‘Let’s get rid of this thing that capitalism is evil. Capitalism isn’t evil. Being greedy is evil’
Jamie Conway talks to Ben Gartside about how his simple, quality business model is reaping rewards ‘You need to have everybody facing the same direction’
Inspiration for businesses can come from many different places – from a board meeting, a focus group or in response to a societal problem. For WhyBuy’s Jamie Conway, it came from a chocolate fountain he’d last used in 2012.
“I have a chocolate fountain because I hosted New Year’s Eve for friends eight years ago, I’ve not used it since – it’s still in a cupboard”, Conway said, as he spoke from his flat in London. “I can’t throw it out, because it’s a perfectly good appliance. But at the same time, I never used it. And it became a thing of realising how much stuff and clutter you have”.
Conway and WhyBuy’s business model is simple – an efficient service to rent appliances you’d occasionally use but don’t want to own. Before launching, Conway had envisioned tools and household appliances as the main uses, but the coronavirus pandemic had forced him to adapt.
“If you’d asked me a year ago, pre Covid, I would have said we are a tools company. It’s about ‘I need a ladder. I don’t want to own a ladder I just needed temporarily’. It was about ‘I need a hardwood floor cleaner, or a paint stripper’. It was that sort of thing.
“Now it’s very much about entertainment and having friends over and deciding I’m getting a projector and we’re doing movies or football or Eurovision or whatever your event is that you and your friends love. That’s what it’s going to be. The thing is to upgrade your lifestyle.”
Conway’s crafty approach is reflected by his reaction after the UK entered lockdown. While most people were hunkering down and preparing for the worst, Conway spotted a business opportunity, and approached his local gyms with a proposition.
“I said, give me your gear and we’ll rent it out for you, and we’ll share the revenue,” he says.
“And spin bikes have actually been really popular.”
Despite the pandemic, it seems like Conway will be moving up a gear soon.
While there are similarities to hit apps like Deliveroo or Uber, Conway is keen to outline that, unlike them, WhyBuy is tightly focused on the quality of its product.
“We completed our fundraising documents with our fundraisers in January. We were meant to launch in April, and we actually paused [due to the pandemic]. Then we decided there is an opportunity here; the biggest change that we saw was, obviously, we need to be delivering stuff that you trust.”
Conway’s quality-first approach extends to service too. Unlike Deliveroo or Uber, he believes the quality approach should extend to staff. “We don’t do freelancers as our drivers or delivery guys. They’re all employed directly. So it’s not like the Uber model or anything where it’s just a random punter rocking up to your house. Our first point of contact with the customers is our drivers as the guys who are representing the company … No way am I having a random punter who works for us five or six hours a week rocking up.
“You need to have everybody facing the same direction, I want to always promote from within. It’s so much easier. And even with a simple concept like ours, the execution is so complex. Even the logistics of bringing a vacuum cleaner to you, that it’s in the right place at the right time of the day, it’s incredibly complex.
“I would say that with the colleagues I have at the moment, they are evangelical like me.” Conway spoke of how one of the customer support staff came up with the idea of using the 1999 film Fight Club’s mantra of “the things you own end up owning you”. Conway says he was perturbed by the staff describing it as a “really old movie”, to which he replied: “It’s not really old! It’s from my teenage years!”
Tyler Durden’s minimalism is a co-option that represents his scepticism with ownership. “People are looking around and saying ‘this is not sustainable’. I also think people are a little bit more sensitive environmentally as well. If you look at a suburban street, and just think to yourself 25 houses means 25 lawnmowers, 25 this, 25 that, 25 the other.”
Conway spoke energetically about the trials and tribulations of ownership, before stopping himself.
“I’m not suggesting communism, I’m not trying to start putting stuff in some sort of weird communal shed … I am unashamedly capitalist. If you’ve inherited it or you just have loads of property, having £100million and then going out and buying 50 more apartments and increasing your value, that’s not capitalism. You haven’t created any …” Conway catches himself before finishing his sentence. “Well, that’s just being completely honest. And let’s get rid of this thing that capitalism is evil. Capitalism isn’t evil. Being greedy is evil.”
Jamie Conway spotted a business opportunity during lockdown that helped his WhyBuy project take off in a new direction