At first blush, the concept of a diesel delivery service might appear the pinnacle of consumerist excess, but this, UK startup Zebra Fuel adamantly asserts, is not the case.
In the US, fuel delivery companies - Booster Fuel, Yoshi, Gas Ninjas - are in-demand, often hired to fill up every vehicle in vast car parks, and sometimes offered as an employee perk at certain Silicon Valley stalwarts according to Saloni Bhojwani, Zebra Fuel's head of growth.
Bhojwani says that after observing the success of fuel delivery companies in the US, co-founder Reda Bennis wondered: "'Why don't I set something up like this in London?'" While most would be hesitant to draw parallels between gas-guzzling California and the UK's capital - where car ownership has been falling for years - the young co-founders persisted with the idea.
Both have a background in entrepreneurship. Bennis founded a venture capital firm while in business school, and his partner Romain Saint Guilhem previously co-founded a vodka company. According to Bhojwani, he's also dabbled in "mini skateboards" designed to be worn one on each foot, upon which he reportedly glides around the office. Early in 2017, the company reported raising $2.5 million in seed funding from investors such as the co-founder of Zoopla.
According to the company, the market for diesel in London is worth £10 billion per annum, and £5 billion for the business market. Unsurprisingly, the company's initial target demographic was wealthy Londoners, with Bhojwani specifically mentioning west Londoners, 'yummy mummies' and the residents of Fulham.
However, since its launch in 2016, the company's business model has already undergone a pivot, citing a lack of loyalty in customers. Despite the website being still seemingly targeted towards individual consumers, Bhojwani claims that businesses make up 90 percent of their customers now.
"We do any type of catering business, construction, scaffolding, plumbing companies, real estate," she says, also mentioning Chariot, a US app offering an alternative to public transport and coach companies. Volvo, she says, has integrated a feature through which drivers can summon diesel on demand from Zebra Fuel.
[Editor's note: after publication a spokesperson for Zebra told Techworld: "Zebra Fuel do not work with Volvo. Other clients they do work with include City Harvest, the London based charity and business parks Mitcham business park and Merton business park."]
Building a business around the availability of fossil fuels might not be the most appealing of propositions at a time when more of the world is beginning to wake up to the incredibly harmful impact of petrol, and sustainability is the hottest buzzword in business.
However, Bhojwani defends the company's glaring absence of eco-credentials by claiming that among businesses Zebra Fuel has spoken to, many fleets have an assigned driver whose job it is to drive each individual vehicle to the petrol station and back, rather than having the driver stop in on their way to the depot. "Bus companies do it, Hertz does it, literally for 90 percent of the companies we speak to this is the case," she says.
She also mentions the company's willingness to branch out into biofuels and even electricity if the demand was present.
But has the company launched with in-built obsolescence, when autonomous vehicles eventually become the norm? Bhojwani shrugs this off as not a risk for at least 20 years, by which point she hopes the company will have "been sold or IPO'd". Even then, she says, in public service fleets such as ambulances or fire engines, the drivers also have other important skills. "How is an autonomous vehicle going to put out a fire? All of those questions come into play," she says.
The funding of $2.5 million isn't a lot in business these days, but it's somewhat galling to think about all the social and sustainability projects that could have benefited from this capital instead. Is Zebra Fuel the idea the UK needs? Probably not, but it might just be the one we deserve.