For your average graduating senior, this time of year can be the toughest in the whole of the college experience, owing that honor to dreaded finals and the even more dreaded coming job search. For soon-to-be Drexel grads Yakir Gola and Rafael Ilishayev, both 21, though, it's been immeasurably more hectic thanks to their recently launched and ever-expanding app-based delivery service goPuff, now serving about 25,000 users throughout Philadelphia.
"Doing homework in between everything has been tough," says Ilishayev, "but it's doable as long as you're willing to sacrifice. For us, it's mostly been our social lives."
Such is the swan song of the start up. But while Ilishayev and Gola have offered up their own social enjoyment, in many ways it has been for the betterment of that of Philly's college students and young professionals looking for a late-night snack or hookah session without leaving the comforts of their own home.
Since its soft launch in October 2013, goPuff's stock of wares has ballooned to 700 offerings, ranging from salty snacks, candy, and party cups to full-size hookahs, e-cigarettes, rolling papers, and shisha tobacco. As goPuff's site describes the service, it is essentially "your one-stop puff-shop." With on-demand delivery that encompasses a large majority of Philadelphia, that "your" is more or less universal around here.
"We have a huge delivery radius," says Gola, "pretty much anywhere in Philly. Except the Northeast." And until 4:20 am, too.
Just download the app (also on iTunes) or use the site to make an order, sit back, and you'll have your delivery in about 20 to 30 minutes. On busy nights, that number can increase to up to 40 minutes, but Ilishayev insists that "it never reaches an hour"—and, of my three orders placed over the weekend (for science, of course), that appears to be true. For an app with a delivery service behind it that was only conceived of during its co-founders' sophomore year Business 101 class, that ain't too shabby.
To hear them tell it, though, it seems like their whole lives have added up in combinational experience to goPuff. Ilishayev, of Russian descent with a background in restaurant and banquet hall industry, brings the "logistics of getting the groceries in." Gola, of Israeli descent and son to Joe the Jeweler—the "original cash for gold" guy—started his dad's jewelry sale website which he says went on to do "pretty well." Which, given Joe's presence in Philly and online in the topic of getting cash for gold, is a modest assessment.
Both credit their cultures' "ubiquitous" embrace of hookah as the driving force behind their decision to start goPuff around a shisha and smoking accessories format. Update that ancient social act with some modern technology and a healthy dose of convenience, and in their eyes goPuff is necessarily the result. Around here, though, the idea is still new—not necessarily a bad thing for the goPuff guys, who Gola says are "the only ones doing this."
"We're early adopters for this kind of thing in the states," adds Ilishayev.
As early adopters, however, some blowback is to be expected. GoPuff's innocuous flirting with the 4:20 element of pop culture in their marketing combined with offering a relatively minimal selection of headshop-y fare like grinders, papers, and essential oil e-pens recently caught the attention of Phillymag, which wrote that goPuff "connects drug users with drug paraphernalia."
To be fair, that assessment is technically correct (the best kind of correct!), though tobacco is probably most often the drug in mind. goPuff, after all, does not sell glass pipes or bongs—the predominant way kids tend to like to "get down" these days. The rolling papers section occupies a solitary shelf in the company's warehouse, and the same goes for their selection of grinders, vaporizers, and essential oil pens. These products are not their bread and butter.
That honor goes to snacks, which make up 55 percent of sales, by Ilishayev's calculation. Another 40 percent goes to smoking accessories, mostly hookahs and shisha, and then another five percent to miscellaneous stuff like cups, ping pong balls, and playing cards. The more salacious stuff is, as the goPuff guys say, out of convenience for the customer.
"It was hookah first," Ilishayev says. "Rolling papers, vaporizers, everything else like that came afterwards because customers were asking for it."
This concept is otherwise known as "give the people what they want," and is no different a policy (and, in a lot of ways, a more restricted version) than those followed by South Street's beloved smokeshops, or any gas station you can name. To admonish a company for delivering things to people that may well be stoned of their own accord makes an equal amount of sense—that is, if we're not going to get on Dominos case for supplying high men with hot pizzas while we're at it, anyway.
In any case, whatever handwringing that has come about has been minimal. The successes have been larger, and goPuff's expansion has officially moved beyond the confines of Philadelphia and into Boston, a fellow college city that the co-founders believe could easily accept the goPuff model as it currently stands.
"Boston is very similar to Philly in terms of college students, " Gola says. "It's a similar market, and for us to do this there will be easier than any other city."
So easy, in fact, that the Boston service is expected to start delivering snacks and shisha within the next few months. As Ilishayev says, however, goPuff won't just stop at Philly and Boston—it's just a matter of time and capital.
"We've thought about New York and LA," he says, "and people have been calling to franchise us out in Colorado. Formula 420 wants to franchise our business out there, but I'm not ready for the marijuana thing and that's not how we want to grow."
However they grow, though, the goPuff guys will always count Philadelphia as their home base. Their experience in the start up laboratory that is Philly has, thanks to the quick response and growth they've seen over the last fives months, emboldened their confidence in the business they initially sketched out drunk one night after a party.
"Philadelphia is a proof of concept to us," Ilishayev says. "If it works here, it can work anywhere.