So You Want to Be a Motorcycle Courier?

I’d been thinking about becoming a motorcycle courier for a while and then at the end of 2009 along came the postal strikes, my opportunity. They say a recession is a good time to start a business and after all how hard can it be? I used to deliver pizzas around Exeter in the late 80s on Honda C90s and Melodys but a broken leg put an end to that quite quickly. To be honest, a broken leg was not a bad outcome considering how I used to ride those things! After 15 years off bikes while I wasted time with death defying car crashes and a death defying marriage I now had a Honda Pan European ST1100, ideal for long trips to those far flung corners of the UK from my base in rural Devon.

My main role in life is as a single parent carer for my disabled son but while he was at school I was left to fill the days, which I seemed to do by riding somewhere random and then riding back again before he got home. Wouldn’t it be great if I could ride to different places but get someone else to pay for the petrol, tyres and servicing? I live near Exeter and there aren’t a lot of motorcycle courier companies around me so I had a niche market. Then again, you need to ask yourself why there aren’t a lot of motorcycle couriers around. I wasn’t looking for a 24/7 job as I can only work during term time and not really at weekends so the lack of possible demand didn’t put me off.

In October last year I spent about three hours on the ‘phone getting the basic necessities, bike insurance which covered me for being a courier and Goods in Transit (GiT) insurance. Just the bike insurance was a headache, some companies quoted me over £1,500 per year TPF&T and some wouldn’t even consider offering me such insurance. Eventually I went with Swinton Bike who seemed to offer me a good deal and by now I was bored of talking to people in call centres. I Googled GiT insurance and found a very helpful company called Coversure Rubery in Birmingham. Their man Mark sorted me out with a policy which gave me up to £10,000 cover. Goods in Transit insurance covers whatever I, as a courier, am transporting. So if I was taking a £10,000 laptop to someone at Heathrow Airport and it fell out of my top box onto the M4 and was crushed, I would be covered.

So, with no real planning and my usual jump in with both feet and make it up as I go along attitude I was now a motorcycle courier, albeit one with zero experience, Devon Motorcycle Couriers was born. Good start but how do people find me? Where do people look for a courier? In this day and age everyone uses Google. If you want something in a hurry use Google. That is what I assumed and luckily I seemed to be right. First thing to do, find as many free online business directories as you can and get yourself registered with them. It is a slow and laborious process but you’ll be glad later. Don’t be surprised if you get lots of calls over the next few days from the directories asking if you would like to upgrade, for a price. You quickly learn how to say no and hang up. Then what? Sit back and wait? No, keep pushing it! There will always be somewhere you can list your business that you hadn’t thought of before.

Within three days of starting the business I had a job from a financial services company based hundreds of miles away who wanted me to print out some forms they emailed me, ride to Plymouth, get them signed and post them back. Yes, they called me a) because of the postal strikes and b) because they found my number in one of the free directories I’d put myself on the day before. By now I was finding it inconvenient to ride somewhere and check Google Maps on my ‘phone so I invested in a Viper helmet with an integrated Bluetooth headset and a second hand reconditioned Garmin Zumo GPS unit. Now I had my ‘phone, my GPS and my head all connected. I could take calls on the move and listen to directions from the GPS.

I found freeindex.co.uk a free online business directory which didn’t charge me to list my company, they make their money out of adverts on their site. I registered the devonmotorcyclecouriers.co.uk domain and had a redirect set up to my page on the freeindex site. Seeing their site made me look into GoogleAds where you pay only when someone clicks on your advert and comes to your site. Like cheesecake this appeared to be the future. GoogleAds is not for the faint hearted and you can easily haemorrhage a lot of money for no real return, so be warned.

For the next few months work trickled in but not regularly, at this stage I was lucky if I got one ‘phone call a week. I didn’t panic, I was just testing the water to see what it was all about. My children kept me busy and I didn’t have a mortgage so it wasn’t a make or break situation. I took some marketing advice and finally got around to making my own website. Luckily I was a web developer in a previous life so I built a simple one page website instead of directing people to the somewhat confusing arrangement I had before.

I had the steady trickle of jobs in the first few months of 2010 ranging from documents from a local accountants up to Companies House in Cardiff to a package from a local manor house up to the owner in London and other things in between. The last few weeks of March were good, as people wanted paperwork delivered to their head offices around the country before the end of the financial year. In April I wanted more than a few ‘phone calls a week so I fine tuned my advertising strategy on Google, upped my advertising budget and things really started to take off. Realising that there was demand for a motorcycle courier in Devon I also arranged some Public Liability insurance, again through Mark at Coversure Rubery. This covers me for example, if I put a package on the ground and someone trips over it, breaks their leg and then decides to sue me.

It was around April that I had my weirdest job to date – transporting a live fish from a farm near the M5 in Devon to a testing laboratory just South of Boston in Lincolnshire. It had to be alive when it got there for some tests to be done. Nobody complained so I assume it was still OK. The hardest part of that job was trying to stop the water sloshing out of the fish tank strapped to my seat. (Only joking, it was in a a special fish transportation box about the size of a shoe box). It is now July and I’m probably doing an average of 800 miles a week. Being tucked away down in Devon means most of my work involves distance. Exeter to London and back is roughly a 400 mile round trip. Motorways might not always be the shortest route but they will invariably be the quickest, due to the higher average speeds and they do mean easy money. Tailbacks, should you be unfortunate enough to get one, can give you invaluable filtering practise though. Miles and miles of filtering will make you tired, so stop and enjoy the sight of all those car drivers stuck in their cages before filtering a few miles more.

So what is the ST1100 like as a courier bike? Mine is a 1999 ABS-TCS model and I find it ideal, low centre of gravity and the 28 litre petrol tank helps. I can cruise at 90mph from Exeter to London without worrying about stopping for petrol on the way. People say the Pan European is all day comfortable and compared to a lot of modern bikes it is but after 8 hours sitting on a standard seat in the rain, it isn’t! I’ve recently invested in an Air Hawk inflatable seat pad which makes the world of difference. People might think I have piles but it does transform my comfort. I bought the bike in April 2009 as an MoT failure with 69,000 miles on the clock, I rebuilt the calipers, changed the brake pads put new tyres on and it was good to go. It has now done over 85,000 miles and I’ve found the traction control system (TCS) especially useful on wet Lincolnshire roundabouts. There seem to be a lot of roundabouts there! If you have big feet you will rub the soles of your boots a lot in corners. You have to move your toes onto the footpeg and see if you can grind the hero blobs instead.

The ST is nearly 300Kg fully fuelled so if you push it, the front end will slide, just relax, ease off the throttle and let it do it’s thing, you will get around the corner. The only major failure I’ve had has been the alternator which let go on the way back from Thruxton BSB last year. This was not long after I’d bought the bike and David Silver Spares had one in stock for a lot less money than Mr Honda wanted. It was fitted by Bridge Honda in Exeter who I use for my major servicing.

It is a very good bike for getting to London but riding it around the centre of the city on a sweltering hot Friday lunchtime will make you sweat, lots. Don’t try and ride like the other couriers, they ride in London every day. Take it easy and join in where you can, you can’t get a Pan European through that gap you just saw a scooter go through! If you are too aggressive in the traffic your clutch will slip and the cooling fan will pump out so much excess heat you’ll think you are in Dubai. Slow and steady wins the race and all that other stuff your Mum told you when you were younger. I’ve had one incident since I’ve been in business and that was when someone on a roundabout put the front of their car through my pannier as I rode past. I didn’t come off but I had to ride home from London with three quarters of my pannier strapped to my seat. I’m now practised in the arts of fibreglass, body filler and florescent yellow paint. I’m just waiting on the new subframe to arrive which I’ll fit in the summer holidays and then nobody can claim not to have seen me.

If you don’t like riding in the rain don’t become a courier, you haven’t got a choice, especially in the UK. Motorways might be a bit boring but they are a good way of getting to major cities quickly. The days can be long, it might be fun riding to the other side of the country but don’t forget that you have to ride home again almost immediately. If you have time after a delivery you can always ride home cross country on A roads to keep yourself amused.

I’m no motorcycle courier expert, these are just things I have learnt in the last 9 months which other people might find useful. I’ve lost count of the number of people asking me for a job since I started the business and I am steadily building a list of hopefuls. If you do get other people to work for you, make sure they are self employed, employing people yourself costs too much money. There are a lot of people out there looking for a free lunch and a company bike.

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