Whenever Ana Lúcia Almeida Gazzola wants to impress her guests, she cooks shrimp with butter, lemon, and rosemary. It’s a simple recipe that the 72-year-old retired professor from Belo Horizonte found online. But it relies on good-quality shrimp, which aren’t always easy to find in Minas Gerais, one of the few Brazilian states without access to the ocean. 

So it was a game changer when Gazzola found out about Trela, a startup that connects food vendors to buyers on WhatsApp groups. During the pandemic, when going outdoors was still risky, the service was indispensable to Gazzola. 

“I live alone and stayed at home as a precaution,” Gazzola told Rest of World. “But I enjoy going out to restaurants and cooking, so when I joined the group and saw the products they were selling — organic food, seafood, meat, and gourmet frozen meals — I decided to give it a try.”

Trela’s CEO Guilherme Nazareth told Rest of World that he came up with the idea for the service in September 2020. That’s when Guilherme Alvarenga, who would go on to become his co-founder, told him about a community-run WhatsApp sales group in his building in Nova Lima, Minas Gerais. Back then, the group had 256 people, the maximum allowed by WhatsApp, and had a waiting list of over 100.

Trela didn’t disclose how many groups or users it has, only that the groups are in Belo Horizonte and Nova Lima, in Minas Gerais, and in São Paulo, Alphaville, and Osasco, in São Paulo state. It plans to expand to Rio de Janeiro and Porto Alegre and recently received $25 million dollars in funding from a series A round led by SoftBank. Nazareth has said that by charging a fee from its groups’ suppliers, Trela has reached an average growth rate of 45% a month, with a staff of 75 employees.

But for many users, Trela’s innovation may be a solution in search of a problem. While salespeople and consumers on Trela told Rest of World that the startup was a time-saver and an added layer of security when buying online, users outside Trela worried that company-run groups had less choice of the sorts of products they were able to buy and sell.

Factbox
Company Name:Trela
Headquarters:Belo Horizonte and São Paulo, Brazil
Founded:2020
Founders:Guilherme Nazareth, Guilherme Alvarenga, and João Jönk
Funding:$125,000 (initial); $25 million Series A
Valuation:$125 million

Brazilians have bought and sold goods on WhatsApp since 2011, when the “groups” feature was first introduced. Shopping on the platform is now so widespread that there are websites dedicated to finding links to these groups. Just one such website features over 800 links to sales groups. 

WhatsApp became an obvious place to shop because so many Brazilians already spend so much time on the platform, said digital transformation specialist Fernando Moulin, a partner at Sponsorb, a business performance company from São Paulo. “WhatsApp is going towards the super-app concept, concentrating all aspects of our lives in one place,” Moulin told Rest of World.

Before Trela, WhatsApp sales groups were more focused on getting discounts by gathering people to buy products in bulk or finding second-hand goods. These WhatsApp groups went on to also connect people to vendors they wouldn’t normally have access to, like Gazzola’s fresh shrimp supplier. Trela leaned into connecting shoppers directly with vendors.

Trela is the first company in Brazil to try to organize the groups into a streamlined system for consumers and vendors. Instead of the usual haphazard community-run system of orders, Trela posts weekly lists with five to 10 products, each with a link to a product and the minimum number of orders needed.

Trela

There are benefits to ceding community control over a WhatsApp sales group to a company. For vendors and group managers, it means they no longer need to worry about community management and keeping track of orders. That was what made the owners of the original group that inspired Trela change their minds about handing the group over to the startup. “If it weren’t for Guilherme [Alvarenga], the group probably wouldn’t exist anymore, because it really is a full-time job,” Ralph-Peter Petzold, a 54-year-old engineer from Nova Lima, Minas Gerais, and one of the owners of the group, told Rest of World. 

For consumers, it means the certainty of knowing that what they bought will arrive as soon as the vendor achieves a minimum number of orders. Moulin predicts that services like Trela will become “the department stores of WhatsApp.” 

Flávia Araújo da Matta Machado Leite Oliveira, a 58-year-old lawyer from Belo Horizonte, used to be a member of a community-run sales group but now buys mostly through Trela. Its “network effect” made the startup more appealing to her. Oliveira told Rest of World that she feels safer buying things on Trela’s group.

But some WhatsApp buyers, like 28-year-old fashion designer Georgia Maria Lopes from Florianópolis, are not so sure they like having a startup managing their buying groups. Lopes is part of a shoe sales group, in which a salesperson from multiple shoe stores at a mall gives the group access to exclusive promotions. Lopes has been in the group for about two years and told Rest of World that she didn’t feel that adding an extra middleman necessarily helps consumers.

Gisele Lopes Ross, a 38-year-old midwife from São Paulo, who has organized a couple of groups, told Rest of World that the groups “tend to manage themselves.” Ross believes that in community-run groups, people have more autonomy to decide about what they want to buy and to negotiate directly with sellers. 

Some sellers, like Geovana Machado, a 43-year-old entrepreneur from Jundiaí, São Paulo, who owns a secondhand shop for children’s clothes, agree that Trela’s system doesn’t work for everyone. “It’s a marketplace concept that relies on having a large number of items, which is not my case, as I rarely have two of the same item,” she told Rest of World. She prefers making sales directly; 80% of her sales come from a community-run WhatsApp group where she can build relationships with clients.

Trela also isn’t focused on bulk buying for discounts. Instead, the founders say, it caters to elite neighborhoods or apartment buildings, where the average income for a family of four is 22,000 reals (around $4,300). “We look for pockets of wealth within cities, areas where there is demand for high-quality products but not so much supply,” Nazareth said. 

For now, the Trela-run groups and community-run groups co-exist, offering two different types of services.