Start-up Q&A: Rachel Oxburgh of Casabu

She's the Oxford-educated geochemist who ditched academia to launch her own online flash-sale business. MT chats to Rachel Oxburgh, boss of Casabu, about being a working mum, impulse shopping, and why she'll never be a 'consultant' again...

by Rebecca Burn-Callander
Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

Why is being an entrepreneur better than being an academic?

I used to work in the field of climate science – studying changes in the oceans over time. But it’s difficult to effect any kind of change in academia. There’s no bottom line and it’s such a nepotistic discipline; everything is peer reviewed. It was hugely frustrating. I wanted to get on with things.

But you didn’t dive straight in to launching a business…?

I got a job as an information architect first, working for dotcom consulting firm Scient. But I became disillusioned there after lots of restructuring and mergers, so I left to build a web consultancy with my husband instead. It was called the Storm.

But you didn’t like being a consultant?

Let’s just say I wouldn’t go back to it. When you’re a consultant, you do a bunch of work, present it to the client, only to have them pick something that’s not the best idea – usually, it’s just the cheapest. Watching a business implement a sub-optimal solution is painful. Now, I make all the decisions. For good or for ill, the buck stops with me.

What was it like working with your husband?

I’m always surprised at people who say they couldn’t work with their husbands. I’m doing it for the second time with Casabu – he’s an employee of the business! Being able to solve problems together is what a marriage is about anyway. But it is important to have some ground rules: we don’t go to work unless we’ve put the lid on a disagreement. But ultimately, he does the work of three people – I couldn’t have got that from any other employee.

Talk us through the business model

Casabu is a flash sale business, aimed exclusively at parents. We feature products from well-known baby brands like Their Nibs and J-J Cole for up to 80% off the RRP. At the moment, we host up to 15 sales daily, each lasting about a week, which is about the limit for a ‘flash’ sale – usually they go on about three days.  We don’t hold any stock, we just take the orders and pass them on to the supplier, minus our cut.

Why did you decide to focus on mums?

We are modeling Casabu on a business in the US that has grown to a valuation of $750m in just two years. The mums’ markets is a very sticky one: if we can engage them when they are pregnant, then they will keep shopping with us until their kids won’t let them buy their clothes. Plus, kids grow, so they need new clothes every year, unlike grown-ups.

Would you say that the recession has been good for business?

Yes. We’re reliant on brands that want to promote lines and move excess stock. In the current climate, companies are actually approaching us. Especially a lot of European businesses that want to introduce their products to the UK without the overhead of opening an actual shop. Even some of the really big names are more willing to offer discounts in order to keep consumers engaged. Our demographic is fairly recession proof: most parents will spend money on their kids when they won’t on themselves.

As it’s a ‘flash sale’, do most orders come from impulse buys?

I’m wary of relying on impulse shoppers: I don’t want to be in the business of encouraging women to buy things that they don’t need and can’t afford. What I prefer to do is always stock lines that are likely to be useful: we always have pretty girls dresses within two-week periods, always have jeans, t-shirts, pushchairs. The idea is that Casabu is more like a January sale every day, where you can pick up the things you really need, just for less cash. If we can’t offer a discount of at least 40% of the RRP, we don’t do the deal.

You’re a mum yourself. How do you juggle work and family life?

Having both my husband and I in the business certainly makes it interesting. We have a nanny to do after-school care till 6 or so. The one of us will stay at work till nine while the other comes home. We try not to work at weekend that much. Burn out is a real risk in a start-up. I don’t want to stop being a mother for the sake of the business. You can’t be all consumed all the time.

Sounds exhausting. What’s the long-term plan?

There have been a lot of sleepless nights. Bringing investors on board was stressful – we’ve just had some angel funding, so was hiring our first staff. Casabu only went live on April 16 this year, but it should have 300,000 registered users by the end of the year. We don’t have a lot of time to make the business work: the aim is to grow it fast and sell it after three years, if all goes to plan. So far, we’re on target. And I’ll have the chance to sleep again once we’ve sold the business!

Find out more about Casabu

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