How to survive when your industry is burning around you

The founder of Gophr explains how he keeps thriving amidst industry disasters in the delivery sector
Seb Robert

For those of you who are chronically online, you will be probably familiar with a certain meme - a hat-wearing dog, sitting at a table while his house burns around him saying, “This is fine.” 

If anything represented the delivery business - then it is that hat-wearing dog. For as long as I remember, the industry has been ablaze. And Getir exiting Europe, marked the latest casualty in a world where companies are burning out.

And yet here we are at Gophr, our tenth year of operating on the horizon, standing tall amongst the flames. Or at least riding amongst them, trying not to get burnt. This significant anniversary, and the Getir news, got me thinking - why have we survived the fire, while others have not?

Playing with fire

Looking back to our launch in 2015, one of the things that stood out was that we didn’t rush it. Restaurant Delivery was in its infancy and about to go gangbusters, but I wasn’t convinced that that was the right approach. The old adage of don’t run before you can walk is so true when looking to start a new business.

I did all my homework - spent time speaking to couriers, customers, dispatchers, founders, right across the industry and got that first round of funding sorted. I remember the first conversation I had with two-cycle couriers who ridiculed the idea of doing “1ups” as they were called then, which meant picking up from one area and delivering straight to the next. The idea didn’t make sense to them because it was a terrible way to make money in the courier industry and no experienced or self-respecting courier back them wanted to make money that way. They wanted to pack as many pickups and drops along a route as possible. 

The aim for us was to appeal to the professional couriers community whilst giving a better service than everyone else. The idea being that if we could do that first and well, we could roll out to all service types with the best delivery people in the game, and do it profitably whilst still paying couriers more than the incumbent courier businesses that were around at that time. 

So that was the plan.  We were all set. We had strong foundations.

And thank god we did - as when we were all set to launch, Uber announced that they were getting into the courier game, starting with cycles, called “UberRush”. The strategy was practically the same as ours. At the time, I very pessimistically predicted we had two years max.  For many, that time limit would mean putting the foot on the gas. Time is against you, and the only answer is speed. Outrun the competition and all that.

But we didn’t. For a delivery service, we saw the best course of action was to stick to the pace we set ourselves. We stuck to the plan, and had clarity of vision. This of course is easier said than done. And I am not the first CEO or founder to wax lyrical about “clarity of vision” and “slowing down to speed up”. 

But when you are amongst the hype cycle, it can be easy to get caught up in the whirlwind. Especially when others seem to be racing ahead. We’re in the midst of a hype cycle at the moment - but instead of rapid restaurant delivery and then groceries, it’s AI. But the same lessons apply.

RGD’s AI moment was during the COVID lockdown. DoorDash, Jiffy, Gorillas, GoPuff and of course, Getir were the darlings of the VC scene. Everyone wanted a piece of the pie. At the height of the rapid delivery demand, over $18bn was invested into speed grocery companies through venture capital.  

In my mind, it was like we were reliving the funding rounds we saw in restaurant delivery only with extra zeros on the end. We couldn’t understand it because it was like we were reliving what we’d seen before when VCs lost their shirts on restaurant delivery (then electric scooters), only even crazier.

RGD was where the money was going, but it wasn’t necessarily where the money was. Grocery is hard, and without the infrastructure that the big boys have such as Tesco and ASDA, you are always going to struggle. The aforementioned delivery providers were in many ways the canaries down the mine for the Big Grocery players. And we all know what happens to the canary…

Our business model never focused entirely on RGD but post-COVID it was tempting - we had a very good lockdown working with small businesses, and our grocery offering was also growing. Seeing the amount of money that was heading to our rivals certainly made us stop and think.

And stopping and thinking is exactly what you should do - because more likely than not you are looking at a tornado of hype. You need to be looking at the business case of diving into the hype. You need to be doing your sums. And in truth, the slim margins in the grocery sector can’t fully support the expense that comes with lightning-fast delivery. It was unrealistic, as were the promises that some of the providers were making. It was always going to burn out.

Keep moving

Of course, the above doesn’t mean you are a passive observer. If you’re just standing there watching the fire, the likelihood is that you are going to get burnt. Especially if it is your house that is ablaze. You need to be agile enough to tweak the game plan, take some (well-thought-out) risks, and be ready to take a slightly different approach.

For us at Gophr, that meant not putting everything into one bucket. We serve pharmacies, DIY, retail, a bit of grocery and even motorfactors. Sure some of these aren’t the sexiest of sectors, but there is room to breathe. We haven’t always operated in this fashion.

But our business strategy allowed us to be adaptable. It meant that while others burnt out, we had other options that could see us through. We’ve never been tied to the hype cycle - whatever form that takes.

Does that make us boring? Maybe a bit. But actually sometimes boring is the best approach. Look at Amazon - they’re very boring. At its most basic, it is a marketplace that delivers. You know what you are going to get. It’s the same experience every time. And that’s what you want to be offering your customers and your partners - reliability and trust.

So while there will always be flashier competitors out there, sometimes it is better to be on the outside of all that buzz. Because if you play with fire…well you’re going to get burnt. 

Written by
May 23, 2024