Mark Bonington speaks to CEO Dotun Olowoporoku on making a meal of it in the startup business.
Say the word ‘takeaway’ to yourself and what comes to mind?
Sludgy curries stuffed with salt?
Lukewarm chicken and soggy veg stir fry?
Greasy pizzas oozing out the box?
Whether your mouth is watering or wired shut, even a cursory glance at the food business over the last few years will show that it is changing. Words like “organic”, “ethnic” and “locally sourced” are no longer enjoyed solely by the upper crust, but are being demanded as standard from the breadline to the boardroom.
And one man is working to deliver takeaway into the top end.
“My original aim was just to meet a gap in the market” says founder Dotun Olowoporoku. “I was working as a research fellow at the University of Bristol, after my PhD. I worked part time at a restaurant as a delivery driver, just to augment my income when I was free in the evenings. During the process I identified that these restaurants were paying a lot of their earnings to delivery drivers. As sit-down restaurants their takeaway orders were limited, and drivers were paid by the hour. They were paying 40-50% of the evening’s earnings. So I thought about advocating similar restaurants together and providing a shared delivery service. Our aim now is to be the number one platform for food and drink delivery from good quality restaurants.”
Working through a website and app, clients can now order meals straight to their desk or home table from the high-end establishments of Bristol, Bath and London. Establishments previously associated only with the formality of sit-down dinners.
But although Dotun came to the project armed with a solid work ethic and entrepreneurial drive, the road to start-up success wasn’t without its difficulties.
“I was able to identify the business model, user and restaurants we would use,” he says, “but my biggest problem was the tech. I started looking for developers and got a technical co-founder to join me. I think that would be one of the biggest challenges for any digital business. The next challenge was getting users at cheap enough rates to make the whole project profitable.”
But having first come to Britain in 2004 to study, Dotun has seen first hand the change in economic standards caused by recession, and running parallel to this the attitudes of young people and aspiring entrepreneurs.
“When I first came to the UK I observed a lack of ambition in the other students that I met,” he recalls. “Most of them didn’t have a plan after university, and when asked why they had chosen to study that subject they would say ’cause it sounded like fun’. People were going to university just to get away from home. That attitude changed during the recession; they’re now conscious of their long term plan. So whilst it is bad that the recession happened, obviously it cost a lot of people money and quality of life, it changed the attitudes towards entrepreneurialism and productivity. I also see universities changing their priorities to courses which will have impact after the student leaves. In the UK there are a lot of start ups coming up and a lot of young people raring to do something big: to take that risk by starting a business.”
Having first discovered Dotun’s company on Twitter, I’m curious as to his thoughts on how social media has affected this new wave of start ups?
“Social media has changed the way startups, and all businesses really, communicate. It’s more the user talking, changing and engaging with the brand now. In the age of social media you can easily talk to big bands via Twitter. You can complain, give feedback, anything. It has had a lot of impact on how we as business people think about customers, as really it’s all about the customer – the value we are providing for them. It’s leading the way in putting the customer at the forefront of business priorities.”
His own social strategy is unique, and Meals currently owns over 30 twitter accounts – with plans to add more as the business expands into new areas. Each is designated to a relatively small area, such as Shoreditch or Mayfair. The thinking behind this, Dotun explains, is to allow the company to integrate itself into the culture and feeling of that area – to think locally, just as a traditional takeaway would.
“Our business can only work when we go into the micro level. You have to be involved in the local ecosystem. We wanted it to be from the bottom up – the drivers live locally, the restaurants are a mile or two away and the marketing will be micro. We can engage with what is happening in Shoreditch rather than what is happening nationally.”
The first 10 restaurants which signed up to use his service were all sourced through social media, with the impact and power it provides acting as a catalyst for the business as a whole.
“We still have a significant amount of our user base acquired through social media,” says Dotun. “We put a lot of time into that, with community managers working round the clock to ensure our customers are engaged with and listened to.”
The two-pronged social media strategy at Meals involves spreading the word and facilitating discussions with users, while also utilising the channels as the easiest possible method of customer service, to track orders and complaints in real time.
But while the social may be local, Dotun’s vision for the business is anything but.
“Our aim at Meals is to provide a national service for restaurants which don’t typically
have a delivery network,” states Dotun. “We want to enable everyone to order good quality food from the restaurants that they love delivered to their door, without having to settle for a cheap takeaway. That’s our aim.”
And when it comes to passing on what he has learned to new entrepreneurs, Dotun advises making failure your friend:
“Don’t underestimate your gut feelings. Dare to be bold, and don’t be afraid to fail. There’s a lot of stigma attached to failure in the UK, which is wrong. If everything is right going into the business then there’s someone else doing it. Start small and test your hypothesis. Finance follows good ideas which are executed well.”
If Dotun’s story has inspired you to get your own smallbiz off the ground, UK2 has all the tools you’ll need.
Check out Meals.co.uk here.