A Chat with Ben Nowlan from On The Dot

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Gen caught up with Ben, who is the current CRO of On the dot. A retail delivery and technology company by CitySprint. 

Prior to this Ben has held senior roles in multi-national companies such as Groupon and Corporate Executive Board as well as founding a series of technology businesses. Most recently Ben was the founder and CEO of Sherpa, a pioneer in last mile technology and delivery services. Ben also advises and  acts on board of a number of technology companies.

Watch our interview below or read the transcript: 

Gen George: Hi everyone. Gen George here, and today I am speaking with Ben Nowlan from London. Ben, thanks for coming on, and who the hell are you?

Ben Nowlan: I try to figure that out most days. Thank you, again. Obviously we've been here before. Coming over from Australia to take on a new project. Last time we spoke I was with Sherpa. One of the founders and CEO there at the time. Sherpa being the last model delivery company back at home, but I'm still involved with. But now, over here in the UK, doing something very similar for a company called On The Dot which is by City Sprint, one of the largest same day carriers. 

Ben Nowlan: So essentially helping them do what I've done before, reinvigorate the last model delivery proposition for retailers, and it's quite exciting because the UK is maturing as a retail market. It's very competitive. There's a lot of people. There's a lot [inaudible 00:01:02] and being that I've had some learnings from my past, it makes it fun for me now. So that's what I'm doing here right now. I've been on the ground for five weeks adjusting to UK life.

Gen George: The cold or the time change?

Ben Nowlan: Well it was cold when we landed, and now it's warming up. And it's so crazy how quickly you acclimatize because I think was 18 degrees on the weekend, and it was hot. You know I know that you're saying it's like 19 at home, and it's like cray cray. You got a jumper. What's the temperature now here? I think it's probably like 11. 
Gen George: Well this is a jumper as well, levels from Marsden he's at Starlet. This is very cool. You're missing out. 
Ben Nowlan: I'm sorry I'm missing out. 
Gen George: Canoodling after. On the Dot, what's the story? How have they gotten started? What are you doing to expand it? What's changed from day one?
Ben Nowlan: Yeah. The main reason why I decided to come over was, I guess the size of the opportunity is that the UK, 65 million people, I think it's a 65 billion dollar retail market, Australia is what? 17. You know, fighting around in the 17 billion dollar market, selling last small delivery to retails in Australia is fun. You can imagine how much funner it is when you've got a market that's four or five times the size. City Sprint is effectively the largest same day carrier in the world. They got a network with full time drivers over around five thousand. They've been doing it for 20 years. They've been on a what you call a digitized journey to be the new breed of companies. Like a Sherpa. Like a quicker. You know, for the last two years. One the dot is a product of that. It's a retail facing delivery product using the same resources and network of City Sprint but really just rebranded it to sell to retailers.
Ben Nowlan: Imagine your Qantas and your Jet Star, I guess to some capacity, although one isn't meant to be the cheap brand. But you get my point. I'm pilot team leading at the net out. Getting these conversations going. Building out this value proposition to help retailers send delivery to their customers. We all know this value prop, we've all heard it before, taken away from it. So now, it's just about doing it in a way so we can scale. With the resources we don't have to really raise capital, we can go at it quite aggressively and that's what's exciting. So yeah. 
Gen George: And this is a gift from, you know, Sherpa, right? Getting it off the ground day one. Couldn't even rub two fifty cent pieces together right? 
Ben Nowlan: That's right. That's right. 
Gen George: How was that experience going from that, obviously scaling, growing, fantastic, but starting day one again but with cash in the bank to place with? 
Ben Nowlan: Well it's funny. It's a good question and one of the ...
Gen George: You didn't last long with your hair. 
Ben Nowlan: No. It was annoying me. One of the things that we, you know, the grass is never greener. With a startup you're trying to raise capital, which is hard for anyone. That is one luxury we definitely don't have here but on the flip side of that, when you're starting fresh, you can start everything from fresh. You get to have that DNA of pivoting an innovating as you go, that purely laid model, which allows startups to disrupt industries. One of the hardest challenges for any existing business, we all know and I'm sure we've pitched towards. Encumber the west has the inertia of changing into a more nimble ad lean business, you know, dealing with people. Dealing with you know, old technology. Dealing with old processes. Whilst on one level we've got a pretty free strain investment coming at us without having to work too hard for it, you know, we've also gotta turn the ship. That for me is a new challenge. I've never really been through that so, having to change, manage through that, having to sort lift and shift old technology that's different. We don't get to be as quick and nimble as if we started from fresh. 
Gen George: Yeah. Yeah, no. Fair enough. I'm sure that comes with its own challenges. But from your experience, what sort of tools and techies and like segments, or you know, are there any quick tricks that you've kind of been out to bring that have given you those quick winds?
Ben Nowlan: The one thing we did well in Sherpa and still do well is sell one thing and sell it well. You know? I think for all, if you look at all the great startups they just do one thing really well. As you start to unpack it, I guess a 20 year old company, it's working at, what is that, the clear value proposition that we can continue to articulate and sell and build up that steam. Find that one target market that we know that we can nail effectively. I think, that would be my learning step for me from Sherpa and bringing that here and saying we got one product. We're gonna sell it and wait till we do that really well and then we'll roll out the next product. I think that is something I've brought with me. 
Ben Nowlan: But that leads itself into understanding you know, how we built Sherpa as a market price and saying that the effect of density economics and the network effect. It's not just about selling, it's about understanding you know, what you can fulfill with the drivers, also what retail model you have, hub and spoke, how you work with your retailers as partners not just buyer, client relationship. This is all seems rather buzz worthy but in fact if you put it all together in a nice Venn diagram it's an effective grace hook. That is, you know, I guess that is the value I bring to this company and why they wanted me to join them. Sorry?
Gen George: They kidnapped you off the island.
Ben Nowlan: They did. The funny part about it, as all great deals started in a pub in Surrey Hills. So here I am in Shortage London. All the way from I think the pub, the keg and brew on Pervo Street is where it all started. 
Gen George: Fantastic.
Ben Nowlan: Yes.
Gen George: And as a business, sorry as a startup founder who has typically worked in Australia now going to the UK, what are the learnings you've had from someone who's going to expand into the UK?
Ben Nowlan: Yeah. Another really good question. I'm glad you prepared these.
Gen George: We pretend that we pretend. 
Ben Nowlan: Well, I'm glad you thought through because it's been some of my own reflections along the way. Every founder has this concept of how we're going to expand and we're gonna drop it in all these countries and we reverse engineer, we'll be in five countries in five years. I look back on this even with Sherpa, even though I'm a little bit smarter than I was with my previous business, is to be fair how ridiculous that was. It's not until you really get into a country, unless you've got a software, which is a fairly assets like product and you can scale without infrastructure but, you know, has slightly less challenges. When you're actually here, it really is a different story to understand, you know, the culture, what are the pressure points in the leaders that happen within this market that make it separate? What is the real capital that is needed? As I am here, although culturally UK is very similar, retails all operate the same. We all consume in similar ways, so for my vertical, those are all really the same but really reflecting on how thought out, you know, an international expansion wants from me as a founder four or five years ago.
Ben Nowlan: Even though you pitch it really well and convincingly to investors has been one of my bigger reflections and this has definitely made me stronger about how i would think about my next venture, about what are the things I would think of from day one to make sure I'm international ready. I know some of the VCs in Australia that been there are always talking about international day one, but it's more than just a mindset. I think you really need to feel it and live it to get what that means.
Gen George: Yeah. And if you were a start up founder today whether it's expanding the UK to Australia or Australia to the UK or anywhere else in the world, the US, what would you do to ensure you are global from day one? 
Ben Nowlan: Yeah so, if it's software, it's international ready from day one. You know all the tech language, currency, all those things are a given. Then I would identify, I am doing this with one of my investments at the moment which is Token, which we referred to in our previous chat, you know, identify a market that matches what you are probably based in and see if you can grow that from day one as well. Look for partnerships. I think you're doing something very similar with ten years that I admire. How you're building up partnerships across the Indian ocean, is it the Indian? Yeah. You've got that international footprint and find a way to do it that's not so capital intensive but if your product and your platform and value prop can speak cross culturally, think about that literally from day one and maybe spend some time in that other market so you're actually nurturing both markets equally. 
Gen George: Yeah. Yeah.
Ben Nowlan: You're a good example of that and I really admire that. 
Gen George: Thank you. This isn't about me, this is about you. You know, you've got some challenges I'm sure trying to move a big ship. How do you then scale it? How do you make it move quickly? How do you have those tough conversations with I'm sure lots of different departments? 
Ben Nowlan: Yeah. I would admittedly be not the most tactical. I try every day but when you've been in the box or you've been in your environment right, for the last four years, three, whatever it is, actually longer if I think about my business before that, it's hard to sort of shift about being more tactful, change management, best practice. You bring someone on the journey because there is also a lot of ... When you start to digitize a business, it potentially comes with a reduction in human resource use an euphemism. I'm not saying that's what's happening but that's an eventual fate for any business that tries to reduce their operational cost. Cost is served by becoming more digitally productive or digitally effective. 
Ben Nowlan: What I'm doing right now is I'm looking at focusing on the customer or the customer touch points across that full use of journey and I'm saying essentially no more human tactical points, digitize it all. That's from how we onboard a customer to how we nurture them as a customer. To how we continue to talk to them and serve them, so all of that and you know has been traditionally, in this particular business done by humans. My experience with Sherpa is, we did it actually with all tech. Onboarding 35/36000 customers with technology, is actually quite I significant milestone as I've now realized. I've spent time in different countries, looking at similar businesses. I'm literally doing those same things and getting people to think the same way. It's all about thinking and moving fast.
Gen George: What do you think the impact of the industry is gonna be you know, such a substantial business like City Sprints building a two sided market place? What do you think the scale is gonna be in the first twelve, 24 months?
Ben Nowlan: Yeah. So City sprints has proven to be fairly effective at acquisitions. They acquired I think six companies last year. We have a few lined up this year. With a fairly decent capital backing, it actually puts a fairly exciting roadmap, what I'll go back to is in 1998, there was actually a company that tried to do, we don't need to care for the name, it was this guy was trying to do for New York was, do a good roll up of essentially of al the last small and same day carriers. It didn't pull off. There is coming to a time in terms of global retail logistics with the way Amazon are owning the supply chain and the cost effectiveness of some retailers to do it themselves. When you got a lot of people trying to solve the same problem you got Lala Mood, Coast Mates, Pre Cup, Brisk, Goffer, On the Dot, Sherpa, Zoom to you, go people, you know what I mean, probably all the world leaders in all their space, this consolidation is going to happen. It's coming.
Ben Nowlan: So what I see for the next 12 to 24 months is not only do we have our own organic growth cleanse but we're going to go on an international expansion with an acquisition plan that I find exciting. I think that's naturally gonna shift about what we see in terms of that retailer logistics landscape. 
Gen George: That sounds very exciting. How do you think from a tech point of view are you going to either combine platforms to have one global platform or keep local intact? What's the strategy behind that?
Ben Nowlan: Yeah. That's actually one of the bigger pieces of work here. It's always been about, coming back to that opportunity that guy tried to do in 1998, was do exactly that. So we, this team, has been working on a platform that can globalize and absorb all of these companies and put them on tech. They've been working on this for a while. It's not as simple as building a nice platform like we did at Sherpa, there's a bit more complexity in terms of how we do that. That's actually exactly what we're doing. We go and acquire a company and roll it in on the platform, give it consistent experience to the retailer and we're at that point now where we're going to really start to speed up that plan. 
Gen George: Yup.
Ben Nowlan: One platform, one big company.
Gen George: What does the team look like to grow something like that? 
Ben Nowlan: I'm in the process of, again thank you Gen for helping me out, I'm in the process of hiring a few people, sales marketing, over the course of the year. Probably a few more, in the same area, sales and marketing. We've got a really, really strong tech team. We've got about 45 people. Create a product, front end, you know, all the usual places but we're putting our investment in, we're backing ourselves into this properly. We have the resources. Once we're start to speed up our onboarding of customers, we've got the tech there clearly to do it. We want to lead, everyone gives us machine learning but again, another buzz word. We have 21 years of data that Sherpa didn't have, that nearly no one in the world has that level of data in the same day space. That's something a lot of companies would be begging for. With data, you can build better predictive, that's what AI and machine learning. We have that advantage over most people, actually nearly all people. That's why we have a fairly strong, machine learning team. 
Ben Nowlan: Looking how we drive down unit economics, which means we give them more effective prices to the customers and the retailers. That would be our long term goal, how good can we make our tech that we make stuff cheaper.
Gen George: Yeah. Fantastic. You touched on unit economics, how important are they to startup market places and how do you see yourself tracking this and ensuring you keep this according to your model, whereas I'm sure a business that's been around for such a long time probably doesn't have this as their mantle piece? 
Ben Nowlan: Yeah. It's so true. I remember, not only with you, and sorry I never responded to your questions on unit economics, I apologize for that, clearly had some other stuff going on, moving to another country. I remember three years ago banging on about unit Fishbrenners talking about LTE over the cap. It's so funny to see where I am at personally and where different businesses and industries are at three to four years later. When you saw the ... I'll flip and loop this question back around to comment on City Sprint, you saw when the on demand space exploded, no one was thinking unit economics because all this ridiculous businesses pumping full of cash. None of the business models ever made sense, you know? These home service models. Food delivery models, rolling around the heated food and delivering within 16 minutes. 
Ben Nowlan: When you look at it we're losing ten dollar delivery. Also, I got my existing concerns about the food delivery space, I don't want to talk to you too much here, but even the food delivery space, unit economics don't stack up that well. Now here, you're right, an old business that hasn't really had to think too much about it, it's just been let's get lots of drivers and lots of business. I'm not saying that, that type of vernacular or rhetoric doesn't exist now but you can see it hasn't and we're in this space and that is definitely a focus now. Everything we talk about is, do we want to onboard this customer? Does it make sense to serve ... Will it ever be profitable and it comes back to, London is a far more competitive market than Australia. When we started we had a bit of a free ride, a blue ocean when we started Sherpa. What you find here is you know, unfortunately a bit of a cost game, a pricing game. You've got businesses which I won't name but obviously got decent funding out there doing reductions and prices. 
Ben Nowlan: You already know unit economics is gonna come into plat at some point. I'm a big fan of playing the long game. Investors can only count so much cash into businesses that are losing money at a unit level. If I fit that into the narrative of on the dot and what we're doing here at City Sprint, let's go to big business, let's go to a sustainable one, so that unit economic conversation happens every day. 
Gen George: Yeah. Fantastic. What are the top liners that you are watching, or you are trying to start with those first couple of people coming on? Or are you going into the depths of everything, looking at the turn ...
Ben Nowlan: Everything. Everything. That excites me because I've come over here with my fist pumping, go hey, I've done it before, let me ... what's that?
Gen George: Trust me.
Ben Nowlan: Yeah. Trust me, I know. Never trust a guy that says trust me. But they been really open. The team's amazing. We've got really great people here. Everyone's just like yeah, let's do it. You know? We're reinvigorating our BI. We're reinvigorating how we think, report and grow. Yes churn. Yes, you know? I have a sales dashboard that now includes LTV over Cat. We got to think about how we onboard ten thousand customers a week and do that without any human contact. So we're digitizing the onboarding process. Building that into our acquisition. Those sorts of metrics. 
Ben Nowlan: We absolutely and every customer is also gonna have, even their own dashboard to see how detailed we are in measuring their performance. So yes, it's exciting because everyone is on the same page and we got the resources to do it. 
Gen George: That's fantastic. As a leader ina new market, how are you ensuring that you're constantly staying up the curve, you know? New things, trends in the new market, you haven't had the luxury in four, five, ten years, in this market yet? 
Ben Nowlan: You know? Another point I've been reflecting on, I've often thought, I've been fortunate because I've been able to do business from Australia into other markets but by the nature of obviously running my own businesses I've been fortunate enough to go to other markets. I've had advisors and investors from other markets so that's naturally given me a little more of a good ...
Gen George: Perspective?
Ben Nowlan: Yeah. One thing I've reflected from being here, is we as Australia today, we're an island, we need to give ourselves some more credit. Inherently I believe, by nature of being isolated continent at the bottom of the world, we inherently look out, I believe we do, at least I do. So when I come here what's so funny is that you know, I do see a little bit of, let me put this lightly, not so much this company, pickup some local narrative, operating a bit more in a thought vacuum. You know? Even on such a huge market, particularly my space is 5 billion units, it's that, hang on no, the rest of the world are actually doing some pretty cool stuff here. If I haven't lost thought of your original question, what I'm basically saying is we've been lucky because I've been able to come here and I've already my inherent nature to go about stuff is all, who else is doing this? Who else is doing that? I think Australia is so small we naturally go, what's the US doing? What's the UK doing. What's happening in Asia?
Ben Nowlan: Then we try to figure ourselves out around that. Because these markets get so big and developing in their own right, I'm seeing a lot of people, business already exists. Go have a look at the US, there's three of these business models that are doing really well. It's actually a surprising sort of undertone here, I think gives us an advantage.
Gen George: Fantastic. And Shortage you know? That's the startup space. That's where everybody hangs out. It's all high density of tech businesses who have offices in Shortage. There's Google, where they have that desk space that startups can use and people que out the door at 5am in the morning to use it. There is a real hustle mentality. What's Shortage like? Where are the coacting spaces that you think people should go to or jut hang out at?
Ben Nowlan: I'll tell you Shortage is awesome. As a vegan, if you're a vegan, Shortage is [inaudible 00:25:41] it really is. I could not have landed in a better space. Its such a cool place. So much healthy food. Really cool cafes and restaurants. Actually good coffee. Not all of the UK has great coffee, which I'm sure we're all aware of. We're very spoiled at home. The cool cafes around are the key ways.
Gen George: What are some of the ones people should go to?
Ben Nowlan: Ozone. There's one in the train places called Nincum Soup, which is cool. Old street train station and Rizzo over here just off the edge of Scrufton Street. Shortage is just a really vibing place. It's famously the triangle from Obs Street and around. There are so many agencies, cool startups and there are like five We Works in Shortage along. Technically Bishop Gate right through to Old Street, through, I think there's two right next to each other in Shortage and there's one a bit further out. You ask about working spaces, they've got no shortage of We Works. 
Gen George: Yeah.
Ben Nowlan: That's an easy one. There's actually a couple of, which we need more of in Australia, in Sydney at least, is these private clubs. Shortage club, is that what its called? There's one across the road called the Curtain Club. 
Gen George: Yeah.
Ben Nowlan: These are great. They're sort of paid memberships to these places that have a working space, I think some have meeting rooms but they're like exclusive members. A bit like that one in, in Pots Point trying to do.
Gen George: Yup. Yup.
Ben Nowlan: But ten times better. They got that cocktail bar up the top and the pool. You know the country club in UK country you can also get access to. So I'm seeing a lot of that, actually just went there the other day to see one. So, that's kind of cool. If you're coming over here to do business up in Shortage, I'd happily show some people around. 
Gen George: Awesome. People will totally hit you up about it now. What other networking groups are you part of? 
Ben Nowlan: Funny you say this, it has become apparent, unless I am being ignorant, that I'm not seeing a dedicated network for Australians. Not that we need any other reason to commit, after meeting some of your connections and bitches drinking wine, yes awesome, awesome bunch of people, you know? There's really good founders, Australian founders over here, so we're actually trying to form our own group. 
Gen George: That's awesome.
Ben Nowlan: Yeah. Yeah. You may be invited. 
Gen George: Is there an interview? 
Ben Nowlan: There is. There is. You gotta have to tell a joke on your interview. Yeah. 
Gen George: Have you met Ben? Is that a joke?
Ben Nowlan: Oh. Well, yes it could be. Ha ha ha. 
Gen George: I don't know.
Ben Nowlan: Similar to Australia, the coworking spaces are running near their own, we work in a couple of the decent startups, had delivery event the other day. Running their own sort of groups, similar meet up in groups I'm exploring. Obviously been connecting the LMBD group, that's awesome. Trying to get, I'd really would love to get a bunch of founders here talking more regularly. There seems to be a need for us. Ten people who are like yes, we need to do this. Not so much even around drinking, how do we meet up and chat and have a forum where we can share. We're going to start that and if anyone listening or watching this right now wants to be a part of that, reach out to me.
Gen George: Stalk him. 
Ben Nowlan: Stalk me.
Gen George: That's awesome. I have asked you this before, so you're gonna know what you're gonna say I'm sure, I ask everyone as you know, if you could have a superpower what would it be? 
Ben Nowlan: I'm trying to think what I said last time. 
Gen George: It might be different this time.
Ben Nowlan: I know, this is why I'm reflecting. I wish that I could see into the future.
Gen George: Yeah. That's nice. 
Ben Nowlan: So I can be more predictive and manipulate the game. 
Gen George: Well once you figure it out let me know so I know what steps I'm taking too please. Well on that note Ben thank you very much and where can people go to support you on the dot, seek you out for advice, connect for your founders network?
Ben Nowlan: Sure. Maybe my email ben@BenNowlan.com you can post that if you want Gen. Onthedot.com is the website if you're a retailer, if your a business that's booking a delivery. For me personally, just email me or hit me up on linked in. Love to connect, love to meet and catch up. I don't know if you want to tell everyone or when you're posting this, but it's my birthday so I'm in an especially good mood today. So hit me up today.
Gen George: Awesome Ben thank you so much.