28/04/2015

By Will Lownsbrough, Founder and Chief Executive, Shoptility

I thought of Shoptility when I was planning a backpacking trip to Asia and went online and to search for the best places to visit and things to experience. 10 hours later and a dozen cups of coffee I was still trawling through various websites, entering in the same information time and time again. Becoming more and more frustrated, I thought to myself that there must be a better way to find what I was looking for. This is when Shoptility was born.

I make it my business to learn about the users of Shoptility and our team every day. By understanding how these elements all work together, Shoptility’s unique offering has been developed.

I’ve learnt many things while developing this business but I’d say the following five points have been the most important:

1. Once your idea is formed, build a business based on feedback from your users, not on what you think the market wants

It’s common knowledge that your customer should be at the epicentre of everything you develop as a business, but making that a reality is sometimes not as easy as it sounds. We have two user audiences at Shoptility: consumers and retailers. Although both have a common goal (purchase/sales of goods), how they want to reach it is different for both parties, and how they do reach it, in part, is influenced by us. With this in mind, we learnt very early on that ongoing feedback about the service you’re offering is critical in every stage of developing your business model, from inception onwards.

Talk to your customers regularly. If you don’t have customers yet, share it with people you know, ask someone on the street for their opinion. We really believe in getting on the phone with users and we make use of surveys, emails and other services like online meeting tools. I’m also a big fan of live chat, something we’re looking to introduce for our retailers, and quite possibly our shoppers, further down the line.

Survey Monkey is a great solution for capturing feedback; we use it to poll every new customer and gauge what interests them and what they might like to see improve on the site.

But, it’s important not to bombard your customers. We try to keep email communications down to one per month for existing customers.

2. Your business has no ties – with the right technology you can connect with customers anywhere and at any time

We always try to stay ahead of the curve on technology, and one product that’s been with us all the way is Citrix GoToMeeting.

When you start a business, it’s important to stay in control of your costs and along with your team and equipment there is, in most cases, the cost of renting an office space. We have, and always will have, a physical home but platforms like Citrix GoToMeeting mean your office is everywhere. From very early on we looked at products that would minimise costs and allow us to work virtually.

As the business has grown, so has the application of this product. Our sales team now uses it every day to interact and connect with users, demonstrating the Shoptility platform to retailers and staying in touch with existing customers. It’s been absolutely critical to what we do.

We do not have a team of 100 sales people dashing around the country every single day. Our top sales person is the one that travels the least. He’s a big believer in efficiency and setting up a meeting within 5 minutes of talking to someone.

Citrix has helped us maintain the pace we need to be progressive – when you remove physical ties you do seem to get a lot more done.

3. Never make a decision alone, but sometimes you must consider all advice around you and go against it to make the right one

When the business was in its infancy there was much deliberation as to how our search system would work: would we allow a free text search like Google, or would we go down a more guided route.

We had many of our team in favour of a more guided route, which doesn’t pose as many complications and would have definitely been an easier system to implement. However, in the end, we went for a free search as we knew it would be more natural for our users, giving them the freedom to search how they want.

There’s no doubt it’s been more work to implement and will always be an area of development, but, in the long run, we feel it was right for the consumer and thus right for us.

4. Your team are everything, so pick wisely and place well

We spend a huge amount of time working existing contacts to ensure we’re recruiting the very best talent. I have created a little black book (on Evernote – another favourite) of all the people I’ve ever worked with and would employ.

I know the experience and career ambitions of these people, so the second a suitable opportunity opens up at Shoptility I can approach them.

We believe in people that have great pace and passion – we want people who drive the business forward. A great piece of advice I have is don’t wait to fill a vacancy; fill it before it becomes vacant.

Focus on your core product and resist the need to introduce add-ons in the early days

When we first created Shoptility we were swayed by the idea of including a traditional marketplace on our platform, alongside our dialogue model. We actually even started work on the feature but, after speaking with customers, we realised that we were simply creating another ‘me-too’ product. Whilst we haven’t shelved the idea completely, it’s certainly in the ice box.

The key to moving a business forward isn’t always about adding products and services. It’s not fancy bells and whistles that keep customers happy: it’s about doing one thing, and doing that one thing better than anyone else out there. Too much, too soon is a recipe for disaster and is the death of many businesses.