We talked to Joe Darwen of Veo about the online shopping community for people and businesses to connect, shop, and change the world, and he had the following to say:-
First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Joe Darwen: I’m well thank you, and my family are too. It has been a difficult year for all, but thankfully we are well, and we are keeping safe.
Tell us about you, your career, how you founded Veo.
Joe Darwen: I am a big fan of creativity, technology, and sustainability. I think those 3 things are a good summary of what I gravitate towards, by being creative, wanting to create new ways of doing things, and making sure what I do has a wider positive impact. These are also the foundations of what led me to create Veo. It started when I was working at the UK Government’s Department for International Trade (DIT formerly UKTI) delivering the ‘Ecommerce Export’ programme. For this programme, I worked in partnership with over 40 of the world’s leading marketplaces (including Amazon, eBay, Alibaba, etc.), and working with these leading global platforms it became evident that very few seemed to consider the ‘Real Bottom Line’. Or sometimes called the Triple Bottom Line (TBL), for Profit + People + Planet. This is a business framework that commits to focusing as much on social and environmental concerns as it does on profits. So in finding that none of the world-leading marketplaces seemed to support these values, I founded Veo as a vital future-facing alternative to other platforms that fall short of these ideals.
In a nutshell, Veo is an online shopping community for people and businesses to connect, shop, and change the world. Veo is seeking to solve huge real-world problems, empower ethical and sustainable brands, and we are on a mission to ‘make earth friendly mainstream‘.
How does Veo innovate?
Joe Darwen: It was evident early on in the business that innovative technology was going to be a critical driver for our success. In order to succeed in its mission, Veo couldn’t just be another generic e-commerce platform or online retailer, but at its heart, we had to be a tech-first company. So one of our core areas of innovation was solving the scalability problem inherent in large marketplaces. This now gives us the runway to democratise technology and provide access to enterprise-level RetailTech solutions from which many smaller independent or sustainable SME businesses are currently largely excluded (due to cost, skill gap, or technical barriers). As part of this mission, we won a grant from Innovate UK, to develop our project to help sustainable SMEs become resilient, flourish and thrive, by taking a seat in the $6 trillion online retail space.
Veo marketplace currently showcases over 300+ independent brands (and growing) that adhere to our comprehensive ‘earth friendly’ sustainability criteria. In order to join, brands must be first approved and complete an application which assesses key business areas, including governance, manufacturing, labor and workforce policy, and supply chains. (Brands can register their interest to join here).
The vendors we work with are incredible businesses, artisans of the products they produce, although it is often difficult for smaller or new/startup businesses to reach their target customers at scale. This is even more of a challenge for mission-driven ‘statement’ brands who operate with the Triple Bottom Line. So Veo is seeking to address these myriad barriers to market entry for sustainable brands, and provide the platform where they can be discovered by consumers looking for brands like these. Veo is a 2-sided marketplace to connect sustainable brands and conscious consumers, and maximize the user experience and value proposition for both sides. Part of achieving this includes innovating across all areas of our business, including AI/ML machine learning, automated and synchronized solutions, and hyper-personalization in product discovery UI and UX.
How has the coronavirus pandemic affected your business, and how are you coping?
Joe Darwen: Whilst the coronavirus pandemic is catastrophic, it has also highlighted a number of entrenched socio-economic failings and provided opportunities for the world to acknowledge and address these by the crucial transformation. This included the current ‘take-make-waste extractive industrial model’ of retail, along with repeated crises in finance, economy, health, and climate breakdown. As such, pre-pandemic, the core business model for Veo was already underway with tackling the causes of many of these crises, and Veo has experienced accelerated growth and traction during the past 12 months. Additionally, the “decline of the high street” and an increasing shift to online shopping, coupled with the accelerating consumer trends towards a sustainable lifestyle, makes Veo even more vital and urgent. Since the outbreak, we have grown our team, going from a 2 person FTE team (working with many 3rd parties and external delivery partners), to 7 full time team members and counting. We were also awarded a grant from Innovate UK, and secured strategic investment from Solid Bond Venture Builder. We expect to continue expanding the team over the next year and may continue to accelerate our growth plans with further investment. It has been a very challenging year for everyone, but I have used the time to focus on the business and double down in pursuing the Veo vision.
Did you have to make difficult choices, and what are the lessons learned?
Joe Darwen: Thankfully, I can say that there haven’t been many choices that I would class as too difficult at this stage. I believe that any tough decisions made in the course of building a company are the necessary decisions a team has to make to achieve the vision that they have for the business. That said, I have not had to manage any difficult matters like terminate any long term working relationships, lose staff, or other situations which I can imagine are very challenging. Though in regard to lessons, in order to mitigate against such difficult choices arising I try to ensure that any decisions that could negatively impact the business in the long term are always given the appropriate time and consideration, without rushing anything in the interest of short term leverage or convenience. Instinct is powerful, but also so is sitting with decisions for a time until the right choice becomes obvious.
How do you deal with stress and anxiety?
Joe Darwen: I’m not one to get stressed or anxious very often, but I try to adopt a mindset that can handle what’s in my control and accept or mitigate what is out of my control. I find this is a great way to understand what is best for the business, like where an opportunity doesn’t materialize, or things don’t go how you expected, then these are opportunities to find a new optimum path for the business. Like if something doesn’t work out, then don’t force it, or carry on swimming upstream, but pivot, be agile and responsive and find a way to achieve what you were trying to do but with a new solution. This doesn’t mean always finding the path of least resistance, but it’s knowing when to push and when to try a new way. I also do things like focus on what I eat, nutrition, yoga, working out at the gym etc. and find all of these things to be great for alleviating any stress and anxiety.
Who are your competitors? And how do you plan to stay in the game?
Joe Darwen: In terms of competitors there are some fantastic companies out there doing great things in the sustainable e-commerce space, although in terms of what Veo is doing we don’t believe there is anyone with the scope and vision of what we are trying to achieve. We have taken a tech-first approach to the platform, to democratise tech for small business owners, and allow frictionless setup, automated and synchronized product feeds, and seamless shop management. This is the technology for which we were awarded the Innovate UK grant funding and is a big part of how we will achieve the scale that we are seeking: to champion independent and sustainable brands.
In terms of the larger marketplaces, we don’t count the large well-known global platforms as competitors in the strict sense, because shoppers visit these platforms for specific things (including books, music, phone chargers, laptops, widescreen TVs, etc.) but there is no platform which is the destination for conscious consumers seeking sustainable brands across Veo’s core categories (Fashion & Apparel, Health & Beauty, Food & Drink, Home & Leisure). Worldwide there are thousands of incredible sustainable brands in this space, but they still remain more difficult to discover online, and they often can’t get the exposure on these large crowded platforms which are saturated with generic brands who are all often locked in a ‘race to the bottom’ price war. This is where the quality suffers and where supply chains are eroded. But consumers are becoming increasingly mindful of the social and environmental impact of their purchases and are eager to support statement brands and diverse artisans, particularly those smaller, local, and independent brands struggling in the current crisis. Veo bridges this commercial gap, connecting conscious consumers to sustainable brands.
Your final thoughts?
Joe Darwen: Thank you. I appreciate the opportunity to speak about our startup, and what Veo is setting out to achieve in disrupting retail and shopping better. I think it’s worth mentioning that in the current climate, the shift to online retail is accelerating and will certainly stick. In addition to this online retail shift, Veo is solving that second critical problem of making Retail more sustainable. According to the recent McKinsey study (January 2021), in the United States eCommerce penetration in 2019 was forecast to reach 24% by 2024, but by July 2020, it had passed 33% of total retail sales. In other words, “the first half of 2020 saw an increase in ecommerce equivalent to that of the previous 10 years.” And on the sustainability side, according to Ethical Consumer’s latest Markets Report (December 2020), it found that ethical consumer spending in the UK reached record levels in 2019 of over £98bn (up from £81bn in 2017). The data is showing that this has accelerated even more quickly over 2020, and continues.
These are 2 really positive market indicators and lays the conditions for Veo to provide an incredible platform for shoppers. A place where consumers can make positive impacts with their shopping, getting higher quality, guilt-free and without sacrifices, and turning their spending power into a force for good.
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