Running and growing a fast growth e-commerce startup comes with its own unique set of challenges for e-commerce founders compared to other sectors. However, there are many similarities when it comes to challenges of running a fast growth business.
In the second article of a three part series focusing on what e-commerce founders are doing to navigate the fast growth e-commerce industry, Information Age spoke to 14 founders of some UK-based e-commerce startups, and six founders of e-commerce support agencies, to understand the main pain points of running a fast growth business.
1. React quickly
Gordon Lott, founder of Dr Vegan — the ethical supplements company, says that “even with the best planning it is hard to know how quickly a new product will gain traction, how it will be affected by seasonality and external factors, so planning and ordering of stock for new products is very hard to get right.
“As your business is evolving all the time, the requirements of new expertise evolves whether it’s in tech, CRM, marketing or product development, and you need to react quickly. Our network has been hugely valuable in helping identify recommended experts to support us and it’s also a case of rising to the challenge of long days and nights just to get things done.”
“It depends on the type of business but from where I sit — in the context of Boundary — scaling the business is all about people (provided you have found a product market fit and your product and supply chain are scalable). Clarity of vision for your whole team is vital, as are the implementation of priorities and the empowerment of the team to get the job done. If you fail to get any of these right, then this is where you will find your paint points.”
3. The next step
Francesco Majno, co-founder of insect-based snack startup Small Giants, says running a fast-growth business means that you always need to be ready and prepared for the next step, even if your current stage is still ongoing or not fully developed.
“If you fail to do this, and find yourself stuck on one stage in your business development, then you are at risk of being left behind. As a startup, it can also be particularly painful having hundreds of ideas that you want to implement, while lacking the time and resources to carry them out. This means you have to prioritise, with several ideas inevitably collecting dust and never being expanded on,” he says.
4. Maintaining customer service
Pablo Gonzalez-Iglesias, CEO, vendi — the UK’s only ‘scam-free marketplace’ for new and used consumer electronics where every product is verified by AI and a team of authenticators, says maintaining the personalised customer experience when growing is a challenge.
He says: “Your user base might be growing fast, which is great, but you still need to treat every customer as an individual and offer the absolute best experience to everyone. And that is hugely demanding. Getting it right is important, but having happy customers is really satisfying.”
Fast growth challenges check list
- Inventory management — more demand equals more stock! Especially for an e-commerce business: if you have many popular products out of stock with expensive paid traffic visiting your website, you could be losing money very quickly. To mitigate this, focus on developing strong relationships with suppliers and, where possible, negotiating favourable credit terms. Also, pay close attention to your ageing stock and, where possible, discount overstocked items to free up cash.
- Record ecommerce competition fuelled by the global pandemic is driving up customer acquisition costs, meaning ensuring the customers visiting your website are relevant for your products is more important than ever to ensure a healthy return on advertising spend.
- Ensuring the correct use of capital with hiring the right people at the right time as the business grows.
- Correctly implementing systems and processes that serve as a solid foundation for the business to effectively scale.
- Keeping your earliest employees happy. As a business grows quickly, so likely does the working culture which can leave early employees feeling unhappy. It is essential to maintain business transparency and good communication across a business as you grow.
- Balancing supply and demand from a cash flow perspective
- Hiring and on-boarding team members quickly but effectively
- Balancing detail focus with speedy decision making
5. Keeping everything in sync
Sahil Verma, CEO and, co-founder of food platform and recipe box delivery business, The Cookaway, says one of the trickiest things when running a fast growing start-up is trying to keep everything in sync, including the pace of growth, funding at different stages, developing and scaling processes and tech and building and growing your team.
He explains that you “have to make sure that everything is fit for purpose, in line with the stage of the business. It’s a delicate balancing act as over-investment in one area can easily leave you with a demand, capacity or cash issue all of which have the ability to break the business.”
Jessica Kruger, founder of Luxtra — the retail brand creating conscious, accessible luxury fashion accessories crafted from the most innovative vegan and sustainable materials available — agrees that the biggest single pain is the stress of juggling everything, especially as a sole founder.
She says: “As my business grows, I often feel like I’m running around like a headless chicken — I’m trying to keep on top of everything but am painfully aware that I’m probably only doing things at 60%.”
6. Growing too quickly
Helen White, co-founder at houseof.com — the online renovation retailer with expertise in lighting — says that “sometimes growing too quickly can also be a problem and when the opportunities arise you don’t want to say no to them. Scaling a fast growing startup means you need access to investors and high levels of working capital and if you have no proven history, getting investors and banks on board can be hard. It can sometimes be frustrating that you can’t grow as quickly as you want to.”
7. Balancing cash flow and reinvestment
“With a business that is growing, you are constantly in the position where you pay today for tomorrow’s growth,” she explains.
Sarah Clark-Martin, co-founder of Fuaraìn Skincare — the brand uniting the scientific, energetic and natural benefits of super active Deeside Mineral Water with wild crafted herbs and botanicals for advanced skincare results — also stresses the importance of planning the investment of every single penny to make sure that it’s the most effective use of a limited budget.
“We’re having to try new things, fail quickly, take the learnings and constantly tweak our tactics,” he says.
8. Supplier relations
9. Hiring the right people
Thomas Vosper, ex-Amazon and founder of ecommerce startup, aisle 3 — the comparison shopping site, believes “hiring the right people quickly enough and surrounding yourself with smart investors who are able to help at each stage of the journey” is crucial.
She says: “Later this year we intend to set up an entire new team based in the US. As a business founder, it’s a challenge to grow the team so quickly whilst not dropping the ball on my own roles and responsibilities. Budget is also challenging as we scale. As a brand based in London, costs for everything are high.”
E-commerce startup and scaleup founders highlight the main pain points of running an online business
Founders from 13 of the UK’s leading e-commerce startups and scaleups, and 6 e-commerce support agencies, have revealed to Information Age the main pain points of running an online business. Read here
Here, some e-commerce support businesses provide their advice on managing the challenges of running a fast growth e-commerce start-up.
Chris Mole, founder and CEO of global full-service Amazon Agency, Molzi, advises that when “scaling up quickly, it’s crucial to ingrain a strong and positive company culture so employees can all work together towards a shared vision or risk damaging your brand and steering the company in the wrong direction.
He believes that company culture, defined by ambition, determination and transparency, is the foundation of success.
“First and foremost, processes need be put in place to ensure the team is able to grow alongside the business without any drop in quality or output. Maintaining a high-quality team can be challenging, especially if you need to fill positions quickly. It’s worth keeping trusted freelancers or outsourcers on speed-dial to tide things over until you can find the right person/people to meet your specific needs,” he says.
2. A business within a business
James Brooke, founder and CEO at Amplience — the low-code content management company — says “the challenge of dealing with fast growth is that you are incubating a new business inside an existing business simultaneously. Business growth has been rapid this year, so in 18 months I am likely to have a business that will be as big again as it is today.
“Success does come out of successfully dealing with adversity but to get there we have had to climb down from certain positions and just deal with the here and now. It’s been an existential situation that spanned from wondering in March whether we could survive the pandemic to taking the whole business through to the other side. We’ve come out stronger, forged a strong culture and been flexible.”
3. Uncertain future
Ciaran Bollard, CEO at Kooomo — the e-commerce platform — says “the critical pain point of running a fast growth e-commerce business is planning ahead amidst an uncertain future. In fact, we have found that many new businesses who have grown from start-ups or SMEs often struggle to transition to an enterprise level.
“This is because they typically encounter complications when expanding their services globally, including dealing with new languages and currencies. In turn, logistics then become a problem as retailers may need to expand distribution channels and increase their overall manpower.”
4. Local customs
Bollard adds: “On a deeper level, there is the issue of considering local customs. Key questions retailers must ask themselves include: “How do consumer behaviours differ in one country compared to another? “What are the preferred payment methods?” “What are the different terms and conditions, taxes, VAT rates and GDPR rules?”
5. Prioritisation and delegation
He says: “Balancing resources available with work to be completed and doing so in a timely manner has always been tough. Finding time saving processes and software has allowed our small teams to continue over perform. Ensuring high performance levels and maintaining staff satisfaction has been another challenge but with proactive team communication and additional resources being added we have risen to meet these challenges head on.”
6. Talent and mindset shift
Andy Cockburn, co-founder and CEO of Mention Me, concludes that the success of a fast growth business comes down to being able to prove product-market fit and grow your user base while keeping a grip on the business fundamentals, like cash flow and operations.
“First is finding and hiring the right talent; people who can do more complex tasks better than you ever could. Then the challenge is to keep pace building out the company, while also delivering a great experience to clients and continuously developing the product.
“Above all else, my biggest mindset shift has been managing just how quickly my role and the business changes. Every six months, Mention Me is almost unrecognisable from where it was before. I do my best to embrace that and make sure the team always feels part of the journey. It’s challenging, but it’s also a lot of fun.”