The Story of Online Shop
I thought I'd document the beginnings of Online Shop, firstly because it's easy to forget details when you're constantly evolving and trying to innovate and secondly to have it as the de facto source, straight from the horses mouth. As they say.
2020 - Loyalty and Privacy
The company has humble beginnings and the first iteration started when I was still living in Japan, during which I took notice of various independent shops that operated all over Aichi and Kyoto prefectures. These businesses were in abundance, however, not had much in terms of incentivising new customers to become repeat customers or ways to build loyalty besides investment in cumbersome hardware and expensive subscriptions to issue loyalty and rewards points to their customers.
This was the blueprint for what eventually would become 'Taryff', an easy to use Cloud based loyalty app that worked on the principle of privacy first; obfuscating and encrypting customer data to ensure businesses and loyalty reward operators could not use it nefariously, by selling it to third party advertisers, or even allowing said operators such as then competing services, Rakuten or T-Point, to make use of the aforementioned data to spam users with unwanted ads, promotions, sales incentives and so on.
These services would require a business to invest in hardware and would charge a subscription to the business to use the hardware and the service, or in addition, take a fee based on the customers' purchase value. All of this data would also be sent to the operator whenever a loyalty card was swiped or scanned which would include the customers personal information, products purchased, location, time of purchase, payment method used, and so on.
The app was built with Laravel, Vue and used MySQL for the database with various open source libraries to help speed up the process of development and launch, which took several months from concept to market-ready. The entire app was completely cloud based and hosted on a centralised dedicated server in Britain with top tier security, being compliant with standards such as ISO 27001 and FISMA. Both customers and businesses only needed their phone to use it which was a big advantage over existing systems, and was absolutely free to use.
Customers would be able to register for an account within a few seconds and get access to their profile and wallet containing their unique User ID and QR Code which would showcase their point history, and other data such as how many points they need to obtain for a discount at a select business. The beauty of the app was that once more businesses started adopting it, the points could be redeemed per business, ensuring the customer only ever needs one account.
Businesses could set how many points a transaction would be worth, or they could base the point value per product. Businesses could then set discount amounts based on the amount of points earned by the customer. As the app grew in popularity and more businesses began adopting it, I built in a subscription-based model where a small fee would be charged to businesses should they want to create separate roles for a business account with different permissions i.e. account owner, shop manager, etc., reporting and analytics tools and whitelabeling options for their page.
2021 - The Colosseum
At the end of 2020 I had decided to move back to Britain, and with me take the idea that started getting popular in Japan as the COVID-19 pandemic was slowing down more businesses wanted to trade online, and do it quickly. It's around this time me and my then business partner Joe Todd had launched a comfort marketplace which only focused on the British market, it would be a small marketplace that provided the ability for sellers to sell their products in the comfort space, from cozy blankets to cozy robes. We called it, Cozy or if you'd like to get technical, Cozy.co.uk.
The website grew in popularity in the comfort space, at the same time my mother had lost her job and was undertaking selling her DIY creations across websites such as Etsy to help make ends meet during this very difficult period. However, the fees taken for every sale were too much, more and more people wanted to sell.
Services like Etsy, Depop and even Facebook Marketplace started exploding in popularity and use. The e-commerce sector was growing with no end of it stopping or plateauing in sight. I wanted to help my mother and others like her to utilize their skills and prowess without having to worry about high fees, or even being digitally savvy to create their own e-commerce shopfronts to sell to their audience. I sold my share of Cozy to Joe and started working on the idea of what would now become, Online Shop. Several businesses started using my Taryff app in Britain with everything else going on, and had provided good feedback and liked the overall idea, like their Japanese counterparts.
This provided me the necessary confidence to explore the app further and work closely with businesses, adding more and more features and building a very rudimentary and lightweight shop creation tool. It showed a lot of promise, but with so much competition I would need to spend significant time in marketing, sales and so on. I showed it to our investor and my long-term mentor, Robin Vauvelle, who saw promise and decided to put money into the project, with this I also felt confident enough to, essentially, put all of my liquid capital into it too.
This investment allowed me to gain more and more businesses to showcase the concept works and has viability, however with all of the new users came more and more requests and even demands. I decided a change in the name was needed to better reflect what was being built, and with this I changed the name to 'Online Shop', using rest of my personal capital to acquire the domain and other name rights to be able to properly operate.
Using several friends to help with coding, and taking on all sales, marketing and every other role imaginable myself, Online Shop started growing, I even enlisted the help of my previous partner Joe to help with sales for the time being, and my now co-founder and Chief Technology Officer, Siraaj Ahmed to head up all of the tech aspects. As people came and went, the business was growing and in April of 2021 we incorporated officially in England and Wales, just few days after my birthday.
2022 - Thinking Beyond
This growth was very good, and very bad at the same time. The demand was too great and we started focusing too much on what businesses wanted; more organic traffic, product catalog management, more analytics, greater reporting, shipment and logistics options, and various other things that a marketplace would have. And this is what we became, a marketplace. This was great, for a time. Our investor provided us with a massive 20,000 square feet warehouse, office space and even a van to deliver products around the local area as we started testing product storage and delivery from our very own premises.
By the start of 2022 we started competing with the likes of Amazon and eBay. And it was going good, we had the traffic, we were building something really cool and useful. The press even started calling us Britain's first homegrown marketplace, and liking us to a potential unicorn. We focused on our own backyard, Britain, which we knew best. We would advertise to British and European sellers to come and sell on our marketplace as we offered better fees, technology and treated our sellers as normal humans, with dignity and grace. Trying to resolve any matters between sellers and buyers amicably.
We had hired people to now work full time, and it was going well, however, burn out was starting to set in. For most of the marketplace's duration, I slept on the couch in the office, going to the gym daily to exercise, shower and keep my sanity in check. It was a non-stop grind, 24/7. Coding, marketing, sales, logistics, and so on and so forth. Any founder will probably relate to my pain. There was too much to do and not enough time.
Both me and Siraaj saw the amount of strain that was put on us, and the constant need for new capital to ensure we stay competitive and advantageous to businesses selling via us was becoming more and more hard to come by. The marketplace also started attracting foreign sellers in Asia who dominated on our competitor websites, I like to call it the Colosseum effect.
Sellers who could afford to cut prices, offer free expedited delivery and so on would win, just like gladiators of the old republic, but instead of the best swords and armour, the one with the cheapest price for a product would emerge victorious. We could not just ban these sellers, we always believed in free trade, and democracy. However this essentially met more and more sales being taken away from our British and European sellers, more returns, more chargebacks and just a lot more stress.
I started travelling, trying to break the routine and made Manhattan my new home. It was around the summer time where both Siraaj and I had decided to shut down the marketplace. Every return was coming out of our own pocket, every charge back, all ad spend. The capital we had raised quickly evaporated, and more and more was needed by the day.
We even started taking on external contracts to bring in money, to survive on and to invest back in. We had buyout offers, all of which we rejected. We both agreed that what we had built was exceptional and far more advanced than what our competitors had, unfortunately we also agreed that it was becoming unsustainable - as both our physical and mental health was now being contended with but too good to let go. It was a hard decision but we both agreed we should shut down our marketplace and focus on what made us great in the first place, software. And what we were good at and passionate about. Good software.
Selling pretty much everything I had to my name, I raised enough to pay back investors, refund existing orders, pay employees and start unwinding the company in Britain. This was an extremely hard choice, and one that was high risk, low reward. But both I and Siraaj believed in our vision, and what we could create, how much more we can do and how much we could really help those struggling, in need and without opportunity.
The marketplace was shut down, so we could focus fully on building an MVP for our next generation of shop builder, one that would be available to the whole world, one that would take all of our learnings from not only the marketplace we had built but also our combined years of experience not only in e-commerce but tech, marketing, and sales in general.
We took advice from several successful and high net worth individuals and incorporated in the United States. Firstly, because we had experience operating there, and secondly it was the cradle of innovation and moonshot thinking. Capital in Europe was getting harder and harder to get, investors were becoming more bearish and only wanting to focus on legacy investments and industries such as healthcare, agriculture and real estate. There was also less and less support being provided to tech companies, especially ones in the e-commerce sector.
Many thought we were absolutely crazy, especially me, selling everything to invest in now a defunct company, to start again on a whole new, but previous concept we had. Only few supported this move, this was me, Siraaj and our investor Robin. Unfortunately, not many subscribed to our newfound vision.
We wanted to break down every barrier, make e-commerce the most accessible and the most affordable it has ever been; being inspired by the likes of Apple which had made personal computers more attractive and accessible to the general consumer market, than ever before through the introduction of the mouse, or even the graphical user interface. Without which companies like Amazon, and Facebook would not exist or at least, not be what they are today. It was this 'all or nothing' attitude that creates not just great but amazing companies, ones that give the ability to think beyond, inspire and allow to create, build and most importantly innovate.
This is the exact thing we want to do in the e-commerce sector. One that is guarded, obfuscated and made very daunting to access... yet is one of, if not the, most important of all in the digital age.
We want to create a company which is synonymous with e-commerce, one that is utilitarian and works, one that is accessible to all; no matter their age, gender, language, income, profession or even technological prowess. One that completely removes the need for substantial capital or a substantial investment of time that you will never get back.
One that is honest, caring and empathetic. One that is community driven and led. One that is fair and balanced. One that is affordable to all. And most importantly, one that is not held by the shackles of the corporate world, allowing for constant innovation and disruption.
This is the company both Siraaj and I aim to build. A company I sacrificed everything to start, and one I hope which will leave an everlasting impact of positivity and opportunity for those who use it. I hope that one day, I will read stories of the biggest brands being built by taking their very first step, from an idea at a university dorm room to using Online Shop to quickly launch, build, adapt and scale to what they have the potential to become.
The potential that is in every one of us, to strive to do better, to innovate and to progress not only ourselves but our species as a whole. Progress which can only be done through knowledge and trade. Trade which I hope will be supported and powered by Online Shop. Helping more entrepreneurs, brands, businesses, students, hobbyists and so on, start their businesses, effortlessly and affordably.
The story is still being written but it is a beautiful story, at least I would like to think so. There are elements that I may have missed, however, I'd like to think that it is as complete as possible. Think of it as an abridged version of many sleepless days, psychosis inducing weeks and fanatical belief in doing good through innovation and technology.
I hope it can inspire, and provide hope for those entrepreneurs looking to choose this path... the hardest path of all. Entrepreneurship is not easy, but nothing that provides great change is easy.
You can view the Online Shop website by clicking here. We're innovating, we're building. And I hope, the heart and soul of what makes us unique and special, remains intact for decades to come.