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Emma Watkinson transcript

Emma Watkinson (EW): My name is Emma Watkinson, and I am the founder and CEO of Silkfred. Silkfred is an e-commerce platform that provides independent fashion brands with online and offline routes to market. We have a marketplace, which fashion brands can use for free. It's a community of over 100 fashion brands, selling to thousands of shoppers.

We also offer our fashion brands an e-commerce solution. They can have their own e-commerce store powered by our technology. And then also, we have a network of independent boutiques that, we get our fashion brands stocked on their shop floors. So it's a one stop shop for independent fashion brands to launch and grow their business, online and offline.

We launched the company at the very, very beginning of 2012. And I guess I was inspired by-- I spent a little bit of time in New York, working for a start-up, and working on an editorial team. And I think at that point, I started to see how fashion brands were starting to leverage this new set of online tools that were coming to the forefront, like social media. People were getting really, really hooked into Twitter at that point.

And it just seemed that the doors had been blown off. And these independent fashion brands could now start to be heard, as it were, rather than going through the usual routes of having to be promoted in a magazine or have someone writing about them. They were now selling online. They were able to write about themselves, online.

And then, I was working for a luxury e-tailer here in the UK, called mywardrobe.com. And I was seeing, at that time, how many independent brands were approaching the buyers. But the buyers couldn't really do anything with them, because they were so new. And they didn't really have a PR machine that was powering them. They didn't have production infrastructure in place. And it just seemed such a shame that their wasn't a real outlet for these brands that was helping them sell online, and offline as well.

So yeah, we launched the marketplace, in beta, in 2012. We'd white-labeled the technology by August, 2012. And that's when we started providing e-commerce stores for our brands. And by that time, we were testing a few offline partnerships. We'd done a few pop-up shops. We were working with a few international stockers to get our brands selling on shop floors. And then, bit by bit, we were starting to realize that we had a really, really great BtoB solution, and were really helping these brands sell their products. And that's what's brought us to where we are today.

Julian Blake (JB): Great. And when we say "we," who's in the team?

EW: I have my two co-founders, who have experience in setting up start-ups, one of which they've grown to a six-figure database. I've got an amazing CTO who's a senior developer, who's got six plus years working in Ruby, and doing user interface and UX work. And then, there's me, holding down the fashion side, and working on the strategy, and helping to continuously take the business to the next level.

JB:You mentioned early work. Is it your first serious business venture?

EW: Yes, it is. Yes, it is. But I always knew I was going to start my own business one day. My parents are both entrepreneurs. And I begged them to take me to work with them. I remember standing on a crate, behind the till of my mom's fashion boutique, when I was about nine years old, selling to customers. But my mom said that I would take home more clothes than what she was paying me. So often, she'd have to tell me to stay home.

But yeah, I always loved to work. And I always wanted to create something of my own, and something of value. And having worked in e-commerce for a bit, on editorial, and content, and online, and then, having been able to develop these relationships with these truly, truly great fashion brands, it's all come together as one business, which is now how you see Silkfred.

Yeah, sure. All right, well tell us a bit more about how it works from the point of view of a fashion designer, or a supplier, coming through to you.

Yeah, so fashion brands, we tend to put them on the marketplace first. So they can create their own boutique, upload their inventory for free. And they can start selling to our community of thousands of shoppers, and start learning about the process of e-commerce, and getting familiar with our technology.

And then, when they're ready, or when they feel they're ready, they can have their own e-commerce store. And it's powered by fashion specific technology. So we've built features and tools that fashion brands, specifically, need to sell their products.

And then also, we can get them selling on shop floors too. So we have a network of about 15 partner stockists at the moment. And we've placed over 50 brands on shop floors in Munich, Spain, Paris, Hong Kong, right here in London, as well. And so yeah, fashion brands can create their own boutique. They can have their own e-commerce store. And they can also sell offline, through our partnership network, as well.

JB: How much does it cost them?

EW: Well, the platform's completely free to use, to set up a store. They can either pay a bespoke fee for a completely bespoke e-commerce store, or they can opt in at a monthly subscription for one of our more templated options. And that's very competitive. And then for the partner boutiques, they pay a monthly subscription for that. And it's between 150 pounds, 200 pounds a month. And they can be on five shop floors for that price.

JB: Sounds like a great service, in a way, for young designers who probably don't necessarily have the kind of funding to create their own websites, let alone whole, comprehensive e-commerce systems.

EW: Yeah, absolutely. We've tried to tailor it in such a way that it's really cost effective. And it is an all encompassing solution. So they come on board with us, and we can say, right, within weeks, we can have you selling on our marketplace, you can sell through your own e-commerce store, and you'll be on shop floors, internationally. And here's the potential return that other brands are making. And You can be flying within a month, so to speak.

Whereas traditionally, the routes to market for independent brands-- they'd either have to go to get a retailer to buy them, which is incredibly hard, and can take a few years. Retailers will often watch the growth of these brands for a few seasons before they actually decide to invest in buying their collections.

JB: How many of these small fashion brands do you actually have on board now?

EW: We've got 130 brands on board. But we're getting about 40 submissions a week, to be on the platform. We've just launched the new season. So we're continuously building our network. And new brands are coming to us all the time. But it's our goal to have-- by the end of 2015, we want to be working with about 7,000 brands by that point.

And we definitely think we can do as, as well, just based on the demand that there is already. We're just trying to cope with it, really.

JB: It strikes me as being quite a golden time in a way, for independent fashion designers. Is that right?

EW: Yeah, in London, the ecosystem for emerging fashion designers is certainly stronger than it probably ever has been. I mean, things like PPR, which owns Gucci, and Alexander McQueen, and Stella McCartney, bought a 51% majority stake in a British brand called Christopher Kane. And that brand is still seen as quite new, in the international scope of things.

So there's a real spotlight on London at the moment in terms of new brands coming to forefront, leading the way. The whole world's looking at London for what's next, what's coming next. So a lot of these independent and emerging brands are saying well great, there are these opportunities. And with businesses like Silkfred, we're really trying to give them access to those types of tools, and those types of resources, so that they can start to emulate, in a smaller way, these businesses that are attracting all this attention to London at the moment.

JB: Yeah, and in particular, in this part of town, as well. Over in Hackney, obviously, with this strong fashion tradition, they're pushing a new fashion quarter. And you must know about The Trampery's initiative to open up its London Fields center, which, basically, it's focus is entirely on fashion.

EW: Yeah, it's like a Google campus, but for fashion businesses. Yeah, I think initiatives like that are absolutely brilliant. And east London's always had a relationship with the emerging fashion scene. Like, Alexander McQueen had a studio here. I believe it's still actually just around the corner from where we are right now. And lots of designers that we work, their studios are based in Hackney.

Which, it's great that you've got the start-up scene happening around Old Street, as well. Because then, fashion can live at this cross section of innovation, digital. And then, obviously, it's close to the financial quarters of the city as well. So it's great that fashion has its home here, so to speak.

JB: Definitely. OK, well you talked about the service being free to brands, and to designers. How do you make money?

Well, we take a 25% commission from each piece that's sold through the platform. With the e-commerce stores, that's either, as I said, like a bespoke fee or a rolling monthly subscription. And then, the same-- we charge a subscription for the designers to opt into our stockers partner program, as well.

JB: OK. Well, tell us a bit more about your business plan.

So we're actually currently fundraising on crowdfunding platform Crowdcube. We just hit 40% of our target, which is brilliant. We've still got of 20 days to go.

JB: How much are you looking to raise?

EW: ₤120,000, for 20% equity. And yeah, our plan mainly focuses on building out our technology in such a way that it almost removes the amount of developer time currently needed to produce e-commerce stores. So it effectively becomes a very, very scalable business, allowing us to grow very, very quickly on the e-commerce front. We also want to grow our stockers partner network, and also, the amount of fashion brands that we work with.

It's also our goal to build out lots of resources around the platform, as well. So allowing our fashion brands to have access to workshops, allowing us to produce content for them that's valuable for them to know, connecting them with relevant people in the industry. So although we've got this solution that has these three revenue streams, and these three main services in which we help brands, we plan to built out a community of wider resources that these brands can tap into as well.

JB: And obviously, from Crowdcube-- are you getting a sense of who the people are that are coming through, and why?

EW: Yeah, it's really interesting actually. It's a real mix of people who are purely interested in, it's a fashion tech company. And they like fashion, and they understand, a little bit, what's happening in the tech business. So they want to invest on that point. But then, we're also getting people who are just purely interested in the software, and the scalability of the business. And they don't really care whether it's fashion or-- we could be working in any retail sector, really.

They're just quite interested that it's a niche technology, in the sense that you've got these generic hosted platforms, like Shopify, and Bigcommerce, and Volution. Because those guys have paved the way for generic e-commerce, it now allows companies like Silkfred to come in with a more niche proposition, like fashion. And apparel's the fastest growing sector in e-commerce at the moment. And more and more fashion brands are creating their online stores. So it's a great of the moment thing for us to be doing. I'm really excited about that.

JB: And assuming you're well on your way, by the sounds of it, to raising your funds through Crowdcube, and the 20% equity goes, how do you see yourself managing that in terms of, you have quite a large number of stakeholders to manage?

EW: Yeah, the reason why we opted for crowd funding in the first place is that we believed heavily in the value of the PR exposure that it would create. But then also, that, if you've got a network of multiple investors, rather than just few angels here and there-- and there's obvious benefits to having fewer investors than more. But then also, allowing to tap into their network of contacts as well, is absolutely brilliant. The way that Crowdcube handle all the dealing with the shareholders is very, very seamless. My co-founder's also a lawyer, which makes all the issuing of share articles and stuff a little bit less burdensome as well.

JB: Good, good. Obviously, we've talked it being quite a crowded space, and a growing space, and a thriving space. What would you say is the one thing that makes you different from the competition?

EW: I believe it's in the sense that we're building fashion specific technology. That's the first thing. The second thing is the offline strategy. I think it's becoming increasingly important for people who want to sell a fashion product to have an omni-channel strategy, in that they need to have an online portal to allow them to reach more customers. But then, as a new brand, it's very important to build trust.

And I'm a firm believer, having come from a shop floor background, that you need that tangible space from which that initial connection happens. I love e-commerce. I love the way that it allows these brands to scale, and allows them to manage orders from all over the world. But I do believe that there's still a lot of value in the offline as well. People like to be able to see, and to touch, and to try these products. So I believe having this infrastructure of partners, through which we can push our designers' brands onto shop floors, really allows these brands to grow in a way that a typical, other e-commerce solution probably wouldn't.

And then, all the mentoring and support that we can push behind the brands as well. We work really, really closely with our brands to make sure that they're on the right track, and they're constantly optimizing and refining. Because essentially, we're a start-up with a community of start-ups. And we're all growing together. So we're very hands-on with all the people we work with.

JB: Just to come back to something you just mentioned, and mentioned earlier on-- the fashion specific technology. Can you just explain a little bit more about that?

EW: I can't give too much away without going specifically into what we're building. But mainly, what I can say is it's mainly around the way in which content is handled online, in the way that the template are done. So for example, it's really important for these function brands to become-- for their online sites to become destinations. And it needs to feel like a world, because that's how a brand is built.

And then, for example, the way in which video content's handled online, the way that's optimized for mobile. Allowing these brands to curate their products in a way that is heavily optimized for fashion e-commerce. And then, more sort of what I love, but maybe more boring things, like reporting, like sell through reports that are done in a specific way. So for example, a buyer would say, can you send me a sell through report. We've got industry standard reports that they can just fire out, allowing them to manage wholesale through their own e-commerce store as well.

So there's plenty of things that we're working on, and building on. But the main biggie is the way in which content's handled in the website. And it allows them the flexibility to manage the way that they publish their content through their e-commerce store. We see sites like NET-A-PORTER. And the way that their success is driven is because they really have created this world around our products. Like, you're shown stories before you're shown products. And it becomes less of a transactional site, and more of an experience, I guess. And that's really what brings online as close as it can get to offline.

JB: Well, it sounds like you've got a super exciting and busy year ahead. What would you say your biggest challenge is, in the next 12 months?

EW: The technology's already built, right. So we're pretty happy with that. And it's robust, and it's tested, and it's been refined. I guess the challenge, for us, would be working with the right brands.

Like, I have a business mentor who said something really interesting. I think it was his brother worked as a Western talent agent. And he was saying that, in the beginning, he wanted to work with all this raw talent. Because it was so creative, and so liberating, and so interesting, and so unjaded, I suppose, which is how you feel when you meet all these young designers, whose creativity is just completely unbridled.

It's not just about working with raw talent, it's about working with the right raw talent. Because more and more, as we work with these brands, we're seeing it's an attitude thing over anything else. It's about having the right attitude, and the right approach, to selling a product. And some of the less creatively pioneering brands are almost reaching higher levels more quickly, because they're just a little bit more attuned to the needs of what are out there. So I think, for us, it would be making sure that we work with the brands that have the right attitude, and a nice balance of something new and unique, and that was creative as well.

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