Click bait is booming

Online - and high streets ahead

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We’re dedicated to helping you disrupt your markets. Or cope with it when the inevitable happens. And to help with a little insight and inspiration of how it’s done, we’ve created the Virgin Media Business Disruptor 10 list, in conjunction with Fast Track 100 – as published in The Sunday Times.

Here, in the ninth part of our 10-part series, we take a look at an online business founded by two female entrepreneurs that has developed a massive following. Traditional retail doesn’t really get that, well Not on the High Street…

Furnishing the future

House-proud Britons had long since chucked out the chintz, but when launched in 2006, there wasn’t yet a go-to website for the objets d’art, curios and gifts that are the hallmark of the most tasteful homes.

Founders Holly Tucker and Sophie Cornish realised the gap in the market, but with the rumblings of a recession on the horizon, debated whether to pursue the idea or wait for a more stable financial climate. Their decision to fire ahead has paid dividends. With a clear purpose to champion creative small businesses, is now a bustling online marketplace with a base of 5,000 suppliers or “partners” that sold to 2.7m customers last year.

CEO Simon Belsham took over the day to day running of the firm from Holly and Sophie eighteen months ago, and is determined to continue the disruptive ethos with which it was founded.

Simon says: “We launched at a time when the marketplace just didn’t exist. It was incredibly pioneering to connect small businesses through a marketplace and give them access to the wider world. We’ve grown significantly – three digit compound growth since launch.”

Dedicated Data Scentists

As with all of the Virgin Media Business Disruptor 10, technology has played a defining role. Over a third of’s 250 employees work in the technology department, which is responsible for the software that has facilitated its disruption. Thanks to the data generated and analysed, new sought-after products can be brought to market quickly and partners can make use of sophisticated data dashboards to help with their business and product planning.  

Simon says: “How we differentiate from other marketplaces is a critical part of the development of our technology. Unlike a traditional ecommerce business of one to many, we are many to many, which brings complexity. We have built a data science team to help our partners develop and scale their businesses. We give our partners rich product data with real time information about page views and conversions, which makes them and us more responsive to customer needs and focus.”

Adopting artificial intelligence

Naturally, innovation is essential and has recently been looking at the potential role of Artificial Intelligence in improving the customer experience.

Simon explains: “Creating discovery experiences for customers is incredibly important. Getting the search right when working with multiple businesses is much harder than when working with branded products. We are experimenting to see how AI can help us with these challenges. For example...

"At Christmas we introduced a chatbot called Elf Help. You could send it a message and it would send back gifts recommendations using a combination of intelligent data analysis and personal advice from our customer service team.”


Connects with women

Being founded by two women has also played a huge role. Not only are 90 per cent of’s partners women, but 80 per cent of customers are female too. Simon believes this sets the firm apart from many traditional retailers.

He says: “Holly and Sophie built a brand that connects with women and it’s important we retain that. While Amazon works for those who know what they want to buy, offers more of a browsing experience - where you can discover new products. Women are highly influential when it comes to the majority of spend and make the majority of purchase decisions in the home. We also work with many professional businesses founded by women; 17 of our 20 partners selling £1m a year with us are founded and run by women.”

Critical Product Curation

Many of’s products are personalised and while competitors like John Lewis and Selfridges are attempting to move into this niche market, Simon believes the firm’s unique business model means its position in the sector remains difficult to challenge.

Simon says: “Our model enables us to connect customers directly with the makers of products, providing opportunities for customers to co-create items with our partners. This could mean personalising a product or even customising it with your choice of materials, fonts or text. Over half of our orders are now customised in some way.”

Future plans for include further investment in technology to develop more AI tools. With international sales representing seven per cent of the business’s turnover, Simon also views North America, Western Europe, Ireland and Australia as significant areas for growth.

Simon says: “We want products to be unique, innovative and different. People love our brand and, looking to the future, I don’t see anyone doing what we are, and that is very exciting.”

Clearly the shopping spree isn’t over yet.

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