“Filling that gap in the market is something I’m really passionate about.”
Arth Soni (Bachelor of Business Administration – Entrepreneurship and Innovation ’20) was running late for class and had no time to line up for his usual morning coffee.
“I went to class feeling sleepy all day long and thinking about coffee,” he remembers.
In that caffeine-deprived fog, Soni had an entrepreneurial epiphany. Students often order food from delivery apps such as Skip the Dishes and UberEats, but those services don’t deliver inside NAIT buildings. It was a gap in the local market, Soni observed.
“It was really big in the United States but there was nothing like this in Canada,” he says. “I was like, I want to do something about it.”
“When I started, I had no idea about the delivery business.”
With that, EduEats was born. Well, it was more complicated than that. Soni spent the next six to eight months developing a business plan and consulting entrepreneurship instructors in the JR Shaw School of Business. He also met with staff at Eat at NAIT, which operates food service on campuses, to sort through regulations, fees and other logistics.
“When I started, I had no idea about the delivery business. I had never done it before. I taught myself everything.”
(Then the pandemic hit, but we’ll come back to that.)
It’s this commitment to an idea – and to solving a problem – that makes Soni ideally suited for life as an entrepreneur. They’re qualities that helped him do what many grads of the class of 2020 are struggling with in the COVID economy: secure full-time employment. And not only is he working, he’s his own boss as part-owner of a Fatburger franchise – an investment he made months before graduation.
“Arth is not afraid to take on new challenges,” says Cecile Wendlandt, coordinator with NAIT’s Mawji Centre for New Venture and Student Entrepreneurship, where Soni met like-minded mentors and participated in pitch competitions. “I never ceased to be amazed by his focus on success – and his humble and gracious nature, too.”
Blessed with an ability to connect with others, Soni’s interest in business dates back to the many hustles of his youth growing up in Ahmedabad, a bustling city in western India.
As a 10-year-old, Soni bought Bollywood movies at retail prices and made copies to sell to friends. One movie could earn a 300-fold return on investment. His operation might not pass muster legally and ethically, but it made him popular among classmates and gave him a taste for business.
“It all started there, selling movies,” says Soni, whose family moved to Canada in 2014.
After completing high school in Edmonton, he decided to dive into the world of legitimate business and study entrepreneurship. At NAIT, he learned from instructors who’ve struggled and succeeded in running their own businesses.
“It all started there, selling movies.”
“The stories they tell us and the hustle they used to have when they were younger, it really inspired me to do something on my own,” he says.
When he came up with the idea for EduEats with classmate and co-founder Raj Shah (Bachelor of Business Administration - Accounting ’19), they had no shortage of advisers, including mentors at the Mawji Centre.
But there was no shortage of work either, from hiring freelance web developers to sourcing independent contractors to deliver food. At first, Soni did many of the deliveries himself during breaks between classes. In time, he amassed a crew of about eight to 10 fellow NAIT students with extra time on their hands. They’d get paid a fee for every online order they picked up from food outlets on campus and delivered to hungry peers.
“You can work and you don’t have to invest anything, unlike Skip the Dishes, where you have to have a car and gas and insurance. With EduEats, all you need is a smartphone,” says Soni.
The business earned him and Shah third place at a Mawji Centre pitch competition, where student entrepreneurs’ ideas are judged by a panel of experts. They also started work on expanding operations to other post-secondary institutions in Alberta and Ontario when the coronavirus shut down most campuses and services.
“I had to put a complete stop on it,” says Soni.
Getting burned in the pandemic
The pandemic didn’t just curtail Soni’s side hustle. It also threatened the viability of his day job running the Fatburger on 104 Avenue in Oliver. He got involved with the business in 2019, about a year after a friend of his father bought the franchise and later sought help from someone with business acumen.
After reviewing the financials, Soni decided to go in 50-50 – while still completing his degree. He split his days between NAIT and the restaurant, where he’d work the floor with employees, do the ordering, create schedules and look after payroll.
“It was a long day – long hours – but something I was super-passionate about.”
When public health orders resulted in restaurant closures this past spring, Soni learned another side of the business when he and his partner were forced to lay off about half their staff. At that point, the restaurant wasn’t set up with its own takeout system and sales suffered.
“It was pretty much a disaster the first two months [of the pandemic],” he says. “We were struggling to even pay the rent.”
Meanwhile, Soni was also adjusting to having to finish his degree online and the postponement of convocation. Finding the self-discipline for virtual learning was a challenge, he says, but so was the loss of face-to-face interactions.
“We were struggling to even pay the rent.”
“I like to talk to people. That’s what I did for the past three years,” he says. “[Fortunately] the professors were so amazing.”
With his business degree complete, Soni’s now focused on leading his franchise through the next phase of Alberta’s relaunch. He loves the restaurant industry but says he’s not opposed to revisiting EduEats once campuses reopen. Or, he may explore other ventures. All he needs is a problem to solve.
“Filling that gap in the market is something I’m really passionate about,” he says.