| Karin Bylund

Hot Dish – An Interview With Velocity Founder Zia Yusuf

The Sybarite spoke to Zia Yusuf, co-CEO of Velocity – a London based app that allows us all to “dine and dash”.

It was a particularly patience-testing restaurant experience which saw former Goldman Sachs man, Zia Yusuf, and his childhood friend Alex Macdonald forced to wait 45 minutes for the bill – that led the Londoners to create Velocity.

The smartphone app which – despite only having launched in January 2014 – has already changed the way we dine out. In a nutshell, Velocity lets you find a restaurant, reserve a table and pay the bill, all from your smartphone, granting us a little bit more of what is arguably the biggest luxury there is in 2016: time.

Yusuf – a magnificent mix of boldness and guts – is clearly passionate about the project and has his eyes on America. “We’re launching in several hundred restaurants across numerous cities in America ,so it’s all systems go! I am very excited by the take up of great restaurants – we’ve only really got great restaurants. And that creates expectation. Customers know that they can have a world class experience regardless of price point. It’s about a world class meal. We actually founded the company on the principle that human interest is the bedrock of hospitality. What we have set out to do, is to use technology to make even the most mundane parts of hospitality – like paying for the bill – memorable. We’re not about discounts; we’re about allowing customers to have a very personalised experience and get treated like a local regular.”

The Goldman Sachs alumni is wired with energy when talking about the hospitality industry, for which he has always had an insatiable thirst. “I did a lot of client entertaining during my time in finance where I was fortunate to sample some of the world’s top restaurants,” Yusuf explains. “During this spell, I started to pick out patterns of what makes you feel special – what warms your heart and leaves you with a memorable experience”.

Alex Macdonald and Zia Yusuf
Alex Macdonald and Zia Yusuf

Yusuf’s insatiable thirst for the food industry led to him and his high school friend, flatmate and fellow foodie, Alex Macdonald, joining forces and quitting “attractive careers” to concentrate on Velocity. Speaking to Yusuf, we’re struck by his chutzpah. It can’t have been easy to step away from Goldman Sachs, but Yusuf begs to differ: “I’m of the view that if you’re doing something you love, it becomes an easy decision.”

And certainly the gamble has paid off, with the duo having made big steps in a short amount of time: “If you fast forward the clock 15 months, we’ve gone from working solo in our dining room, to employing six full time staff across two – soon to be three – continents. We’re live in London and launching in New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Miami imminently. By end of year, we’ll be in Asia – Hong Kong, Singapore and Dubai – so some of the world’s greatest hospitality cities….”

Dining seems to be a common denominator across Velocity but it strikes The Sybarite that you could easily bolt on other lifestyle pursuits to the app? Yusuf agrees, claiming: “There’s no doubt that the brand and technology is certainly applicable to other verticals.” However he points out that “the global dining industry turns over US$3.5 trillion dollars per annum! That’s 35 times larger than the tax industry and, interestingly, seven times larger than the hotel industry. Given the size of the dining market combined with the fact that we are about giving our customers the best possible experience while helping our restaurant partners increase their yield,we are certainly not looking to distract ourselves away from being very focused on restaurants and nightlife.”

Yusuf and Macdonald appear to have thrown themselves into the American market with characteristic gusto, but we’re curious as to whether the two young entrepreneurs are considering any other UK cities? Yusuf answers in the affirmative: “We’re soon to be rolling out across several large restaurant groups who have a presence in cities around the UK” yet stresses that “ our product is very much driven by where our customers – and that’s both consumers and restaurant partners – want us to be.”

Velocity’s success to date has been impressive but, refreshingly, Yusuf remains a sense of perspective and talks honestly about his desire to run a business with a social impact. “Every private business has to consider profitability but that’s not enough to keep you motivated. I am proud that our product uses technologically for the enhancement of human relationships. Velocity was co-created with restaurateurs – Alex and I must have had more than 300 meetings with world famous chefs, managers, waiters and waitresses where we asked them “What are your problems and how we can help you solve them?”

For Yusuf, doing good and making money is the business mode of the future – hence Velocity is the “headline sponsor for Action Against Hunger [a global charity committed to saving the lives of malnourished children in over 40 countries] and is also sponsoring a major project to bring clean water to India.”

On a different note, we can’t help but wonder how Yusuf defines luxury in 2016? It transpires that, for Yusuf, “time is the new luxury. I’ve worked for, and with, incredibly wealthy people for whom money is immaterial. There’s nothing they couldn’t buy, but they didn’t have any time – be it to spend with their family and friends or to pursue hobbies and other interests. This explains why Uber – which bills itself as your private driver – has become such a force. It doesn’t just save physical effort and time; it also saves mental time and effort.”

Not that time is something the Velocity co-founder has much of these days. After an hour in his company, it’s obvious that Yusuf possesses savage levels of workaholism – something he readily attests to. “I’m always working. Even when I am supposed to be relaxing, my mind is thinking about Velocity – an idea will suddenly pop into my head… I don’t have much free time and, if I did, I don’t know what I would be doing. As an entrepreneur, I don’t have to answer to anyone – if I wanted to peel away to Puerto Rico for six months I could – but right now nothing is more exciting than Velocity.”

Would Puerto Rico be Yusuf’s dream travel destination, then? “Actually it would be Sri Lanka where my family are from. Not only is it relatively unspoilt but there aren’t many places you can go swimming in the ocean with whales in the morning, and then ride an elephant in the afternoon. Plus the climate is great and the people are incredibly friendly and overwhelming happy, despite their poverty. Sri Lanka, for me, is truly a place that moves your soul and puts your life into perspective.

Right now though, Yusuf is thoroughly enjoying his work with Velocity and, given the success of the mobile payment app, who can blame him… Does he have any advice for Sybarites who share his entrepreneurial spirit?

“Don’t underestimate what you are capable of, because others sometimes will,” says Yusuf. “And trust your instinct – I’ve always been guided by instinct. If you’re really passionate about something, go for it. You will only regret it if you don’t.”

Wise words…

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