Posted: Wed 6th Apr 2016
While working for Network Rail, Tim Robinson had a lightbulb moment and persuaded Milton Keynes station to trial a store for customers to pick up parcels ordered online.
Three years on Doddle now has 45 stores around the UK for which the entrepreneur raised Â£24m in funding.
Tim shares the inspiring story behind his brand, explains how to get partners like Amazon on board and gives tips for using the internet and social media to grow your brand.
Tim Robinson is a speaker at the Go and Grow Summit, the must attend digital business event of the year, in London on 15 April. Get top tips from entrepreneurs and experts on how to grow a successful business on the web. Book a ticket here.
How did you come up with the idea for Doddle and turn that idea into a business?
Having spent a large portion of my career in and around railways I'd been watching the growth in passenger numbers and noticed there was a positive correlation with the growth of ecommerce. At the same time as people were shopping more online, ticket sales were also going the same way. This meant there was a growing amount of available space in stations from disused ticket offices which conveniently enjoy enormous footfall.
Knowing that commuters are the most likely to suffer from a missed delivery, because they're not home during the day, I convinced Network Rail to trial parcel stores in train stations. We opened our first store in Milton Keynes in mid-2013, where we worked on developing the IT and systems for a parcel service that put the customer at the centre, not at the end of a queue.
The Milton Keynes trial proved successful and in November 2014 we officially launched Doddle to the public, opening another six stores. Today we have 45 stores around the UK, in train stations, universities, shopping centres and business parks.
What start-up challenges did you face in the early days and how did you overcome them?
Location, location, location. It's been said before but there's no denying a service like Doddle is dependent on location. Some of our earlier stores were in sites that were slightly off the well-trodden paths taken by commuters and it made a big difference to the success of those stores.
Even a 30 second detour around the side of the station to collect parcels was too inconvenient for some customers. As a result, we are now very selective on the sites we will take and they have to be in the direct eye line and footpath of commuters.
However we also learnt that we can be a lot more flexible in terms of the size of the spaces we take. Consumers actually want their parcels much faster than our early research suggested, and instead of leaving a parcel with us for two days, nearly 100% are collected within seven hours. This means we have a high turnover rate and can fit out a very small space to be a very efficient Doddle store.
We also learnt that Doddle isn't just about train stations. There are thousands of people who work in shopping centres everyday who aren't home to receive deliveries and are unable to have their deliveries sent to work. Equally, many large corporates are now banning personal deliveries to work as a result of the sheer volume their employees were receiving and the resources required to maintain such a service for employees. So shopping centres and large corporates are new formats Doddle has added alongside universities which have some of the most prolific online shoppers, students.
The most important thing we have taken from all of this is the need to be flexible and pivot the business with each learning so that we can provide a service that meets the needs of our customers but also makes life easier for people.
How did you convince Amazon to come on board and what advice would you offer other business owners looking to do deals with big companies?
Our business model directly addresses a challenge for Amazon, the final mile delivery for online purchases. Coming to them with a solution for an issue that is quite costly meant it wasn't too difficult to get the door open and pitch our vision.
Amazon is a great innovator and as such are very open to working with new businesses that have well developed big ideas. Their early input to our business plan helped us shape the idea and we will be forever grateful to Amazon for being a very early adopter of our service.
By highlighting how we can help retailers deal with their delivery woes, we have been able to grow the number of big name, reputable retailers we work with. ASOS closely followed Amazon as did companies like, T.M. Lewin, Hawes & Curtis and New Look.
My advice to new businesses would be to be bold and approach the big brands with your ideas. Business needs economies of scale so working with well established partners with mature routes to market makes absolute sense. Successful business in the modern age embrace innovation and innovators, so don't be scared!
How did you manage to raise Â£24m in funding for your business?
We launched Doddle as a project within Network Rail, they provided funding for a pilot and were very supportive of the concept, seeing the value it could add to commuters and its portfolio of stations. However they felt that for Doddle to really succeed, it would need an external investor with experience growing entrepreneurial businesses to provide financial support but also advise on the direction of the business. With that in mind I went out looking for potential investment partners and through this process met Lloyd Dorfman, the founder of Travelex, now the world's largest retail foreign exchange business.
Lloyd and Network Rail became joint partners and invested Â£24 million in starting the business. Lloyd could see the huge potential Doddle represented and joined as our Chairman and investor.
How have you used the internet to grow your brand and how has your approach to using the web changed as your business has grown?
Until a customer comes into a Doddle store to collect their parcel, their experience with us is all online so having a strong web presence is very important. This means making Doddle a prominent delivery option displayed at the point they are deciding where to have their delivery made. As a result we have worked very closely with our 25 plus retail partners to ensure Doddle is seen at the checkout, this strategy has driven the best results.
We've invested in making it easier for our customers to complete orders online so if they are sending a parcel they can complete all the necessary information and pay before they even walk into a store.
The internet has also enabled us to develop a number of new on-demand parcel services including Doddle Runner. Via the Runner app or our website, you can order a Doddle Runner to bring you your parcels from a Doddle store if you're unable to physically get to the store yourself, they will also come and collect the parcels you wish to send, taking care of the wrapping, sending and tracking for you.
Our latest service, Doddle Neighbour, enables members of the community to run their own mini Doddle store from their homes, powered by a tablet and internet access. The service uses the principals of the sharing economy, and like other sharing economy services such as Uber and AirBnB, is reliant on slick tech to make it easy for consumers and our Neighbours to use. In essence Doddle Neighbour is monetising, through tech and the internet, the age old service of people taking in parcels for their neighbours.
How do you use social media platforms to promote your business and what advice would you offer to other business owners?
When we launched Doddle, one of the first roles we recruited for was a social media coordinator. We realised that our customers would want to engage with us wherever they were and increasingly this wasn't going to be on the phone, but on the go, via social media.
Our social media channels are our primary channels for engaging directly with our customers, excluding the face to face relationships our in-store teams have with our customers of course. If something has gone wrong (which we strive to avoid in the first place!) customers will let us know via social media, but something that has made me swell with pride is the amount of positive feedback our customers give us via our social channels as well. Customers tell us which team members, which stores and which services they love using through social media, so much so that we receive 100% more positive feedback, than negative.
It's our job as a business to listen and implement this feedback where we can. Our customers are telling us directly and very publicly what they love and what they don't. As a business this is magic, and I'd encourage other businesses to harness it in the same way.
Tim Robinson is a speaker at the Go and Grow Online Summit, the must attend digital business event of the year, in London on 15 April. Find out more here and book your ticket below.
The event is part of our Go and Grow Online campaign which encourages more businesses to get online and supports existing online traders to grow. Go and Grow Online is supported by Microsoft, Dell, BT Business and .COM.