More and more shoppers are purchasing their clothing online. In the UK alone, £16.2bn is forecast to be spent online on apparel in 2017, and sales of online fashion have doubled since 2012.
In Custom’s view, social media influencers are able to affect these purchasing decisions given their credibility, insider knowledge and position. Recent research has found that influencer content drives, on average, 16x more engagement and 10x more sales conversions when compared with brand advertising.
Custom believes that whilst there is plenty of inspiring content aimed at online consumers, there is a lack of content they can shop directly. Internal company research found the majority of influencer content to be lacking direct links to products or even information as to where to find them elsewhere.
We spoke with Custom Founder and CEO Robin Wong.
SR: What inspired you to create Custom?
Robin: The core idea came from two insights.
First, that most people, including myself, were increasingly using social media to find inspiration for their purchasing decisions, whether it be for finding new products or searching reviews to affirm their decision-making when considering a purchase.
Second, the observation that a lot of social media posts, particularly those with the most ‘likes’, ‘shares’ and ‘retweets’ would often have the most comments from people asking where they could find and buy the item that they had seen in the picture, or had been mentioned in the post. This is simply a function of the fact that most posts are, by their ‘authentic’ nature, not professional adverts and therefore do not provide links to underlying products nor complete descriptions of the items discussed.
It struck me there was a big disconnect that nobody was addressing, between the most popular posts that mention trending products, and the products themselves. I thought that there must be some way to use technology to build a better system beyond the simple human-powered curation platforms to address this sales gap – some way that could use these uniquely human recommendations, and automatically find available matching products much more rapidly and efficiently than getting people to Google for answers.
So we decided to build and then test a series of prototypes with key consumer audiences to gauge their interest, and to see whether this provided the solution. And we found it did. We were also conscious of the platform needing to appeal to social media influencers – the generators of the content – and we approached Susie Lau, one of the world’s most famous fashion bloggers, who helped to shape the offering. In fact, Susie liked it so much that she agreed to become an adviser. And so, from there, we developed the Custom platform that you see today.
Is fashion something you’re particularly passionate about, or is it more a case of capturing a gap in the market?
I do have an affinity for fashion and have always loved browsing through discovery apps like Flipboard and Pinterest to find new looks from the people I follow on social media. Ever since the advent of online shopping, I’ve enjoyed a bit of digital retail therapy. But as I alluded to earlier, I’ve had more than enough hours wasted in frustrated searches, when I’ve tried to find and buy the cool stuff I was seeing on these discovery platforms. Inspiration by itself is great, but being able to buy that thing you see is even better!
When I spent time analysing which players were in this space, a few things became apparent. The social media platforms to which all these great influencers and curators were posting their pictures and recommendations were not built as shopping experiences. Great for inspiration, but bad for ecommerce.
Then, when I reviewed a number of online retailers, they all seemed to be playing catch-up with the trends that were happening right now. The challenge for them is that they have to constantly adapt and retro-fit to what they have in stock. It’s the same case with a lot of the digital and offline magazines, where the reliance on the manual effort of editors and research staff means that the lead time to identify trends and the ensuing lag mean that there’s no immediacy to the content they’re generating.
Given that as a society we’ve been on a technology-driven trend towards ever-more instant updates about what is going on in the world around us, it seemed obvious this was the time to create a system that could automatically bridge the gap between the most popular trends of the moment and the products you could buy right now.
What has been the biggest challenge for Custom so far?
I would say it’s the challenge of ensuring that we can provide the best experience for each visitor who comes to the platform via each of our acquisition funnels. It’s this idea of providing Microcare whilst offering Hyperscale.
Even though it has only been live for a little over three months, Custom is already a huge platform, both in terms of the scale of content that is available to view and the scale of the products the platforms analyses. On the data content side, almost a million social media posts from six social media platforms have been monitored and analysed for product matches. On the product side, there are around 3.5 million live products available from 70 of the world’s largest online retailers, like Farfetch, ASOS, Zalando, Net-a-Porter and YOOX. This is what we mean by Hyperscale.
But hyperscaling content and products is nothing unless you take great care of each customer and give them what they’re looking for. This is the idea of Microcare. So our biggest challenge is in ensuring that we are tailoring the experience and content to each person who visits the platform to help them get to the content and products they’re looking for.
We’ve done a lot of work in understanding the goals and challenges of our users, and ensuring we have set up the acquisition funnels to attract them to the platform in the first place, backed up by lean analytics and a user experience that we are constantly refining, adapting and testing to help them achieve what they came to do in the simplest, most visually pleasing and enjoyable manner.
What feedback have you had from customers?
On social media, the response has been pretty overwhelming. Over 12,000 people have both liked and followed us, based on seeing our sponsored social media posts featuring content from our partner influencers. To reframe that slightly, over 12,000 like our adverts so much, they decided to follow us. I think that says a lot in terms of how compelling our value proposition is.
We’ve also reached out and spoken to a number of our users, where we’ve also had feedback about grouping content by trends and style, to offer more global trends, and offering a wider range of influencers, both of which we’re working on providing right now.
Could you tell us a little about your background?
After completing a degree in Management Sciences at University of Manchester’s Institute of Science and Technology, I started my career as a software developer back in 2000, and I built one of the first online casinos for a company called Coral Eurobet at the very beginning of the boom in online gaming. I subsequently worked on some other ground-breaking projects, one for Jaguar Land Rover, prototyping their first in-car user interface, and then Reuters, helping to outfit their new headquarters in Canary Wharf with a new kind of dynamic real-time news feed system.
I then entered into the world of digital advertising, and was hired by Agency Republic – the number-one digital agency in the UK at the time – to lead their creative technology team, where I worked on a string of award-winning projects that spanned the digital and social media domains (including #4 and #5 of the digital ads of the noughties). After a spell as Delivery Director, where I looked after operations across the company, I set up my first company in 2010, WEIR+WONG, with my business partner Andy Weir, with the aim of combining our knowledge of user-centred design and lean methodology practices along with hand-picked teams of digital specialists to produce the best work possible, a model which was pretty rare at the time in the world of traditional advertising agencies.
By breaking the mould in this way, we quickly got the attention of the Executive Creative Director of Google Creative Lab in London, and we soon became embedded into almost every project in the Lab. We worked as very hands-on executive producers for almost four years on a series of projects that demonstrated the potential of Google flagship technologies. We sent science experiments into space for YouTube (SPACELAB), brought the magic of the web to life for the Chrome web browser in the Science Museum in London, and helped teenagers change the world in Google Science Fair. All of these projects challenged us to innovate with new technologies to offer consumers a beautifully designed and enjoyable experience, that masked an enormous amount of complexity.
Success is wonderful, but failure builds character. What mistakes have you learned from in your journey to establish Custom?
The number-one challenge has been to build something desirable for our target audience. This is especially important in the sector our technology primarily focuses on – trends within the fashion industry. If it doesn’t appeal emotionally and visually, then people won’t hang around.
Throughout our journey we have employed user-centred design practices and lean analytics to test and iterate on everything we build to try and ensure that we are delivering on what each person who comes to Custom is looking for.
We’ve constructed a comprehensive series of personas built around real users of our platform, to examine what their individual backgrounds, goals and challenges are, and we’ve built up an extensive analytics dashboard to look at every part of their journey through the funnel they experience. Based on these analytics, we have iterated and tested continuously to improve the user experience, often through live split tests to ensure that we are validating as many hypotheses against a control test as possible to provide evidence to back up our thinking.
Using this approach, for example, we’ve clearly validated three great acquisition funnels, which is allowing us to acquire users at a low cost and drive thousands of consumers into one of our retention machines, namely our social media following. We’ve also made numerous user experience improvements to the platform which have driven down bounce rates and pushed up dwell times on the platform.
How big is your team and how closely do you work together day to day?
Our core team of five is based in London, and we have one freelancer working in Morocco who looks after our product scraping system. Of our core team, two are part-time (working on strategy, branding and design) and three are full-time (looking after technology, operations and marketing respectively). That’s a very lean team to be able to deal with so many pieces of content and products, and a testament to the power of the automated platform we have built.
We are all in constant communication via an app we use called Slack, and we make extensive use of a series of online project management tools and Google Drive to stay well-coordinated.
The funds we are seeking currently will help us build up a technical growth team, which will enhance our capabilities to drive growth through a combination of enhanced lean analytics and user experience improvements across the platform. We also seek to continue to optimise user retention through increased personalisation of features on the platform, and via a series of personalised email campaigns. Finally, we’ll continue efforts to improve conversion rates by offering more product matches and alternatives and ensuring that your ecommerce functions are the best in the industry.
What is your vision for Custom’s future?
Custom is a company built on data and insights about what is trending on social media, and I believe that is an exciting prospect both for consumers and for retailers. I’m excited about the potential to delve deeper into that data to provide insights into the whole life cycle of trends, so we can expand our offering.
So currently, we’re able to say what is trending right now on Social Media using Artificial Intelligence, I believe the future is about being able to say what will trend in the future with Artificial Intelligence.
Why did you choose SyndicateRoom for your fundraise?
There were three factors that informed my decision. The types of entrepreneurs that SyndicateRoom had available in their network, the costs involved in each platform, and my personal interactions with representatives of each platform.
SyndicateRoom appeared to have the most sophisticated investors, which was important for me as I wanted access to the largest pool of investors who could see the enormous potential of Custom.
They also used a nominee structure which has obvious benefits in terms of managing investor relations, allowing me to focus more on running the business.
Finally, the people I’ve spoken to and dealt with along the way, SyndicateRoom have been the nicest by far!