Will Shu: How I went from investment banker to founder of $857m-backed tech start-up Deliveroo

Co-founder of the upmarket food delivery service, Shu shares his business inspiration, how he dealt with sceptics, and why you have to go ‘all in’...

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You’ve probably heard of Deliveroo and if you live in a UK city you’ve almost certainly seen the branded delivery vehicles whizzing past you on your way home. The fast-growth restaurant delivery service works with a number of high-profile chains such as Carluccio’s and Gourmet Burger Kitchen and has raised over $475m in venture capital investment, with a presence in 35 UK cities and 40 cities internationally.

Not bad going when you consider the company – the brainchild of former investment banker Will Shu and ex-software developer Greg Orlowski – only started three years ago.

So just how do you create a multi-million pound unicorn business and successfully scale to other markets?

Speaking at an event hosted by LHS Solicitors LLP, the innovative law firm which is on a mission to make legal services more flexible and cost-effective for small and mid-sized businesses with fixed fees and 24-hour availability, Shu answered that exact question.

Read on to find out just how Shu went from a banker with a love of Burger King to a tech mogul with clients in cities as far afield as Singapore to Paris…

My advice for entrepreneurs

“If there’s any advice I would give to would-be entrepreneurs, it would be:

  • To have one idea that you’re super passionate about. Don’t start ‘Etsy for pets’ if you don’t really like dogs right!
  • You have to be pretty irrational as well because chances are it’s not going to work out but you have to believe in it.
  • Thirdly, you can’t hedge yourself. In business school, we had people that wanted to work at McKinsey during the week and then have a start-up on the weekend, it doesn’t work at all. You have to go completely all in. That’s the only way it can work.”

Getting to know food delivery as an investment banker

“Deliveroo is a very personal story for me and for Greg, my co-founder. I’m American, I grew up in Connecticut and my first job out of college was as an investment banking analyst at Morgan Stanley in New York in 2001.

“I entered this world where I was working 100 hours a week and it was pretty miserable. The one cool thing about the job was that they gave you $25 for dinner every day. I remember at the time I thought ‘Wow I can get 25 whoppers at Burger King!’ but after about two weeks, I was like ‘Oh my god, this is so bad!’ Every night I would have dinner with the other banking analysts and we’d spend our $25 and complain about our bosses. This was pre-internet ordering so often we’d assemble the paper menus alphabetically [and choose what to have]. It was a decent experience – we got food quickly and in decent supply. […] That’s how I got to know food delivery.”

An American in London

“In 2004 I was transferred to the London office in Canary Wharf. Back then I was literally working the same hours as in New York. I had to go to Tesco’s every night or Chilli’s and it just became really depressing. I know this isn’t a global issue right; you’re probably thinking ‘Oh, he couldn’t get great food delivered!’ but, when you’re working that hard and you don’t think about anything else, your sense of reality becomes warped and it becomes a huge issue.”

The Just Eat experience

“Fast forward a few years and I’m working at a hedge fund. My hours are okay and the likes of the online marketplaces are really taking off; like Just Eat. I was super excited to try it but when I did, I found that there were two fundamental issues. One, I didn’t recognise any of the restaurants that were listed; they were places like Chang’s Express or House of Kebabs so obviously culinary masters. Secondly, I had no idea when the food was going to show up except that it generally took a long time. Although the ordering process was much easier, it was not a great customer experience.

“So I called up a childhood friend of mine Greg at the time, who was a software developer, and said ‘Hey why don’t we do something about this?’ We thought about it and decided that we’d have to build out a courier fleet and […] we’d have to build custom handheld communication tablets. It just didn’t work back in 2007/2008 but the idea stuck in my mind.”

Leaving the world of finance for business school

“In 2010, I went back to the US and went to business school because I’d spent nine years in finance and I really just wanted to do something else. It was a way for me to drink for two years and hang out to be totally honest with you! But it did give me time to think.

“One of my friends there – probably the smartest guy I know – literally had about 50 ideas and [one of these was that] he wanted to start ‘Etsy for pets’. He had this business plan laid out and he pursued the idea after school. He did it for like six months and then stopped. I asked him why and he said that he realised he just didn’t really like dogs. That point is really important. You should start a business because you’re passionate about something, not because you want to make money. You’re either passionate about something or you’re in an industry that you know really well that requires something else behind it. Like the way we’re trying to do things here.”

Starting Deliveroo and overcoming the scepticism

“After graduation, I teamed up with Greg again. At this point, the cost of smartphones and tablets was very reasonable so we decided to start Deliveroo to solve the dual problems I recognised with Just Eat [lack of recognisable restaurants and slow delivery times).

“At the time, we definitely ran into a lot of sceptics. They would say things like ‘Just Eat is this big company’ or I got this one a lot ‘English people don’t want good food delivered!’ But we started down that path and launched the business in Feb 2013 in Chelsea where I lived.

“We had three restaurants [at the time]. One was my landlord – I lived above a restaurant on the King’s Road – and he was like ‘you can put your tablet here but this is a really dumb idea’ and then we convinced two amazing restaurants who actually believed in it. I was the first delivery guy and for eight months I delivered food every single day for five hours, not because I really needed to for money’s sake but because I really wanted to understand what the customer went through.

“There were a few funny stories along the way. My friends would order all the time just to see me deliver food because they thought it was super funny. They were bankers and they thought it was really comical but they kept ordering so that was cool. And then one time, this other guy ordered who I hadn’t spoken to in about four or five years and he used to work at the hedge fund with me. I got to this really big house in Knightsbridge and this guy opens the door and he looks at me and he’s like ‘Will, what are you doing?’ I didn’t remember him too well so I was like ‘Excuse me?’ and he asked ‘Are you okay?’ and I was like ‘Yes, I’m just here to deliver your pizzas’. He thought I was absolutely insane and we got that a lot in the beginning.”

Getting the business to where it is today

“The business eventually grew through word of mouth and we expanded neighbourhood by neighbourhood across London for the first two years. We were self-financed for the first two years or so and then about a year ago we launched our first city outside of London which was Brighton. We then launched in Manchester and then in April 2015 we launched in Paris, Berlin and Dublin.

“The team has just done such an incredible job; today we’re in 35 UK cities, about 40 international cities and the demand for our product is universal – people want great food delivered. Getting the demand [has been] easy but developing the technology to handle logistics and cities as diverse as Dubai, Singapore and Paris has been very challenging. Marketing to restaurants and drivers in those cities is very different as well but it’s been a ton of fun so far. I’m just lucky that I work with the best team.”

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