It is a familiar and often repeated story in business. Someone sees — and seizes — opportunity where others foresee failure or misfortune.
“When we started this four years ago, everyone thought we were crazy,” says Jon Ambrose MBA ’14, chief operating officer and a co-founder of Rosie Applications Inc. “Technology in the grocery industry was the worst idea of all time, according to most people back then.”
But Ambrose and his fellow co-founders, Chief Executive Officer Nick Nickitas MBA ’14, and Chief Technology Officer Michael Ryzewic, saw opportunity where others did not. They created their startup company, Rosie Applications Inc., in 2012 while pursuing their MBAs at the Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management.
Rosie, whose name was inspired by the robot that performed domestic chores on the animated television series “The Jetsons,” has quickly become the industry leading online grocery shopping platform for mobile and web. Customers shop online from their favorite local stores for same-day delivery or in-store pickup and Rosie partners with leading regional grocers for fulfillment. In addition to eCommerce, Rosie provides retailers with delivery opportunities, omni-channel marketing and deep data services.
Nickitas first pitched the Rosie concept to participants in Startup Weekend Cornell, which helped him to attract a team of students to further pursue the idea and create a company. Later that fall, the new startup joined eLab, an intense business accelerator for high-potential Cornell student entrepreneurs led by Entrepreneurship at Cornell and Student Agencies, Inc.
“eLab was instrumental in early validation and guidance that we needed to take the company to the next level,” said Nickitas. “It provided a safe environment for us to take risks while engaging our early customers, refining our product, and building a successful team and company.”
Rosie has received recognition at several entrepreneurship competitions, including second place at the annual Cornell Elevator Pitch Competition, and was a finalist at the 3-Day Startup at Cornell event in November 2012. By April 2013, they were ready to impress at the CenterState CEO Startup Labs Syracuse competition, where they took home the $200,000 grand prize.
“There have been many iterations. The idea of the company changed quite a bit in that first six to 12 months,” said Ambrose. “But the core of the idea was always around a personal assistant that could help you order groceries, and we’ve maintained that emphasis on smart or intelligent shopping throughout.”
After completing their MBAs, Ambrose and Nickitas were faced with a decision: move to a major city or keep their business in central New York. For many startups, it may have seemed logical to immediately depart to New York City or Silicon Valley — but the Rosie team knew they had to carefully assess their options for both customer base and team recruitment.
Rosie’s target market is independent grocery stores, explained Ambrose, and the northeastern United States has more independent grocers than any other region in the country. Rosie had easily attracted 10 different retailers within a three-hour driving radius within its first two years.
“Access to key retail markets is critical, but we also looked at our ability to recruit talented individuals to help drive the business forward,” said Ambrose. “There is a lot of fantastic people in this area, in addition to the massive talent pool coming out of the universities each year. It’s not just Cornell and Ithaca College, it’s the whole region — we’ve got RIT, SU, Clarkson, and the Buffalo schools.”
After deciding to stay in Ithaca, they needed a new base for operations with space for their rapidly growing team to work and collaborate, so they joined Rev: Ithaca Startup Works. Rev is a business incubator formed from a partnership among Cornell, Ithaca College and Tompkins Cortland Community College, that offers resources and support for a startup’s early period of growth through co-working spaces, mentorship and other programming.
The Rosie team and their customer base grew so quickly that the company progressed rapidly through Rev’s incubator program and graduated into their own space on the Ithaca Commons. The company is now headquartered in three floors in the direct heart of the Commons with fiber internet access and all the benefits of a high growth company.
Today, Rosie is established in 16 states, and is partnered with more than 100 different retailers nationwide — putting Rosie on track to transform the $550 billion per year grocery and household goods industry. Rosie serves as the preferred eCommerce partner to a variety of wholesale cooperatives, such as Associated Wholesale Grocers (AWG), Associated Food Stores (AFS), CERTCO, Olean Wholesale Grocers, and Associated Grocers of New England, and powers the online shopping platforms of major local retailers like Niemann Foods Inc., Broulim’s, Macey’s, Clark’s Market, and Buehler’s Fresh Foods. IBM selected Rosie as the Top Startup in North America in its 2014 IBM Smartcamp Competition. Rosie was also recognized in 2014 as a global finalist of MassChallenge, the largest global non-profit startup accelerator and competition with a focus on high-impact, entrepreneurs.
“It is incredible to think that we have grown a business and dedicated team of 21 hackers, hustlers, and designers from nothing more than three people with a concept for a classroom project,” said Nickitas. “The resources and mentorship we received a eLab, and now Rev, have been instrumental in our success, and we are excited to continue our journey to becoming a leading provider of e-commerce services in the grocery industry.”
Check out this video to learn more about how eLab moves businesses forward.