Dan Warne: From Deliveroo to diversifying during a pandemic

There’s arguably no-one more qualified than Dan Warne (History, 2007) to advise on how to run a business amid a global pandemic. Having spent five years as MD for Deliveroo, he left at the end of 2019 to establish his own start-up in the sector, Sessions Market. He gives an insight into what it takes to make this move and how he’s had to adapt over the last 12 months.

Dan Warne

Dan Warne (History, 2007)

“There comes a day where you take that plunge, and is a bit more of the wake up in the morning and be like, ‘right **** it, let's do it’. Maybe don't quote me directly on that, but it's a moment where you’re willing to take the plunge. There is that kind of rip the plaster off point. Because you can have all the ideas in the world, but you wake up one day, quit your job and you realise you have that sudden pressure, the urgency that gives you.”

Dan Warne is arguably one of the University’s finest exponents in the world of business and entrepreneurship, given that at the age of just 37 he is already 18 months out of a five year stint as Managing Director of Deliveroo, having taken the plunge into establishing his own start-up – Sessions Market.

Many people will have the germ of an idea of establishing their own business, but putting this into practice is an entirely different matter, let alone then persevering in the face of a global pandemic. This is all the more impressive as the bread and butter of Sessions is the hospitality industry, linking national operators like pubs and hotels with early-stage food concepts.

Taking control of your career

“I've found in my career feeling that being in a rat race and not an end decision maker has frustrated me. It's propelled me to try and move more quickly into a position where I would be, even if that enterprise might not be as big as one where I might be in a middle management position.

“I have a certain kind of risk profile as well. For me, being in bigger companies with a slower career build is a safer route, but not a route that can get you into senior positions as fast as perhaps as I've been fortunate enough to get into. You can get there by taking a big risk in joining companies where they’re earlier stage and therefore if you are able to grow them and affect them positively, you end up in a more senior position.

“In my case I probably spent a year seeing a trend in the marketplace towards communal collective dining, so food halls where lots of people come under one roof to dine. At Deliveroo I had spent a lot of time focusing on building a market for people eating at home, which ultimately was consumers just wanting the convenience of a product at home. And so what was the realm of the high street as a result of that?

“You like to believe it's this lightbulb moment where you think, ‘OK, this is the business I'm going after, this is how I'm going to set it up, you get the financing in place and away you go.’ I'm sure this is different for different people who have started their own businesses, but for me it was more of an evolution.”

Dan’s top 5 tips for running your own business (during a pandemic…)

  1. Put the hard yards in: “I'll be very honest with you. I think people would like to hear that I'm really focused on balance (between work and life), but you know, I just haven't.”

  2. Lean on your mentors: “I asked Deliveroo CEO Will Shu about his thoughts around the space to get his insight on it. But also I liked to be open with him about the prospect of me moving on from the business.”

  3. Be flexible: “I will absolutely advocate these pivoting stories, these kind of silver bullet scenarios within reason, but at the end of the day, if you're going to look for those, you have to look for them within your core business model.”

  4. But don’t forget your core principles: “If you read any Jim Collins book it will tell you to ensure that you don't abandon what the core business should be about, and I've worked in enough corporate entities where I think sometimes the core of those businesses has been forgotten and therefore they've suffered as a result of that.”

  5. Be genuine: “At Deliveroo we created a lot of virtual brands and they generally weren’t successful, and the reason for that is, regardless of whether you're in the physical or digital world, brand is still brand. You still want to know that there's a real founder behind something and that it's a real concept that you're going to enjoy.”

It was late 2019 when Dan left his role at Deliveroo with the idea of setting up his first food hall – now called Shelter Hall – on Brighton seafront, renovating a 15,000 sq ft dilapidated Victorian hall. Less than six months later and the first nationwide lockdown turned us into a nation of sofa gastronomes, which is where Dan had to act fast.

“Getting access to capital to build out a hospitality venue was not easy mid-lockdown so I decided that the second part, my model scaling those restaurant brands, I would need to bring forward and in such a way that could benefit from the dynamics rather than being hindered.

“We've moved the business now to being in a position where as the market opens up we will be ready to go with a credibly compelling food offering in our Brighton food hall. We now have multiple third party partners like IHG, Whitbread, Stonegate, a number of major pub chains, hotel chains and restaurants that take our brands now across the UK and we have a much bigger business now than we would have done if it wasn't for Covid which is just bizarre really to me, but probably not a bad thing, but that's what I mean about getting ahead. The last year is a good example of that. It's always trying to be on the front foot. There was never a point with Covid hitting where I thought, ‘Right, I'm going to kind of lock myself down now and read a book.’ That's just not really in the way I think.”

Being an inspiring leader 101

Now you might be thinking, ‘How do I be more Dan?’ and if you read his LinkedIn profile you see the many glowing recommendations as to his ability to lead, inspire and influence others. Is this something which has been inherently within or has he had to consciously work at it?

“If I thought of myself as inspirational there might be a bit of a problem, so fortunately I don't. I think that comes from my parents really. Predominantly my mum was an art teacher and a deputy head. She was effervescent in a few ways, very good at spotting talent among the kids she was teaching and helping them really shine and she's been always very good with me and my two siblings with that too.

"Some of that has come through over the years with me and how I handle the various different teams that I've had the chance to manage. Rather than just trying to crack the whip or trying to demand a result, I usually try to find a way to the result by getting people to want to get there, which is just very different.

“So I say it's deliberate. I think some of it's probably quite natural, but also selfishly I want to enjoy the work I do, and as long as I enjoy the work I do, I think that probably inspires other people because they can see that very visibly.”