Sometimes the best ideas are born out of hunger. Back in 2004, William Shu was a young investment banker working for Morgan Stanley when a transfer required him to move from New York to London. Not a bad deal, all things considered, except for one glaring cultural shortcoming: He couldn’t find any decent delivery food abroad. That may sound like a minor inconvenience, but the longer Shu lived in England, the more this small fact of life gnawed at him. The reliable promise of good late-night takeout kept Shu and other young New York bankers going while they toiled away on marathon deals with little to no sleep; the absence of it across the pond didn’t make any sense.
“I couldn’t understand why such a great city was lacking such a fundamental, basic thing,” says Shu, 37. He started kicking around the idea of creating a platform for delivery services with his lifelong friend Greg Orlowski in 2008, but their thought experiment initially stalled. The world was still warming up to the first iPhone; consumers and businesses hadn’t yet discovered that they couldn’t live without one-click ordering. But from this seed, an international giant would rise.
Shu went on to work at various hedge funds before studying at Wharton. But the delivery idea kept calling to him. He ventured back to London, and in 2013, he and Orlowski launched Deliveroo from the modest confines of Shu’s apartment.
The first year was filled with tough work. “I did deliveries myself for five hours a day, every day, for nine months,” says Shu, who still rides occasionally. “We launched with just three restaurants—and one of them was my landlord. He just thought I was a nice guy. It was like, ‘Okay, go for it. I know where you live anyway.’”
After their start in central London, Deliveroo and its friendly kangaroo logo began to pop up in secondary neighborhoods. The company was more than just a middleman; it prided itself on having a tight grip on the front and back ends of a customer’s purchase by taking orders and delivering them, too—all within a window of 32 minutes. The company’s algorithms helped to refine the service as it began to rapidly expand.
The formula proved to be a hit, to put it mildly. Deliveroo has spread across the U.K. and to France, the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, Italy, Spain, Ireland, Australia, Dubai, Singapore, and Hong Kong. Fortune pegged the company’s value at more than $1 billion last year; it now has nearly 1,000 full-time staffers, plus 30,000 bike and motorcycle riders who deliver to its customers.
Uber and other competitors are rushing to grab a piece of the European delivery market that seemed like a pipe dream when Shu first found himself pining for a late-night meal. As Deliveroo has grown, so has Shu’s vision for his business: “Our ambition is to feed people three times a day.”—David Gambacorta