“I often wondered what early employees at Uber and WeWork thought about the recent string of documentaries and TV shows about their companies. Most of my friends in a position to answer usually began their commentary with a deep sigh. Now, I have my own version to consider: the OMR documentary on Gorillas, aptly titled “Hell of a Ride.”
I had just graduated from Harvard Business School when I decided to move to Berlin and join a little Späti, just a few months after it started, as one of its first few employees. Over the next two years, I worked in a range of capacities – Chief of Staff, US General Manager, Head of Business Development. I mostly reported directly to Kagan Sumer, the CEO and Founder.
Though it began the same, my experience took on a different shape than that of most other early employees: about a year into my tenure, while they showed up daily to an office under protest, I had already gone off to New York to launch and run the US market. So I missed nearly the entire filming of the documentary, which mostly took place in 2021.
I could write endlessly about time at Gorillas, and on the company in general – what we did right, what we missed. But I want to focus on just a couple points that are rattling around my mind, while they’re fresh.
Though it clocks in at just over an hour, the documentary took me a few sittings to get through. The movie begins with phone footage of an astounded customer receiving his first Gorillas order. Though relatively recent – Gorillas began just over three years ago from today – these unfiltered customer memories eventually got buried behind the noise of rider protests and the turbulence of chaotic fundraises. I had almost forgotten about them.
I vividly remember my first Gorillas order, but describing the feeling of receiving groceries just seven minutes after purchase is harder. The best analogy would be my first Uber ride: a bit of magic, and the realization of experiencing the future before the rest of the world. This is how people will take taxis, I had thought at the time. After my first Gorillas order, I felt the same about groceries.
Our earliest customers shared that enthusiasm. I noticed their disbelief every time I made a delivery – which was most days, in the beginning, when we couldn’t hire riders quickly enough to keep up with demand. Their amazement gave me an energy to work harder and deliver to more customers. In the early days, we all shared that passion.
I was working in the Mitte warehouse – our second one to launch – when I first heard a delivery rider complain about a late salary payment. I felt his frustration, and shared it; the most basic promise of an employer is to pay its workers the correct amount at the right time for completed work. But I also witnessed the corporate team responsible for rider salaries work well past midnight, every single day, trying to fix these issues and better support the riders while still serving customers.
Growth causes problems, and those problems become magnified with more growth. But conducting a root-cause analysis in front of a (justifiably) angry mob is a losing proposition: nobody wants to hear that COVID had disrupted supply chains, or implementing the right HR system takes time. The only immediate solution to the riders’ complaints would have been more simple: shut down most of the warehouses, fire the associated riders and warehouse workers, and stop serving customers.
I’m not sure who wins in this scenario. Customers go unserved; employees – warehouse workers and riders included – lose their jobs; investors waste money. I’ve written about how the structure of the game created unwinnable scenarios for quick commerce companies and their investors:
Just as Gorillas and Getir, empowered by endless capital, sought to maximize growth before the next fundraise, well-funded VCs were forced to outbid each other to access the prospective returns of a white-hot industry. Both management and investors acted reasonably: companies seized the chance to solve a customer problem, and investors were intrigued by the margin opportunity of vertical integration (…)
So when the capital markets shifted and investors eyed profitability, only incumbents like Getir and GoPuff, equipped with several years of operational prowess in core markets, were able to deliver. There’s the irony: with less capital in the system, more players might have survived and more customers could have been served.
A handful of self-styled experts appear in the documentary to wag their finger at Gorillas’ eventual collapse. The truth is more complicated: With more runway, Gorillas might have been able to build higher-margin categories and reach profitability. But given the inflated fundraising environment, sustainable growth was never an option.
What it was really like
Just a few weeks after joining Gorillas, Kagan called me at 2AM one night, furious that our most popular store had sold out of bananas earlier that day. He didn’t want to hear that our supplier missed a shipment, or that our primitive tech stack required a laborious, manual upload to our inventory system. He wanted bananas, and offered me a challenge: could I reduce the out-of-stock rate to 5% from its usual (and horrifying) 15-20% range in just one month. After countless late nights duct taping a first version of our supply chain, the team pulled it off. I sent Kagan a screenshot of our inventory, fully in stock. For the first time in my career, I felt like my work had really mattered.
It started with bananas, but the game eventually grew bigger: international expansion and billion dollar fundraises. Behind each story like mine were late nights in the warehouse, frantic urgency around every decision, chaotic communication amidst insane growth. And many of these projects ended with frustration and sadness: scaling back our US ambitions, for example, despite assurance that the US would get focus and funding. Effort persisted not out of mindless compulsion but because the work felt existential: every contribution mattered to keep delivering magic.
Hell of a Ride already illustrates faithfully the intensity of working at Gorillas. Instead, I’ll share a simpler view: to work at Gorillas was to care. Employees churned at alarming rates, and very few – especially of the early cohort – made it past a year at the company. But the dull monotony that slowly takes hold of most corporate environments—that was absent. You simply couldn’t work at Gorillas and live in apathy.
Working at Gorillas taught me how to build at the ground stage, how to lead big teams and manage large budgets, how to take care of yourself in an all-consuming work environment. But it also taught me what it feels like to truly care about work. I’ve become uncompromising on how I spend my professional time — and I think, more than having developed certain skills, that’s why I’m committed to starting my own venture.
That’s enough on Gorillas. I’m still working out my next steps, exactly, but I hope to share updates sooner than later.”
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Original source: What working at Gorillas was really like