Interview with Lindsay Fisher, co-founder of Sparkbox
Lindsay, thank you so much for joining us as part of our Bloom interview series for Global Entrepreneurship Week.
It’s very exciting!
We are huge supporters of female founders, especially in the tech space - so we’re doubly grateful to sit down and talk to you.
First of all, you co-founded Sparkbox, so let’s start there - tell us about your business:
Sparkbox is a B2B SaaS solution, we do pricing for retailers. Basically, we take a bunch of data from them, we use machine-learning to predict what happens when prices change (so how do customers react) and then when they need to make a change we tell them which price to go to in order to achieve their business objectives. So if they want to get rid of all their inventory we can give them the price they need to do that but most profitably.
That sounds really interesting. How did the idea come about in the first place?
My co-founders and I previously worked in retail consulting - in a boutique retail consultancy in London - and we were building these solutions custom for major retailers in the UK and we started to look at how much value price-optimisation could bring to a retail business so we thought we’d try this and a year ago Sparkbox was born
And I can imagine it’s been quite a ride in that time! Does it feel like a year? Does it feel like longer or shorter?
Sometimes it feels like five years!
On the bad days, haha!
Other times it feels like five minutes, soo…
It is crazy!
You have to keep track because otherwise you have no idea of where you are.
Absolutely, and it’s a really exciting space to be in. Just last week, actually, I was in Lisbon for the Web Summit and I managed to catch some of the fashion talks, and there was the Senior Vice President at PVH Corp (which owns Tommy Hilfiger and Calvin Klein) who was talking about how much investment has gone into digital but only really the front-end and consumer-facing side of retail, where there’s still so much catching up to do on the backend - and that’s a very important part that you’re having to play in that role with Sparkbox, right?
Yeah, I think retailers are starting to look at how do I make AI something that can benefit the operational side of my business, and that’s very much where we’re playing - so we’re all about how do you have quick wins with really cool machine-learning. It’s an industry that really hasn’t been changed by technology in a long time. You have planning and buying and merchandising going on, on literally paper in some cases, so for us it’s really exciting. Retailers are actually going to spend more on AI systems in 2020 than banks will, so there are some really good indicators that it’s a huge and growing area of interest.
Definitely! And it’s not just me who thinks this is all very exciting and amazing, but we’re hot off the heels of you winning Fashion District Retail Startup Challenge, so huge congratulations on that!
Thank you! Yeah, it’s huge for our team.
A great accolade! So how did it happen?
Fashion District hosted a startup challenge - the theme was retail futures this year. We were very lucky to be one of nine shortlisted startups for the award, and then there was the pitch competition itself. We were very surprised, but just last week we won! We got some financial support for the business, which is really exciting too, but it’s also been great to raise awareness about Sparkbox - especially in our key area of interest, which is fashion and retail.
Definitely! Just being on the radar of those companies, in addition to the accolade and the financial support that you mentioned, is always very helpful! So did that have a big impact on the business?
Yeah, we’re totally self-funded with revenue - something we’re proud of it, but it’s also something that has an “end date”, so for us this is huge. With the investment from them we’ll be able to bring a new solution to market earlier, it’s going to allow us to grow our team a little bit earlier than we thought we’d be able to, so it’s huge. And we got a lot of feedback from everyone involved, which has really helped us think about the business and where we want to go with it in 2020.
Well, congratulations again! It’s great that there are these incentives out there to help support new entrepreneurs, new startups - is there anything else out there that you’ve found has been helpful for your business?
For us, we’ve been really focused on delivering an amazing product, and delivering for our clients. We’re only a year old, so we haven’t spent a lot of time looking into things like accelerators or other programs like that - it’s something we’re just starting to look at - but I think if you can get involved in the right one, if you can make the right contacts through them, they can be hugely beneficial. The value in those things really comes from the network. Obviously we won this prize last week which was massive, but the help and support we got from the individuals we met through doing that is what’s really going to help the business, I think, and that's what we’re really excited about, so in 2020 we’ll definitely be looking at how can we get involved in some other initiatives.
Exciting times up ahead! I think it’s important to take stock of the right things at the right stage in your business - you’re a year in, you’ve got this finite amount of cash which is only going to take you so far - so naturally then looking at the next steps as opposed to aggressively going out there and getting VC funding from day one. Right?
Yeah, I guess one of the things we’ve seen is that people look for validation through things like accelerators and incubators by raising money really early on. Sometimes you need that, to run your business, but for us we’re not looking for validation other than in delivering amazing value for our clients right now. So we’re building on that, as well as the team and the people we’re working with, and then hopefully we can leverage that to grow our business in the future. For us, we want to get involved in these things but we don’t want to get side-tracked by them
You mention “us” and “we” - there are a few co-founders in the team, right? There are actually four of you, which is quite a party! Usually there’s only two, maybe a third, so what’s that like? Not only four of you but the other three are all guys too!
My three co-founders, Alex, Matt and Kevin, are all great. We all met through work - we previously worked together in consulting. I think it works very well because we have really clear divisions and areas of responsibility. Four is a big team, but there’s a lot of trust and we each work on our own parts of the business that we can rely on to get all those things done. So, for example, I don’t know a thing about software development, which is Matt and Kevin’s remit as part of their data science role. It’s been good having so many of us working on it full-time. We’ve definitely got a lot done in the last year because of the size of the team.
Yeah! You quadruple your efforts! It’s easy to fantasise - as the solo business owner that I am- how helpful it would be to have someone else sometimes, but then I’m sure you come up against your own challenges either way?
I just wouldn’t do it without my team.
We’re well-positioned to take on what we’re taking on because we have such specific experience in this area, and it really does take all of us to do what we’re trying to do. For me, the time was right, I always knew I wanted to be an entrepreneur, but I never thought it would come this soon. So to have the opportunity to work with the team that I have I just had to take that.
Amazing. You mention you each have your own areas of expertise, so what’s yours?
I work on the delivery side of the business; delivering training and delivering into the retailers we work with, because my background is in merchandising, which means I used to be a part of the teams that are now using the product. I also work on business development and finance.
So you’ve had the first hand experience of the pain points and how useful something like Sparkbox is to the merchandising teams?
Amazing! You mentioned before that you met your co-founders at the consultancy you worked at previously and your career - at least on paper - seems very tidy and neat always in retail. Is it as pristine as it looks from the outside?
No! I started my career in retail with an opportunistic role with the American retailer, Target, when they came to Canada, and it wasn’t something that anyone from my university or any of my friends knew about because it was brand new to Canada. I thought it seemed like an interesting opportunity because they were opening 134 stores in a year-
Yeah! Spoiler alert: it didn't go very well!! But, through that experience, I was handed so much responsibility I didn’t even know at the time how lucky I was to have a huge opportunity like this playground to learn and deliver value into the business. I had the opportunity to work with a lot of great people. I love retail, I love the bread and butter of the trading, the day-in and day-out of retail. Then after a few years, I decided to move to London in 2015, and I knew I wanted to move into consulting because I wanted to work on a wider variety of projects. I was lucky to land a consulting position when I moved, I got a lot of great experience there, one thing led to another and thought this is the time to start a business.
I love how you talk about being thrown in at the deep end at the start of your career - something which really resonates with me! And I think depending on your character, it’s very much “sink or swim”. If you have the basic ingredients and character traits to succeed, then that can be the best grounding to your career - roll up your sleeves, get stuck in!
Fundamentally I solve problems, and there were a lot of problems to solve in my first job! I was very lucky to have been given the chance to work on some really cool projects - in buying and merchandising, as well as supply chain which I didn’t really imagine I would be working on when I first took that role. I had a lot of great mentors in that job, I worked some really cool people - It was like working for a very big, very well-funded startup! Trying to deliver last-minute, all the time - the pace was a million miles an hour.
Do you see that quite commonly in the retail sector anyway, regardless of the company size? Because you’ve got the trends to keep up with, and generally a fast-paced world? Par for the course in fashion?
I think it really depends. With retail, it’s an industry that just hasn’t been changed, there’s not been a lot of innovation in terms of the operational side. At the core of every retail business- and certainly every fashion retail business - is the buying and merchandising team and you look at the tools that they’re using and they haven’t changed in years and years. It’s a really fast-paced environment, but the tools that people are using are not being updated at the same pace.
It’s slowing them down.
Yeah, and humans can only make decisions so quickly, and so well. That’s where AI can come in. AI is really helpful in a place where - certainly machine learning and predictive analytics, like we’re using - in situations where people are repeating the same task over and over again, and the more data they have to help them, the better their result - but the more problematic it becomes for the human to do. So, in our case we’re saying let the machine do the difficult work the data-crunching, and then we’ll give you your options, and you can spend time thinking about how you want to apply that to your business, and how you want to implement it - rather than doing that hard bit upfront.
That makes complete sense! So tell me a bit more about AI in the business - other than it being the buzzword - it’s genuinely quite fascinating how that’s being used at the moment.
It’s really exciting because what we’re doing is really quite unique in the area that we’re coming from. With the way that we look at machine learning, we don’t take data for granted. We know that most retailers have difficult data - sometimes it’s not in a great format, sometimes there are missing pieces - so the first step in our process is to look at the data and see what we need.
For example, with our current client, they give us 20 pieces of data and in our machine learning models we’re using 140 pieces of information about every single product that we’re trying to predict price change outcomes.
We’re able to dig into the data to find new and interesting things that they might not be able to explicitly tell us that we can find for them and add value. We enrich and enhance the existing retailer data so they have an easy job of achieving those quick wins. We can then use machine learning to predict what happens when they change. Right now we’re using about four to five algorithms - we don’t have a one size fits all approach for a retailer. Instead, the platform looks at what makes the most sense for each business, and then picks the best options.
It’s exciting, and it’s certainly nothing I ever saw when I was working with different solutions in my merchandising role before, including some of the biggest solutions in this space.
Amazing. Jumping back to your time at Target in Canada, what was it that made you come across the pond to us?
I wanted a bit of an adventure! I thought I’ll move to Canada for a couple of years, I’ll have fun and then come home and sort my life out.
And look what happened!
Now I’m here, and pretty tied down! It’s fun. It wasn’t something I was really expecting - I didn’t think I’d stay here this long, to be honest.
London does that to you!
It does, yeah. It’s been fun, I love living in the UK. I think there’s so much opportunity here. I’m such a huge retail nerd, I’m into retail-tech and new and interesting things that are happening - and it’s all happening in London!
As someone from outside of not only the UK but also outside Europe I have to throw it out there - the B-word! How is that affecting you as someone.
We don’t really know how Brexit is going to impact our business, and not knowing is the problem. Everything from admin (like, how do I submit my European VAT returns now?) No-one knows the answer to that question now. We have a client in France who we regularly visit so is it going to be harder for us to get there is it going to be more difficult to do business in Europe? We don’t know the answers to those questions, so we’re just hoping for the best.
Yeah, everyone is saying the same.
For us there’s a huge opportunity in retail in the UK. I mean, retailers are only investing in technology right now, and that’s not going to stop. You look at some of the reasons like some of the major retailers like ASOS and SuperDry are posting losses, they’re blaming price-cutting. People are starting to realise they NEED this technology. It’s not a “nice to have” now, it’s a “I need this to make sure I can make the most of the inventory that I have” We’re seeing that in allocations, across the supply chains, in pricing…
So true. Entrepreneurship is incredibly hard, but it’s also become quite trendy these days as well. I heard somewhere that wanting to be an entrepreneur in the 2010s is what it would being a rock star back in the 70s. It’s been quite glamorised but we know the reality is quite different! What do you think have been the biggest lessons you’ve learnt in running a business for the pas year?
The biggest thing is probably that anyone can start a business. You don’t have to fit a certain profile. Partly the media now make us think you have to be a certain way, look a certain way, that you have to be young, or you have to fit a profile… But anyone can be an entrepreneur.
Part of becoming an entrepreneur is to start thinking about it maybe even before you know what you want to do. For me, I knew I wanted to be an entrepreneur a long time ago, but I always thought when that happens I want to be ready for it, and in the back of my mind I thought what can I do now to be ready for that idea when it comes. It helps you to think about the opportunities that exist around you and helps you to prepare, like saving financially, for example. Personal finances is really important. We don’t talk about that enough. You can’t just wake up overnight and say I want to be an entrepreneur - you have to be able to support yourself through that.
Thinking about those things in advance, like building a network. I didn’t put much emphasis on building a network and no I realise how important that is. Getting ahead of the game, you don’t have to be ready to do it in order to it. Anyone can do it - it’s up to you how you grow and build a business.
And everything takes longer than you think it will! Double the time you think it will take to do anything!
Also, set really clear goals for yourself. You have no judge of how well you’re doing, other than to guess yourself and rate yourself. I came from a business that had a huge feedback culture, and now there’s no-one to give me feedback.
That’s such a good point actually! That definitely resonates - you’ve got no frame of reference when you’re in business yourself.
The struggle is you have to hold yourself accountable, because no-one else is going to do it! But at the same time, you have to know when not to be too hard on yourself . You can’t look at other people to measure the strength of your own business. It’s a difficult thing to self-regulate, especially when the journey is inherently is so up and down.
You can get yourself into that trap quite quickly. You have to play both sides of that. You have to self-promote - you cannot be afraid to go out and talk about where you’re winning and how you’re adding value and how you’re business is changing. But then at the same time you can’t mislead people about where you are in the journey and you can’t rely on how well other people are portraying the stage they’re at.
I think there’s something to be said there on mental health side of things for entrepreneurs too. Thankfully, it’s become part of our everyday conversation and there’s much more awareness around it, which is fantastic, but I think there’s still a lot of work to do on the entrepreneur mental health because as you say you’ve only got yourself, you have to self-regulate, it’s tough, its extremely hard, there are ups and down, you need to be pretty resilient.
You need to take the time. You need to hold yourself accountable to ask “what do I need to be able to function well?” You need to take a day out here and there, you need to have weekends, you are entitled to weekends as an entrepreneur as well. You might spend a lot of time at the weekend thinking about the business and a few hours work in the afternoon, but you’re not going to win by working the most hours. You’re going to win by working smart and maintaining a balance for the long-term. It’s a marathon not a sprint.
There's a shift in mindset as well - self-care isn’t selfish. Actually, as the business owner your number one asset to the business is YOU. Imagine treating yourself in the same way you treat your other company assets - like your office or your laptop! I think there’s much more understanding around that but sometimes the hardest person to come to grips with that myself.
As much as you have to hold yourself accountable for delivering for the business, you also have to say I’m the only one that’s going to make sure I can sustain this over a long period of time. I mean I watched literally eight hours of Bake Off last weekend!
And I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I won a pitch competition the next day. There were eight hours of not thinking about anything.
It’s important to switch off. Well, Lindsay, it’s been an absolute pleasure to talk to you. Before we wrap up, any final words?
In honour of Global Entrepreneurship Week, I want to encourage anyone who’s thinking about starting a business to not be afraid to think about it. It’s really exciting, I think anyone can do it. It’s what you make it. It’s about what you want out of it - not what you think it should be or what other people think it should be. If you’ve got an idea and you’ve got an interest in it, I would never want to go back to working for someone else.
Fantastic, thank you Lindsay - really appreciate your time today. All the best with Sparkbox!
You can find out more about Sparkbox here: https://www.sparkbox.co/
Listen to the podcast on Spotify and Apple Podcasts - just search ‘Time to Bloom’ or click the image below to take you straight to Spotify.