Over the past years, retail and commerce have undergone a profound change. Now, this space is primarily associated with the online and digital realm, and it’s a trend that has no sign of changing anytime soon. As brands and companies go online and tap into the potential of ecommerce, they need to make use of different software and tech to remain competitive, stand out from the crowd and optimise processes.
Going online might be a necessity for brands and retailers in this era, but it’s not necessarily an easy thing to do. That’s what Upp wants to change.
The startup, founded in London in 2019, is a retail intelligence platform that aims to help retailers find new opportunities, optimise strategy, and ultimately spend more time with customers. It offers decision intelligence software, that automates decision-making and provides insights to retailers that have previously been inaccessible – including hidden trends, inventory problems, changes in trading conditions, price competitiveness and so forth.
As we approach the busiest time of year for retailers, we took the opportunity to chat with co-founder Ben White to learn more about Upp, and how its helping small retailers overcome challenges in today’s digital and uncertain world.
Ben – you’ve invested in companies, you’ve founded others, and you’ve been behind some pioneering tech.
Can you tell us a bit more about your entrepreneurial journey?
Business has been in my blood from as early as I can remember, and my father was an entrepreneur. In my teens, I vividly remember talking to my parents over dinner and sharing a story about when I’d bought some Christmas trees and sold them on for a 100% markup. I loved the thrill of buying and selling something on for more. Much like the businesses I’ve since set up, sold, and invested in, I still get that same thrill and excitement seeing them grow, and until that leaves, I won’t stop working.
Looking back at your career, what moments stand out?
Over the years, I’ve learnt that the people you work with and your customers are the most important people and are my biggest inspiration. They’re the ones who tell you what works and what doesn’t – and that’s what’s driven me to set up multiple businesses. I’m proud of something that’s characterised everything that I’ve been lucky enough to be involved with: when we’ve spoken to customers 90, 180 days, or a year after buying our product – whether it be Upp today or MessageLabs, or Star, or all of my previous businesses, they would all buy that software again and they’d all recommend it.
If you can’t build this into your business, so that your customers are championing your business, you can’t get to the level we’ve reached with Upp, and beyond as I did with my other businesses. I’m also proud of everything we created at MessageLabs, back before funding was wildly available as it has been in recent years – I look back and think about how we generated £100m in revenues and only took £35m in investment. We built an almost $billion dollar company and the positive affirmation that came from selling it in 2008 was something I’ll never forget.
Currently, you are working on Upp.
Can you give us some background on the company? What is the company’s vision?
We’re building a product that I believe will be as essential to online retailers as Stripe and Shopify. I must add, it’s not my vision, it’s Drew’s, the CEO of Upp. I met him three years ago, and I was inspired by the person that I met, the brain that he has and his vision – if we put inventory intelligence at the core of a retailer, what could that do in terms of changing trading capabilities of a retailer?
After I’d thoroughly researched this I decided wholeheartedly to back Drews idea and became Upp’s chairman. Retailers need help to make money – they make it at headline level, but not on their bottom line. Online retail is becoming more competitive and more difficult and performance marketing is one of their biggest costs.
Simply put, we help retailers make more money.
Our decision intelligence gives them more control, and allows them to see exactly what’s going on in their business and an understanding of their performance marketing spend, at a product level, and at scale. They can make more money and capture more of the demand when it’s there, and waste less money and time – stopping needless promotion when there isn’t demand. As a team, Upp is now 26 people strong, having made 8 new hires this year and with plans to double in size over the next two years.
Upp is disrupting the retail space, making it easier for retailers to boost revenue.
How exactly does it do this?
Upp automates advertising decisions and our decision intelligence allows customers to change business outcomes. This changes the way retailers work because they don’t have to rely on human agencies or teams to make all the decisions and they gain a competitive advantage as they have unique insights coming from our decision intelligence. We do this by putting inventory at the heart of decision-making.
Within 24 hours of installing Upp’s software, online retailers can instantly match supply (their inventory data) with demand (Google consumer data) and business operations data. Using this connected and informed data set, Upp’s AI automatically actions thousands of micro-optimisations to Google Shopping (now Performance Max) campaigns in real-time, all aligned with a retailer’s business objectives. If ROAS is the target, improvements are made overnight, CPAs are immediately reduced, and retailers automatically reinvest previously wasted ad spend elsewhere.
Upp acts on the data 24/7, effectively automating decision-making and providing insights for retailers previously impossible to gain, whether that be hidden trends, issues with inventory, changes in trading conditions, price competitiveness or insights on promotions and delivery.
What are the main challenges that retailers face? And how does Upp overcome them?
Advertising is the 2nd biggest cost to a retailer and 75% of online ad spend is on Google. With that in mind, 85% of the inventory on Google is in fact eroding margin and not contributing to revenue, whilst 60% gross margin shrinks to just 5% net. Upp helps retailers solve this.
We want Upp to be the trading operating system of choice for all retailers by 2025 and really want Upp to sit on the big screen in trading meetings – replacing boring spreadsheets and graphs. Drew’s said before that he’s confident that reporting suites are designed for the user who is heavily analytical and you still need the ability to interpret the graphs and reports. A CEO, CFO, Head of Digital or Marketing doesn’t have time to go through reporting suites to understand what the data is telling them and find the source of an opportunity or a problem.
Upp was founded before the pandemic hit.
What was the impact on Upp?
Retailers were spending far less on performance marketing before the pandemic hit. Then everyone was at home, consumer buying changed and performance marketing costs grew. When you look at the data that’s coming from our customers, clients are spending almost four to five times what they were in 2019. So the issue of additional spending has only just appeared on the CFO’s radar. We helped businesses trade more effectively, so the pandemic didn’t affect our sales because we adapted our ways of working easily and continued to help retailers adapt to the changes.
What about your clients?
It all depends on the business and their respective sector – many enjoyed spikes in their sales and were focused entirely on growth at scale through automation. Whilst the likes of Charles Tyrwhitt had to pivot with consumer appetite, become more agile and adapt to market conditions. We gave them the data they needed to do this and the automation to allow real-time changes.
We are now coming up to the busiest time of the year for retailers.
What’s different about this year?
Upp is providing solutions for retailers facing the reality of today’s economic headwinds and the fact that, even before inflation, rising retailers were making sales but very little profit.
How can tech help retailers navigate the challenges?
With many retailers moving from thriving to surviving, our decision intelligence has never been more necessary. Automating advertising decisions gives results faster and decision intelligence helps businesses improve. Upps tech, on average, provides a 27% increase in revenue for retailers, increased sales velocity and a 32% increase in hitting ROAS. And above this is our decision intelligence which can help improve business performance.
How can small retailers stand out in the increasingly crowded e-commerce space?
It’s evident smaller businesses can’t afford data scientists to look into their data, and this is where Upp comes in. We level the playing field and play to the narrative for businesses to own their own customer data, and use it to their advantage, at every level.
What trends do you see growing in this space over the next year?
In all honesty, there are lots of distractions for retailers, so for me the focus has to be retailers making money and growing. Here’s a prediction for you, and I’m obsessed with not drinking the kool-aid, as well as obsessed with speaking to customers and getting their validation – I anticipate that in three years time decision intelligence will be the norm and you’ll be laughed at if you’re not automating your advertising decisions. Upp can see our customers are changing strategy from growth at all costs to profitability by the way they are changing campaign targets. Eliminating waste wherever possible is key to coping in this economic environment and a focus on sustainability is a major driver for consumers and businesses.
Any words of advice for retailers out there, struggling to navigate the current crises?
Two things. Firstly, automating advertising decisions is a no-brainer – 72 million SKUs analysed 24/7 and 48,000 changes made on Google Shopping per week by Upp simply cannot be done by human teams. Secondly, online retailers have the capability to place informed bets – so don’t waste your advertising budget by betting on your entire inventory. Instead, use your data to make informed decisions, allocate budget accordingly and connect that data to help every single department.