This article was published in 2009, in Newsletter 82.
Outspoken began from a small office in a house off Mill Road a little over three years ago. As with all good ideas, the initial discussions were mulled over in the pub but after months of procrastinating we were finally galvanised into action by a prudish aunt who suspected our venture was all about Lycra, long hair and red lights, and felt it her duty to dissuade us. Faced with such opposition, our cycling business became a certainty!
We started by searching for a name. ‘The Wheelie Good Company’, was the result of too much alcohol and friends who could not be relied on for sensible suggestions. By the time ‘Cyclo-path’ (think Hitchcock) came up, we were almost despairing. Thankfully someone with common sense suggested that we imagine how we’d feel answering the phone in six months time, and this ruled out everything proposed to date.
Unperturbed by going backwards before even starting, we set out to buy a bicycle, and soon came across a review of Mike Burroughs’ 8-freight. We needed a bike that was adaptable: fast and light enough for small and urgent courier work, but also capable of trundling 100 kg loads. Once we’d purchased the bike, we designed a not-particularly-aerodynamic container which is secure, lockable and waterproof, and which we had fabricated locally. We thought it quite ‘snazzy’, but suspect that the bike’s eminent designer doesn’t really approve.
So we had a bicycle, and a company name that seemed to keep changing every other day. Now all we needed were some customers! Back then, our marketing was almost exclusively centred on visiting businesses in person: necessary to dispel preconceptions and also because we’d get an answer from a decision-maker immediately. Limoncello on Mill Road became our first unsuspecting customer. We are now blessed with over 150 ranging from small local shops to large national companies. Press releases helped us demonstrate our flexibility, featuring, for example, the delivery of firkins of beer for the local brewery. We have since moved human heart valves, scientific instruments worth £40,000, and 3-tier wedding cakes, but our more typical day sees us delivering medicines to people’s houses and whisking urgent documents from Addenbrooke’s to the Science Park. Most of our work is within the city boundaries, but often we find ourselves in Girton, Milton or Fulbourn.
A good service at the right price is always what customers are looking for, so we pitched our prices competitively and concentrated our marketing on superb service, flexibility and a friendly team of couriers. But what of the eco-angle: we are, after all (with the exception of a little hot air), entirely emission-free? We have found that almost all customers like to talk about their green credentials but rarely is it a reason to choose us. We have therefore not relied on this and kept to our principal tenets of being fun yet professional. By ensuring we are attractive to all types of business we help create the biggest environmental impact; as an estimate, we are currently removing well over 20,000 unnecessary van journeys each year.
From the outset, finding ways to create new business has been the most exciting part of our job, and many of our customers have become – I hope not unwillingly – guinea pigs for the latest ideas. In truth, they often come up with the ideas, perhaps while chatting about frustrations encountered in running their own businesses. As a result, we now run a local postal system as an alternative to the Royal Mail, delivering heavy and outsize post using our own (beautifully garish) stamps. Separately, we offer a Cambridge-London courier service by train, using bicycles for the important ‘first and last mile’: altogether quicker, more reliable and less expensive than a van or even motorbike, and we can rest our legs en route!
Someone told us we needed an innovative, eye-catching campaign to highlight our services to local businesses. We looked at each other, threw a glance at the bikes, grinned; and immediately wrote to local companies proposing that advertising on the panels of our bike was the keystone for any self-respecting marketing plan.
After a few early disappointments – such as having to turn down the pole-dancing poster – we found this to be a good source of reliable income that strengthens the viability of our operation.
We are lucky to have been inundated with calls requesting work, most of which are from fit, sensible people with a love of cycling, and with a remarkably high tolerance for bad weather. A particularly suitable Bulgarian woman was invited for coffee on a bitterly cold December morning, and at the close of the meeting we asked where she was off to: ‘to Brighton’, came the reply, ‘to swim in the sea’. We felt rather pathetic. Our present stock of staff includes a full-time Manager who co-ordinates the couriers and runs the office, 8 riders and a mechanic who looks after our 5-and-a-half freight bikes. The riders’ backgrounds are extremely varied – youth work, writing etc. – but most work part-time to improve their quality of life by keeping fit and being outside for a good proportion of their week. My brother PK meanwhile is on sabbatical, cycling from Cambridge to Kenya and currently in Egypt. Newsletter 81 highlighted this adventure and you can read more from their ‘downrightkenya’ website.
And what for the future? Well, we still have a myriad of fresh ideas but our most recent development has been with cycle training. We are now Cambridge’s first Bikeability-accredited training organisation and with three fully accredited instructors we are about to embark on the next phase of our business. Our aspiration is to train all school children within the county and to promote cycling in all its guises to businesses, individuals and groups. With Cambridge having recently received Cycling Demonstration Town status and with fuel price rises, congestion charging, and the development of green issues on the political agenda, surely Cambridge will be the cycling city of the future. We look forward to playing our part in championing more and better cycling in Cambridge.
With many thanks to the Campaign for all their support over the past three years and best wishes for 2009.
For more information, please visit: www.outspokendelivery.co.uk