GoPuff’s Brand Magic

Photos by Jeremy Zimmerman

Yakir Gola’s and Rafael Ilishayev’s personalized, Millennial-focused approach to delivery app marketing makes the co-founders Target Marketers of the Year

Yakir Gola vividly remembers the annoyance. It was Friday night and he was the only one among his house of college buddies with a car. They were about to host a party and he had to drive to five stores to pick up “basic supplies like cups and paper towels.”

This was near Drexel University, in the middle of Philadelphia. Getting party supplies should’ve been easy.

“That’s when we realized that there had to be an easier solution,” Gola says of himself and his best friend and housemate, Rafael Ilishayev. Shortly afterward in 2013, they co-founded goPuff, an app-oriented food and sundries delivery service. “Rafael and I started the business with a small selection of convenience products and, after immediate interest on campus, we realized that the convenience store industry needed to be turned on its head. People no longer considered the convenience store to be convenient, and we felt we had found the way to revolutionize that space.”

Fast-forward to 2017, and it appears as though Gola and Ilishayev have done so — at least for their like-minded Millennial peers next to colleges. With snacks still listed at the top of the offerings on the goPuff site — which now distances itself from the reputation of being a stoner’s savior, though the name remains — the 24-year-old Philadelphians head a brand that stretches into 24 locations across the country.

As of June 2016, Ilishayev said sales had risen 25 percent to 30 percent each month since hard-launching in early 2014. He added that May 2016 sales were 10 times higher than they were in May 2015.

Now, both lecture about their brand in the classes that they once left, saying they needed to use the restroom, but instead making deliveries for their new business.

And now, both are the first to share the title of Target Marketer of the Year. Even though the award usually goes to an individual with a long marketing career, Gola and Ilishayev have already distinguished themselves — finishing college and working 17/7 while sleeping in their warehouse in order to launch their business. Both are still younger than last year’s remarkable awardee, Windsor Hanger Western, co-founder, president and publisher of Her Campus Media, who earned the title at 28.

For the 2017 honor, Target Marketing editors sifted through numerous nominations from readers and decided on Gola and Ilishayev, because they both embody what all previous individual winners displayed: “The best marketing has to offer — professional accomplishment, integrity, innovation and service to the marketing community.”

Ilishayev says he and Gola have more work to do as marketers.

“Our goal is to continue improving our service to existing markets while expanding to new cities,” Ilishayev says. “By the end of 2017, we will be in 30 major markets nationwide, and we’ll only grow our footprint more in 2018. Within our cities, one of our main priorities is to continue reducing delivery time for even faster service. We are looking to reduce our delivery time to an average of 15 minutes.”

goPuff's mobile app allows users to order everything from paper towels to sweet treats — like the ice cream shown here — with a few taps of their fingers.

How goPuff Became a Verb

Gola and Ilishayev wanted each goPuff user to feel a personal connection to the brand, right from the beginning. And every branding effort since then has built on the idea that this service belongs to young trend-starters.

On any given night in Philadelphia, “Let’s goPuff it” can be heard in various apartments — and indubitably in many dwellings in many of the other cities the company serves. And while the mobile app is often referred to as “the WaWa on wheels,” (Editor’s note: WaWa is a Philadelphia-area convenience store staple), no one says, “Let’s WaWa it” or “Let’s bodega it.”

So even as its customers age — the average app user is 25 to 26 — the near-Gen Z-aged founders continue to think of their buyers as bleeding-edge thinkers.

In other words, goPuff’s route to verb status was a long road, paved with munchies.

“We are edgy, young and relate to our customers differently than a typical delivery service would.”

—Jake Levin, Former Head of Marketing, goPuff

The site touts goPuff as “a convenience store, liquor store and smoke shop, all in one” that can deliver everything from a phone charger to condoms with a few clicks.

“We understand that in today’s world, convenience is key,” the site says of the service by Millennials for Millennials. “Between work, school and everything else, there’s not always the time or money to run to the store, and with goPuff, there doesn’t need to be. We deliver what you need, when you need it, and all it takes is a few clicks.”

Since its soft launch in October 2013, though, Gola and Ilishayev had to create a brand reputation from nothing.

“At the beginning, we had no budget or money to spend on marketing,” Gola says. “So our first campaigns were just trying to generate buzz by word of mouth. We would talk to friends and give them discounts and swag, trying to get them to help spread the word. We weren’t reinventing the wheel, just doing whatever we could to get the word out.

“The personal connections we made with our first customers still make a huge impact to this day,” he adds, “and we continue to try and make connections with all of our customers. The reason we were able to grow at the beginning was because people really loved the brand and they appreciated what we were trying to do.”

How Does goPuff Work?

To give you a sense of both how the service works, and the tone of its communications to customers, this is an excerpt from the goPuff FAQ:

goPuff is an on-demand delivery service and the ultimate convenience application. We deliver thousands of products to your door in 30 minutes or less, all day and all night long, for a mere delivery fee of $1.95. Craving a snack? We got it. Need a last minute essential? We got it. Phone charger broke? You guessed it … we got it. In other words: goPuff is your new best friend.

How does goPuff work?
It’s easy! Download the free goPuff app on your iOS or Android device, or order on the Web. Plug in your address and start browsing through our categories, from Munchies to Essentials to goBooze and more. Add your favorite items to your cart, select cash or credit as your payment method, and place your order. Everything you need and want will be at your door in no time.

What makes goPuff different?
We know what you’re thinking: “another delivery service!?” But fret not … we’re not like the other guys! With goPuff, there is no third-party courier-ing or middleman involved, which means that instead of picking up your goods from someone or somewhere else, we already have your goods in our own centrally located ops-center in your city.

This means that your delivery will arrive in 30 minutes, for only $1.95, and at any hour of the day.

How much does goPuff cost?
Ballin’ on a budget is an art. goPuff delivery is only $1.95 within our 30-minute on-demand delivery zones.

If your order is $49 or more, delivery is free!

goPuff Marketing Comes of Its Age

Continuing with that personal connection theme, Gola and Ilishayev hired a friend as their former head of marketing in December 2014. They made sure Jake Levin’s marketing efforts, including partnerships, stayed true to the core values of the brand.

“We are edgy, young and relate to our customers differently than a typical delivery service would,” says Levin, also 24.

Levin says at the Target Marketers of the Year’s direction, goPuff has this clear voice in the markets it serves.

Though goPuff refers to its markets as 24 cities, they’re actually areas grouped around colleges and universities, with students and recent graduates in their service areas.

Those areas are: Atlanta; Austin, Texas; Bloomington, Ind.; Boston; Champaign-Urbana, Ill.; Chicago; Columbus, Ohio; Denver; Evanston, Ill.; Lafayette, Ind.; Madison, Wis.; Newark, Del.; New York City; Philadelphia (Manayunk, Northeast Philadelphia); Phoenix; Pittsburgh; Portland; Seattle; State College, Penn.; Syracuse, N.Y.; Tucson; and Washington, D.C.

So Levin is continuing the brand mission as goPuff expands. He has this in mind: “Understand who your audience is and what compels them to act,” he says. “In our case, if the audience we are targeting is college students. For example, we must understand what situations they are in for them to order goPuff. Are they at home? Are they at the library? Are they at a party? What time of day do they order? What do they need? What products will be most influential to them? The understanding of who the customers are and what they do will help us become more efficient in marketing to them.

goPuff's tone in its marketing may be younger, but they have the lock down on solid customer service.

“Another thing is doing something different,”Levin says. “I know this is easier said than done, but let’s be honest — few people want to look at advertisements, so have fun with it! If it’s boring, then don’t do it. If you surprise people or do something edgy that no one else does, you will get peoples’ attention. An example of this is Dollar Shave Club. They created an edgy video that was different than what people were used to seeing from razor companies, and it went viral. Their huge success today is largely a result of them not caring what people would think and doing something different.”

Even goPuff’s content marketing uses a younger voice. For instance, when an Arizona woman took to Twitter on a recent Sunday to complain about getting fun size instead of large Chips Ahoy, @goPuff said: “That ain’t right! DM us your order # and we will make things right.”

The aggrieved @jessicaisavixen liked that status.
Ilishayev commented: “We are always striving to be one step ahead of what we think is possible, and we never settle for good enough.”

Fans of the service also can subscribe to goPuff's emails, keeping up with what specials are offered and receiving discount codes.

The Future Is Built on Sacrifice

Gola and Ilishayev witnessed brand-building firsthand, because their parents created businesses from scratch. Gola, for instance, is the son of Joe the Jeweler — the original “cash for gold” guy. So Gola and Ilishayev understood sacrifice, even as they moved from their house full of college friends into what they joked was their ware-“house.”

Working 17 hours a day, seven days a week, they followed Ilishayev’s motto that “confidence is the prerequisite of success.”

They slept there, showered there and, most of all, worked there. Gola and Ilishayev were the brains and the brawn behind the brand — delivering pints of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream at 4 a.m., dropping off Solo cups at the parties they no longer threw and providing Trojan condoms to couples about to get lucky at something other than business.

Ilishayev says all the while, he had faith that they would succeed.

“Absolutely,” Ilishayev says. “For both of us, growing up and watching our family businesses, success was the only option. If you don’t have confidence in yourself and the things that you do, you won’t have a chance to succeed. If you believe in yourself and work harder than anyone else, success is right there for the taking.”

Gola agrees.

“We eat, sleep and breathe goPuff,” he said when accepting the 2017 Target Marketer of the Year award. “After a certain point, it really becomes part of you. We believe that if you really want to be successful, a work-life balance is something that needs to get pushed aside pretty quickly. To really grow, you need to be laser-focused and committed at all times. goPuff is who we are, because it’s what we associate ourselves with and do practically every moment of every day.”

That mindset of sacrifice is even what they seek in new hires.

On June 22, 2017, at a Tech in Motion Philadelphia event, goPuff Business Development VP Daniel Folkman told a stunned crowd of tech geeks that he regularly cancels everything from vacations to plans with friends and family in order to work. He knew he would have to do that when accepting the position in September 2016.

“The personal connections we made with our first customers still make a huge impact to this day.”

—Yakir Gola, Co-founder, goPuff

The Sacrifices of Today Pay Off Tomorrow

goPuff may be run by Millennials for Millennials, but Gola and Ilishayev take lessons from old and new brands alike in order to determine what works best now and in the future. They think Airbnb and Uber have as much to teach them as Coca Cola and Ben & Jerry’s.

That’s why Folkman immediately answered that goPuff had no fear when a Tech in Motion audience member asked if he was worried about competition from UberEATS and Amazon, with its Whole Foods move. He said Gola and Ilishayev have made sure from the beginning that goPuff would own its warehouses and be able to guarantee inventory — unlike its competitors. That means fast delivery, satisfied customers and, therefore, staying power in the market.

But Gola and Ilishayev want to ensure goPuff does more than survive in the marketplace — they want it to thrive. That’s why Ilishayev said he wanted to shrink delivery time to 15 minutes.

goPuff's website walks potential users through all of its offerings, playing up the service's ability to get you exactly what you want.

And that’s why Gola says: “We’d also like to transition more of our markets over to 24/7 service. Right now, about half of our cities are open 24/7 and the rest are open late, until 4:30 a.m. We’re also looking at adding on-demand alcohol to more of our markets.”

These growing and changing expectations from the marketers may be why the best friends who came up with the goPuff idea during their sophomore year Business 101 class at Drexel — quoted in an April 2014 article in as being able to deliver until 4:20 a.m. — have moved on to the “2017 30 Under 30: Retail and E-Commerce” list.

Neither lives in the warehouse now.

Both are Millennials living in apartments in Philadelphia.

And now, Gola and Ilishayev get their own goPuff deliveries after long days at work.