Just Eat: Lessons from Scaling an Online Marketplace | In Practise

Just Eat: Lessons from Scaling an Online Marketplace

Former Global COO at Just Eat and Current CEO at Receipt Bank

Learning outcomes

  • Why the biggest challenge scaling online marketplaces is a human problem
  • How to ensure the culture and commercial strategy is aligned
  • Four key attributes to look for in senior managers
  • Differences between B2C and B2B go-to-market strategies
  • Techniques to hire managers quickly but also in different regions
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Executive Bio

Adrian Blair

Former Global COO at Just Eat and Current CEO at Receipt Bank

Adrian was pivotal in helping Just Eat grow from £25m to over £800m in revenue in 2018 by the time he left. As Global COO, he managed the global P&L and was responsible for rolling out and driving cohesion between the international units. Adrian is now CEO of Receipt Bank, a SaaS accountancy business that recently raised £55m from Insight Ventures to scale globally. Adrian previously spent 6 years at Google as Head of Ecommerce Partnerships in EMEA and has also worked at Spotify and Ask.com. He is also a Non-Executive Director of online real estate business Purplebricks and recently co-founded a leadership business that trains young professionals. Read more

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Adrian, could you just provide some context to the time when you first joined Just Eat?

I joined Just Eat in early 2011. We were a 300-person company, doing around £25 million of revenue a year. We already had international operations. We’d, effectively, moved our headquarters from Denmark, where the business was founded, to the UK. I was brought in, in 2011, to bring some coherence to the different international businesses that Just Eat operated in. All of the country managers, the managing directors of our international markets, reported into me. My job was to take all of those international businesses and make them work as more of a unit. Also, to help them to grow faster and make sure that we had teams in all the local markets that could scale and take the company to the next level.

The big change, for me, was a couple of years later, in 2013, when I was promoted and given responsibility for the UK market, which was our biggest market globally, about two-thirds of Just Eat’s global business, in addition to all the international markets. From that point, I became responsible for the whole, global P&L of the business.

What was the biggest challenge in scaling Just Eat, at that early stage?

The biggest challenge is a very human one. You’ve got people who are good at running a small company and that are very comfortable in a small company. But we had ambitions to be a very big company. You often find that the right people for the early stage of a company’s growth and development are not the right people for later stages. Certainly, the most difficult thing I had to do was to make those difficult judgment calls.

The reason it’s so hard is, partly, because these are quite subjective judgments, so you can’t just type a formula into Excel that will tell you who you should keep and who you shouldn’t keep. It’s also a very human challenge because you get to know people, you get to like people, you become friends with people. Being in a start-up, it’s very intense and when you go through a very intense experience, with a bunch of other people, you become friends. You are bonded through that and you’ve then got to step back and make tough decisions about who should stay and who should go.

If you don’t do that, the company won’t scale. It’s a really important ability to have, at a senior level, in these sorts of companies.

What principles do you use, in making those really tough decisions and how do you deliver the news to people that you have a relationship with?

Every case is different. There is no script that I would follow. Of course, it’s also a really positive thing. I don’t want to dwell on the downside of people who don’t want to stay the course or aren’t right, because most of what you are doing, is actually developing people to do more. The company is growing all the time. Everybody is becoming responsible for more things, because the business is bigger.

You might not get promoted, your title might not change, but instead of looking after 10 customers, you’re now looking after 100 customers. Instead of managing a marketing budget of £1 million, you’re now managing a marketing budget of £10 million, without anything in your job description changing. People need to develop, in order to be able to cope with that kind of scale. Most of what you are doing is actually really positive, because it’s helping people to deal with additional responsibility.

There are four main things that I look for, that I think help you to be successful, and I think of them in pairs. The first pair of things is intelligence and integrity. Intellectual ability, ability to assimilate new information fast and understand and think across different disciplines. Integrity, I don’t define in a minimal way, such as don’t steal money and don’t do unethical things. I define it as being able to stare the truth in the face and being very straightforward about facts. It’s just so much simpler and more efficient to work with people who operate in that way. If you have people who want to tell big stories and paint the facts in different ways, it just takes time to get under the skin of the issues and figure out what’s really going on. Whereas if you have people who have super high integrity, they say, “Look, here’s the situation; this is the problem. I did this wrong or this thing happened on my watch and it shouldn’t have done. Now, here’s my proposed solution to the problem.” It’s so much simpler to work with people who operate in that kind of transparent way. When I talk about integrity, I really mean just people who are truth tellers.

How do you test for that?

You can ask for examples of when people have done it before. You can listen, very carefully, to how people talk about their background. We’ve all made a lot of mistakes in our lives, so if you are interviewing somebody and it sounds like everything was perfect and they never made a mistake, they’re probably not one of those people. I think you can really probe when you are meeting people and listen, very carefully, to what they’re saying and the sort of words that they use to describe things, in order to figure out if they are that sort of person or not.

There’s a second pair of things that I look for, which is energy and emotional stability. Here I’m talking about leadership roles. I’m not saying that every person in your company needs to have all these things; it depends on the job. I’m talking about general managers, who you expect to lead big groups of people. Energy, you’ve got to have a high work rate, you’ve got to be up for it every day, even when there are lots of different challenges. You’ve also got to be able to energize others. You need to be able to transmit that energy to the team that you are with and help them to get excited about whatever it is that the company’s doing.

Emotional stability means resilience. There are always challenges; things always go wrong. You find some people who are elated one moment and then despondent the next. That’s pretty harmful if you are managing groups of people. No one wants to see their manager come into work one morning, with their head under their hands, not knowing what to do. Just having that kind of resilience and stability, to keep your wits about you, even when things aren’t going well, which they often don’t, is really important.

The reason I pair those things is because, if you think about those four attributes, intelligence, integrity, energy and emotional stability, you will, undoubtedly, find that each of those attributes are fairly common. There are lots of people who are intelligent; there are lots of people who have got energy. But it’s actually quite rare to find all of those four things in the same individual. I group energy and emotional stability as a pair, because you sometimes find people who are super energetic and passionate, but they also have a tendency to be up and down. You have people who are completely level and very stable, but they are low energy. That’s an opposing pair that you need to find in the same person.

Do you look to live those values yourself, as a leader, to encourage young leaders to use those principles?

To be clear, these aren’t values. These are behavioral traits that are part of an individual and may be as a result of some of your values and your upbringing. But they are things that are quite hard to change. There’s no point giving someone the feedback that you would like them to be a more energetic person. You are who you are. It’s difficult to change these things, which is why it’s so important to screen for them, early on.

It is important to know that I’m talking about senior leadership roles. I’m not talking about when you are hiring someone to manage your AdWords campaigns or an Android engineer. In those cases, you are looking for a very different set of things.

How do think about culture and maintaining culture, as you are scaling a high-growth business?

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Just Eat: Lessons from Scaling an Online Marketplace

January 15, 2020

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