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SilkFred CEO on launching an eCommerce business

Emma Watkinson started her career in fashion on the shop floor, before going on to co-found eCommerce platform SilkFred in 2012, which now has a network of over 600 independent fashion brands.

Back then she felt there was a consumer appetite for fashion brands beyond the usual run-of-the mill high-street offering, but at a more affordable price-point than the established labels.

“We started to grow quickly. A lot of our traction was on social media because we were selling products no-one had heard of.”

Watkinson had some experience of eCommerce before starting the business, having been given a small budget to develop a website for a chain of luxury boutiques where she used to work. But she says starting a business is a whole different ball game.  

“You have to get competent at a lot of things very quickly. I’d never done fundraising before, I’d never run a team before, I’d never dealt with shareholder admin. Luckily my co-founder had lots of experience already and held my hand. But there’s lots to take on and what’s exciting is no two days are the same. “

Designing tech

Not surprisingly, technology has been a key part of that learning curve. Building the platform in house was one of the first big decisions. “We wanted to control it end-to-end and believed we were creating value with new technology.”

She worked closely with the designer and web developer before the launch on all the customer processes. “I’ve still got sketches of our check-out in my office.” But says it was a collaborative effort.

“For example, our head of customer experience created all the systems around customer communication and tracking, and processing of refunds. And our head of marketing designed and created bespoke marketing tools.

“That’s one of the reasons I’m really proud we have an in-house engineering team. Not only are they very talented, but they are integrated with the day-to-day running of the business, so different teams can request new features to make their lives easier. I really like how involved the tech team is and how good they are at coming up with solutions.”

Where it makes sense, the company does also work with partners. “Our philosophy is very much in-house, but when someone has technology that we don’t think we can do any better, then we go for a third-party option.”

One example is its recent integration with data platform Looker to help it build a deeper understanding of its customers and how they behave and perceive its independent labels.

Previously, the team had to go to a developer every time they wanted to get a custom request on something they couldn’t get via Google Analytics – such as a particular range of basket sizes across certain customers.

“Whereas now people have information at their fingertips and they can go and create custom reports,” she says.

“Data is so important to what we do….You can see the traffic, customers, predict behavioural trends in a much more flexible and controllable position by having that information.”

Perfect is the enemy of good

Since launching the business, Watkinson has clearly gained a lot of insight into how eCommerce works. So if she were starting out again, what would she do differently? Her answer is unhesitant: “Don’t wait until it’s perfect! Test it and get it out!”

“Before the launch, I spent a lot of time making assumptions about what people would or wouldn’t do – what features they might want.” A lot of that was down to her own early anxieties, she says.

“Because the minute you do put yourself out there, you are there to be judged. And you worry people will go: ‘oh yeah, she’s quit her job and what’s she done? Got this crappy-looking website.’ These are the inner thoughts in your head."

She explains: “To anyone starting again, I would say: don’t wait until it’s perfect. Technology is easier now than when we first started, but there are so many ways to test your ideas or hypothesis on a small number of people.”

When it comes to future uses of technology, she’s equally pragmatic. “It is very tempting to want to do everything,” she says. “But actually, we’ve learnt from previous mistakes where we’ve just tried to do too much at once.”

She adds: “With technology the challenge is prioritisation and focus on the ring things. Because it is an expensive resource, although deployed correctly it is immensely powerful.”

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