View this email in your browser
Courier produces useful, inspiring content for modern entrepreneurs. Our Friday newsletter features stories on working better and living smarter.
Friday 2 October

This week, the founder of a high-tech e-bike brand explains a very low-tech market gap. Plus: how to shake up a traditional market, tips on launching a company during tough times, and getting the most impact from influencers.

‘Anybody can start an e-bike company,’ says Taco Carlier, co-founder of VanMoof. ‘You just go to China, buy some e-bikes, put a sticker on it, maybe put the wheels on in the UK to say it's assembled there – and bang, you’ve got yourself a brand. A lot of people have been doing that, and sometimes it works. We did it completely differently.’

Dutch brothers Taco and Ties founded their e-bike business back in 2009 – and two weeks ago they raised $40m, following a $13m funding round back in May. E-bikes were booming even before Covid led people to abandon public transport, but the pandemic gave the sector a boost. Sales in the US rose 190% in June compared to last year and VanMoof has seen its revenue explode during lockdown.

Taco reckons there are two things they did to stand out. First was their focus on engineering and R&D. ‘For the past 11 years, we’ve had a team of now up to 60 or 70 people redesigning the entire supply chain, applying the rules of not the bike industry, but the consumer electronics industry.’ The second is that VanMoof sells direct: ‘Not many companies do that in the bicycle industry. Ninety-nine percent of bikes are still sold by pretty small, independent bike stores.’

On our podcast this week, we asked if there are any business opportunities on the periphery of the industry – not involving manufacturing – that stand out. But rather than some fancy piece of software or accessory, Taco says there’s a market gap in simple repairs: ‘The business model of the traditional bike shop is dead because that model is based on selling bikes in combination with fixing bikes, but selling bikes has become more and more difficult as sales shift online.’ Yet there’s still a good opportunity to be explored in ‘setting up independent repair shops that fix bikes on the spot.’

Sake has had a rough few years. Although it’s been Japan's national drink since way back in the eighth century, more and more people have been turning their backs on it, either because they’re consuming less alcohol or they're turning to beer and wine. Today, there are around 1,400 sake breweries in Japan, 35% down from just 25 years ago. 

But Genki Ito, founder and CEO of new subscription sake brand Tippsysake, aims to change all that by bringing sake outside of traditional Japanese spaces and creating an online sake brand – which is rare for the industry. The success of the company requires consumers to also be educated about sake. The subscription box includes tasting kits and a virtual video tasting experience. ‘We have experts explaining the ingredients and the process in layman’s terms. We want people to appreciate the craftsmanship in sake,’ says Genki. 

Shaking up a traditional market is a delicate balance. On one hand, the California-based brand partners only with breweries in Japan that don’t have adequate marketing resources, but who are also seeing declining local alcohol consumption and are looking for opportunities to expand. On the other hand, recognising that the Japanese terminology used to categorise sake isn’t relatable to the masses, the team have simplified the classifications to allow for better translation. 

‘Consumers will catch up quickly and become more familiar with the terms and calligraphy,’ Genki says, pointing out that French labels and terms on wine are commonplace now. ‘Nobody was eating kale 10 years ago, but there’s always more variety in the food-and-drink space. You just need to have a marketing mind to see the opportunity.’

‘Lockdown and the complete shutdown of the high street were a big reality check,’ says Matt Nguyen, founder of JollyAwesome, an online arts and print studio launched in 2014. To adapt to the situation, he took his years of publishing experience and launched Paperboy – which allows you to create and send personalised gifts from your phone – shifting the focus from a studio to a co-creation platform for print publishing. 

He shared some tips for launching a new project in tough times.

  • Invest in knowledge: ‘I had to ease my co-founder into the publishing industry. I onboarded him, set him tasks, and sent industry trend articles to help him get his head around the inner workings of publishing.’

  • Use free software wisely: ‘There are so many free tools available, so you need to choose purposefully. We only use Google Drive for our assets and WhatsApp to chat. While we have an agreement that we can send ideas in WhatsApp at any time of the day, we also know that there is no immediate need to reply.’

  • Write clear job descriptions: ‘It stops you treading on each other's toes, creating unclear lines of command, and limits wasting man hours through doubled-up work.’

  • Test your supply chains: ‘We used to do high-volume print orders at JollyAwesome, but Paperboy is a print-on-demand business that required single-order, customised cards. This was a new way of working for our printers, but they had been hit hard by the lack of trade orders as well, which made them open to it.’

Last year, Charlotte Williams launched her diversity-focused influencer marketing agency SevenSix as an antidote to the lack of representation in the industry. ‘I’ve seen first hand the growing tide towards brands wanting to be a part of conversations and change around racial equality,’ she says, but there was always ‘a sense that these efforts were purely surface level and that much deeper, concerted and strategic thinking needed to be had.’

Charlotte, who recently kicked off a crowdfunding campaign for SevenSix (and who’s also one of our judges for Courier’s Fresh Fund grant scheme), explains what’s been going on in the influencer industry during Covid – and the opportunities to watch.

Q. Did influencers see their work dry up during Covid?
'We generally work with micro-influencers: those with fewer than 100K followers, so it's difficult to say what the bigger influencers were experiencing. But I know that on the micro side, people were still making money. Even before the BLM resurgence, we didn't see a dip. We saw a rise in nano-influencers and micro-influencers. That's why we launched our influencer network, a database which meant that brands can pick from a list, basically.'

Q. Why were nano- and micro-influencers particularly strong?
 'Brands were switching their budgets, but they also weren't able to create content themselves. So they were asking influencers to create content for them at home, which is a lot cheaper. I think that's a trend that’s going to continue for a very long time. I've done this for years myself and I did it a lot more over lockdown. It makes sense – get a professional content creator to create your content rather than paying a studio. As long as your contracts are properly done so that you've taken into account things like usage fees, then small influencers can provide a really big impact. You can use their content on your website and they don't even have to be in the picture!'

Q. Are smaller influencers as effective as larger ones?
'We have a lot of nano-influencers that create really good sales, which is quite surprising to some people. We've seen some campaigns where we've put a massive influencer in, someone with hundreds of thousands of followers, and then we've put in someone with like 1,200 followers – and the sales numbers were the same. We see it in the beauty sector more than others. Imagine you went to a spa and absolutely loved it, and you told your family and friends. People would take your recommendation because you were their friend or sibling. If a Love Island celebrity did it, well, I'm more interested in her lifestyle. I just want to see her Instagram pictures. So there's definitely a difference between nano, micro and macro and what they can bring to the table. You just have to be really smart in how you use your budget.'

And, finally, have you ever considered selling your product for free? That’s exactly what the founders of sextech app Blueheart did earlier this year. 

When a brand starts giving away its products for free, it usually spells trouble. But for Blueheart, riding on the wave of a £1m funding round, it signalled something good. It allowed co-founder Sachin Raoul and his team to focus on building a community around the product, ensuring that even once Blueheart transitions back to a paid service, the customer base would stay put. 

‘Part of human psychology is that people usually assign low value to something if it is free,’ says Sachin. ‘There is less buy-in and reason to return. But we’ve seen that our customers are becoming more attuned to the product itself, and they feel like they should actually be paying for the service.’ 

This positive customer feedback, coupled with the real need for the product in a time of high stress, gave the Blueheart team the confidence to continue offering the service for free. Those who bought into the brand when it waived the subscription fee appreciate the honesty that they’re getting. ‘We are careful about the wording in our communication – we don’t want to set unrealistic expectations of offering a free service for ever, but we do want to make sure we can transition back to a paid model in a scalable way.’ 

This week we took the wraps off the first of several ‘always in stock’ Courier partner newsstands in major cities around the world. Our first, on Great Marlborough Street in London’s Soho, is just off Regent Street and sits right opposite Liberty. It's perfectly positioned for you to pick up a copy of our latest print edition!

1. The power of taking 15% off your first order.

2. The mask barons of Etsy.

3. Community group-buying is booming in China.

4. NYC’s outdoor dining is here to stay.

5. Indie bookshops are resilient – but is that enough to save them?


A place for entrepreneurship

Pressures on space in cities and the need for a more flexible working environment have made co-living an attractive option. The Collective pioneered the concept back in 2016 when they opened the UK’s largest co-living complex in Old Oak. Since then, the company has expanded, opening a 705-room co-living development in Canary Wharf with a rooftop lounge, pool and spa, a MasterChef-style communal kitchen and a coworking space – as well as a programme of cultural and wellness events.

Find out why founders are choosing a co-living lifestyle at

Courier, Level 1, 88 Hanbury Street, London, E1 5JL, UK

Drop us a line anytime at

Preferences | Unsubscribe