It’s hard to dispute that the era of online retail belongs to Amazon. While the tech giant remains some way behind Wal-Mart in revenue terms, its growth remains fearsome, even more than two decades after its birth. Along with fellow giants like eBay and China’s Alibaba, Amazon has turned the net into a giant global warehouse where consumers and businesses can shop for almost anything at rock-bottom prices. That has forced small bricks and mortar retailers to seriously up their game.
While your local shop can’t compete on price, it can provide a better experience. There are still plenty of people who are willing to pay a little extra for the convenience of their high street and expertise with a familiar face. But running a small shop is still a challenge and with rising wage and tax bills, independents will continue to struggle in the fight against Amazon and co.
Trouva wants to give them a helping hand. The London-based start-up is an online marketplace allowing apparel, gift and homewares retailers to sell their goods to customers near and far. ‘We all know that ecommerce is big and growing but I think we underestimate how much it is revolutionising the way people shop at bricks and mortar retailers,’ says its CEO and co-founder Mandeep Singh. ‘The distinction between online and offline is increasingly becoming blurred.’
The former strategy consultant and private equity investor was inspired to start the business (along with co-founders Alex Loizou and Maxim Berglund) by his local shops on London’s Bermondsey Street. ‘They had beautiful products, fantastic online experiences, compelling reasons to win in a multi-channel world but nobody who was giving them the technology and bringing them together online to give them the ability to do things like click and collect, same day delivery and to send things around the world.’
Now Trouva, originally known as Streethub, does just that. Shop owners apply to join the marketplace and when approved can upload the details of their products. When a consumer buys something, Trouva takes a cut. That part’s not so different from Amazon’s Marketplaces and especially Etsy, but Singh says what sets Trouva apart is its focus on genuinely distinctive retailers. ‘On Etsy you can find 30 million products. Some of it is good stuff but there is also lots of stuff you have to trawl through.’
The start-up also provides its sellers with an inventory management system to keep track of what stock they have available, and takes care of the shipping for those customers who opt for home delivery, sending a courier to collect products directly from the shops. In some London postcodes it even offers one-hour delivery via Shutl.
Trouva is backed by a hefty $3.8m in funding from backers including Index Ventures and Octopus Investments. Little more than 18 months after launching has signed up 240 shops in 23 towns and cities. Singh says he can’t disclose the company’s financials but that it has ‘driven more than £100,000’ in revenues for some of the most successful shops it has worked with. Staff headcount has reached 25 and next week the start-up is moving out of the tech co-working space it is based into its own offices.
Singh says the life of an entrepreneur is, as you might imagine, very different to working in private equity. ‘Entrepreneurship is not very glamorous. I remember the day our investment round was announced, we were in the Evening Standard about launching same day delivery and running an ad campaign on the tube, and I was standing outside Angel tube station, it was pissing it down with rain and I was handing out fliers as commuter after commuter ignored me on their way home.’
It has its upsides, though. It’s less difficult to make big changes when your company is small and nippy. And it’s easier to be enthusiastic about your daily toil too. ‘I spoke to one of our shops a couple of months ago about the rate review, which has been very difficult for a lot of shops,’ says Singh. One of them said, "Trouva kept me in business and allowed me to pay for that rate increase". That’s the kind of thing that gets you up in the morning, that’s why you’re an entrepreneur and not working in a big corporate.’
Singh says the majority of shops that apply to be on Trouva fail to make the grade. What sets the successful ones apart? ‘We’re looking for shops who have curated a fantastic range of products which are difficult to find somewhere else and really special. They’re often ahead of the trends – whether it’s golden pineapples, concrete, the Danish way of living – Hygge.
They are the experts and you’re relying on them to pick these great products on your behalf.’
Having built a solid base in the UK, the plan now is to take Trouva abroad. ‘We want to build a really big business that unites all the world’s independents – the chance for you in London to be able to discover great shops in Berlin, Stockholm, Japan or the US and be able to get those products delivered to you here is really exciting.’
It’s unlikely to knock Amazon or Alibaba off their respective pedestals any time soon but if is trajectory continues then Trouva could become be a big asset for the UK’s – and the world’s – high streets.