Culture, Data, and Building a Business From the Basement

Former Just Eat CEO David Buttress discusses the London-based company's journey from a small operation to its expansion into 14 countries, and the importance of data and company culture in building a successful business.

David Buttress is a venture partner at 83North and the former CEO of Just Eat. He joined Just Eat when it was just a tiny startup to launch its UK business following a successful career with Coca-Cola, and served as CEO from 2013-2017. In 2014, Buttress was named “Entrepreneur of the Year” at the Investor Allstars Awards and was listed as one of the London Evening Standard’s top 1,000 influential people.

At Workday Elevate London, Buttress discussed Just Eat’s journey from a small operation in a Danish basement to its initial public offering (IPO) on the London Stock Exchange that triggered a market valuation of £1.5 billion. Separately, he talked to me about the company’s journey into 14 countries and the importance of data and company culture in building a successful business.

Today, Just Eat has over 26 million customers and over 3,600 employees globally. Can you share how the business started?

There were a lot of family-run takeaway restaurants that nobody wanted to help. These independents were really struggling, relying on flyers through the doors of potential customers as their main source of advertising. There was no digital route available.

We saw an opportunity, based on the back of a highly-fragmented restaurant landscape, to build a platform that could address this challenge. Digital was clearly going to change customer consumption patterns, and that applied to takeaway food as much as any other product. We started Just Eat UK in 2006 and two years later we had passed the five million order milestone.

You had been working for Coca Cola, then you met Just Eat founder Jesper Buch. That meeting turned out to be quite an important one for you, didn’t it?

Like all good relationships, it started in a bar. We became friends and Jesper said that we should build the business together in the UK. At that point, the company was only operating in Denmark where it had just broken even for the first time. I told him he must be mad if he thought I was going to give up my job and go and work with him in a basement on a startup.

But a few months later, I resigned from Coke because I fell in love with the business model. I thought it was something that was fantastic for restaurants and consumers and figured that someone was going to do it anyway, so it might as well be me. I signed up my first UK client by knocking on the door of my local takeaway in east London.

You had some challenging times early on. How do you carry that spirit forward to inspire others?

There were some tough times, but passion and enthusiasm are absolutely crucial to any organisation’s culture. You have to have that drive and positivity, but we wanted to build a culture that would inspire all of our employees, even from the early days. From a leadership perspective you have to have a real sense of purpose or you may never achieve your goal.

The four key areas of building our culture at Just Eat were energy, understanding, motivation and information. That’s about showing up with the energy and motivation to inspire others, having the empathy to lead a diverse workforce, and finally information—communicating and being transparent with all workers.

For example, being an open and transparent company, we ran into some issues around the IPO where we had to ensure we didn’t breach any insider trading regulations, but at the same time wanted to keep employees informed on the company’s performance and their own. We found that using a colour coding system on key performance metrics rather than reporting specific numbers helped us solve that challenge. That was really important in maintaining the culture of transparency we had built.

Data is obviously a crucial component of Just Eat’s business. How did that develop, and how do you see the role of data changing as new technologies emerge?

The food we eat is changing, and the sales of healthy food in the UK are increasing. The problem we have is that people are moving less and doing less exercise. I know that to be true, because I’ve seen the data. Just Eat uses data from more than 10 million customers per month, and using that community you can build up a personalised view of cuisine preferences, order history, and more interestingly demographic predictions that can be extremely accurate.

Having the ability to predict when particular areas order a specific time or the volume of food required can be very powerful for business planning. Artificial intelligence will be a game changer when it comes to making predictions based on data, which is why companies like Workday are investing so much into it.

You’re now working with 83North among other investor projects, but how do you see the Just Eat story developing, particularly from a technology perspective?

Just Eat is now a high-tech company, and that means continually looking for ways to innovate and give customers an amazing experience. If you look at the landscape, customers increasingly expect services like Just Eat to be faster, smarter, and more intuitive. Everything Just Eat can do to make the process more convenient, relevant,and reliable helps them rise to that expectation.

I could see the offering being extended, pushing the platform into digital media players and gaming experiences. Also, customers increasingly want to know more about ingredients and food provenance, so I’d expect that to be an area that technology addresses for Just Eat.

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