Transforming the Fashion Supply Chain: Flora Davidson, SupplyCompass
I’m Flora Davidson, co-founder and head of product at SupplyCompass, which is a product development and production management workflow tool for fashion brands and manufacturers around the world.
SupplyCompass is all about transforming the fashion supply chain. For somebody who’s new to the industry, what does a supply chain of the future look like, and how is this new platform helping people get there?
When we talk about the supply chain of the future, we’re really talking about how the fashion industry is going through a mega transformation at the moment, from a slow analog process into something more demand-led. To facilitate this transformation, we realized – via lots of research and visiting factories in India – that supply chain processes and how people manage production also needs to change.
We’re akin to an operating system for the fashion industry of the future. What Shopify has done for consumer-end e-commerce, we’re facilitating for suppliers and retailers in the industry.
You spent a long time visiting factories during your research phase. Did you encounter a series of pain points that helped you identify a product market fit, or was there a Eureka moment?
The first two years involved some heavy research whilst living out in India. There was an immediate Eureka moment where we realized how little innovation had been seen in the space. The fashion industry and supply chain affects the lives of millions of people everyday, so I was so surprised that it had largely been left out of the tech innovation and investment world.
In terms of the product market fit, it’s an ever-evolving thing. We knew from day one that it was going to be technology that we’d be building but we didn’t necessarily know it would be pure SaaS at the start. When we first started I was a little naive, but with naivety also comes fresh thinking.
We looked at some of the old PLM and ERP tools that existed in the space and they were so lackluster. It’s possible that the founders of these organizations had more advanced technical knowledge than I did, but ultimately they had failed to address the problems and consider the future of where the industry is going. In a way, my naivety helped me spot solutions that others miss.
A constant feedback loop with platform users must have been really important at that point. You’d already built up that network via your research in India. Did that enable you to create a user community and feedback loop fairly easily?
Yes. I can never understand when businesses say they find it hard to get close to users and learn from them – they’re obviously just not trying hard enough.
In the first four years I was speaking to customers day in, day out. Ultimately, when you’re trying to disrupt an industry and change behaviors, you’re trying to build something that has never existed before. You can’t just imagine that on your own – you need to get people to come on that journey with you and act as your ambassadors.
If we hadn’t got so many different perspectives – brands, production managers, designers, plus our other core customer base, our manufacturers and suppliers – we wouldn’t be where we are now. It painted a much richer picture of where all the common problems were and then how to solve them together.
I went to a factory in India with our MVP product. They were definitely surprised by us as a business – they said that no software company had ever come to ask them how they would like to work better. No-one goes there in their research phase, so I think we’re definitely unusual in this space.
SupplyCompass has a double challenge because you’re building something for two clients – factory owners and brands. How do you balance their needs against each other?
I don’t have a product or tech background, but ultimately you’re solving lots of problems and trying to make it really simple and easy for everyone. I’ve always liked to find the easiest route to do something without overcomplicating things or going too jargon heavy.
It is hard to satisfy everyone, but I think we’ve learned that you need to take both sides on the journey with you. What we’re looking at is building more pop-up tips into the platform to make our clients realize that some things can’t be done for a reason – explaining to the other side why you’re prioritizing certain features is always useful.
And how did you decide to build your technology? You mentioned before that you didn’t come from a tech background, and neither did your co-founder, Gus – did you outsource your product build?
Inevitably there were some investors who weren’t keen to back us without a technical co-founder. We built the original MVP with an agency, however after we raised our seed round we were able to hire a fantastic CTO and start building our team. We were able to take many of the learnings we had from the MVP and scale our technology and team quickly as a result.
Pre our Seed round of investment we worked with an agency to build our MVP rather than hiring someone in house, we quickly realized that we really needed a team that could shape the product with us. Eventually we landed on a development agency, who were brilliant. They were critical in training us in building and testing a great product and helping us identify some next steps.
Were you nervous about outsourcing the technology, or was there a sense of relief that allowed you to think more holistically about business strategy?
I think it was a relief. Because we’d been outsiders to the tech world we were aware of the gaps in our knowledge.
As a co-founder, I know my strengths – I’m good at speaking to customers, understanding what they want and then breaking that down into building blocks.
We weren’t precious at all about who shapes and feeds into what we build. We’re still not. Our product is what it is today, not because of what we’ve done individually, but because of all the people who fed into the product vision and our team.
There are so many agencies out there. Looking back now, what advice would you give to a non-technical founder trying to find a digital partner?
If you work with a digital partner, they need to be interested and excited by what you’re building. With our agency, it was definitely a personality match. Your outsourced team really needs to understand your vision. They’ve got to live and breathe it almost as much as you do.
It sounds like you have been on a personal journey as much as SupplyCompas has. If you could travel back in time, what advice would you give your previous self?
I actually practice this in my head a lot – so I’ve got quite a few things I could say! My main advice is to be much more ruthless in prioritizing what’s important. We tried to build more than we needed, and as a result didn’t build all of those features to their maximum potential.
It’s challenging to prioritize tasks for multi-faceted, end-to-end workflow tools where there is so much to focus on. That took us a while to work out. Focusing a bit more in the early days on working out what was most important would have saved us a lot of time.
It sounds to me like the industry itself is dying for the product, but how did you find the reaction with investors?
There aren’t many investors who specialize in supply chain software, let alone fashion supply chain software. There are a few more coming out of the woodwork now, but up until now I think it hasn’t necessarily been seen as a particularly lucrative area.
One of our initial challenges was getting people to see how much potential our product had, and how much it could disrupt a huge industry. We also spent a lot of time looking for investors who cared about us making a positive impact – this didn’t seem to come up a lot until a couple of years ago, although it is a more prevalent concern now.
What’s hard, is that people like to invest in something they can relate to – it can be difficult to see the potential in something outside of your realm of interest or expertise. We really had to work on telling a compelling story that connected with them and helped investors place our potential. They speak to so many businesses day in, day out, so you need to be able to make that immediate connection.
That’s an interesting point about investors looking for similarity and familiarity. It might mean a return – but ultimately that’s what contributes to a lack of diversity in tech. What enabled you to get your story to stand out in this environment?
I think the best advice someone gave to us was “don’t be afraid”. If people give you a reason why they don’t invest, build on that. We listen to every rejection we get, which isn’t always nice – but it helps us grow.
Ultimately, the most appealing thing we could offer is how we discovered the need for the product, and why we were creating it in the first place. Every business has got to grow and be profitable, but we were showing true potential to create a really exciting business and do good at the same time.
We spoke from the heart and I think they could feel that. When you first meet investors you’re a bit more guarded, but eventually you relax into them – by the 40th VC meeting I was completely myself, and that’s the one that invested in us in the end.
Let’s talk about your pricing model. How do you begin thinking about how you’re going to price your product, especially when you’re a two-sided marketplace?
It’s been a journey! Whilst we mapped out what pricing was for pre-existing products, we realized that they actually weren’t competitors because we’re disrupting the market – we’re creating new value that hasn’t existed before. How do you get people to put a price on something that hasn’t got an equivalent yet?
We’ve played around with a mixture between commission and a monthly subscription, free trials and a bit of freemium. We did a lot of testing with our customers, and they will definitely tell you if the pricing doesn’t work for them – so be open to evolving if needs be.
We took quite an unconventional decision to not go anywhere near user-based pricing. We wanted to make sure we didn’t build a really complicated process – fashion teams and their factories should be able to sign up and start using SupplyCompass straightaway, without price or heavy implementation fees being a barrier.
What’s next for SupplyCompass? What has the next year or so got in store?
The direction we are going in hasn’t changed a million miles from where we started out four years ago. We still want to build a platform that works for multiple customer types across the value chain whilst driving better practice – but we’re constantly tweaking and adapting how we plan to get there.
We’re fully focused on honing our features over the next year and optimizing what we can offer. Ultimately it’s about getting the fundamentals right before introducing more advanced functionality like impact scoring.
For example, initially our platform had a marketplace for manufacturers built in. We’re dialling that down because as a business it’s really hard to offer separate services to two separate clients at once. It was too much at this point. That doesn’t mean that we’re not going to go back to that marketplace element of our platform. We’ve got some great partners and we’ll continue to introduce people – we just won’t offer that kind of service element around it.
Finally, for you personally and as a brand, what has been your biggest takeaway around creating your product? Have there been any myths that have been shattered?
It definitely takes a lot longer! I think I’d also circle back to what I said earlier about prioritization and cutting everything that isn’t essential for immediate business growth, because you will sink with too much work.
Find one important thing to focus on each week, or each day. Focus on one thing at a time, or maybe two if you have a couple of things to do in the background – but don’t try and take on all your important tasks at once.
- You have no excuse not to talk to your customers. Making time for research is absolutely essential if you want a viable product.
- Find ways to connect to investors emotionally as well as offering a great business proposition – this might be the thing that cuts through.
- Prioritize, prioritize, prioritize. Working out what’s important for your business at the start of your journey will save so much time in the long run.
- Want more founder insights? Check out our report – Building a Successful Digital Product: 11 Founders Share Their Secrets for Success.