28 June 2016

Scaling: from start-up to contender

How do you grow a new business without losing control? Gareth Lucas of online retailer Unified Retail Group shares his brand’s story.

International Festival for Business 2016

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How do you grow a new business without losing control? Gareth Lucas of online retailer Unified Retail Group shares his brand's story.

Scaling is a pivotal consideration for start-ups during their transformative years. While forward-facing brands will likely have one eye on future growth, internationalisation and partnerships, such developments must be carefully controlled.

Online retailer Unified Retail Group started from humble beginnings as a true `spare bedroom business,' and has evolved into a five company group trading internationally across various product ranges.

Co-founder Gareth Lucas projects turnover of £8m for 2016, and the issue of scaling has certainly reared its head throughout his brand's rapid growth. His story reveals the lineage of the group's success, while revealing insights other start-ups can learn from.

Advancing to the next level

Lucas and his wife started selling ethical healthcare products online to boost their day-to-day income, but eventually dedicated themselves to the firm full-time. The business quickly achieved £1m turnover and established a dedicated customer base.

"Our aim has always been to retain full ownership so without going down the investor path, we had to be realistic about how we could grow year on year by reinvesting in the business and turning a profit month on month, year on year," Lucas explains.

With these milestones in place, expansion into dedicated premises and new markets felt like the next logical step. However, Lucas was mindful of losing control, so Lucas leaned on his software engineering background and employed a co-director with experience of processes.

Together they aimed to create a bespoke IT solution which covered all of the company's key elements from stock management and accounting, to logistics and customer management. The cloud-based system would prove instrumental to the firm's success.

Bringing IT in-house

Lucas explains that the firm was able to pick and choose available software and adapt it to meet the specific needs of his business, while forming a core part of the brand's IP.

"We now have a system that is highly efficient, scaleable and cost-effective to run. We can see all the information we need in one system in real time so we have a very clear view of our position at any given time. That allows us to make decisions quickly and grasp opportunities as they arise," Lucas reveals.

Scalability is key, as the company's portfolio has expanded to sell pet and toy products, while continuing to develop its software solutions to meet new business demands. Lucas stresses that in his mind, nothing is ever finished and has scope to continually evolve.

Cloud-based benefits

During the early stages of a start-ups lifecycle, speed, ROI and efficiency are crucial. Lucas pre-empted these factors when designing his IT system by adding in functionality that gave his firm near real-time feedback on various factors.

"We're at a stage now where we can look at individual products in terms of their actual financial return so we can make fast, informed decisions on how we invest in stock according to how it has performed financially rather than purely how much has been sold," he explains.

Unified Retail Group continues to expand today; entering new markets with the support of its robust, scalable systems which enable the firm to drive year-on-year growth.

"We've come a long way from the early days in our spare bedroom but we've had to constantly adapt, find new ways to do things and never take no for an answer," says Lucas.

We now have a system that is highly efficient, scaleable and cost-effective to run. We can see all the information we need in one system in real time so we have a very clear view of our position at any given time

Gareth Lucas, Co-Founder, Unified Retail Group

Key takeaways

  1. It is possible to buy existing business software and adapt it into something scalable and tailored to your firm's specific requirements. Employing someone with coding knowledge helped Lucas create a robust system for his business.
  2. Always-online cloud tools enable Lucas to check ROI and stick levels instantly to give his firm a real-time view of his operation, enabling him to make informed strategic choices.
  3. Cloud-based IT systems can give your firm a clearer view of working capital when new expansion opportunities arise. When margins are front of mind, this transparency can prove invaluable.

For further information about trading internationally, visit the HSBC Connections Lounge at the International Festival of Business in Liverpool where an HSBC Trade Specialist will be on hand to answer your questions or call +44 (0)800 78 31 300.

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