is one of the founders of eCourier, a hi-tech start-up targeting London’s often-inefficient courier industry. It cuts costs by supporting online orders and tracking, as well as using software to automatically match couriers and customers.
We spoke to Jay about eCourier’s benefits for online retailers - including potentially offering lower-cost same-day delivery.
How did you come up with the idea for eCourier?
Tom (Allason, eCourier’s CEO) and I were frustrated courier consumers, particularly with the level of service we were experiencing and the lack of communication between courier companies and their customers. For example; not knowing where your package was at any one time.
We designed the company around the problems we had experienced as consumers. On the ground, the couriers carry handheld computers with them rather than radios, so we know where they are at all times and the customers can see them, super-imposed on a map of the streets of London.
Also, we wanted to create a web application because dealing with courier companies during the day can take up a lot of time and be very inefficient. We found that the courier market in London had some strange things happening – as couriers grow larger, the ratio of administration to turnover grows.
At higher levels, it becomes incredibly complex, so that’s why the market is incredibly fragmented with thousands of father and son-type businesses, and we wanted to create a company that would provide a more reliable service.
We thought that we could design an algorithm to allocate customer requests to couriers automatically without any need for a controller or any human interaction whatsoever. About two and a half years later, that’s the system we have built.
How does that system deal with variables like traffic jams?
One of the things we recognised early on was that we couldn’t just build a static solution – it would have to be a learning process.
We built a neural network into the system, so that the system could predict how long a courier will take to complete a task based on all the underlying factors. For example; the weather, conditions, the time of day and how busy our overall fleet is.
It then observes how long the courier actually takes and stores that information, so after a while you can improve your predictions. The system was built to tune itself.
What do you feel you can offer to online retailers, many of which are struggling with fulfilment issues?
That’s an area we are looking at. Our view is that same-day delivery is going to increase dramatically for e-commerce retailers. Wouldn’t it be great to go online, order the things you want and get them the same day for a reasonable charge – say £10?
One of the things we are doing is developing an API, which will allow online retailers to interact directly with our systems. They will be able to book electronically from their point of sale systems, query booking information and display maps with the status of couriers on them, all from within their existing systems rather than using our front-end.
We plan to really open up that area. It would also give customers a same-day delivery option.
When will that go live?
It’s one of the big projects we’re doing over the next few months, along with allowing our website to take overnight international deliveries, which is another area we are getting into. I would say it will be another six to eight months before we will start beta testing that.
You’ve said that 95% of your business is done online, compared to 5% for your competitors. Is that figure an industry average?
No, it’s not an industry average – that’s far below 5%. The highest our competitors have managed to achieve is about 5%.
This is an industry that is addicted to the telephone. If you went into a large courier company all you would see is telephonists as far as the eye can see. Cubicle after cubicle after cubicle.
We looked into this and we didn’t just put up a form and say ‘we have online booking’, which was what everyone else has done. With our system, you can book in 10 to 15 seconds and we have invested very heavily in our usability. That 90+% figure is the result – it’s at 91% now.
We’ve also reduced a lot of calls because of the tracking system on the website – a lot of those calls are customers asking ‘where the hell is my package?’
Have you faced any dirty tricks from other courier companies?
Yeah, some. If you are going in and taking clients from someone who has become quite complacent over the years, they tend to get quite upset. Rather than compete on your level, what these guys feel is easier to do is to bad-mouth us.
There are a lot of comments of the type that you wouldn’t really expect in professional industries – personal attacks on senior management. It’s sad but that’s really why we are in this business. By and large, it’s unprofessional and run by people who don’t tend to have the same standards as the people they serve.
Do you fully own your technology?
Absolutely. It’s 100% owned by eCourier and we have a patent pending in the US. We plan on expanding that in the next 18 months.
We want to make it infinitely scaleable so that it can run on multiple machines, and allow it to have dynamic roles. We put a lot of business logic into the system but it’s not really designed to have that done in real time. We’ll be able to put bits of business logic into the system on the fly, for example if we want more couriers doing bike work than car work.
Do you plan to license the technology, where you would become a software provider for different verticals?
Not currently. Right now, our main goal is to be the market leader in London and we are on the way to doing that.
After that, we will look at other opportunities outside of London, to try and make the most use of the technology. They could be in the courier industry, or other industries like emergency dispatch scheduling. If you have ever waited for an ambulance in London, you would know that this is badly needed.