Vaughan Rowsell sits across from me wearing a smart device on his left wrist and a hat featuring an astronaut riding a unicorn out of a rainbow on his head. Neither of which are surprising when you know a little about the founder of Vend.
The software engineer and startup veteran started the point of sales system (PoS) for retailers from his bedroom in New Zealand seven years ago; coding it then publicly launching it with the unique selling point that it could set up within minutes.
Just 84 months later his systems process some £40 million of retail transactions in the UK each month and are used in over 20,000 stores across 140 countries. But that’s his old job. He’s now Chief Product Officer – though still at Vend. Why?
“I recently stepped out of the Chief Exec role to focus more on the direction that we were going. For seven years we were the pioneers in what we were doing… but everyone else has caught up to our great idea,’’ he says, speaking to me in a London coffee shop.
He has now sat down with his employees, redone the product road map and most importantly brought the engineering team “in line with that”.
What’s the Plan?
“That” is big plans on big data.
“We’ve got the richest data source of retail data anywhere in the world, so we’ve got product information, transaction information, customer information, supplier information.’’
He admits that turning this seam into unique new revenue sources is all still a work in progress: “Honestly it is probably another three years’ worth of work.”
A New AI Store Assistant
“Dott”, rolled out late last year, is the company’s attempt to drive unique value from retail data.
“Imagine if you came into your store every morning and you were greeted by your store AI who told you how your business had been going for the previous few days.’’
It would also suggest ways in which you could enhance your business, by telling you what steps to take to ensure a good return on investment.
This prompting on what steps you should take next to improve your business is an important point for Vaughan; computers have the ability to accumulate large data sets and records “which is great if you know what to do with it…we’ve constructed a machine learning team, a data team and an AI team to think about how we are going to take advantage of that.’’
It is in this exact type of large data sets where machine learning (ML) can make a huge impact for your business. ML can analyse all that data and then add categories, outcomes, recheck it and learn new outcomes; the richer your information the better.
“We Can See Which Retailers are Going to be Successful”
Vend’s system have provided this data: “We can see in the data which retailers are successful and which ones aren’t. Even better than that, we can see which retailers are going to be successful, because we can see that they are doing the right things in their business.’’
Dott creates a profile of you as a business, it shows you what your trends are and makes suggestions. Yet, Dott can be expanded out to include any information you have about your customers.
“Not only can we analyse the retailers’ businesses, but we can start to have a look at customer behaviour in store. So we can tell a retailer who their highly engaged customers are, who are their infrequent customers.’’
The system can spot when a customer moves from being an engaged high-spending customer to a disinterested low buyer; “we can help identify those customer to the retailer and give them idea on how they can reengage.’’
The Entrepreneurial Thought Process
While Vaughan Rowsell has the company set up, even has it shifting to a new direction, I was curious about that moment when he decided to start all this from his bedroom; how confident was he it would be a success?
‘”I think every entrepreneur goes through the yo-yo of exuberance into depression, hitting your head against the wall wondering what you are doing and will it every work. Even quite irrationally, even when you have got something that’s working. I think that’s what makes a good entrepreneur, I call it impatience you just want things to be better.’’
‘’But I think it was always backed up by just this unwavering feeling or knowledge that it was always going to work. I think you have to have that; if every day was facing into the abyss wondering why you are doing it at some point that would wear pretty thin!”
It’s not just the Vend team meanwhile who will be hoping for a pot of gold at the end of this big data rainbow. The struggle of retailers – amid online market consolidation and falling bricks-and-mortar footfall – continues. If products like Dott can help turn the trend around, more than a few will be doffing their caps.