Abyl Ikhsanov didn’t plan on starting a company. But as an undergraduate at Queen Mary University of London, the 22-year-old noticed a glaring opportunity. He had spent several years shopping at Marks & Spencer, one of the U.K.’s leading grocery retailers.
Unlike virtually every other supermarket brand in London, the 132-year-old chain didn’t have an online grocery delivery service. Ikhsanov thought: “Why not?”
The Idea: M&S Groceries Delivered in an Hour
Ikhsanov’s epiphany came in September 2015, when the Kazakhstan native was in the final year of his degree in electrical and electronic engineering. London has one of the world’s densest and most competitive markets for online grocery delivery. Ikhsanov knew this first-hand as a college student often needing a last-minute meal.
That’s why he was shocked to discover that the venerable M&S didn’t have such a service. The upscale retailer boasted 1,382 stores, including 914 in the U.K. It brought in £5.4 billion ($7 billion) in annual revenue from food sales alone.
“I didn’t want to start a company for the sake of starting a company. But it was very strange for me that no one was trying to deliver M&S groceries when you don’t have to prove that there’s demand,” Ikhsanov says.
He also observed that most services only offered next-day delivery, or same-day delivery for a high fee. Ikhsanov realized there was room to raise the bar by delivering orders within an hour.
Along with two friends from college Abay Kuzhagaliyev and Dimash Abilov he pooled funds from friends and family to start a company. The cofounders spent a month planning how the service, called Togle, would operate, and then started working on a preliminary website.
A Bumpy Road
The fledgling business immediately encountered hiccups. First, the cofounders had no way to find a complete list of the products M&S offered in order to feature them on the website. Nor could the team locate photos of the products, the vast majority of which were sold under the M&S brand. The team was forced to visit an M&S store and take photos of every single product on the shelves, a process that took months.
Another challenge was figuring how to efficiently allocate drivers. The team could find data about demand for next-day delivery, with products stored in warehouses, and for prepared food orders. But they didn’t have figures to predict the peak times for Londoners to order same-day groceries. They would have to make their best guess until Togle created its own data.
“It’s easy to know that people are going to order more takeaway food after 6 p.m., when they leave their jobs and want to eat dinner. But for groceries we had no idea,” Ikhsanov says.
The founders tried for months to contact M&S executives but didn’t get a response. Finally, last spring, they met with higher-ups in the corporate office and explained their business plan.
“We were afraid they were going to stop us from reselling their brand, but they didn’t,” Ikhsanov says. If Togle comes back with promising figures for sales and website traffic, “there’s potential for an official partnership to make the flow of delivery a bit easier,” he says.
Building a Website with Gigster
A key challenge was developing Togle’s technological backbone. Ikhsanov and his partners had started with a simple e-commerce website, but they lacked the expertise to build the online platform and app they envisioned.
Ikhsanov was nervous about outsourcing coding, having heard horror stories from friends. In February 2016, he came across Gigster, and after reading reviews, decided to give it a chance.
Four months later just a month after Ikhsanov graduated from college Gigster produced a professional-looking website that allowed customers to find products, place orders and view order histories. On the backend, it enabled the firm to allocate drivers and manage deliveries.
“It’s hard to tell that we’re a startup when you look at the website. We can compete with other companies just based on how the website looks to the customer,” Ikhsanov says.
The Road Forward
In early August, Togle starting operations in a 3- to 5-mile radius of two M&S stores in central London. The startup soon expects to expand the service to a broader swathe of the city and launch a mobile app, thanks to Gigster.
Ikhsanov’s plans go further. He aims to introduce a recipe section that links to M&S products customers need to cook the meal. He also wants to offer lunch delivery for businesses.
“It hasn’t been easy,” Ikhsanov says. But he’s not one to let that stop him.