“Looking back, it was very important to make mistakes”: Interview with KoRo founder and CEO Constantinos Calios

Berlin-based KoRo was founded in 2014 as a diversified foodtech startup that rethinks retail. By skipping stages of trade, using efficient process flows and bulk packaging in a sleek design, KoRo makes high-quality food accessible to all at fair prices. 

The ecommerce industry is booming across Europe, and the KoRo management team of CEO’S  Piran Asci and Constantinos Calios, along with COO Florian Schwenkert, have the vision to become Europe’s leading food and goods supplier through a dedication to the core values of quality, short supply chains, bulk packaging, fair prices and transparency. 

Since 2017, the young company has been delivering to the UK and has big plans to expand across Europe (beginning with the Czech Republic) and the USA in 2022. The team are anticipating a turnover of €65 million for 2021 and are on the right track to becoming another European startup success story. 

We chatted to KoRo CEO Constantinos Calios about the KoRo story and what’s next for the foodtech startup. 

Since being launched in Berlin, KoRo has grown at a really fast pace. Can you give us some insights into how the idea of KoRo came about and how you’ve experienced this growth?

When KoRo was founded in 2014, our first product and main focus on the online shop was detergent. The starting point for the founding idea was the book “Kopf schlägt Kapital” (“Head beats capital”) by Prof. Faltin. This book describes the path to founding a company without capital – consisting of outsourced components and with products only in bulk and directly from the manufacturer. Together with Robert (our initials form the company’s name KoRo), I asked myself which product is sold in pharmacies in relatively small packages at a high price. KoRo wanted to offer an alternative to this product, detergent: by skipping trade stages, efficient process flows and large packs in a simple design, detergent should be sold online at fair prices. 

The KoRo range soon expanded to include food. The idea came from my wife Michelle, who was very involved in vegetarian and vegan nutrition. From then on, the new focus was on a wide variety of long-life, natural and processed foods. Quality, short supply chains, bulk packaging, fair prices and transparency became the basic principles of KoRo. Nuts and dates quickly became much more popular in the online shop than detergent, so we said goodbye to the original product. 

Of course, we owe our growth on the one hand to the basic principles of quality, short supply chains, bulk packaging, fair prices and transparency, but also to a good marketing strategy. We focused on influencer marketing early on and sent YouTube fitness influencers packages in 2013/2014. Today, we mainly work with Instagram talents. 90% of the marketing spend goes directly to talents for stories and posts. But we also regularly use our own Instagram channel (@koro_de) and have built up a large and active community there. We communicate in a very humorous, not too promotional way and don’t always take ourselves too seriously, which goes down well with our more than 220,000 followers. We also create our own channels for each of the countries we deliver to in order to offer customers a certain personal connection to the brand.

We have therefore been able to record great growth in recent years. Our revenue of 5 million euros in 2019 has become 65 million euros in 2021. Of course, we were only able to achieve this through a large increase in the number of employees. In 2019, we were still around 15 people at KoRo, today we work together with around 250 people. We ship around 4,000 parcels a day to 16 countries and will have around 1,250 products listed in our online shop by the end of 2021. It’s overwhelming to see how this company is expanding more and more in such a short time, which also creates many new opportunities. 

What is your personal background, how did you find yourself setting up a startup?

Our background is rather unusual, I studied law and Piran mathematics and business administration. I was inspired by the book “Kopf schlägt Kapital” (“Head Beats Capital”) by Prof. Günter Faltin and I, together with Robert, wanted to try out how to start a company without capital. Piran worked as a trainee at KoRo at the time and joined the management in 2016. To do so, he bought all shares from co-founder Robert by auctioning off his collection of Yu-Gi-Oh cards. Since 2020, Flo (Florian Schwenkert) has been part of the management team as COO. He originally studied industrial engineering with a focus on computer science before becoming a founder himself. I think we make a great team at the moment and everyone has their own specific business areas and ideas.

Launching a startup is never easy and rarely plain-sailing. What have been the big challenges? 

Apart from the switch from detergents to groceries, we have remained quite true to our concept, even though some offline concepts such as an ice cream parlour and a food delivery service have been added this year and achievements have been made with some important retail partners in the past years. In 2020, we did a comprehensive rebranding and invested in a fresh new look for KoRo with high quality product images. 

It’s hard to say exactly what our biggest challenges were, but looking back it was very important to make mistakes, otherwise, you can’t learn from them and optimize processes, for example. Our strength was to automate standard processes from the beginning. Our weakness was that we didn’t focus enough on company guidelines and employee management or team building. When you’re young, you’re still growing into these tasks and you make a lot of decisions by instinct. We should have spent more time learning how to manage people in the beginning. We also let the topic of data evaluation and data validation slide in the beginning. We could have made many decisions faster and easier if we had spent more time with our client data.

The food delivery and egrocer market is booming in Europe. What sets KoRo apart?

We rethink trade in a new way. By skipping trade stages, efficient processes and bulk packaging in a simple design, KoRo makes high-quality food available to everyone at fair prices, because we pass on the price advantage we achieve through large purchase quantities directly to the customers. We include many products in our range where we can offer a price advantage through bulk packaging. Or we find a product in which we see potential and which we have not yet seen on the market. In doing so, we build up our portfolio to be as varied and, above all, of the highest quality as possible. Customers can buy cooking and baking basics as well as unusual ingredients such as rose hip powder or eight different types of gluten-free flours. 

Sustainability is at the forefront of everyone’s minds. Food delivery and grocer platforms have received some criticism on this front. What does sustainability mean to you?

In our view, there is no precise or universally valid definition of sustainability. Sustainability is a term that everyone interprets a little differently. Sustainability can mean, for example, buying as much as possible unpackaged and plastic-free. However, sustainability can also mean economic efficiency. Money is convertible to a certain degree and thus indirectly a facilitator of sustainable performance (e.g. compensation or donations). For us, becoming more sustainable means first and foremost creating radical transparency in our actions and openly explaining internal decisions. We want to explain to our customers why we do what we do – and we want to do it as precisely as possible. Customers should be able to decide for themselves at any time what they want to buy or not. We don’t want to plant trees just to be able to sell ourselves as a climate-neutral company. Nevertheless, we are aware that we also have a responsibility as a company. That’s why we are currently thinking about how we can integrate offers to donate to certain projects into our ordering process and interweave them with our processes. Ultimately, this is a strategic question that has not yet been conclusively clarified for us. First and foremost, we do things that make economic sense for us as a company. Whether that is the use of bulk packaging or a mango import from private farmers in Burkina Faso.

The fact is that by using bulk packs we save packaging waste in the entire logistics chain. This enables the efficient use of means of transport and thus the saving of emissions. Nevertheless, we do not necessarily want to market our project development as sustainable action.

How has the pandemic impacted KoRo?

As an online shop for long-life food and accessories, KoRo can be considered one of Corona‘s profiteers. We are very satisfied with the development in the British market. We had twice as many orders between January and July 2021 as in the same period in 2020. Globally, the number of orders for this period grew by 230%. From 2019 to 2021, global sales for KoRo increased twelvefold.

What’s next for KoRo? 

The next big milestones are the expansion of the offline concepts in the entire EU market, the launch in new online shops as in Greece and the Czech Republic, and the sale of the products in the US. We also want to develop more and more of our own creations in our own production side in southern Germany and find franchise partners for our offline concepts KoRo Kocht (delivery service for lunch and dinner) and Chunks by KoRo (handmade ice cream). In the long term, our vision is to become Europe’s leading supplier of food and goods.

If you could go back and give your 20-year-old self some advice, what would it be?

That I should also relax and focus sometimes. Especially in the beginning, you don’t take enough time for yourself. But it is extremely important to regularly question your actions and to document how you have developed. When you’re in the day-to-day business, you usually forget because you have so much to do. But reflecting on yourself once in a while helps to reorganise things and work efficiently again.