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Q&A: Neil Cocker founder of B2B eCommerce start-up Ramp Commerce

The B2B eCommerce industry is often overlooked in the fast-paced world of online retailing, but Forrester Research predicts B2B eCommerce in the US alone will top $1 trillion by 2020.

Forrester also pointed out that B2B buyers now expect a B2C-level of online customer experience. "And they're growing increasingly impatient with B2B sellers that don’t provide it," said principal analyst serving eBusiness and channel strategy professionals, Andy Hoar. "They are also actively shifting their transaction volume from single channel offline environments to omnichannel and online-only environments."

And while the giants in the form of Alibaba, Amazon and Google will contribute a substantial amount to this online wholesale model in the coming years, there are a number of smaller, innovative and agile players worth paying attention to.

Essential eCommerce chats to tech entrepreneur and digital industries consultant, Neil Cocker, who founded Ramp Commerce – an eCommerce B2B platform allowing individuals, groups and companies to sell promotional merchandise, with no upfront cost. It powers five services, including flagship website Dizzyjam – an on-demand printing website for the music industry – boasting over 10,000 users and 31,000 products.

Why did you create Ramp Commerce?

Bluntly, it was naivety. I used to be in the music industry, but I had no idea about technology. The other existing eCommerce systems were too broad and too generic – they didn't give you tools so we made our own.

We began by building an on-demand printing platform for the music industry, selling t-shirts and hoodies for bands on-demand at no up-front cost.

But with Ramp we can do more, for instance, you can offer customers a free download by uploading an MP3 to their t-shirt.

We took a very niche approach and because the music industry is our background, we got it. Then we effectively realised we had built a powerful on-demand eCommerce platform which could power anything you want personalised on-demand. It's more like Etsy than anything else.

It interacts with a vertical marketplace, one of the sites is a cool little site called SoundwaveMug, which allows users with Soundcloud accounts to wrap their tracks around a mug – so there's an interaction between both Soundcloud and Dizzyjam with the Ramp Commerce API.

Is it scalable?

Dizzyjam has been up and running since 2010, but it's only in the last year or two we really started to spread our wings and we realised we had a powerful eCommerce platform. It's a T-shirt company facilitated by a clever website we built, but it's far too good to serve one tiny vertical because it's so powerful and could do so many different things.

So we're speaking to different markets and while it's not currently on the roadmap to white-label the service completely, we're looking at how we can work with brand verticals like sports or universities.

We're speaking to everyone from lots of tiny brands to household names who want to increase customer engagement by doing cool personalised things. Such as football and F1 which might use our platform for a personalised event which needs a specific products for their fans.

Our software allows us to use very particular tools for each market and make it easier for the users to sell to their customers.

Tell us about the underlying technology?

The platform is all developed and coded in-house. At first we partnered up with an external developer, who is now our CTO and long term business partner.

We're lucky to have a world-class development team who have developed the really robust systems needed to deal with significant sales and flows of cash, but with plenty of agility and flexibility built in. We're using our technology across a number of markets, and with a host of different market-partners, so being able to tweak the service according to the customer needs in that market is absolutely key. And of course, we're working with lean start-up methodology to ensure we're scaling quickly and profitably as a business.

What about data?

We have market insight other platforms just don't and we're doing loads of stuff around data. We have over 10,000 bands on Dizzyjam and we could tell you if a punk band in Sheffield on average sells a certain size and colour more than another.

We're looking at the data and making those smart decisions, so when Coldplay comes knocking and orders 50,000 t-shirts, we can tell them what to order depending on what territory they are playing in.

Where are you in the start-up funding cycle?

We have a handful of sites using our Ramp Commerce software and 10,000-15,000 users on those various sites, we want to scale this to a million users. We are hoping to close our first investment deal and we're awaiting signatures for our first big seed round.

We've built a great technology stack that allows anyone to create and sell their own merchandise with zero risk, and zero cost. It's a profitable, cashflow-positive platform, so our main focus post-funding is to create huge scale in a rapid, but in a stable way.

Where do you see yourselves in six months and five years from now?

In six months we are going to be rapidly and aggressively approaching a lot of interesting vertical markets. And in five years our roadmap says we will be seeing tens of millions in revenue.

Why do retailers benefit from working with start-ups?

It's because of the closeness to the user. Start-ups understand how the user is using the service, while the bigger players are more removed. We have a granular understanding of how people use the service and what they need.

Where do you look for technology inspiration?

I'm thankfully very well connected in the technology space and I look at social output – blogs and tweets – to understand where the investments are happening.

eCommerce is obviously huge, and there's lots of consolidation and mergers and acquisitions in the music sector, so it's a really interesting space to be in right now.

Cocker is also a co-founder of Cardiff Start, the city's tech startup community. He also represents Cardiff as part of UK Government's Tech City UK Cluster Alliance. You can find him tweeting @NeilCocker

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Ramp Commerce