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Jazz Shapers

Shaper: JP Then

Transcript

Elliot Moss
Welcome to the Jazz Shapers Podcast from Mishcon de Reya. What you are about to hear was originally broadcast on Jazz FM however the music has been cut or shortened due to rights issues.
This is Jazz Shapers; it is where the Shapers of Business meet the Shapers of Jazz, Soul and Blues. My guest today is JP Then; the Co-founder of Crosstown, the doughnut and coffee brand, and the Founder of Slerp as well, a direct to consumer ordering platform. A youth spent in Edinburgh and Brisbane, Australia, JP moved back to the UK in 2009 and after consultancy and strategist roles, he was as he says, “Never quite satisfied being an employee” and wanted to do something different. The idea for Crosstown came from his interest in speciality coffee and the Antipodean coffee culture and his business plan, sent to hundreds of people, caught the attention of Adam Wills, the Founder of GBK, otherwise known as Gourmet Burger Kitchen, one of my favourites. The pair launched Crosstown in 2014 as a market stall on Leather Lane in London. The brand now has eleven stores and ten market stalls across London as well as online and wholesale businesses and comes with a playful reputation. “We like to experiment” says JP, “with combinations that wouldn’t be considered typical doughnut flavours and incorporating ingredients not traditionally found in the UK like beetroot and lemon thyme, vegan rum and pineapple or even matcha tea.” We’ll be talking to JP in a few minutes and we’ll find out more about Slerp too, his e-commerce ordering platform that launched to the broader market late last year. We’ve also got brilliant music from the Robert Glasper Experiment, Sarah Vaughan, Miles Davis and lots more. That is today’s Jazz Shapers, I can hardly wait, I hope you can’t either. Here’s Snarky Puppy with Thing of Gold.

That was a Thing of Gold indeed from Snarky Puppy, one of my eldest son’s favourites. Here I am with JP Then, he is my Business Shaper, he is the Co-founder of Crosstown, they make doughnuts and coffee, and also the, I think the Co-founder of Slerp or the Founder?

JP Then
Err, yeah, the Founder of Slerp… Co-founder of Slerp, I have people involved there as well helping me.

Elliot Moss
It’s really nice to see you.

JP Then
Thank you very much for having me.

Elliot Moss
Now, JP, you are a young man, born in the ‘80s, here you are now running a business, turning over a few million quid, a number of people that you look after, lots of places, things to think about, making stuff…

JP Then
Making stuff.

Elliot Moss
…selling stuff. What does it feel like now that you are here, and we’ll go back to the very first shop that you opened, but now that you are here suddenly, do you feel like you’ve arrived in something or do you just feel like you are in the middle of something?

JP Then
Probably feel like we’re just starting something, actually. Crosstown, it’s been a crazy six years, we started in 2014 but really we feel like we’re just getting going. Yeah, we are only just in London and I kind of feel like we’ve only got into our stride of really understanding what our business model is to be honest and how we want to continue to grow.

Elliot Moss
Back in 2014 when this thing happened and you’d obviously been touting a business plan around and then you happened to meet the right person and seize it. What possessed you to put the plan together to do something? I get what it was because I know you kind of said, “Well, I’m not really, you know, I happen to be making doughnuts and by the way they are feted by foodies” so you’ve obviously struck on something brilliant but your background is not in bakery and things but what possessed you to go “I just want to do something?”

JP Then
I started my career in Australia. My first ever job out of Uni was in economics, believe it or not, and I did Business and Economics at Uni so it was a natural stepping stone to get a job in a consultancy and I did that for about three years. And my learning during that time was really that well, one it wasn’t suited for me, there were people way better on the spreadsheet than I ever could be, and it was a lack of creativity in the role so I picked myself up and moved to London and that was about ten years ago, looking to get into something more creative along the sort of brand route. And I had a number of really interesting jobs when I got to London, I worked for a start-up business consultancy, I worked for a fashion label but I still didn’t get the satisfaction that I sort of craved and I think moving at a pace was something that I learnt about myself, I like to move quickly, I like to have control and being an employee it’s quite difficult to get that whether it was economics, you know, a start-up business consultancy or a fashion label so, after a lot of trial and error I sort of realised it was me, I needed to go off and do something myself and that eventuated into what is known as Crosstown now.

Elliot Moss
Did it feel brave at the time or was it just what you had to because what you’ve just described is, many people go “Eeh, I move from this, I move from that”, you know, I am a relatively entrepreneurial person but I have never set my own business up but I am conservative and it sounds to me like you weren’t even scared of what you were doing, you just followed the path you had to follow. Or was there an element of bravery as you were going?

JP Then
I think… it’s an interesting one because I think I realised what I didn’t want out of a role and once you are comfortable about knowing what you don’t want to do, it’s as good as knowing as what you do want to do. And by that I meant I knew that I couldn’t really work as an employee for someone so once I sort of reconciled that in my head, it was like “Well, I’ve got to go off and do my own thing”. It just seemed so logical for me to take that step.

Elliot Moss
Stay with me for much more from my Business Shaper, that’s JP Then. He’s honest and we are going to find out much more about this creativity as well as much as the desire to work for himself but, yeah, “I realised what I didn’t want to do and that was important”. Really, really good thought.

You mentioned a few things as you talked about those different roles and you said something which intrigued me, you said “I wanted to find something more creative.” Obviously your economics background, you went into consultancy, you went into writing reports, research, insight and so on and so forth and related stuff. How did you know you wanted to be creative and what age you do you think, actually, you were expressing yourself creatively, if you think back?

JP Then
I actually never really considered myself creative which is the first point. I think it’s the diversity in the type of work I am doing. I enjoy lots of aspects of running a business so… Of course, there’s the nuts and bolts of it all but you also push yourself to learn knew things. An example being when I did the business plan for Crosstown, I learnt a lot of the skills to graphic design, pull presentations together, you know do the branding and that’s been pivotal to how Crosstown is perceived.

Elliot Moss
And it’s your logo. You created the logo?

JP Then
Yep. I fiddled around on Illustrator and managed to create something and it’s still the same today, which is nice.

Elliot Moss
But you say, you didn’t think of yourself as creative but when you said also “But I wanted to find something more creative”, was it that it was just linear what you were doing?

JP Then
Yeah. I think so. I think it was very obvious what the next step in the career progression could be and that didn’t necessarily excite me in any of my roles, to be honest, if I think about and if it becomes predictable then it’s probably quite boring and I need something that challenges myself. To me, it was a natural stepping stone to start my own business.

Elliot Moss
Is there something about also having lived in different places that you think makes you see the world differently because your family are Singaporean but you lived in Australia…

JP Then
Yes, born in Edinburgh.

Elliot Moss
…born in Edinburgh.

JP Then
So grew up in Scotland, obviously.

Elliot Moss
Obviously from your accent and culture and history and so on but is there something about… how do you view the world? What do you, do you think of yourself as a global citizen? Do you think of yourself as a Scottish person?

JP Then
A product of globalisation, I think.

Elliot Moss
You know, but really… I was brought up in this country, lived abroad for a few years but I sort of, you know, I feel sort of English on the whole and are you, where do you, if you had to put a pin in the map, where would it be and does it matter to you?

JP Then
I don’t thin it does matter. I mean, if you get my immediate family together it’s a bit of a comedy show. You’ve got my mum and dad, my mum’s got a very sort of thick Singaporean accent, my dad’s got a very neutral accent, he was a an academic so he did a lot of teaching, my sister, I’ve got two older sisters, the eldest one she’s got an English accent because she never lived in Australia, she studied in England and has always worked here, and my eldest sister has got a Scottish accent so if you bring us together, that’s five different accents in the immediate family which is pretty odd but I guess interesting, I mean I don’t think I can hang my hat on a specific area but I guess I grew up in Australia, it’s the formative years though, although I only spent ten years of my life there so, it’s an interesting one, I am more British than I am Australian from a time perspective.

Elliot Moss
And do you think that diversity, even within your own family and your own upbringing, is now a really fantastic tool for you to use as a platform even subconsciously rather than consciously in terms of how you look at your business and who is in it and even I mean this may be a bit too much of a leap but the flavours you use are crazy, I mean you seem to be fearless about embracing diversity?

JP Then
Yeah, I think that reflects also in London. It’s an international hub, it’s diverse and I guess Crosstown’s ethos is to be an international brand. We never set out for it just to be domestic and of course we are focussed on London at the moment but Adam, my business partner, is from New Zealand and has lived in London for twenty odd years, I have lived in London for ten years but we are not from here so we are bringing an international perspective anyway even if we didn’t mean to. Yeah, I do think that bringing other cultures, you know, we’ve got doughnuts for Chinese New Year or doughnuts for Australia Day or Waitangi Day, they make it interesting and it resonates with the people that are from those different cultures and countries who are living in London to come out and celebrate that and I think that’s really important and it’s a great part of Crosstown.

Elliot Moss
Stay with me for much more from my guest, that’s JP Then, he’s coming back in a couple of minutes but first we are going to hear from one of our partners at Mishcon de Reya with some advice for your business.

There are many former Jazz Shapers for you to enjoy and of course you can hear this programme again with JP by asking Alexa to play Jazz Shapers and there you can find many of the recent guests, or if you pop Jazz Shapers into iTunes the full archive awaits. But back to today, it’s JP Then, the Co-founder of Crosstown, the doughnut and coffee brand, and the Founder of Slerp too, a direct to consumer ordering platform. I want to take you back to 2014 briefly. The first shop, not far from where we are right now, Broadwick Street?

JP Then
Err, yes, so that was in 2015. We did a pop-up before that actually.

Elliot Moss
Okay, so 2015 the first…

JP Then
The first bricks and mortar.

Elliot Moss
The first bricks and mortar. What did it feel like walking into that shop the very first time when it was open, not when you were like super hustling the night before? Can you remember how it was when you looked and went “I think we’ve started?”

JP Then
I remember the first ever customer we had at Leather Lane. Yeah, I’ll never forget that. A guy riding his fixie through the street and then he sort of screeched to a stop, pulled up his bike and just looked at the stand and went “Yeah, I’ll have one of them and one of them” and I was like “Okay, this is real now” and I shook his hand and said “I won’t forget you.” Yeah, so I will remember that, I think from there a lot of it, it’s a bit of a blur all that to be honest. It’s… we did a pop-up shop at Piccadilly Circus which was the first time we ever got to pair our doughnuts with coffee and that was really about, “Can we stop traffic? Will people drink coffee from us?” and it worked and then we looked for our first site.

Elliot Moss
And when you were looking at, and again the non-baker now is a baker, you are were looking at how to make this a really tasting thing, I mean like any product, it’s like you know the Pret a Manger story, it’s not a new idea it’s just a better sandwich, well yours is a better than…

JP Then
Premium. Premiumisation of the category…

Elliot Moss
I think I read something about “Could we sell a box of doughnuts for £30 and would people appreciate it?” you said, and the answer was “Yes.” So, how did you alight on, how did you know what would make this incredible tasting doughnut? That takes research.

JP Then
Yeah, I’ve really got to call out Adam on this because in terms of how we run the business together, he’s more of the food guy and his background in food and hospitality has been pivotal to our success. Working with him has allowed us to grow our brand faster and be more successful than if I was to do it myself without a doubt and that would be definitely one thing I would be saying is that if you can find a business partner to do something with who has the same work ethic then you should really give it consideration.

Elliot Moss
There’s something else you’ve said along the way which resonates with me which is about the fact in this day and age through digital you can connect directly with consumers. You can do it in a way that literally ten years ago was not possible. Here you are, you are independent, you’ve got a few million pounds of turnover from the first two doughnuts that were sold in Leather Lane back in ’14, 2014, and you are connecting because you have a digital presence and because you have therefore created this sense of a brand. Is that the future? Is that where every brand’s going to go or is it just because you’ve made it work for you? Because we see the challenges on the high street, wherever you are in this country or probably all over the world, there’s significant issues to the bricks and mortar.

JP Then
Correct, I mean, I think it’s really challenging at the moment. Food and beverage in general has gone through a massive change in the last, well, since we started Crosstown, and we’ve really just focussed on maintaining really high quality product and making sure that our brand is desirable. The rest of it is really being led from what our customers want. Our customers have told us they wanted to buy direct from us so we enabled that. It’s allowed me to create, you know, Slerp which is, powers our website and enables us to sell doughnuts on demand and direct to the customer. It’s also enabled us to create our vegan line, you know, that was born out of people asking us going, “Hey, look, I’ve just come into the shop, I’m sitting here with my friend who is not a vegan and I am watching them eat your chocolate doughnut and I’d really like to have one” and we just got so many requests for that, that we were like, “Okay, we’ve got to make our vegan sourdough” and that now makes up for say 40% of our range so, it’s really been led by the customer but maintaining the brand desirability and the high quality of product.

Elliot Moss
You mentioned Slerp, it’s your platform that enables people to buy directly your… you’re not just using it for Crosstown, you’ve got… you white label it for other businesses. Just tell me a bit about how you… we’ve talked briefly about how you go about creating a doughnut business, you talked about Adam your Co-founder. In terms of Slerp, are you a tech guy? Did you know much about what you were trying to do? How did you go about that?

JP Then
Believe it or not, it wasn’t the first tech thing I did, I was just thinking back, when I was at Uni I actually had a blog which ended up being a bit of a small business on the side – it was about fashion, you know I had no idea about fashion which is the funny part about it – and this was the time when Google ads were just sort of really coming about and I managed to create this website that had a lot of content and it used to drive lots of organic traffic and I ended up selling sort of advertising through it and I employed some people from, it was interesting around the world that would write content about Australian fashion who were not based in Australia so it was very funny business. Although very different, it was till related to that sort of sector. With Slerp, it really came about from learnings of Crosstown. You know, we started this brand, we were getting lots of organic growth, we were very lucky in the sense that people were visiting our website and our social channels and like, “Okay, this is interesting, all these people want to come to us and obviously buy our product.” At the moment they only way they can get it is through the likes of the third party marketplaces like Deliveroos and Uber Eats of the world and we were very early adopters of those technology so, it gave us insight going “Okay, there is demand for this and there is demand for Crosstown. How do we create the technology to allow people to buy direct and can we fulfil it on demand ourselves?” and there just wasn’t the tech out there at the time and I thought, “This is too big an opportunity not to act upon” so I used Crosstown as a guinea pig in 2016 to build out the MVP and we launched it in January 2017 and we spent basically two years testing, learning and refining, doing tens of thousands of orders and we recently launched Slerp to market last quarter and it’s, yeah, it’s through a significant growth phase with other operators, other brands, and our pitch is that you should be running your direct to consumer model alongside the marketplaces, in parallel with them, to maintain some control of your brand and that’s really what Slerp is all about.

Elliot Moss
In terms of those two years, was it a bunch of people that you hired to do all the work? I am assuming you were leading the minimum viable product piece and then beyond into the, where you are now but how many people did you have to hire and was it a punt at that time? Was that funded or was that your own money?

JP Then
We did a couple of small rounds with individuals to build out the tech so my business partners or Co-founders, yeah, there’s a CCO involved. I guess from my point of view, I was leading the product, I had the insight because I was the operator and understood what needed to but built but, you know, I can’t write a line of code, that’s not my bag.

Elliot Moss
You are very unassuming, JP because you are talking about these things, you know, you’ve created this little world of Slerp which is going to be a big world, it sounds like it could be bigger than Crosstown by a long way, I mean if it gets picked up by lots of brands, you are essentially asleep and you are going to make money but it’s also that you love the fun of the brand and the physical manifestation of the brand on the high street as it were. How would people describe you as a leader? These teams of people that you’ve now created in each of them? What would they say if they were to choose and adjective or two about your when you weren’t in the room?

JP Then
Logical. Processed driven, I think. I am not actually, I don’t see myself as a good leader, I am not a people person if I am honest, that’s the weakness of me, the softer side of things, the HR side of things is not me.

Elliot Moss
And have you found someone to kind of fill that in? You seem like a nice fellow to me. No, but in seriousness, have you, is there someone in the organisation, or both businesses, that is essentially ensuring that the people feel happy and good and that they are stretched and so on?

JP Then
Yeah, you’ve got to have good people below you at the senior level to help with that, particularly when you are a fast growing business and you are going through so much change, people have to be comfortable with being uncomfortable and in both businesses, that’s the case, it’s, we’ve had growth at Crosstown every year, significant growth since we started and we’ve always evolved and innovation plays a huge part of our culture and you have to have the right sort of attitude to continue to evolve and change and be part of that, and then with tech, it’s almost that exponential because it’s moving so quickly. So, I think you’ve got to get the right people involved with the right mindset but of course it’s really difficult.

Elliot Moss
He’s very honest. Stay with me for my final chat with my guest today, JP Then. Plus we’ll be playing a track from Miles Davies, that’s in just a moment.

That was Miles Davies, of course it was, and that was Blue And Boogie. JP Then is my Business Shaper just for a few more minutes, he’s the Co-founder of Crosstown, they make amazing doughnuts, I was hoping for a bunch today but JP Then has absolutely let me and Stu down…

JP Then
You’ve got to go to the shop and buy them round the corner.

Elliot Moss
I’m just going to have to go there later, and of course lovely coffee too. And then there’s the other business which I think is super interesting, called Slerp, it makes me think about Ocado actually where actually the technology behind that business is going to be a bigger legacy, it’s going to be the thing that will actually make you significant income, in my humble opinion. What do I know? I just chat to people like you, I don’t actually do the thing. I want to talk about money for a moment. Turnover if I am not mistaken is now a few million pounds, we can be specific, you don’t have to be but it was obviously off a two doughnut base in 2014…

JP Then
Yeah we’re just finishing our year end and it will be around five and a half million.

Elliot Moss
I mean, that’s significant growth, you know, if I look at last years and I think the year before that was about four and the year before that 2.7…

JP Then
Yep.

Elliot Moss
I meant this is exponential growth in this market. Firstly, where’s that coming from? Why is it kicking? Apart from the fact you’ve got more shops, obviously. What’s going on do you think? Because there’s health crazes. I mean people are super careful about calories.

JP Then
Yeah, we are actually…

Elliot Moss
You’re so bad.

JP Then
Well, that’s a positive for us, this health craze, like, it’s so interesting if you look at the demographic of the people that buy from us and follow us and they are extremely healthy, they are extremely conscious about what they eat and I think that plays to our advantage because when people want to have a sweet treat they want a really high quality one and they gravitate to, luckily enough, to Crosstown. We’ve worked with so many brands in the, I guess, the health space, it’s been so interesting. Like the clothing label Lululemon who make the yoga gear.

Elliot Moss
It’s all I wear in the gym, JP. Pretty much, it’s amazing. Fantastic brand.

JP Then
You know, we’ve got a great partnership with them of when they open shops, they give out Crosstown and I think that sums us up, we are almost the balance – the work hard, play hard, be healthy but then when you want to have a sweet treat, you have a really good one.

Elliot Moss
Do it properly.

JP Then
Yeah exactly.

Elliot Moss
And what about for you? You know, you said already, you feel like you are at the beginning of the journey. How does the money play? Do you even think about it, for you personally?

JP Then
You can’t not, any small business or owner can wholeheartedly relate that cashflow is king and when you are growing at a pace like we are, you need to make sure that your house is in order and that’s super important. Knowing, you know, how much money is in the bank and how you meet your obligations is a significant part about growing a business.

Elliot Moss
And how have you decided to pay yourself? Have you been quite careful?

JP Then
Err, yes.

Elliot Moss
He’s very low key, he’s wearing a Crosstown hat and a t-shirt and a pair of jeans. It’s like Silicon Valley has arrived here at Jazz Shapers. But you know, it doesn’t again strike me that you are particularly materialistic. This travel thing as well just gets me, I imagine you are quite self-contained wherever you are because you have lived around the world, you are like, “Well I don’t need much.”

JP Then
Yeah, you are right, I wear the same things and I’ve got a very simple wardrobe that hasn’t changed very much, forever.

Elliot Moss
It’s a good thing though, less decisions to make every day as they say. In terms of growth, you mentioned, we started at the beginning saying, “We’re in London only at the moment.” You’ve got international aspirations I imagine.

JP Then
I think, yeah, as a long-term aspiration I think that that would be great to have presence in other gateway cities. I can imagine ourselves somewhere like the New Yorks of the world, Singapore, Paris – do people like doughnuts there? Yeah, I think so.

Elliot Moss
I think you can safely say yes.

JP Then
Yeah, exactly but I think there’s also growth within England and the rest of the UK. I think it’s something we’ll explore in the coming 24 months but there’s still plenty of growth in London for us. We’ve invested in our bakery, we’ve invested for the future.

Elliot Moss
This is in Battersea, that’s right?

JP Then
Yeah, correct. So we make our doughnuts in the middle of the night, literally from say 7.00pm to 4/5.00am in the morning and then delivery them all to the shops but the rest of the time the bakeries, they’re empty so we could actually run it essentially utilise that essential facility more and more, and we spent last year fitting it out so that we could do that, so laying the track in front of us before we sort of roll over it.

Elliot Moss
Before I ask your song choice and have to say goodbye to you, in five years if I met you, ideally what would we be talking about in terms of Slerp? In terms of size, I guess, related to Slerp and Crosstown. Are you going, “Today I’ve got ten bricks and mortar plus the stalls, I’m going to have a hundred.” I mean is there a number in your head?

JP Then
No, there’s not a number. It’s not how I view the business. I think it’s, you know, look if we are still around, great that the first starting point. I think technology will play a huge part in hospitality full stop. I think the way that people interact with brands will evolve and I think in five years’ time it will be a very, very different conversation talking about food and tech.

Elliot Moss
We will have that in five years. Put it in your diary. I know you will enjoy immensely in five years’ time, JP. Listen, it’s been great talking to you. Good luck. Next time we meet, please bring doughnuts otherwise we’ll never talk again. Just before I let you go, what’s your song choice and why have you chosen it?

JP Then
The song choice I have today is Ray, or Ree? I am not sure of the pronunciation.

Elliot Moss
Or even Rye, we’re not sure. R.H.Y.E but we like that.

JP Then
And the song is called Open. The reason why it’s interesting to me is that I actually listened to this song when I wrote the business plan for Crosstown so it’s stuck with me.

Elliot Moss
That was Open from Rhye, the song choice of my Business Shaper today, JP Then. Really insightful when he said, “Find out the thing that you don’t want to do, that can be just as powerful as finding out the thing that you do want to do.” Listen to your customers was at the centre of what he has been doing at Crosstown. Logical, he talked about how logical he was, it’s really important. And finally, as a person, I think you will agree, he was incredibly humble. Super successful so far but just didn’t see it like that. All really good things to think about. That’s it from me and Jazz Shapers, have a super week.
We hope you enjoyed that edition of Jazz Shapers. You will find hundreds of more guests available for you to listen to in our archive. To find out more just search Jazz Shapers in iTunes or your favourite podcast platform or head over to mishcon.com/jazzshapers.

JP Then, is the Co-Founder of Crosstown, a London-based omni-channel bakery brand known for its premium donuts and specialty coffee, and Founder of technology platform Slerp.

The idea for Crosstown came from his interest in speciality coffee and the Antipodean coffee culture and his business plan, sent to hundreds of people, caught the attention of Adam Wills, the Founder of Gourmet Burger Kitchen. The pair launched Crosstown in 2014 as a market stall on Leather Lane in London and the rest is history.

With a cult-like following, Crosstown has 20 locations across London, as well as events & catering segments and premium wholesale accounts such as Wholefoods and Harrods. Crosstown also has a fast growing online business, much of which is driven off the development of Slerp, a direct-to-consumer ordering platform that recently launched to the broader market at the end of 2019.

JP was recently named as one of the top 50 people shaping London in 2019 by Bumble.

Interview highlights

I like to move quickly, I like to have control.

I realised what I didn’t want out of a role and once you are comfortable about knowing what you don’t want to do, it’s as good as knowing as what you do want to do.

I needed something that challenged me.

We focus on maintaining really high quality product and making sure that our brand is desirable.

Crosstown has been led by the customer.

When you are a fast growing business and you are going through so much change, people have to be comfortable with being uncomfortable.

Innovation plays a huge part of our culture.

You’ve got to get the right people involved with the right mindset.

As a long-term aspiration, it would be great to have a presence in other gateway cities.

I think the way that people interact with brands will evolve and I think in five years’ time it will be a very, very different conversation talking about food and tech.

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