At 31 years old, David Torr is living the dream of every startup founder—he built a company and sold it off to strategic partners that can take the venture into its next phase of growth. Since its inception in 2014, UCOOK has grown to become South Africa’s most popular meal-kit delivery service, delivering more than 150,000 meals a month and revolutionizing the way people eat, through its ethical sourcing approach that supports small businesses and farmers in the country.
In an interview with The Org, Torr shares his journey of building UCOOK, some of the fundamental lessons he learned along the way and why it makes sense to focus on building a business that not only has a profit motive, but also a social purpose embedded in its mission.
Closing a market gap for people hungry for new dining experiences
After dropping out of college within two weeks of enrolling, Torr spent several years traveling outside of South Africa with the aim of finding something that was more suitable for his skills and passions than academia. He stumbled upon two models for meal-delivery kits and believed there was an opportunity to implement them successfully in South Africa. Torr was just 24 years old at that time and had been living in Thailand, where he met fellow South African Chris Vester in 2013. Vester would go on to become Torr’s co-founder.
In Torr’s view, the founders started the business at an opportune time when people in South Africa were curious about trying out new cooking experiences, in part because of the proliferation of reality television shows such as Masterchef Australia. The rise of e-commerce saw more people adopting the habit of buying daily goods, such as groceries online, as well as the increased need for people to eat more consciously.
Thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic and people becoming more hard-pressed for time and needing convenient and cost-effective ways to have nutritious meals, the global meal-kit delivery market was valued at $10.26 billion in 2020 and is expected to reach $27.33 billion by 2028. “The first week of COVID-19 we went from zero to running at a hundred miles an hour. It was certainly a great tailwind for us,” Torr told The Org. UCOOK has been able to increase the perceived value of its product through word of mouth about the quality and value for money elements of their offering. The startup also partnered with well-known chefs to increase its brand credibility. “We were great at being able to acquire and retain customers and users through knowing very well how to delight them,” Torr said. In order to diversify its client base, UCOOK has introduced new product mixes beyond meal-delivery kits, such as baby food, frozen meals and pizzas, to access a larger addressable market.
From startup to exit, and looking into the future
The startup was fully acquired by Silvertree Holdings for $12.3 million in February 2022, and Torr is of the view that this will yield a positive outcome for UCOOK’s future. He remains involved in the company as a board member. In terms of timing around exits, David is of the view that there is never a perfect time to sell—it all depends on one’s circumstances. “You've got to trust your heart, as there are many reasons to sell. I think that the most important thing is to check in on whether your values are still aligned within the organization,” Torr said.
At the moment, Torr is focussed on building ventures that have a social impact element and on supporting interesting entities that can provide him with new opportunities to learn. “I want to find a way to do relevant work and build businesses that are not just focussed on enhancing affluence but are relevant to the broader African audience and uplifting societies which we operate in, quite significantly,” Torr said. He is currently involved with Spice and Roots, a venture focused on identifying interesting products and ventures from Africa and giving them access to support and market access to the U.S. Spice and Roots is a partnership between serial entreprepreneur Ojonimi Bako and former NBA star and olympic gold medalist Michael Redd.
One thing that Torr notes is that there were a lot of fundamental lessons learned while building UCOOK — here are some of those lessons:
Use your role as a founder to be your best leadership moment
“The best success stories are built from leaders who are doing a great job in letting people believe in an idea and mission but are delivering on it collectively…. It took me a while to learn that as a leader — your primary goal is to shepherd belief and let people who are better than you are to get the job done,” he said.
When building a tech-driven business, it is better to look for funding offshore
Raising funding in South Africa tends to have a number of drawbacks, in Torr's opinion. He found that the terms tended to be very draconian and that the funding was never sufficient. Therefore, he advises people to seek funding from investors elsewhere.
See failure as an opportunity to course-correct
It’s far better to view failure as a vaccination for future failures, rather than as a sign that you are not going down the right path, Torr said. Make peace with the fact that there will be constant momentary setbacks along the journey.
Make sure you have the right functional capability to grow
Torr advised to be clear on what your business needs to compete effectively and resource accordingly. For example, if you want to start a buy-now-pay-later platform, you might need someone who understands credit risk.
Assign value to the right priorities in life
Make sure that you are clear on what your measure of wealth is, Torr said. “It’s become clear for me that wealth should be measured through time. Are you spending enough time doing things that matter vs. just working and not living?” he said.