The gradual homogenisation of the UK high street over the past few decades has created a growing culture of people keen to seek out unique commodities. Traditionally this kind of fodder was only available at craft exhibitions, but in 2006 Holly Tucker and Sophie Cornish launched Notonthehighstreet.com, an online marketplace showcasing the products of more than 800 businesses.
Holly and Sophie had both run their own businesses before joining forces on the highly successful Notonthehighstreet.com. The pair met a decade earlier while working for an advertising agency and went on to set up ventures in the events and shopping sectors. Working within these industries they realised there was a wealth of quirky and distinctive retailers without an affordable and effective method of selling their products.
Most of these businesses did not have an online presence, and of the ones that did, there was virtually no e-commerce capability. “The businesses we spoke to were desperate for what we were offering,” says Sophie. “A way of reaching customers without lugging their products around the country attending really expensive trade fairs which could cost thousands to exhibit at.”
Confident of the demand for the offering, the pair moved into an office in January 2006 and four months later they launched the first version of the site which, despite gaining some excellent coverage, was not without its teething problems. Some great PR coups, including several mentions in the nationals, meant there were 16,000 unique visitors to the site on launch day, but because of a technical error the e-commerce function didn’t work.
“We’re a site of many sites so it wasn’t just a question of getting one website done on time,” explains Sophie. “At launch we had 130, each with pages within them. The good thing was it was the second wave of the e-commerce boom and nobody had fully got it yet. A hell of a lot of others were on a steep learning curve too.”
Holly and Sophie had begged, borrowed and stolen from savings, friends and family to get the site live but at the end of the first year they hit a cashflow crisis. They needed funding fast so began the arduous task of pitching what investors saw as ‘yet another female shopping site’ to dozens of stone-faced VCs. “The majority of them just didn’t get it,” says Holly. “But despite all the patronising responses, there were two or three good leads.” Investment eventually came in the form Spark Ventures, who were early backers of Lastminute.com, and during the following year the business grew by 600%. Revenue comes in the form an initial seller fee and 23% commission on sales.
Since launching Notonthehighstreet.com Holly and Sophie have ushered in several incarnations of the site. Catering for non-web savvy sellers and customers is fundamental to the whole concept so every aspect of the site has been designed accordingly, with detailed user guides and a dedicated support team on call to walk clients through it all.
The duo have also recognised the need to adapt their business model in order to meet the demands of their customers, introducing a printed catalogue to run alongside the online version of the service.
Three years after launch the site is growing steadily. After closing a second round of funding in July 2008, the business ended the year boasting 800 sellers and a transactional turnover of £2.5m. The secret of their success? According to Sophie, if you can find a business partner with complementary skills that’s 90% of the work done.