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And, yes, I was working there too. Employees within the Rocket system were swapped out like tires on a Formula 1 racecar. Meanwhile, in Germany, Richter and Griesel oversaw the local sales effort. Nilsson, their third co-founder, left in Believing their best potential customers were busy white-collar professionals, the teams packed bags with prepared HelloFresh food and headed for office buildings, talking their way past security.

Once they got upstairs, they'd find a break room, unpack their wares, and start pitching. Richter and Griesel pushed their staff to beat the previous week's result, and then beat it again. They had to prove there was demand for meal kits--that HelloFresh was primed for the kind of wildfire growth venture capitalists loved.

Everything that was in our pockets, we were burning," says Vincent Thuilot, who helped start the French unit of HelloFresh. When HelloFresh France struggled and was shut down later in the year unionized truckers increased shipping costs, and many of the customers quit during August, when much of the nation goes on vacation , Thuilot was named HelloFresh's head of business intelligence. It was during that time, he says, he got the sense Richter and Griesel didn't want to share bad news with Samwer or other investors for fear they might be cut off.

Anything that was not looking good, we were not communicating it. If we talked about the number of issues we had with boxes"--like those arriving with spoiled food--"I don't think they would have invested much further. It was just 'This week was bad--so I'll take the average of the last 12 months. By , Richter and Griesel were trapped between their investors' ambitious expectations and the meager economics of meal kits.

Shipping fresh groceries was expensive, requiring refrigerated warehouses, hundreds of laborers to pack boxes, and insulated containers. From until , the company's cost of goods and fulfillment expenses made up 81 percent of annual revenue, leaving little behind to cover overhead or other costs. Then there was the price tag for finding customers.

The spawning of the meal-kit category was fueled, in large part, by VCs rushing to bring subscriptions to all kinds of product categories. It began with software, but soon there were shoes ShoeDazzle , cosmetics Birchbox , dog toys BarkBox --the list went on. Investors liked subscriptions because they appeared predictive: They could input certain assumptions--customer acquisition costs, margins, the number of subscribers who would likely quit over time--and then model their return on investment. Within this framework, all marketing expenses, from social media ads to direct mail to salespeople stalking people on street corners, were the price of buying customers.

Now the company was running out of cash, and its three biggest investors, including Rocket, were unwilling to pony up more money. In , HelloFresh's next two largest investors, Holtzbrinck and Kinnevik, bailed on the company, trading and selling their shares. Richter and Griesel decided to go for broke, pouring their remaining funds into growth marketing. Then, with months of runway remaining, they flew to America to woo new investors.

In conversation, Richter can sometimes sound like he learned to speak English by listening to corporate earnings announcements.

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He's vague about specifics but fluent in financial models and jargon, which hardly worked against him when pitching American investors, to whom he presented HelloFresh as nothing short of transformational. HelloFresh, he told them, cut out distributors, wholesalers, and nearly all food waste in the multitrillion-dollar global grocery supply chain.

Sure, there were steep upfront marketing costs, but the cash flow from subscribers would eventually flood back in. The firm was wowed by HelloFresh's customer growth, its data-obsessed, workaholic founders, and the company's global footprint, says Jeffrey Lieberman, the general partner at Insight who shepherded the deal and is now HelloFresh's chairman.

It speaks to the leadership Dominik and Thomas have. With the new valuation, Rocket's Samwer suddenly had renewed interest in HelloFresh. Samwer declined to talk to Inc. After he'd let Rocket's holdings dwindle, Samwer once again owned more than 50 percent of HelloFresh. But Blue Apron still dominated the U.

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Flush with venture capital, HelloFresh's U. By early , they had leased fulfillment centers in Texas and California, enabling the company to ship meals anywhere in the lower 48 states within two days. They had also leased a 35,square-foot raw warehouse in Linden, New Jersey. It was their first time setting up and operating a warehouse all on their own. For the team of operations managers, this was an exciting step.

The managers were running a tight-knit group: Many were in their 20s, had graduated from elite colleges like Princeton and Northwestern, and were working their first jobs building a business from scratch. After they signed the Linden lease, the team set up the new operation over the Christmas holiday. The next two months were grueling--installing equipment and assembly lines, and hiring a new staff, all while shipping thousands of meal kits every week.

In March, Griesel and Frenzel arrived from Berlin to tour the warehouse and assess the team's progress. But that wasn't how the Germans responded. Instead, Frenzel launched into all the things wrong about the facility, down to the unswept dust in a corner of the warehouse floor. Frenzel declined to comment. We're growing like crazy.

Frenzel made it clear he intended to perform a full audit of their operations. Then he'd make recommendations on how they could match the efficiency of the warehouses in Germany. Along with their demanding new types of reports, Frenzel and Griesel's blunt style rankled the workers. And you'd have the Germans standing there, literally with their arms folded, watching.

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Then, when anyone finished, they'd say"--the manager affects a German accent--" 'Do another one. Meanwhile, Richter was setting ever higher sales targets. Over the next few months, the number of orders coming through Linden doubled. The warehouse perpetually needed more workers, but Richter and Griesel, concerned about costs, refused to increase hourly pay. Instead, HelloFresh hired staffing firms just to keep the minimum-wage temps it needed on the line every day. By early June , five of the American ops managers, including the chief operating officer, had quit.

Frenzel stepped in and took over the COO's duties full time. He hired a new warehouse manager, a former Navy supply officer who shared his top-down approach. He also put a recent hire from Berlin, a former management consultant, in charge of procurement. Morale plummeted. Order at the facility began to unravel, creating a sense of lawlessness. In the summer of , staff used drugs and drank alcohol in the open, according to three employees who witnessed these activities or found empty bottles and drug paraphernalia on the premises.


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The customer service department developed its own reckless atmosphere. Post-work drinks at the bar down the street were frequent. Early in the summer, maintenance staff discovered women's undergarments in the office one morning, according to one former manager. Then explicit cellphone photos of a supervisor and an employee engaging in sexual activities in the office after hours began circulating, according to three former managers. Richter and Griesel were notified, according to two of these former managers, and it resulted in the firing of both people.

HelloFresh's response: This is false. When a daytime supervisor, Kareem St. Louis, tried to fire an employee for disciplinary problems, the employee threatened to damage St. Louis's car. Worried about his safety, St. Louis called Over the next few months, other managers had their tires slashed, were followed home, and got threatening texts saying "we know where you live. That spring and summer, police were called in six times in response to reports of harassment, disputes, and assaults.

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At roughly the same time, competitor Blue Apron was experiencing similar incidents at its Richmond, California, warehouse, as reported by BuzzFeed in Conditions continued to worsen. After the warehouse's two bathrooms were vandalized, management padlocked the doors, and the warehouse staff was told to use outdoor Porta-Pottys, according to a Linden health inspector's report. This, along with a report of bedbugs in the office area, led to a complaint to the local health department, which sent the inspector to the facility. In August, a health department official met with Frenzel and Griesel and ordered them to rectify the bathroom situation.

Richter and Griesel shared none of this with their investors--despite the fact they were in the middle of raising another round of venture capital at their biggest valuation yet. The crux of their pitch: the company's ambitious plans to take over the U. Richter says if Baillie Gifford--or other investors--had wanted to know about the warehouse debacles, it should have asked about them.

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But the Baillie Gifford investors didn't think to ask. A spokesperson for Insight partner and now-HelloFresh chairman Lieberman, meanwhile, said he was unaware of any of these incidents until contacted by Inc. The founders, who together own more than six million shares and hold nearly eight million call options, were already on to the next phase of their plan: an IPO. If you live in a major city, chances are at some point you've been hounded, cornered, or harassed on the street by what one former Dutch HelloFresh customer dubbed "foodjehovas" translation: food Jehovahs. If you think the company is aggressive in signing you up, wait till you hear customers' stories of trying to quit.

In January , the customer in the Netherlands who had tried and failed to get HelloFresh to stop contacting him after canceling the service wrote a profanity-laced Medium post railing against the hyper-aggressive tactics of the startup, comparing HelloFresh to some combination of stalker ex-boyfriend, religious proselytizer, and mobster. HelloFresh, in its assertive way, was attempting to address what has emerged as a fundamental problem with the meal-kit business: People quit.

Perhaps the novelty wears off, or there's guilt about all the wasteful packaging, or simply because they are too lazy to cook a gourmet meal every night. Whatever the reasons, it turns out the majority of customers ditch their HelloFresh subscriptions after receiving only a few boxes.

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The idea that these subscriptions would generate enough cash to cover the sizable marketing cost was wishful financial modeling. But now, as HelloFresh and Blue Apron pass their sixth birthdays, they know what the quit rates also known as churn rates really are.

While neither company discloses figures, third parties including Dan McCarthy, an Emory assistant professor of marketing, and Second Measure, a research firm that analyzes pools of credit card data, have examined the companies' data. Their findings, which largely match up, paint a grim picture: Nearly half of subscribers of both services cancel within a month. Just 20 percent stay on as long as six months. By the end of the year, meal-kit companies are lucky if they've retained 15 percent of their original subscriber base, and the numbers dwindle from there.


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What's more, HelloFresh lags Blue Apron and other competitors in retention, often by several percentage points.