Appetite for Disruption: The Interview Series

#1 David Buttress, former CEO of Just Eat

Welcome to Brands2Life’s new Appetite for Disruption interview series, where we chat to key figures behind some of the defining online challenger brands. The interviews set out to uncover the insider secrets of harnessing the power of digital to reinvent a category.

First up is David Buttress, former CEO of Just Eat, now Venture Partner at 83North. David co-founded Just Eat in the UK with Jesper Buch and in just eight years, steered the company to a £1.47 billion IPO – Europe’s largest technology IPO in a decade – making him the FTSE’s youngest CEO.

David talks about the need to be truly bold, reveals his take on the current food delivery market and the categories ripe for disruption, plus his three top pieces of advice for today’s digital disruptors.

Just Eat disrupted established category behaviour, moving people away from ordering takeaway on the phone to online. Looking back, what was the key to this disruption?

We had a very bold philosophy – almost Monty Python-esque – we started with nothing, if we end with nothing, what have we lost? Nothing. And this liberated us as a management team.

So for example, we were one of the first consumer digital brands to advertise on TV. Pretty much everyone else was saying TV advertising was old-fashioned and digital brands should be investing in digital channels. But we believed that TV was the best way to create a mass market consumer brand. We aired our first ad during The X Factor and the demand it drove crashed the website! In a sense, we were fixing the engines of the plane while flying. We knew we’d figure out how to make TV work for us. We just needed to hold our nerve and it would pay dividends over time.

How important was Just Eat’s rebellious brand personality in the success of the company?

We didn’t have tonnes of money for comms so we needed what we invested in to cut through. We came up with the Don’t Cook, Just Eat platform and executed it in a really fun, quirky way. We kidnapped celebrity chef, Antony Worrall Thompson, we blew up ovens and with you guys at Brands2Life, we stood a candidate from the Don’t Cook, Just Eat political party in a by-election. This edgy comms approach helped us go into hyper-growth mode, growing at 300 – 400% year on year.

We did attract some flak for our Don’t Cook message with Jamie Oliver and food health groups, but as a management team you can never take too much notice what people outside the company think. You know what you’re trying to achieve and as long as it feels right, your numbers look good and customers are interacting in the right way with the brand, you shouldn’t worry too much.

What are your thoughts on the new disruptors in the food delivery market?

Successful disruption attracts attention and investors but it also brings new entrepreneurs to the category. Uber Eats launched around the time of Just Eat’s IPO as did Deliveroo. But what’s interesting in the food delivery sector is that both the original disruptors like Just Eat and these successful new entrants have grown because the entire market has expanded. In the next 10 years some of the biggest companies in Europe will be food and food delivery companies – it’s one of the few areas in tech where Europe leads the world.

Why has the market expanded?

There’s an average of 42-50 meal occasions in a week including snacks. The average consumer ordering frequency at Just Eat was 1-2 times a month. So there are all these other occasions to tap into. That’s why recipe box brands like Gusto have been so successful. Consumers are turning to digital for more of their food occasions and it’s expanding the sector.

Do you think there will be further disruption in the sector?

Definitely. I’ve invested in a company called Hungry Panda which is focused on delivering authentic rather than anglicised Chinese dishes. The move towards provenance and authenticity as consumers become even more sophisticated with their food choices will bring disruption to the sector.

One of the biggest disruptions you’ll see in food delivery will be the rise of ‘dark kitchens’ where food is prepared away from a restaurant or retail outlet, because it’s a more efficient model that offers a consistent and professional food experience. But dark kitchens’ development won’t come from the current major incumbents. I think an outside player will scale this model.

Beyond the food category, what categories do you feel are ripe for disruption?

I’m really interested in what’s happening in the used car market. I like sectors that are historically unfashionable but could be so much better from a customer experience perspective. Where digital players can really help consumers is where they deliver transparency and consistency of experience via a brand you can trust.

And in terms of how to disrupt, I’d encourage today’s digital disruptors not to be bound by geography. I’ve been investing in Latin America and Africa. Identifying those huge global markets where consumers are concentrated in urban density allows you to build a much bigger business much faster than if you stick to the accepted pattern of British companies launching first in London then rolling out to Birmingham and Manchester.

David’s words of wisdom for digital disruptors

1. Be bold and brave otherwise you just won’t cut through the noise. If you feel like it’s a safe decision, you’re probably not being bold enough.

2. Think as much about where you’re going to launch the product as the product itself. Consider where your target consumers are most concentrated. Just because your offices are in Shoreditch, don’t assume you should launch in London. Look at opportunities from a global perspective because there are lots of other markets that might enable you to grow quicker, generate more cash and raise more capital. If I were starting Just Eat today, I’d be looking at launching somewhere like Sao Paolo.

3. There’s no substitute for hard work. While it’s become sexy to be a tech entrepreneur, the truth is building a company takes 10 years of your life. It’s like no other professional experience you’ll encounter in terms of the volume and work, effort and emotion involved but if you really commit, it’s the most rewarding journey ever.

Brands2Life has helped more digital brands go from early-stage market disruptors to brand leaders than any other UK comms agency. Our work with disruptor alumni like Just Eat,, LinkedIn, Groupon and Moonpig and our campaigns for the new generation of category innovators like Bought By Many and has given us a deep understanding of the challenges brands face as they scale and transition from start-ups to part of the fabric of our daily lives.