Nigel Phan: Building an unique eCommerce concept at pace




Not having a deep technical background, I was daunted by the complexities of launching a novel and unique eCommerce business concept. How do I launch a minimum viable product to market quickly? With a high quality in execution? On a fixed budget? And with the right foundations to ensure scalability for the next decade?


Augmenting my team with an agency partner


I started by searching for a technical co-founder – someone I could trust to recruit and build a high performing technical team up to the task. This proved fruitless. The biggest tech firms are finding it extremely competitive and difficult to recruit top tier technical talent, what chance does a start-up with no name and no customers have? Building a high calibre technical team takes years, and I wanted to launch my product in months.


That’s when I started looking at agencies and ultimately formed a long collaboration with Hex Digital. What really sold me was the broad spectrum of digital expertise they demonstrated during the initial meetings. Every individual I met from digital marketing, to design disciplines (across UX, digital, and motion), to technical development/build, left a strong impression that they would be great contributors to my venture. Turns out, the team I wanted to build over the years was already built for me, albeit at Hex. Through our collaboration, I could get the exact mix of time and expertise I needed, no more and no less.


Managing a fast growing start-up organisation a year on


At first it was just Hex and me working to launch a bare website and some marketing to test traction. We worked extremely quickly – three months in and we revealed our concept and branding for feedback, and three months after that we launched our minimum viable product and signed on our very first subscriber for a pilot. The pilot closed successfully a few months later, and ever since then we’ve been on a path of growth and scaling.


I’m a big believer in failing fast. We set these stage gates to quickly validate the business concept before continuing with the next phase. Without this discipline, founders can spend years building a product only to find out there isn’t a market for it. With Hex’s support, we quickly built a scalable back-end infrastructure and high quality web user experience. Their marketeers helped us get it to market and in-front of consumer audiences effectively. We motored through each stage gate fast and each passed with flying colours.


Today, we’re proud to be a leading pioneer in sharing economy retail concepts. Our subscriber base is fast growing, and we’ve received strong recognition for what we are doing to promote environmental sustainability. As the business grew, so did its complexity and ambition – we now have our own in-house marketing and technical teams, built with Hex’s support. Our agency collaboration still continues however, with Hex filling in very specific skill gaps that still exist in our team.


Should you work with an agency or keep it in-house?


A perennial question – honestly it depends on your ambition and appetite for pace. When done well, agency partnerships bring their expertise to get you off the ground quickly. They also help you make good strategic decisions that will underpin your company’s technology for years.


Agencies absolutely cost more than building your own team. But I hold the philosophy that if you’re building an ambitious business, then this additional cost is immaterial in the long run. The lost opportunity for getting execution wrong, and your business not realising its full potential, is far, far greater.


By Nigel Phan


About Nigel Phan


Nigel is the Founder and Managing Director of Whirli, a sharing economy subscription service for children’s toys. Before starting Whirli, Nigel was an Associate Partner at McKinsey & Company’s Consumer Goods and Retail Practice.

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