Street Culture: Thirstie Holds Focus on Engagement and Slow Growth

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Street Culture is a feature where we take a closer look at the office culture and people at some of the most dynamic startups in the hyperlocal industry.

Company founders repeat this all the time: to make your startup idea work, find a gap in an industry and aim to disrupt it.

Co-founders of the alcohol delivery startup Thirstie saw a gap in the wine, beer, and spirits industry, which is comprised mainly of independent local stores. Thirstie is disrupting it with a concept driven by a New York City-based staff of 14 full-time employees. Offering the corner liquor store an easy way to deliver locally was the initial disruption, but Thirstie saw an additional opportunity: engaging customers with interesting, readable content about booze.

With slightly more than $2 million in investment, Thirstie is connecting with customers via an editorial section on the app, featuring articles about craft cocktails, alcohol and food pairings, liquor reviews, and even features on local bars and breweries.

“We’re more concerned not that you make a purchase on your first visit [to the app], but more that you engage and tell people about it,” said Devaraj Southworth, Thirstie’s co-founder and CEO. “We take the editorial portion of the business very seriously, and that led to a 50% repeat usage rate and people spending six minutes at a time on the site. Average order size went from $30 to $80 after we launched the editorial portion.”

Southworth said he is witnessing many on-demand companies slowly but surely go out of business, and is more convinced than ever that offering that extra little bit of knowledge to customers is what will inspire them to spend more time with Thirstie, and return to the app on a regular basis.

Thirstie employs more than a dozen freelance writers to create the company’s often-exclusive written content, and slow growth is the goal to prevent layoffs of full-timers in a potential business downturn. Southworth knows that hiring the right people is one of the most important things he and cofounder Maxim Razmakhin can do.

“For us, there’s always the issue of, do you outsource, and when?” Southworth said. “We’ve started to look at that on the engineering side, but right now all our engineers are in office in New York. There’s a lot to be said for having them internal. There’s nothing like walking up to that person and asking a question and getting an answer right away, rather than having a 24 hour lag in responses and software updates.”

For now, the company plans to outsource development for only the non-core parts of the product.

“It’s really important for us to have employer-employee relationships,” Southworth said. “We have a massive market opportunity starting to be recognized. We’re onto something, but it’s all about our people. As we figure out what we’re trying to do and instill those values, it’s paying dividends for us.”

Thirstie’s company values – judgement, communication, impact, innovation, courage, passion, honesty, and selflessness – were deliberated upon early in the startup process, before any real hiring started. Southworth credited cofounder Razmakhin with initiating the company culture.

“We knew we were going to start hiring, and Max had brought it up,” Southworth said. “He said, ‘Before we start hiring, let’s have this [company values list] down to one sheet.’ Building culture happens before you have any people. We knew it was going to evolve, but we wanted the company to stand for something.”

One way the two founders try to promote culture is limiting bureaucracy and meetings as much as possible, and encouraging thoughtful disagreement.

“That’s key for us,” Southworth said. “I have some peers who feel that disagreements are negative. I find it’s the opposite. The overall premise is to reveal truth and come to the bottom of the problem. Disagreements are not right or wrong; the idea is to find the best solution possible for a problem.”

Limiting the number of staff meetings has naturally led to more informal breakout discussions, and Southworth said the company supports different teams working together.

“For example, the engineering and marketing teams,” he said. “We may need to build some widget that’s going to be running on a third party website. The engineers have their development stacks and business requirements documentation; having the marketing team in those meetings is truly important because they’re dealing with the third party advertising.”

Done diplomatically with respect and humility across all employees, Southworth said this approach is leading to a superior product that is succeeding in all 11 metro areas Thirstie currently serves.

April Nowicki is a contributor at Street Fight.