The Big Interview: Shoply founder and chief executive John Robertson

Shoply chief John Robertson explains how his online convenience delivery service is fusing clicks and bricks – amid rapidly growing demand.
Robertson says he started the business to help safeguard the future of bricks and mortar retailers. Picture: Graeme Hunter Pictures.Robertson says he started the business to help safeguard the future of bricks and mortar retailers. Picture: Graeme Hunter Pictures.
Robertson says he started the business to help safeguard the future of bricks and mortar retailers. Picture: Graeme Hunter Pictures.

John Robertson is the founder and chief executive of Shoply, which is rebranding from Drinkly. The Edinburgh-based organisation launched in 2016, selling alcoholic drinks delivered within one hour, and has now extended into a wide-ranging convenience offering.

It has seen sales soar by more than 850 per cent in the four weeks to 15 April amid the coronavirus lockdown, and now has more than 30 retailers live on the platform with many more set to follow suit. It has engaged in exclusive partnerships with global drinks brands including Heineken, Asahi and Innis & Gunn, and was named Online Business of the Year at the 2019 Scottish SME Awards.

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Additionally, the tech firm earlier this year raised more than £260,000 – exceeding its target.

The tech boss says the firm is 'moving at pace' to expand into 150 locations by December 2020. Picture: McAteer Photograph/Scottish Enterprise.The tech boss says the firm is 'moving at pace' to expand into 150 locations by December 2020. Picture: McAteer Photograph/Scottish Enterprise.
The tech boss says the firm is 'moving at pace' to expand into 150 locations by December 2020. Picture: McAteer Photograph/Scottish Enterprise.

Why did you start the business?

I’ve always really enjoyed creating exceptional experiences for customers and harboured aspirations to create a business from scratch, one that would allow me to be the master of my own destiny and to build a team around me with shared ambitions, working towards a common goal.

Before I started Drinkly, I spent 17 years in the drinks industry in international sales and was fortunate enough to work for some incredible global brands and emerging craft producers who were really pioneering in their approach to brand activation.

I picked up some valuable insights during my time in the business about how to engage with audiences in an innovative and meaningful way, as well as getting to travel to some amazing places and meet inspiring people. In 2015, I left my salaried position as international sales manager for Innis & Gunn to launch a consultancy business that focused on selling drinks brands internationally.

That led me to The Saltire Fellowship Programme, which took me to Boston to undertake an accelerated MBA-style course at Babson. Those four months in America opened my eyes to entrepreneurship and how it is viewed there – you go to a pub and folk are just talking about business and technology!

I also visited Silicon Valley and Shanghai. Seeing the industries that were growing quickly there confirmed the public’s growing demand for businesses that add value and convenience. While I was there, I came across an online liquor store in America that was very successful and I thought, with the rise of on-demand businesses like JustEat, Deliveroo and Uber, that a similar platform could be a big success in the UK.

I developed the software myself and identified a premium off-licence chain in Edinburgh to be our first retail partner, who would sell products through the site. We launched in October 2016 and they’re still with us. We’ve added 35 per cent incremental value to their turnover in the last year alone.

How has your offering adapted on the back of Covid-19 – you are doing some grocery deliveries and recently announced an 850 per cent sales rise in a month.

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Convenience has always been the main driver for the business: how could we add value to busy lives through a convenience model? We live in a socially-connected world where convenience has shifted to a digital not physical platform.

However, the high street in the main is a very traditional sector and has failed to capitalise on the revenue potential of internet retail, placing instead sole reliance on footfall to generate sales.

I started the business to help safeguard the future of bricks and mortar retailers and initially developed a technology solution for independent off-licences to sell online and provide delivery in one hour.

The biggest competitive edge these independent businesses have over the supermarkets is locality – the ability to process and deliver an order within a timeframe that supermarkets simply can’t manage. The one-hour delivery promise is really what defines convenience today.

Over the last few months, we’ve been actively looking at ways to develop our platform and proposition beyond drinks and snacks, and integrating a convenience-led retail offer with our existing business stood out as a natural progression.

During Covid-19, it has been more important than ever for customers to be able to get home essentials and groceries delivered quickly without even leaving their homes.

We now host 30 convenience stores across the UK under the Shoply brand. Shoply exists to support the high street by giving retailers the technology to sell online, customers use Shoply knowing that they too are supporting their high street in what are really tough times for the economy.

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Edinburgh-based drinks delivery service Drinkly cheers major planned rollout

What does your role involve – are you still doing deliveries yourself?

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For the first six months, I delivered everything to customers myself in a branded smart car (which I still drive). It gave me a sound understanding of what our customers liked and disliked about our service and the ability to get crucial feedback to always improve our proposition.

On the flip side, it meant that I had to regularly nip away from barbecues, dinners and networking events at the drop of a hat to deliver orders. The bigger the business got, the one-man delivery service just wasn’t enough, so we recruited a network of self-employed drivers to fulfil orders before shifting the responsibility to the retailer when we launched our marketplace in December 2016.

We’re a small team so I’m still very much hands-on when it comes to team-management, strategic planning, raising capital for growth and developing a resource and team culture to realise our goals.

A few months ago you raised funding on crowdfunding platform Seedrs amid plans to move into 150 locations by December 2020. Are you still on target for this?

Retailers and consumers have never needed our solution more and we are moving at pace to hit that number.

Are you looking to the UK only for growth or further afield?

We have some big plans, but our focus is to gain a solid foothold in the UK before looking towards international growth.

Your backers include BrewDog co-founder James Watt and Stuart Middleton, chief commercial officer at Skyscanner – what do they bring to the business and do you want Shoply to reach the size of their organisations?

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As linchpins within two of the most successful start-up companies in the UK, James and Stuart, and the other Seed Haus investors, have helped us steer clear of making some of the most common mistakes in business.

Both have created incredibly strong businesses by being bold in not conforming to the expectations of the industries in which they operate and having great relationships with their customers and partners to continually learn and make their products better …something we aspire to.

Are you concerned that by offering a drinks delivery within an hour you’re encouraging irresponsible drinking?

At customers can find everything that they would within a convenience store online and that spans all categories from groceries and household goods to licensed products. For the delivery of licensed products, the store delivery driver has to follow the same procedure as they do when serving customers in-store, ensuring that all licensing laws are adhered to in order to prevent irresponsible drinking.

You were a finalist in Tech Nation’s Rising Stars Grand Final recently. What has been the firm’s biggest milestone to date?

I think that convenience has taken on a new and very relevant significance during Covid-19. Convenience stores have become a lifeline to consumers bridging a gap that supermarkets haven’t been able to meet in the supply of groceries and everyday essentials.

So, I would say that our biggest achievement to date is knowing that we have been able to add a lot of value to customers that can’t and don’t want to leave their homes and to our retail partners where we are able to add crucial revenue to them during Covid-19.

You launched in 2016 – if we look another four years ahead, where would you like the business to be?

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It would be brilliant to be able to have rolled out the Shoply brand across the UK and expanded it into multiple territories around the world, to have millions of happy customers and thousands of successful retail partners. It would be brilliant to have continued to build on our team culture and create a fun and engaging place for us to drive continued, big, bold, ambitious plans.

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