Note from Seb: The first courier I ever met in London after I first had the idea for Gophr was Clarence Takunda Chodofuka. I got introduced to him after walking into Full City cycles asking them who the best person to speak to would be. We’ve now had the good fortune of being able to hire Clarence to come work for Gophr. Four weeks ago he got into a crash whilst on the job so we brought him in to work in the office, to monitor at how our automated dispatch system worked and to give us feedback on it. Whilst he was there he offered to write a blog post on what it’s like to work with the Gophr system and the glimpse it’s given him into future of couriering. Here it is…
The change is already happening but it appears a lot of couriers and courier companies are still wrapped up in the papery cocoon of yesteryear. The bike courier scene has been screaming for change for a long time. For most couriers, this has been a matter of hopping from one firm to the other in the continual belief that somehow the grass will somehow be greener… Although a small minority have cut ties with the old guard to start out on their own.
Nearly 20 years after the advent of consumer internet and the panic around the web killing the courier, in came the smartphone with its 4G connections and never ending list of apps that could do just about everything.
It was around that time in late 2013 that I met Seb, the founder of Gophr, outside Full City cycles on Leather Lane. I had no idea at the time that I was the first courier he spoke to about his idea. After several calls and email exchanges, meetings started happening in Fitzrovia under the BT Tower in the courier friendly Tower Tavern Pub (now, like so many other pubs in London, refurbished and no longer very welcoming to couriers).
I probably didn’t take much of it very seriously at the time but his idea was broadly to “cut out the middle man and put the courier first”. Espousing on how it would give the courier flexibility in their work/life balance.
The first few meetings were the closest thing one could get to a brainstorming session. In between the rounds of beers there were concerns raised starting from how the all aspects of the courier life were being changed. From the big ticket items: ‘Were couriers going to be pitted against each other?’, ‘Could it represent an opportunity to be exploited further than we currently were?’, ‘How could the system possibly work without a dispatcher/controller?’, to the mundane: ‘what do I do when I get a puncture?.’
Although as a group we proceeded cautiously, I was still pretty intrigued from the first moment I heard of the concept. The idea of the courier getting 80% of the money was pretty enticing, even to some of the more hardened opponents to the app within our group. Mainly because the courier industry has been steeped in shady dealings when it comes to charging for jobs. This does tend to differ from one firm to the next, there are even irregularities in the way certain clients are charged within the same firm. Being able to see how much revenue you get from each job is a big step towards transparency, and cutting out some of the nonsense that happens.
Couriering is a very demanding profession both mentally and physically and this does not translate well when compared to earnings. Anyone who cares to look at an average couriers payslip will be faced with deciphering monetary values next to a list of post codes that gives a highly fluid interpretation of what a couriers hard labour is worth. Having used Gophr for a few months now the way the system charges based on miles ridden per job seems to be a much better way to address that imbalance, both courier and customer side.
As months went by the meetings with the Gophr team started focusing on the day-to-day aspect of the app. The questions that came up highlighted the difficulty some of us had about taking this leap into a courier company-less way of working. This resulted in questions like: ‘what happens if the battery dies?’, ‘how do I know that I get paid for the job?’, ‘who am I working for?’, It took a little while to realise that nothing’s really changed; we had already experienced these issues or solved these problems for ourselves in some way before. We have always been defined as being self-employed after all.
Most couriers were working on some sort of computer-based software or other anyway. Even for those still lugging pen and paper around there was still someone on the other side of the radio logging job details into a computer.
The other upside is the game-like structure that the app brings to the scene. As a commissioned rider the more you are attuned to how the system works the better you can play the game, the more money you make and the more you can compare your performance with others.
Being a messenger under this system means you can move away from clock watching and enjoy the flow that comes with being on the move. Sometimes it does mean longer jobs but at the same time if the system knows where you’re going it can assign you relevant jobs along the way. It brings to mind a quote from J L Kidder in his book of bike messenger recollections ‘Urban Flow’, “the job is sort of like a game anyway. You claim like six jobs in like six different parts of town. You’re exercising and you are breathing heavy, and you are next to dead because you haven’t had time to get lunch or whatever, but you have to exercise your head as well, to keep upright, to keep you from getting hit or whatever, and you also have to totally be able to route yourself and plan where you’re going. It is like totally a game. It is the most fun job I will ever have in my life, without a doubt.”
The more information you give a courier, the better they become at playing the game. The voice of the controller is now a long gone memory; we are now the designated clients main point person. I’m not sure it’s something that will suit all couriers, but I enjoy it as it helps me speed deliveries up.
A contact number on the package was always a dream for any courier as it reduced the likelihood of the dreaded return journey with an undelivered package, normally to some far away location on the outskirts of London that most courier firms have been forced to relocate to due to the rising cost of real estate. Using the app, the courier is automatically in contact with the client. This has been helpful in locating problematic addresses, avoiding unnecessary waiting for courier and customer with the latter avoiding waiting time charges. There is a general understanding between couriers that the most efficient couriers are the ones who can get in and out a building the quickest. This works along the principle that the quicker you are empty the quicker you are back on top of the list for the next job. Since couriers get paid to wait, most don’t mind waiting, its the sheer inconsistency in “give me a minute” rhetorical that annoys us. As noted by Will Self, “waiting is ground into them [the couriers], every moment could be an arrival at a pick-up or drop-off, or the ultimate drop-off, death itself! No wonder they understand what is happening. They exist at the precise juncture between the imminent and the immanent”.
It’s now possible to bypass the loading bay by calling the customer (who is oblivious to the “couriers use back entrance” sign by their main entrance) to meet them face to face. They have our names and that extra level of personal interaction humanises the job a little more.
The question I get asked the most as a courier is “what do you deliver?”, this goes from an interest to what’s in the actual package to what I’m capable of shifting across town. My focus and that of many other couriers is getting a reasonable enough package to carry that is clearly addressed on the envelope. Pass me a package that matches that description and I honestly don’t care if it’s the crown jewels I’m jumping lights in my bag with.
Despite all the talk of drones and self-driving cars I still feel that having a real person overseeing packages to safe delivery will still be pretty crucial part of the delivery process going forward. As a result I’m hopeful for a future where the courier becomes more acknowledged as an important link in the delivery process and as a result becomes more appreciated, both in presence and for services provided.
Clarence was supported by the London Courier Emergency Fund whilst he was off injured. Please check out their site to find out more about them and how you can donate to the fund. Image courtesy SmashedAvoCC.