18 and 19, Bharat says the accelerator was the best business education possible. “And what was great was, we got paid to get the education.”

Coming out of the accelerator, they had contracts with several restaurants and retailers. They opened and closed a round of funding.

The Honeymoon is Over

But the honeymoon phased faded quickly. “People weren’t getting it immediately. There were bugs in the app. There were issues, but we were still moving forward,” Bharat describes.

When they launched in early 2019, they began to see problems with their two-sided market. “If we need people to do runs, we were called Runerra; we need somebody who wants to buy. And if we need people who want to buy, we need someone to do the runs.” 

Bharat Pulgam
Bharat Pulgam

To prime the pump, the co-founders started doing deliveries on campus. “For three to four months, we were getting paid nothing.” It worked.

“We were growing 25% – 30% month over month. New users were coming in quickly. In the last month before the end of school, we did something like $10,000 in transaction volume.”

Hitting Rock Bottom

Based on this success, they hired new team members. With five to six months of capital runway left, Bharat hit the road to pitch investors for the next round of investment.

“I had an aggressive investor schedule. I visited Seattle, Chicago, Philadelphia, New York, Silicon Valley, and Denver in two months. I did outreach to five hundred investors and met with three hundred of them. I got shut down every single time. If you can imagine two to three months of getting the door shut in your face. “

The company kept spending its cash reserves, so the founders agreed to go to half-pay. Other team members left. By the time September 2019 rolled around, Bharat says, “It kind of felt like we were back where we started. We started with four people. We ended up with four people.”

During this same time, Bharat experienced personal challenges. “I herniated my spine, so I could hardly walk. And, my car got broken into. I hit rock bottom. The team hit rock bottom. Some people went without pay for three to four months.”

A New Hope Arises…in Madison

But then, a sliver of hope appeared. “We started to notice that people in Madison, Wisconsin, were using the app.” So, they went to the University of Wisconsin at Madison to find out what was happening. They bought pizza for the dorm and talked to users of the app.

This meeting led to three decisions. First, they pivoted to a merchant subscription model. Second, they decided to open their second location in Madison. And, they decided to rebrand their app as Pikup.

Things were looking up again. Pikup started signing up merchants and properties. “At one point, in this eight-block radius at the University of Wisconsin, three in five people in that radius had Pikup on their phone.”

In the background, they were still a team of four. Pikup had revenue and a little financial backing. “We were running on fumes,” Bharat admits.

Then, COVID-19 Hits.

Bharat heard from a campus ambassador that school was not coming back from spring break. “He sends me a shot of this email from the Dean that says the school is not coming back.

“As a company that is just starting to get itself back up from the five-month hell we were going through, it was the worst news you could hear.”

A Hail Mary Pass in the Pandemic

Out of frustration, Bharat posted in his neighborhood Facebook group. “I was like, ‘Hey, we have built an app that can help neighbors stay safe during COVID. It allows people to communicate when they are going to local stores and offer to pick up groceries for one another. When you sign up, you’re not only signing up to help, but you’re signing up to be helped. So, you can ask for help when you need it. And you can give help when you’re willing to help.’”

Thirty of Bharat’s neighbors downloaded the app. And suddenly, they had a new active neighborhood on Pikup. “I was like, huh, this is crazy.” The next week, they wrote a blog post, encouraging people to sign up their neighborhood on Pikup. They had thirty neighborhoods sign up in the first two to three weeks.

Local television station WCCO ran a story. “When the WCCO story came out, we had hundreds of downloads every minute.”

Their story was picked up by other press outlets. Since then, another 100 neighborhoods signed up.

Before the pandemic, Pikup had about 1,000 active users. “When COVID hit, we matched that in a few weeks.”

And, when compared to college students, these new users spend four times as much on an average trip.

With more users on the system, Pikup was able to help more local merchants.

And, because one person picks up for several people, it reduces in-store congestion.

Lesson Learned

So, what has Bharat learned from this experience? “Startups are, regardless of the team, a game of incredible luck and skill. Half the game is being so persistent that you stick around long enough for some luck to strike.”

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