How a food-obsessed banker built a £540m fortune and became one of Britain’s richest tech chiefs

It was always late at night when Will Shu, then a banker at Morgan Stanley, would leave the office after a gruelling day’s work.

Shu recalls walking through the lonely streets of Canary Wharf most evenings in 2004 hoping to find a restaurant open late enough to serve him.

Typically, however, he would have to settle for whatever was left on the shelves of  Tesco.

“It just became really depressing,” he once said. “When you’re working that hard and you don’t think about anything else, your sense of reality becomes warped and it becomes a huge issue.”

Today, the 41-year-old credits his late-night supermarket trips for helping him build a food-delivery empire that is taking over the world – and that will soon make him one of Britain’s richest tech chiefs.

His company, Deliveroo, on Thursday announced that it had chosen London for its stock market listing in a major boost for the capital’s financial sector which has been roiled by Brexit.

Sources claim Deliveroo is targeting a £8bn ($11bn) price tag with Shu expected to net a pay day of around £540m.

It’s been a remarkable journey for the former investment banker, whose grit, focus and humble nature have helped him succeed where others have failed. 

Born in Connecticut to Taiwanese parents, in 2004 Shu moved to London to pursue a career in finance.

In true tech founder fashion, he set out to solve the problem of London’s dearth of good takeaway food himself, leaving the finance industry to return home to the US to study an MBA at the University of Pennsylvania. 

“It was a way for me to drink for two years and hang out … But it did give me time to think,” Shu has said. 

On his return to London, Shu joined forces with an old schoolfriend, Greg Orlowski, who had been working as a software engineer and together, they built the first version of the delivery app in 2013. 

The now ubiquitous service started out entirely self-funded, with just three restaurants signed up and one delivery driver: Shu himself. 

“I’ve seen him do every job in the company – from being a rider to doing customer service to signing up restaurants,” says Dan Warne, the company’s twelfth employee and its former managing director who worked with Shu for five years. 

“His job is incredibly intense and he obsesses over it, but he’s always down to earth and has a laugh,” he continues. 

Other employees also speak fondly of those early days and the company’s first “death trap” office in Marylebone, where Deliveroo shared a building with an IT business named Isis Solutions and a shopping channel called Gem TV. 

“I miss those asbestos days and finding your socks under my desk,” one ex-employee wrote on Shu’s, barely used, Instagram profile.

Although some investors resisted backing the company, believing Shu was “too arrogant”, he secured early support from upstart funds including Hoxton Ventures, Index Ventures and Accel.

Since then, the company has ballooned into one of London’s tech unicorns, turning turquoise clad Deliveroo riders, or “roos”, into a mainstay of most major cities. 

“The fact that Will has spent hours delivering food personally and getting to know London’s streets following Deliveroo’s launch has been well-written about,” says Seth Pierrepont, an Accel investor who has worked with Shu for years.

“What most people don’t know is that Will still does deliveries,” Pierrepont says. “He’s someone that knows every detail of his business intensely and is always interested in what consumers, riders and restaurants think about Deliveroo.”

Still headquartered in London, Deliveroo now has around 2,000 employees and operates in 800 towns and cities across 12 markets across the world, including Australia, Hong Kong and Kuwait.

Shu’s embrace of London’s technology scene helped to win fans (and customers) among other growing businesses.

“I’ve always been a fan of Will’s,” says Eileen Burbidge, the influential investor who was an early backer of Monzo, “and grateful that even when he was competing with the likes of Uber and Amazon in the early days, he still took the time to ‘pay it forward’ and chat with us and our founders.”

Deliveroo rider wears a surgical face mask in Cardiff city centre on March 8, 2020

A Deliveroo rider wears a face mask while delivering food in Cardiff in March 2020. The pandemic has helped push the app to profitability

Credit: Matthew Horwood /Getty Images Europe

Despite an understated public persona, there were moments where a more private, and playful, personality leaked out.

The executive would wear a cheap kangaroo costume, complete with a “baby” kangaroo in its pouch, as he sought to promote the business and was known to interview potential staff in KFC. 

Martin Mignot, partner at Index Ventures, an early backer in Deliveroo, describes Shu as a food obsessive who is gritty, calm and deliberate. 

“Being in the public spotlight is not natural for him, but what you see is exactly the same Will you get when going out for a pint,” he says. “He is a very funny and original guy.”

To Mignot, who first met Shu in 2014 when the Deliveroo team were still working out of a small basement office, the founder also stood out due to his dress sense.

“He may have been the only founder who pitched us wearing shorts,” he says. “He wore shorts for the first four years I worked with him, regardless of the weather or the occasion.” 

As the company grew, so did Shu’s ambition. In interviews, he talked about how he wanted Deliveroo to become the “definitive food company, like Spotify is the definitive music company”. 

To reach that goal, the founder pursued an ambitious expansion plan to carpet suburbs and hamlets across the UK with Deliveroo riders. 

At the same time, the company opened a network of “dark kitchens”, big unbranded venues, often on industrial sites, from which restaurants can use as a base to deliver food in areas where they don’t have a physical presence. 

But as Deliveroo grew, so did press scrutiny of its gig-economy business model. The company was the subject of investigations into its treatment of riders, with workers staging strikes from 2016 onwards.

Originally, Shu was open to talking about the issue. “I understand the tension,” he said in an interview in March 2019. 

“If you work with Deliveroo, say 40 hours a week, 50 hours a week you should have rights that are much more like an employee than if you log in twice a month and we’re working with governments to try to figure that out.” 

As the company became entangled in legal cases with unions representing its riders, Shu, who previously enjoyed speaking to the press, dramatically scaled back his media appearances. 

Privately, he was said to be furious with the criticism the company experienced.

In recent years, Shu has hired a series of policy and communications experts from the world of politics including former George Osborne advisor Thea Rogers, now Deliveroo’s head of policy who is in a relationship with the former Chancellor.

For those who have known Shu for years, his transformation from a hard-working investment banker into a shrewd technology executive on the eve of floating a business that could be valued at £8bn is no surprise.

“He’s seen the challenges in the food delivery space and has come up with solutions to a lot of them,” Warne says. “And where there aren’t solutions yet he is thinking about what they could be.”

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