La Belle Vie co-founder and CEO Paul Lê. Credit: ARGOT/Lance Laurence
Paul Lê first started working on La Belle Vie in December 2014 with his cofounder Alban Wienkoop. The idea was simple but ambitious: to deliver fresh, quality produce within one hour to busy Parisians' doorsteps.
Launched in June 2015, the company entered what was rapidly becoming a very hot space in the French tech ecosystem — in 2015, some 38.4M€ ($46.3M) was poured into the food logistics and delivery market, a steep jump from the 7M€ ($8.4M) invested the previous year.
Just six years later, the dark grocery business — having no storefront but multiple warehouses — boasts 5.5M€ ($6.5M) in monthly revenues fueled by a 15,000-item catalog, a stellar 4.5/5 customer rating on the Apple Store, and a 500 strong team of employees.
However, life as the CEO of a multi-million dollar food tech startup was something far from Lê’s imagination growing up, having instead ambitions of becoming a history teacher. In an interview with The Org, Lê shared what led him to start La Belle Vie, and how he managed to grow the company into one of the leaders in the food delivery market, far from the media spotlight.
A kid of the internet, with a mindset made in America
Raised in the Parisian suburb of Evry by parents who owned multiple restaurants, Lê grew up in kitchens. While the experience has come in handy with La Belle Vie, it didn’t shape his destiny as much as the computer his parents bought him as a child.
"When I grew up, the internet was a new El Dorado, it was exciting,” Lê says. "In the early 1990s, me, a kid from the suburbs, I had a computer when there were probably 30 million web users worldwide."
It wasn’t until years later that Lê understood the business side of the web, sitting in front of a professor who was “an ecommerce guy.” "I figured out how to fully monetize my knowledge and how to build a business online,” he says.
Another experience that deeply influenced him was his American adventure. After earning a bachelor's degree in web marketing at the University of Evry in the early 2000s, Lê flew to Los Angeles for his master's, thanks to his parents who could afford to send him to study in California. "They worked a lot and they had a comfortable life compared to other people living in our suburb," Lê explains.
When he had settled down in the city, Lê witnessed how people had an easy relationship to success and money, and he found similarities between the Californian mindset and the entrepreneurial journey of his parents. "It's really over there that entrepreneurship revealed itself to me, everybody talks about business, and there is a kind of general positivism and a sort of magic in LA,” he says. “You feel like your life can change at every corner of a street."
Reflecting on what he has built with La Belle Vie, Lê reflects: "What I'm doing today is natural in a sense: the son of restaurant owners, a student in web marketing and e-commerce, an entrepreneur... You just had to connect the dots."
Fresh, fine and perishable produce delivered to your doorstep
After his time at UCLA, Lê left the U.S. profoundly transformed by the American entrepreneur mindset. Back in France, he first worked at a fintech startup from 2010 to 2012 before launching a mobile apps business in 2013.
In 2015, he co-founded La Belle Vie with his former boss Alban Wienkoop, who had been a business angel in his previous startup.
"That year, at least twenty companies launched in the foodtech space, but La Belle Vie was the only one attacking retail. All the other businesses were either delivering meals from restaurants or of their own," Lê says.
The market opportunity was clear to the founders: the food e-commerce space was dominated by big-box retailers whose fresh produce offer was limited and deceiving, leaving room for a new player to shake up the status quo.
"Let's take the vegetable and fruit categories: those legacy retailers sell only one kind of cucumber, one kind of zucchini, two kinds of potatoes, two kinds of tomatoes, and so on,” Lê says. “With La Belle Vie, we wanted to offer all sorts of tomatoes, a wide range of aromatic herbs, different varieties of apples, and zucchini..."
In December 2014, the duo started working on the concept, and by January the company was registered. Two months later, they were already testing the market by delivering grocery orders themselves. Finally, in June -- only six months after the initial idea -- La Belle Vie publicly launched.
‘We did everything we were told not to do’
"We started with 2,000 products delivered in 30 to 60 minutes. Today, we have 15,000 references," Lê says. "There's nothing harder than starting a fresh-produce business because the logistic chain for ultra-fast delivery doesn't exist, at least it didn't exist when we started the business."
While companies like Instacart have been booming in the U.S. for a few years, the industry in France was still sleeping when Lê and Wienkoop launched La Belle Vie, and the service infrastructure was yet to be established. Lê says logistics for perishable goods, same-day delivery and positive operational margins was the impossible equation the founders aimed to solve.
“We did everything we were told not to do: we got our own warehouses, we created our software, and slowly but surely we built a digital solution that orchestrates our operational processes and our logistics to get our deliveries to our clients on time.”
Today, La Belle Vie is among the few businesses that thrived during the COVID outbreak. The company, which had historically doubled its revenues every year (1.5M€/$1.8M in 2016, 3M€/$3.6M in 2017, 6M€/$7.2M in 2018), grew to 5.5M€ ($6.6M) in monthly revenues in 2020 as the pandemic led to the wider adoption of food delivery services, especially among retired people and young adults.
Growing a business is about building relationships
To achieve its rapid growth, the team raised several rounds of funding from institutional investors, but also from clients. As a customer-centric founder, in the early days of the company Lê spent a lot of time talking to customers on the support chat to figure out how to improve the service. After a few messages, the CEO and a client decided to meet up for coffee to share feedback and ideas, and the informal chat eventually led to the first funding check for La Belle Vie.
Then in 2017-2018, the company raised 5.5M€ ($6.63M) in seed funding, followed by 11.6M€ ($14M) in a Series A funding round, announced in early 2020.
Asked how one can deliver dozens of items picked from 12,000-references stacked on shelves within a tight timeframe, Lê answers: "There is no secret: you need warehouses not too far from your clients, a fast picking process and a software to manage the perishable goods."
The fast picking process is the crux of the battle, and it relies not just on software and warehouse organization, but on humans: the pickers.
"We have digitized the whole onboarding and training process for our pickers,” Lê says, adding it gives the company a competitive advantage built over years of testing, mistakes, and learnings. He adds that the company intends to hire its own delivery people in the near future.
While reflecting on how the company has grown to 500 employees in just five years, Lê says ultimately salaries don’t matter, human relationships do.
“I’m dedicated to my employees, and I take my responsibilities as CEO very seriously. At some point in 2017, we had financial drawbacks, I couldn’t pay my employees before the 20th of the month,” he says. “Even with a twenty-day paycheck delay, my team believed in the company and fought to work. I’ll be forever grateful for their trust.”
Finding new brands
La Belle Vie’s team includes a crew of three to seven people in charge of sourcing new suppliers and testing new products. The company also has its proper dark kitchen where some specialty products are prepared, like its highly praised guacamole.
Customers can find all kinds of products on La Belle Vie’s platform, from traditional French cheeses to Asian noodles, or Greek starters to Halal sausages, as well as new products from emerging food brands. The sought-after depth of offering for each category (think drinks, snacks, wine, bakery...) requires working not only with big, established brands but also young companies whose products are yet to be well-known.
"We started working with small brands, which are now pretty big in France, like Funky Veggie, La Mère Mimosa, or Club Maté, and it's nice to see how they've grown since we first partnered together," Lê says. "Every day, I receive between 10 or 20 direct solicitations on Linkedin to add new products to our catalog, even though we have a dedicated email address made public that everyone can send an email to.”
Given the success of La Belle Vie, it's easy to see why new brands are eager to add the startup to their roaster of distributors.
Powered by three-digit growth and a community of customers who love the brand, Lê aims high when it comes to La Belle Vie's future — starting with five new agglomerations and 1,000 employees by the end of the year. Looking at what the entrepreneur has achieved in just six years, it's hard to see what could stop him from reaching his destination.
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