Why Duffl is Racing to Your Campus

Author: John Wang, Graphics: Nina Tagliabue

Duffl was born — as all great companies are — from a vision. In 2019, co-founder David Lin, then an undergraduate student at UCLA, was selling drinks and snacks out of his cramped college apartment. At the time, he was primarily hand-delivering to his friends but also extended his service to any of his peers who needed a fast delivery. David quickly realized that he had a golden business model on his hands, as every college student dreams of the luxury of fast and cheap delivery. He envisioned his own delivery company, one boasting an unprecedentedly fast delivery speed while also practicing unrivaled environmental sustainability. Originally hailing from Jiangxi, China, and then relocating to Lima, Perú, David witnessed firsthand the stark contrast between the polluted urban jungle of Jiangxi and the pure Amazonian rainforests of Perú. It granted him a unique familiarity with the pressing issue of environmental pollution and fueled a personal desire within him to be a part of the solution.

David soon met and became friends with Brian Le, who would eventually join him as the other co-founder of Duffl. While David was the visionary, Brian was the pragmatist who helped him implement his ideas. Brian worked hard to design and implement their backend technology, and the vision the two had together began to solidify into something tangible as they were accepted into Y-Combinator’s Winter 2020 funding cycle.

What is Y-Combinator?

Y-Combinator is a top-tier accelerator based in the San Francisco Bay Area that rose to the spotlight almost immediately after it was founded in 2005, by funding hugely successful companies. In its first funding cycle in the summer of 2005, Y-Combinator backed in its infancy what is now the multi-billion dollar social media giant of Reddit. Since then, Y-Combinator has continued to crank out consistent hits and successes, including Twitch (Winter 2007), Airbnb (Winter 2009), and Coinbase (Summer 2012) — further lending credence to their reputation of having an uncanny, almost clairvoyant ability to sniff out potential and promise. Today, Y-Combinator enjoys the widespread respect of top investors, as well as the greater world of finance.

Each one of Y-Combinator’s funding cycles is extremely selective (with a lower than 1.5% acceptance rate) and only occurs biannually: once in the summer and once in the winter. Upon acceptance, founders of companies are then moved into the Bay Area and undergo a long, intensive process of working with Y-Combinator and established figures in the startup world. The process has yielded countless success stories and squeezed out talent from all corners of the world, molding many successful entrepreneurs. 

The Only Thing You Want to Come in Under 10 Minutes

David and Brian’s acceptance into Y-Combinator showed significant promise and a strong business model, and their early progress backed it up. Grounded by its strong leadership, the company scaled rapidly, quickly expanding from UCLA to USC, UC Santa Barbara, UC Berkeley, the University of Arizona, and then to Arizona State University.

Currently, Duffl is operating in those six campuses, offering students the fastest and cheapest possible delivery of groceries and other essentials. Deliveries come from fellow students, fostering an intimate sense of community and making it feel personal — something that competing food delivery conglomerates simply cannot match. Its other competitive advantages come from the speed and reliability of its deliveries, as well as the low price that its competitors cannot come close to. Duffl boasts an unbeatable delivery time of just 10 minutes (cleverly marketing itself as “the only thing you want to come in under 10 minutes”), as well as a very low flat rate delivery fee of $1.95. In comparison, competitors such as UberEats and Instacart take upwards of 30 minutes per delivery and charge fees proportional to the cost of groceries, on top of a flat-rate fee. 

You might be thinking that the speed and reliability of Duffl’s delivery service is too good to be true, or that their business model is not sustainable in the long run. But operationally, Duffl stays true to its word through its unique supply chain process. One significant difference between Duffl and its competitors is that Duffl draws from in-house inventory in their physical storefronts, allowing their deliverers (called Racers) to skip the cumbersome step of going to grocery stores and having to scan the aisles for the items they need. Conveniently, it also allows Racers to deliver during any time of the day, even after stores are closed, as well as deliver as many as 4 orders in one trip. Duffl also promotes friendly competition with fun prizes between Racers to put up the lowest average delivery times each month, further incentivizing speedy deliveries. Moreover, Duffl’s inventories are meticulously organized in an intuitive way so that the order packers (called Captains) don’t get bogged down in the process of finding the items to be delivered. Lastly, the location of each and every one of Duffl’s storefronts is strategically chosen to be located near consumer hotspots — hotspots like student dormitories, Greek life housing, and university campuses. The result of all these optimizations is an extremely efficient and streamlined process of getting deliveries done, and done quickly.

Duffl’s operational model of vertically integrating the delivery process is one that is spearheading a rapidly growing segment of the market. That segment started gaining traction during the COVID-induced online grocery boom in 2020, which drove the emergence of new delivery services that prioritized speed. Researchers predict that the market size of these vertically integrated “instant-needs” businesses will soon reach upwards of $20–$25 billion, and continue to expand its market share as part of the greater delivery industry. In October 2021, a survey conducted by market researchers discovered that almost half of respondents had bought groceries online in the past year; experts believe that even after the pandemic ends, the online shopping habits developed will stick around for good. Researchers also found that speed of delivery is becoming more and more important in consumers’ eyes, with almost 50% of consumers who used online delivery services utilizing rapid-speed options in the past year. Furthermore, when they asked respondents which factors were most important to them, 61% of them cited the cost of delivery as the chief factor. In short, Duffl’s business model of fast and cheap delivery is aligned seamlessly with the preferences of today’s market, and is positioned comfortably in an expanding market segment that is expected to multiply in size in the next few years.

On the sustainability front, Duffl makes good on its mission to serve as an environmentally ethical company. Duffl operates exclusively using a fleet of electrically motorized scooters, which emit a minimal carbon footprint. Meanwhile, their competitors use gas-guzzling vehicles for deliveries. An electric scooter only emits around 10 grams of carbon dioxide per kilometer over its lifetime — or around one-twentieth of the emissions of a conventional gasoline-powered vehicle. According to a 2018 paper by economists Kenneth Gillingham and James H. Stock, the dynamic benefits, or benefits over a long time horizon, of implementing electric vehicles is immense. One large reason why is because it will lead to the network effect — also called the “chicken-and-egg” effect — which states that expenditure on technology in the present influences options and stimulates demand for that technology in the future. Over the long run, more electric-powered vehicles will lead to more charging stations and electric infrastructure being built. This will result in an increased demand for electric vehicles, completing a positive feedback loop. Eventually, the situation will come to a stable equilibrium, with many electric vehicles and charging stations. Simply put, Duffl is doing a great job with its commitment to environmentally friendly vehicles and is making strides in the movement towards sustainability.

What Can I Do to Join Duffl?

In the future, Duffl plans to massively ramp up its growth by expanding to over 50 university campuses over the next few years. It plans on partnering with local businesses and organizations, as well as employing a robust marketing campaign using both innovative and proven techniques to acquire a larger consumer base. Hopefully, the increased demand drives supply up, which will fuel Duffl’s further expansion and allow them to grow exponentially. 

Right now, here’s what you can do to get involved:

  • Become a Racer. Join the fleet of Racers and help deliver to your fellow students! There are really sweet perks to the job, such as free delivery for yourself, free Duffl merch, and a great deal to get a scooter for the job!
  • Become an Admiral. If Duffl isn’t at your campus yet, take the initiative and spearhead the expansion into your university! Duffl is looking for both Operations Admirals, which recruit new employees and take control of logistics and the supply chain, as well as Marketing Admirals, which develop the customer base using creativity and charisma. 
  • Last of all, the easiest thing: use Duffl! Start making purchases from Duffl instead of large, impersonal corporations. The prices that Duffl offer are not just competitive — they’re often the best on the market!

There are a lot of opportunities to join Duffl — a rapidly growing company that practices active sustainability and promotes a tightly-knit community among students. Anyone who is passionate, hungry, and driven can get in on the ground level and help build the success of this next big delivery giant!

Take-Home Points

  • Duffl was founded in 2019 by David Lin and Brian Le, who sought to build a company that offered students on college campuses cheap and fast delivery of groceries and other essentials.
  • Duffl was accepted into Y-Combinator’s Winter 2020 funding cycle, which is an extremely exclusive and prestigious funding and training program for startups. Historically, Y-Combinator has had a knack for picking up-and-coming companies that eventually become super successful, so Duffl’s support by Y-Combinator is an encouraging sign of its potential and future.
  • Duffl is currently operant in six different college campuses, offering 10-minute deliveries at a small flat-rate fee of $1.95.
  • To ensure the speed and reliability of their deliveries, Duffl employs an array of clever supply chain techniques. Those supply chain techniques are becoming more and more popular in an expanding market segment. 
  • Extensive market research shows that Duffl’s operational model of vertically integrating the delivery process is a model that is here to stay, as consumer preferences shift because of the pandemic.
  • Additionally, Duffl doesn’t just talk the talk, but also walks the walk in its mission to practice active environmental sustainability, and makes a positive impact on the environment by only using electric-powered scooters for transportation. Academic research shows that Duffl’s choices will pay dividends in preserving the environment down the line.
  • Any college student can get involved with Duffl right now in a multitude of ways!

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