It takes a decade to be an overnight success
An early failure gave Gurinder Dhillon the courage to pivot his business when he spotted a major shift in the market.
It is possible to have the right idea at the wrong time. Gurinder Dhillon learned this the hard when he set up an early Deliveroo-style takeaway business. It turns out he was 20 years too early. He used many of the techniques that are used by the major food delivery groups today, including setting up ‘dark kitchens’ – professional commercial kitchens that only make food for takeaways.
“We had Chinese, Indian, Thai, wood-fired pizzas, all under one roof. Mum could have Indian and Dad could have Thai, and it could all be delivered in one go. It was hugely successful. We served 400 people in our busiest hour. We built up a team of 60 across Chiswick, Fulham, Camden. It was hard to replicate because it was all super-complex. The problem was it made no money.”
Part of the problem was that digital solutions were in their infancy, so the business had to produce beautiful, but extremely expensive booklets. Ultimately, his wife gently encouraged him to move on. He says of the experience: “You fail but you’re not a failure. Subsequent delivery businesses were just there at the right time. It’s about accepting that you’ve given it a good shot. It always takes 10 years to be an overnight success.”
He decided he wanted to build a steadier income business instead. He was also aware of the perils of going after the biggest markets. The growth is there, but these are also the areas where there is most competition. He wanted to find a niche, grow the business and become the dominant force.
Gurinder found that in the black cab business, building up a fleet, leasing them to the drivers and then providing ancillary services, such as insurance. It was a giddy time for a while. He had a fleet of 250 black cabs and growth was good. He was getting plenty of word-of-mouth recommendations. The group’s cabs even appeared in the closing ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics.
But then Uber came along and it was clear that the game had changed. “We felt we should dip our toe in the water…We bought a few cars. It was initially a small part of the business with turnover of £100,000 or so.” However, it became increasingly difficult to have a foot in both camps, as black cabs launched legal action against Uber and the rivalry became more intense.
Gurinder had to pick a side and he took the decision that Uber was where the real growth lay. This was a tough and important pivot for the business. They sold down the black cab fleet. “We had to ask, what does the future look like? We weighed up various scenarios, such as whether the Uber Licence would be rescinded (which happened at one point).” He felt, if Uber didn’t do it, someone else would. Online ride hailing was likely to win out.
Four specific qualities have driven the business; frugality, focus, obsession and love. For Gurinder, building a community was top of his agenda: “Our drivers tend to be lone wolves and I felt it was really important that they felt part of a team. We did charities, parties, cricket matches. We aimed to enrich their lives.”
“This meant the drivers recommended us to other drivers. No one wanted to look after them. In contrast, we work hard on building those relationships.”
Sustainability became an increasingly important part of the business. “Cities need clean air,” he says. He is helping Uber drivers switch to new electric cars at a discounted rate and has created a rapid-charging network. It is one of only a few approved lenders on the Uber Clean Air Plan. This is also helping with safety, as the group introduces more artificial intelligence options for drivers.
Kindness and compassion are also important to the way he runs the business. He gives the example of a driver who had to fly home for a family emergency and couldn’t make his repayments temporarily. They kept the car for his return. “The bank would say he was in default, but we have to make our mothers proud and do the right thing by the customer.”
Finally, he says, a certain determination has kept him going over the years: “We were always an underdog and lots of banks rejected us. We just kept plugging away, we never showed anger and we just moved on.” It has proved a compelling strategy for long-term success.
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