Askar Bulegenov was born in Almaty, Kazakhstan and graduated with a Kingston University degree in international business. During his final year there, he had the great opportunity to pitch his business idea — on-demand delivery of groceries and household products — to British billionaire Richard Branson at a competition.
The thought had come to him when he was ill and had requested strawberries and sweets from the local grocer’s. All of his friends forgot — frustrated, he took matters into his own hands to start Grocemania.
Below we talk to this Kingston University graduate from Kazakhstan on how his company started, how it’s going and what life is like in the UK:
Where does your interest in economics, finance and business come from? Is there a personal story behind this?
From my father as he’s a serial entrepreneur and during my whole life, our communication was built on business terms — in a good way. For example, whenever I was delaying some of my school tasks, he would say: “In business, you need to act fast if you want to be successful!”
Or, he would randomly explain what amortisation is if I wanted a new PlayStation. This also explains why I was attracted to London and started a business here.
What made you choose a Kingston University degree?
I’ve always been driven to study in the UK as I think (still to this day) London is the leading global hub for startups and businesses. Fortunately, I was enrolled at Bedstone College for my A Levels and had a chance to be in the UK.
After a year or two, I was certain that I wanted to live in England and pursue my higher education at the University of Bristol and Kingston University.
Walk us through your career now and how your student experience at Kingston University helped you launch Grocemania.
I moved to London to start my studies at Kingston University’s International Study Centre operated by Study Group. I then started Grocemania in 2017 during my final year of uni.
The first year was a learning experience and the commercial launch took place the next year when we went to the Virgin Voom semi-finals. There, I got my Grad Entrepreneur visa.
We’ve been noticed by some chain stores and started expanding the marketplace to new areas and towns. I’ve worked three jobs which include being a digital marketing and sales consultant, an expansion consultant, and a development consultant to subsidise growth and my personal life.
Then I was part of two fundraising rounds and now we have 300 partner stores across 10 cities and a proper team. Thus, I now work full-time with Grocemania for the past two years.
What do you like most about the UK?
I love that the rules are followed and they apply to everyone. It’s also interesting for me as an entrepreneur (and in business) to be aware of all the rules and ways to be more efficient.
A simple example? What it takes to start a grocery store because I love constantly learning something new.
How many people did you employ when first started Grocemania?
When we first started, we had four people which was basically the founding team. Back then, it was more of a uni project and eventually three members left once they graduated.
I was then joined by my close friend who is the co-founder and still leading all the operations within Grocemania and Nippy Groceries.
What about now? How many people do you employ?
Now, we have a team of nine (including me) and all our deliveries are done through partner couriers which has an overall count of over 6,000 across the UK.
What are your expansion plans for the future?
We are now focused on building Grocemania-powered dark stores: Nippy Groceries. The first one was launched in Kingston upon Thames in July this year and already demonstrated great traction.
Now, we are launching the second one in Esher and I believe with the omnichannel approach we’ve adopted, Nippy Groceries will be able to raise Seed and Series A round in the next 12 months.
This will allow us to scale our own retail network and be less dependent on the off-license type of stores within the marketplace business.
Why is the UK a good place to start a business?
Because it’s very competitive which is a great challenge. There is also a lot of government grants, accelerators, and incubators. There’s the potential for funding to lift off your idea if it has true potential, traction and a strong founding team.
To add to that, there’s a stable market, good currency and government. I love the UK!
Do you have any advice for aspiring entrepreneurs?
Never give up, if your idea works in your head, it means it can work in real life too. People are so used to Tesco and Ocado in the UK and kept on telling us no one will need a 30-minute delivery platform. That’s the current state of the “grocery delivery” market.
Do you have any memorable experiences that stood out for you in the UK?
My first skydive at Swindon Airfields — a big thank you to the team!
Can you tell us a bit about your hometown?
Almaty, Kazakhstan is an amazing city surrounded by mountains and has all kinds of natural landscapes within driving distance. I can’t even begin to tell you all about them as I could go on and on.
You would definitely need to check the following places: Charyn Canyon, Alakol Lake, Shymbulak Ski Resort, Medeu Ice Stadium, and Kaindy Lake . I’d definitely take you to ski at Shybulak, visit a traditional “zeleniy” (bazaar) and eat at lots of amazing food places.
What about the local food compared to home? Tell us your least favourite.
Scottish black pudding is something I really don’t like as I don’t get why people like to eat dry blood. However, I love the variety of food choices in the UK.
Is there anything you miss from home? How do you substitute it?
Only friends and family but I do visit them and they visit me. I don’t see any struggles with that along with communicating with them via technology.
Lastly, give us three fun facts about yourself:
I skydive and bungee jump quite regularly, I love cooking, and I’m good at handstands.