Six years ago, Robyn Ashwell sat at a table with her classmates, collaborating to create a business plan for their Social Enterprise course as a part of the Sustainable Community Development Program at SFU. Unsure where to start, they drew on their shared passion of riding bicycles, to see if there was a way to combine it with a social enterprise idea that they could be proud of – and of course impress their professor.
“We had the idea of doing cargo deliveries with pedal power,” Ashwell explains. While a very common phenomenon in European cities like Amsterdam and Copenhagen, cargo bike delivery companies are very rare in North America. During their research, the came across B Line Sustainable Urban Delivery out of Portland, Oregon, and things started to click. By using the trike model, they could conceivable haul a larger quantity of goods, offering a better value to clients. Spending much more time on the project than necessary, by the end, three of the group members, including Ashwell, had an epiphany: “We could actually try this!”
"Efficiency Was Part of What We Were Selling"
After graduation, Ashwell, along with fellow co-founders, set out to find vehicles they would need to take their idea from paper to reality. Locally, they found three second-hand generic models from China and with that, Shift Delivery, Vancouver’s first pedal-powered urban delivery company, was launched in the summer of 2011. Next step – start cold calling local businesses and see if they could convince someone to take a risk on them.
“Efficiency was part of what we were selling, so companies we worked with didn’t have to fit into the whole sustainability thing,” Ashwell admits. In those early days, Mills Basics, the local office supply company, saw the potential for the fledgling business, becoming Shift’s first official client. Ashwell and the team took over one of Mills’ downtown routes, making fifty deliveries a day, eight hours a day, five days a week. They continue to run that same route to this day, often taking on extra routes during busier seasons.
Shortly after they launched, SPUD also signed up with Shift, joining Mills as two of their largest and longest standing clients. With good reason. As Ashwell reveals, “The idea all along has been that it actually makes more sense to use trikes than trucks in downtown.” She muses about times she has pulled up behind a delivery truck, the driver flustered after having to circle the block for parking, just to deliver a few small boxes, and understands the good her company is doing not just for their clients, but also their employees.
"It Puts People in Charge of Their Work"
Back in the classroom, the project that became the inspiration for Shift had one major criteria: whatever business they developed, had to be a social enterprise. Ashwell and her group found a creative way to address this by designating the business as a worker co-op, a model they still maintain.
“It puts people in charge of their work.” Says Ashwell. Shift is democratically owned and operated by it’s employees, meaning that everyone has a say in how the company is run. While employees don’t have to become members to work for Shift, members can only be employees, which Ashwell feels gives workers a sense of pride in the work that they do.
Ashwell acknowledges that being a delivery person is not the most glamourous position, but feels that being an entrepreneur helps to change how that role feels. “It sounds simple, but it’s really significant - to have more people who care about the business not just as employees, but as owners.”
"The Core Idea Is to Use the Most Appropriate Vehicle for Whatever Is Being Delivered."
While Shift has expanded in the last few years to include parts of East Vancouver and Kitsilano in their delivery area, their focus remains on downtown. This is due in part to range of their fleet of electric trikes, which now total eight bikes from CyclesMaximus from London. The further out they get from downtown, the longer the time and distance between deliveries, having a negative effect on the efficiency they are aiming for.
“The core idea is to use the most appropriate vehicle for whatever is being delivered,” Ashwell states. She is happy to accept that some deliveries just aren’t possible by bike, and is content filling the gap where Shift can help, especially for small, more frequent deliveries, which is more obvious in the downtown peninsula.
And although their business could exist without them, Ashwell agrees that the expansion of the downtown protected bike lane network has helped their business. Admittedly, due to their size, Ashwell says their bikes tend to get respect on most streets, but having the bike lanes to use during peak congestions allows them to maintain their delivery schedules. But don’t worry, they mostly use the cycle tracks during midday, ensuring they don’t get in the way of Vancouver’s bike commuters during rush hour.
For Ashwell, the bike lanes align with their originally ethos for Shift, putting bikes front and centre to show what is possible. “Bike lanes offer an opportunity for business, not a threat.”
“Making people think differently.”
As Shift prepares for the new year, just having held a big strategic planning session, Ashwell is excited for what’s to come. Having initially only planned to be around for a year, she is very proud to be a part have watched the idea of her and her classmates grow to the successful delivery company it is today.
“I still really love my work and find it engaging,” she explains. However, Ashwell is looking beyond Shift, with plans to move from Vancouver at some point in the future. When asked if she will take the business model with her and start a second location for Shift delivery, Ashwell admitted she’s unsure, but knows that she will take all the lessons she has learned in her work for Shift wherever she goes. “What excites and motivates me the most with what I do is how it is making people think differently.”