Deliveroo founder Will Shu on being London’s £1.5bn pizza man

Susannah Butter
Matt Writtle

If Deliveroo founder Will Shu likes you, he will express that through food.

One of his tricks is to find out when his friends or colleagues are due home and arrange for their dinner to arrive at the same time. Sometimes he’ll even bring it round himself.

Shu still delivers one order a week to keep in touch with what it’s like to be “a rider” — the cyclists who busy Londoners have come to rely on since the app was founded in 2013 to keep the city fed and running. Is he ever recognised? “No, people are hungry,” he says in his straight-talking Connecticut accent that he’s retained despite living here for 12 years. “They don’t care who I am as long as they’ve got their food, right?”

Shu’s company has been valued at more than $2 billion and he reels off impressive stats: “We are in 12 countries, 160 cities with 8,000 riders.” Not bad considering he’s just 37 and started the company with one simple aim: “I couldn’t stand that great food wasn’t available for delivery and wanted to do something about it.” He wanted meals of the quality he ordered when he worked as a banker in New York.

He’s an unassuming CEO, in a black T-shirt and chinos, spilling water as he pours us a drink at the company’s new HQ near Bank. Millennial staff in hoodies fist-bump each other as they wander around carrying MacBook Airs, there’s a breakout area like a basketball court, Jaegermeister on tap and a meeting table with swinging seats instead of chairs. But there’s a serious side too — you have to sign a non-disclosure agreement on an iPad before entering.

“It’s weird how quickly we’ve grown and that’s the biggest challenge,” says Shu. “I’ll always think of us as 10 people because that’s how it started, with me delivering — but that’s not the way it is any more. That’s why I hire the best people — I don’t always know the answers.”

Co-founder Greg Orlowski left the company last year to spend more time with his wife and daughter in Chicago and now works for Peanut, the social network for mothers, but he and Shu are still friends.

Deliveroo has been “a catalyst for change in London”, says Shu, both in how we eat and how we work. Riders have no contracted hours and don’t get sick pay or paid holidays — Deliveroo is part of the gig economy.

(AFP/Getty Images)

“The gig economy is a widely used term,” adds Shu. “What our riders care about is flexibility. Eighty-five per cent of our riders say flexibility is the most important thing. The barriers to entry for becoming a rider are low — all you need is a bicycle. We need to protect the flexibility of the workforce because that’s ultimately why they signed up.

I want to offer the benefits associated with traditional work but congruent with a flexible working model. What that means is you can accrue certain types of benefits, and we have submitted things to the Government’s Taylor review of modern working practices, we are trying to formulate something that works with the Government.”

He’s considering, “a way to say ‘Hey, if you do X orders you qualify for sick pay’ or something flexible like that. You have to think about it from the riders’ perspective. The better our rider proposition is the more likely they will stay and the less money we’ll have to spend recruiting people. Is it the right thing to do? Absolutely. But there’s a pure economic argument for it as well.”

Last year drivers went on strike about pay. How do these disputes affect Shu? “It’s always personal for me, which is why sitting down with riders and talking about their concerns is the way to address it. A lot of them make reasonable points.”

Now drivers are paid £10 an hour, says Shu, “significantly higher than the national living wage”. The London living wage is currently £9.75 an hour.

Seeing colleagues work their way up the business is what makes him happy and he says his managerial style is straightforward. Supporting women is key in the company. “Especially on the engineering side. A company will say it has 50 per cent women but they aren’t in technical roles. It’s important to encourage that.”

Parallels have been drawn with Uber’s “no fixed hours” working model but Shu doesn’t see them. When the ruling not to renew Uber’s licence was announced Shu was at work but “didn’t understand what it meant because you could still order an Uber. I’m not familiar with the details, we have a lot going on here. The important thing here is to focus on safety for us, for our customers but also our riders.”

(Simon Dawson/Bloomberg)

Over the summer 71 Deliveroo riders refused work because they were concerned about acid attacks. Shu has reacted, giving helmet cameras to riders in areas deemed at high risk from attacks and developing a button in the app so riders can alert the company quickly if they are in danger.

He is the consummate brand ambassador, subsisting off Deliveroo food. His meals are “regimented”, from a Pure egg pot if he’s having breakfast to lunch of chicken with broccoli, broccoli salad and a side of broccoli from Farmer Jay’s (“I try to eat healthy”) and salad from Cold Cut near his house in Notting Hill for dinner. He says with a guilty look, “Sometimes I order KFC, I did last night. I can be pretty bad.” At least he’s “a good tipper”.

When did he last cook? “The only thing I can make is an omelette.” He shares his recipe in forensic detail (it involves letting tomatoes stew down and mincing onions finely). “I have a grill,” he says proudly, as if it is novel. But I started this company because I really like delivery. We’ve changed the default mentality around takeaway in London. People used to think they were unhealthy. Now you can get restaurant food, high-quality meals, delivered quickly.”

He knows of families who get their evening meal from Deliveroo and dinner party hosts who pretend they have cooked but have actually ordered the food in.

As Shuwas growing up in New Haven, his family rarely ate out and never ordered takeaways. “My parents were immigrants from China so they would never spend money. I remember going to McDonald’s when I was 14, it was a big treat.”

His father, who worked for an insurance company, and mother, a scientist, haven’t changed their habits. “I don’t think they understand Deliveroo. They get it when they visit me and think it’s cool but they aren’t used to it. They’re just supportive of whatever I do.”

He got to know London when he was transferred here in 2004 to work for Morgan Stanley by getting up on Saturday mornings and walking in one direction with no destination. “You name a neighbourhood, I’ve probably gone there.”

As a walker who cycles for work he finds London “the best pedestrian city in the world”. Deliveroo is working with Transport for London on improving cycle lanes. His bike is black and the cheapest hybrid one he could find at Evans — it cost £100. “Money is all relative,” he says. “Did I treat myself to a plane or something when we did well? No. I like to think I’m pretty normal.”

He hasn’t owned a television since “2004, so my knowledge of popular culture is stuck there”. Instead, he reads. He’s enthuses about the two-volume autobiography of former Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew. “It’s incredible how he almost single-handedly took a third world country and built it into a first-world country in one generation.”

The current focus is on Deliveroo Editions, delivery-only kitchens where Deliveroo hosts chefs from existing restaurants so they can expand their takeaway service. Can he see Deliveroo branching into other services?

“We are focused on food. You won’t see us selling T-shirts or anything.” What about if the right buyer came along? “I don’t think about that. My job is to focus on price, selection and service. I still get excited when I see Deliveroo drivers on the streets. If we can get better food to people that are busy and get it to them quickly that benefits a lot us.”