How this millennial turned $700 into a multimillion-dollar fishery start-up

Utari Octavianty is the co-founder of Aruna, an Indonesian fisheries e-commerce start-up that works as an end-to-end supply chain aggregator.
How this millennial turned $700 into a multimillion-dollar fishery start-up

When she was young, Utari Octavianty often felt like the underdog because of where she came from. 

Her hometown is Kampung Bahru, a remote fishing village in Eastern Kalimantan, Indonesia, where many don't have access to education. 

There was even a common saying: "If you come from a fishing village, you cannot win." 

That's why Octavianty considered herself "lucky" when her parents sent her to a junior high school in the city. But she quickly found out that there was a "gap" between her and her schoolmates. 

"I got bullied because I come from a coastal village … I was not the same as people who already had good education and had no economic difficulties," she told CNBC Make It.

The experience lit a fire in her and sparked a personal mission — making sure that one day, her village will be known not for its poverty, but for its potential.

"At the time, I didn't know how I was going to achieve that, I just wrote this in my diary."

Today, these are not just words on a page, but a reality.

Now, at 28 years old, Octavianty is the co-founder of Aruna. It's an Indonesian fisheries e-commerce start-up that works as an end-to-end supply chain aggregator, giving fishermen access to a global network. 

To date, it has raised $65 million in Series A funding, which according to Aruna is the largest Series A funding for Indonesian start-ups. 

Her entrepreneurial journey started in 2015, with a seafood craving that Octavianty had when she was a final year technology undergraduate in the city of Bandung. 

"It wasn't easy to find good seafood. My family serves seafood at home every day, but suddenly, it was so hard to find. I thought to myself, how great it would be if we could buy seafood directly from the fishermen [in coastal villages]." 

She shared her idea with her classmates, Farid Naufal Aslam and Indraka Fadhlillah. Together, they created a website aimed at meeting seafood demands of consumers and connecting them to fishermen. 

The then 21-year-olds decided to join a competition called "Hackathon Merdeka" to get capital. 

To their surprise, they won.

But the bigger surprise was the amount of interest Aruna drew after the website was launched.

"We got 1000 ton worth of seafood demand from customers … from restaurants and importing companies outside of Indonesia that need continuous supply of seafood." 

The trio quickly got to work — using the two MacBook computers they won in the hackathon to continue building on the website and bootstrapping through freelance jobs in website design.

Their first significant pool of capital came from another competition, from which they won a cash prize of about $700.

Though it was a "very small" amount, Octavianty and her co-founders used it to run a pilot program in the seaport city of Balikpapan, East Kalimantan. They stayed with a fishing community for a month. 

At the end of their stay, they made their first transaction with a local restaurant in Bandung. That was the moment they realized their idea was not something that only worked on paper.

"We can actually make this happen," said Octavianty.

Over the years, Aruna expanded into more fishing villages in Indonesia. As the demand for their seafood grew, so did the company. But one challenge that Octavianty faced was finding the right investors. 

"There are many investors in Indonesia, but to find the investor that understands our business is not easy," she said.

"Some investors will be interested because they see the potential of this business to scale. But we were selective … we wanted investors who wanted to invest not because of the company's potential, but also its impact." 

The fishery platform exported 44 million kilograms of seafood into seven countries last year, most of them to the United States and China, said Octavianty. 

But she said that her biggest achievement is giving fishermen direct access to the market and, in turn, giving them fair and better wages. 

"We helped fishermen to increase their income more than two to three times higher compared to before they joined Aruna," she added. 

While Aruna was stringent in selecting its investors, it was this approach that made the company more attractive, Octavianty said. 

"We open up to the investors about the challenges that we face, but in return, we also expect them, for example, to help us with connections or problem-solving." 

In January, Aruna announced a $30 million Series A follow-on funding led by Vertex Ventures Southeast Asia and India. With fresh funding in the bag, Octavianty is looking to expand into even more fishing villages in Indonesia and investing in sustainable fishery practices. 

To date, over 26,000 fishermen across 150 fishing communities in Indonesia use Aruna.

"Now that we have opened up the market and we have more fishermen on board, we need to be very, very careful about the fish stock because … Indonesia is already overfishing," said Octavianty, who is also Aruna's chief sustainability officer.

That's why Aruna requires all their fishermen to focus on the quality, rather than the quantity, of catches, and refrain from fishing in marine protected areas.

Aruna also advises fishermen not to use fishing gear, such as trawls and bombs, that will harm the natural seafloor habitat. 

"It's also about inspiring the industry. We see so many fishing companies in Indonesia, who don't care about sustainability," Octavianty added. 

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Correction: This story has been updated to accurately reflect that Kampung Bahru is in Eastern Kalimantan, Indonesia. 

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