From a London pop-up to New York's Fifth Avenue and beyond, Yr Store is ripping up the rule book for retail fashion and merchandising. How does a start-up hit the international big time? CEO Tim Williams explains.
Created in 2013 as a pop-up in London's Oxford Street, the world's first live, interactive touch-screen clothing design device is now creating a storm in the US. A Hong Kong and mainland China mission are also already in the sights of creator, Yr Store.
The technology enables shoppers to create their own bespoke fashion designs and print them on to t-shirts, crops, tanks, sweats and accessories. Some of the biggest UK and US retail names, including Topshop and Selfridges, are offering the service.
The Yr Store technology also has been introduced to conference and event merchandising, personalising normally staid corporate gifts and giveaways and delivering a new kind of differentiation and delegate engagement.
It's a winning combination for the young start-up but CEO, Tim Williams, and his team are only just getting started. The idea to take Yr Store to the world was always part of the vision. The flexibility of the product to meet the needs of different markets plays well to the international conference circuit, he explains.
The business' overseas experience started with the US subsidiary of UK retailer, Topshop, in its new flagship store on New York's Fifth Avenue. This was seen in part as a marketing exercise, with Yr Store absorbing a fair amount of the cost, says Williams.
The experience not only enabled him to meet US clients and prospects, inviting the likes of Google to visit the New York installation, but also fired up interest in the conference merchandising strand. With a “living, breathing installation” in a prime location, Yr Store gained instant credibility, Williams says.
Setting up operations in New York required homework, but Williams is also a firm believer that at some point, to get a feel for a market you must be there and talk to people. “I don't think you can start to trade unless you have a proper presence in the market.”
Williams used some of the firm's UK clients with US connections to facilitate local exploratory meetings. The US connections were asked what they thought of the idea, whether it would be useful to them, and if they had seen similar products or been approached by anyone else. This gave the Yr Store team an understanding of the US market, says Williams. Getting out there and asking direct questions, he adds, “took the fear out of it for me”. It also reinforced his belief that “until you are in the US, no one will do business with you properly”.
Choosing New York as a first point of expansion has an immediate barrier in that there is an Atlantic crossing in the way. Finding the right time to talk and get home support can be “a bit of a challenge”, admits Williams.
The US team even struggled at first to set up mobile phone contracts and hire vehicles, for example. No trading history for the new `Inc' business meant no credit history. “It's been tough. You start on zero.”
Right from day one, Yr Store has operated a low-cost model. There is still a need to balance costs with the need to deliver the right service to clients. But, says Williams, “there's no point in throwing money away”.
Having strong partners locally has helped. In HSBC, the company found a treasured source of information and advice on establishing business overseas. And with Yr Store setting its cap at new territories, it has already taken part in Enterprise Nation `Go Global' trade missions to Hong Kong and China. Although he admits to a certain level of trepidation when first tackling Asia, Williams says he found it to be “a lot less scary than I expected”.
He adds: “This is where HSBC has been really strong for us on the advisory side and in setting up local introductions.” The bank's local staff have even been able to help with everyday matters such as phone accounts.
Yr Store's association with global brands has given it an early advantage, and Williams is ready for the next challenge. The key for him is simple. “You have to really explore and use your network and exploit every resource open to you.”
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