“It’s mainly stuff we carry, not documents” says Pete King “which came as a bit of surprise when we first started our business”.
I’m in the control room of Outspoken Delivery in Cambridge, talking to brothers Pete and Rob King, partners in the firm.
It’s the end of a busy Monday, it’s dark, it’s been raining relentlessly since about two days ago, but these guys are still fizzing with energy and enthusiasm about their business. To get through the door, I’ve had to pick my way around several of their 8ft wheelbase cargo bicycles, which are the only form of transport used in their courier operations.
The aluminium bicycles are equipped with a pressed-steel cargo box behind the rider. The boxes are huge, but no wider than the handlebars. This width allows the couriers to make full use of Cambridge’s cycle lanes, so beating the city’s notorious congestion.
“We actually found that the traditional bicycle courier market, served by guys in lycra with a bag on their back, had actually declined almost to nothing, thanks to broadband, by the time we started up in November 2005,” Pete continues, “but we soon found out there was lots of demand when we described ourselves as delivering around the city centre on a van that’s really a bike”, continues Pete.
They’re a healthy-looking pair, turning 30. Before starting in business together, Pete had spent seven years travelling the world as an officer in the Royal Engineers, and Rob had done much the same, without the guns, as a teacher and guide in Africa and India for an outward-bound travel company for kids. When this all came to a natural conclusion, they looked around for something else to do.
“We realised we knew nothing about business and money, which was a bit of a handicap in life, so we decided we’d better go and set up a business”, Rob tells me. They were, for a while, just in need of an idea, until on a cycling holiday in the Lake District, they met a chap who was doing rather well with cargo bicycle couriers in the North of England, and it seemed like just the thing.
Borrowing a Cambridge student friend’s spare bedroom as an office, the business was soon started up on a shoe-string. “We spent the first year trying to work out what worked and what didn’t, and getting more self-confident as we went along”, says Pete. “We both did lots of cold calling, in between jobs, and made sure we talked to everyone we met”. As the business grew, a team of part-time couriers were recruited, mainly people moonlighting from their ‘proper job’, and more cycles were bought.
Initially, the brothers focussed on small local business customers, who understood the distribution problems created by Cambridge’s traffic, and who welcomed the innovative and green solution presented by the cargo cycles. Everything from cakes to payroll print-outs was soon filling those big steel boxes.
With a hundred or so regular customers under their belts, it was soon time to move to a proper office, and Outspoken has now joined mainstream business, to the extent that it operates from a small industrial unit, run by the council, on the edge of town.
“We’re now looking further a-field for our work, and we’ve been successful in selling our services to TNT, says Rob. “They give us stuff like their bank runs, which used to take 90 minutes while their courier parked his van and walked between all the city branches. On our bikes, the same job takes us 10 minutes”.
I ask them whether they plan any further expansion, and Pete tells me that they’d like to persuade other parts of TNT, such as the express parcels division, that cycles like theirs can knock out city centre parcel work quicker than an 11 tonner. They’ve also looked at running an electric van to operate in the city centre, and would still like to go in this direction, though at present this seems prohibitively expensive for them. Other possibilities include setting up in a neighbouring town with the same traffic nightmare as Cambridge. “We’ve proved that the idea works, so we just need to work out how and where to go from here” says Rob.
With more and more UK cities presenting barriers, such as access time limits and even plain old congestion, to vans trying to operate in their crowded centres, the idea seems to be perfectly timed.
And for the customer it’s got everything. As one of their customers remarked: ”Efficient collection. Speedy delivery. Big warm smiles and green as grass. What’s not to love?”
Now how many diesel powered courier companies can point to a customer testimonial like that?
You can contact Outspoken Delivery LLP on 01223 719594. www.outspokendelivery.co.uk