Some say he spends the evenings prowling the dimly lit Gladstone Link. Some say he’s actually the iron man statue observing his territory from the roof of Blackwell’s Art and Poster shop. Some even say his usual Hassan’s order is chips, falafel and (controversially) no hummus.
But perhaps the one person who knows this mysterious persona the best is Ed Alun-Jones, co-founder of The Dealer, an app which allows users to access food and drink discounts at venues around Oxford. “The concept is simple: on days when there’s little footfall, restaurants and cafes can circulate deals on the app, and the users of the app can then use these deals to discover tasty food at budget-friendly prices.” This makes the app particularly well-suited for students who want to find out what the city has to offer but can’t afford to pay full price, which was the original inspiration behind Alun-Jones’ idea: “During my entire time at university, and especially after I finished my finals, I was pretty keen to get out and explore Oxford’s food and drink scene. I had a huge overdraft and student loan hanging over me so I was pretty desperate for discounts, but I was surprised by how few places offered discounts and how difficult they were to find, as there wasn’t a platform that told you where you could find all of the best deals.” Alun-Jones hopes The Dealer can provide this service – although the transition from drawing board to reality proved somewhat challenging. “In all honesty developing the app was an absolute nightmare. My first real mistake was trusting in outsourcing. It was so expensive and we went through two developers before we found one that was up for the job. It was a hard lesson to learn but for tech development you simply have to go in-house. My business partner and I went round every computer science department in the country to find the best guy we could and I have to say the developer we have at the moment is fantastic.”
Despite the initial teething problems, so far The Dealer is proving a hit: over 3,000 users downloaded the beta version of the app in the month following its release, and over 100 restaurants, cafes and bars are affiliated with it, ranging from the luxurious Randolph Hotel to the exotic Kazbar and the atmospheric Vaults and Garden café. Perhaps part of its success lies in where it is different to other discount apps: users can pass on a small amount – 30p of the money they saved – to charities in the Oxford area. “Having been at university here, I wanted to focus on a social issue that had particular significance for Oxford and clearly homelessness is a really pressing issue,” explains Alun-Jones. “Both my business partner [Henry Hayes] and I volunteer at The Porch, which is a local charity in Cowley dedicated to providing support for the homeless, so we were really keen to support them in particular. The Gatehouse [a drop-in café for the homeless or vulnerably housed] is another charity that does a lot of good work in the centre of town and we added this as the second organisation we support.”
“We also want to make giving back a daily part of people’s lives.”
With the success of the app in Oxford, Alun-Jones is optimistic about The Dealer’s future, with plans for the venture ranging from getting the support of many more local and global charities, so that the app’s users can pick and choose which ones to support, to plans to launch The Dealer in four more cities in September: Manchester, Liverpool, Cambridge and Edinburgh. Their ultimate aim? ‘To be the number one deal-delivery platform for any business looking to connect with young people, be it a restaurant or an online fashion brand. “We also want to make giving back a daily part of people’s lives – if we can bring everyone a discount every time they buy something, then they might also give a little back.”
There was one final aspect of the app that intrigued me: why did they choose the name ‘The Dealer’? “We went through some absolutely shocking names – Bargain Bear and Voucher Vulture stick in the memory as particularly haunting,” reveals Alun-Jones. “We really wanted a brand with a personality and a face, albeit one surrounded in a bit of mystery. The problem with discount websites is they are all so bland – we wanted ours to be really personalised. That feel pervades all of the branding and even the product itself: in the latest version you will be able to follow your favourite venues and get notified every time they do an offer. One thing we got told a lot is that you can’t have an app with a ‘the’ in the name, partly because this has a bad effect on where your app appears in the Apple and Google stores.” This is true: looking up ‘The Dealer’ on the Google store brought up a worryingly large number of drug-dealing simulation apps. But in spite of – or perhaps because of the ‘the’ – the name is attention-grabbing and memorable, and as a result of the benefits that the app brings to businesses, consumers and the community, I have a feeling that The Dealer will be dealing for a long time to come.