Hero image for Scaling up a startup during a pandemic | Dropless interview

Scaling up a startup during a pandemic | Dropless interview

We talked to Christian Duncan about how the car service startup Dropless has managed to survive and scale up despite the challenges of 2020.

8 min read

Dropless started as an eco-friendly mobile car wash startup in 2018, and has since grown to offer a range of vehicle management services to both customers and businesses. In April 2020, Dropless partnered with the NHS and the taxi platform Gett to help safely transport coronavirus patients to and from non-urgent hospital appointments. 

We spoke to Christian Duncan, the Co-Founder and CEO of Dropless, about the ups and downs of managing a small business in 2020. 

Dropless has been nominated as one of the Most Adaptive Small Businesses of 2020 by QuickBooks UK.

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It’s great to talk to you today, Christian! Can you give us the ‘elevator pitch’ for Dropless?

It’s a pleasure! Dropless provides end-to-end vehicle management services to help look after your car. 

When we started out we recognised that the car wash industry was fragmented and outdated, with a bad reputation for off-the-books operations and the mistreatment of workers. With a strong eco conscience and a desire to change the industry for the better, we set up a vehicle washing service that uses sustainable nano solutions - saving over 150 litres of water per wash - that is delivered to your door via our mobile app.

Small business owner Christian Duncan

Following the success of our B2C efforts, we started working with business fleets, and from there we added new services to our offering. We now offer both customers and businesses a range of end-to-end vehicle management services, from scratch and dent repair to oil changes, alloy wheel refurbishment and MOT and servicing. We operate across the UK in locations including London, Bath, Bristol and Manchester.

“Our aim is to fully take care of your vehicle, no matter what problems may arise, and all of it can be managed through your mobile device.”

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Tell us a bit about your journey into entrepreneurship.

I used to work for Barclays as an investment banker, but I couldn’t help feeling like a small cog in a much larger machine. I made the decision to leave Barclays and move to a small, bootstrapped, five-person business in a B2B SaaS startup based out of a WeWork office space in Tower Hill. We focused on real-time personalisation for retailers, working with brands including Boohoo, Harvey Nichols and Asda. It was my first step into the world of startups, and I loved it immediately. 

“I loved feeling like everyday I came to work I was making a real difference to the business.”

I have been friends with Mike, Dropless’ co-founder, for nine years. We spoke about this idea he had for an app-based mobile car wash over dinner one night. It wasn’t long before we realised that the idea had legs and we were seriously discussing the viability of a new business venture.

In March 2018 I quit my job at the startup to begin the Dropless journey. In the early days it was effectively just me and four operators who washed the cars, purely focused on London-based customers. For nine months we worked out of Mike’s office - I did interviews from coffee shops and spent a lot of time on my laptop at the kitchen table. 

Our vision was always to focus on vehicle washing, which evolved into a full vehicle management service. What struck a chord with us was how many businesses required our services. Corporate social responsibility has become so important, which makes saving thousands - even millions - of litres of water a year on fleet washing high on the agenda. The operational benefits we can offer has been massively well received by businesses including Royal Mail, DPD and Transport for London. 

We quickly found that we wanted to pivot the business to focus on two streams: B2B and B2C. For the latter half of this year I’ve been focused on raising Series A funding, which is looking really promising.

“The future in 2021 is bright for Dropless!”

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2020 has been quite the year. How have you adapted your product offering to this year’s changing circumstances?

At the start of 2020 we felt the effects massively. Many of our business clients were legally required to close shop, and others didn’t need to use their fleets. Customers weren’t making journeys or using their cars, so they didn’t book either. We knew we had to do something to maintain our momentum. 

As we operate with one person to a single vehicle and work outdoors, we were able to keep running on the B2C side. We offered a free santisation with each visit, wiping down 25 major touch points across the vehicle (including the interior and exterior handles) using a Dettol disinfectant. 

We reached out to the businesses that we were still working in an attempt to find other projects we could become a part of. The biggest one was a partnership with the taxi platform Gett and the NHS. The NHS COVID command team set up an initiative to collect coronavirus patients who were struggling with their symptoms and couldn’t drive themselves, using a Gett taxi. Dropless was brought on board to make the taxi COVID-safe and fully sanitise the cab before pick up and after drop off. 

We covered up the air vents in the taxi, made sure that all of the fabrics had wipe-clean covers, and then used NHS-approved disinfectant solutions to give the cab a thorough sterilisation between visits. The initiative was available in a variety of destinations over a period just short of four months.

“The partnership with the NHS was a bit of a lifesaver - we maintained great relationships with our B2B contacts in the health sector and, on the B2C side, customers got behind Dropless and our efforts to support the NHS at a time of national crisis.”

It also helped that we were able to onboard all the NHS’s approved cleaning solutions, which we could then confidently roll out for customers too.

What are your top tips for managing your business finances in 2020?

Banks have been really supportive - there are still schemes and grants out there that can help small businesses see themselves through hard times.

I also think it’s really important to analyse which of your customer types are providing room for growth, with strong profit margins that will help your bottom line. 

“We lost customers during COVID, but looking back it wasn’t a bad thing. In order to fit them in we were operating inefficiently, so without them we’ve been able to optimise our operations and our bottom line has improved.”

I believe that there are always opportunities out there for businesses. Although it might not come naturally to you, asking for opportunities and even stating that you may be having a hard time can sometimes open up new avenues that you might not have thought about before. Mediums like LinkedIn where you can post frankly and publicly are good for this. I think that as a country we are great at helping each other in times of need.

Small business owner Christian Duncan

Photo credit: Simon Jacobs

Who are the people, products and practices that have helped you cope with the uncertainty this year?

When it comes to people, I have managed to build a network of investors who sit on our board and have helped this year, as have my colleagues at Dropless, who I’ve always been relatively open with. I don’t hold my cards close to my chest.

“Because I have people I can talk to I felt okay opening up about any stresses or challenges that lay ahead, both personally and for the business.”

In particular I would like to mention Mike, Dropless’ co-founder, Matt, our financial manager, and Simon, our lead investor and board member.

For products, I would have to say Amazon food delivery! During the harder times we made sure that we treated ourselves on a Friday, including plenty of beers and food!

In terms of practices, for me it was really important to try to get back into the office environment - when it could be done safely, of course. Being around people can massively improve your mood. At the very beginning of lockdown I found it refreshing to be working from home for a few weeks, but then I found myself going out of my mind. I felt like I needed to get back around everyone, rediscover that sense of routine and carry on with business as usual.

What inspiring or encouraging words would you send to your fellow entrepreneurs?

Even when times are looking pretty awful and you can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel, keep going at it. You’ll reap the rewards for all your hard work.

Keep your finances in check with QuickBooks

QuickBooks offers a range of tools designed to help small and growing businesses manage their finances, from cash flow forecasting to payroll software management. We are proud to support businesses who have survived and thrived despite the challenges that 2020 has thrown at us. 

This interview has been edited for clarity.