The Startup Interview: Mallzee
“Shopping is a fundamentally broken experience because it should all just be in the same place,” argues Cally Russell. At the age of twenty-seven, his two year old startup, Mallzee, has made its mark on the fashion industry, leading a change in how we buy our clothes by making it possible for consumers to compare brands at the touch of a button. So, to find out more about the company’s rise to the top of the App Store, his views on shopping and for advice on seeking investment, I went to meet him at his office in Edinburgh’s New Town in early August.
“Before we talk about Mallzee, tell me a little bit about yourself,” I ask. Cally tells me that he studied Politics and International Relations at the University of Dundee. “I got what is known as a ‘drinking man’s first’ or a 2:1,” he jokes. “I went straight to work for a public affairs and PR company called Weber Shandwick who are based just there on York Place,” he says pointing across the large roundabout in the direction of Edinburgh’s controversial tram route. Although Cally only spent six months working at the company before venturing out to start his own business, he appears to attribute a lot of his success to the communication skills he developed there. He warns me not to expect great secrets in response to my questioning; “You might as well ask, but you’re dealing with a former PR person so I know what to say and what not to say.”
“I always kind of wanted to do my own stuff so I left to set up an online student magazine called Student Punch,” he says. It was, Cally explains, a lifestyle business that allowed him to attend gigs four nights a week, have drinks with bands that he liked and then write about them the following day. “To be honest, I’m not a great writer so it was piss-pure content but it was really good fun,” he admits. With a daily readership of 5,000 and sponsorship deals with RBS, Cally realised, however, that he really wanted to work in e-commerce so closed down his magazine and founded — or attempted to — a startup called Recommended Buy. “It was all about students recommending stuff to other people to buy,” Cally explains, “but I don’t know about development or any of these bits and pieces so I subcontracted it out to another company. They totally messed it up; it as horrendous and it never really got going.”
Today, pieces of his idea for Recommended Buy have found their way into Mallzee, Cally’s latest startup which has recently secured a £2.5 Million investment with backing from Royal Mail. “So what inspired you to start Mallzee?” I ask. “I really like buying clothes — I like having nice clothes and stuff — but I really hate going to shops,” Cally says, before continuing, “I mean, it’s quite a broken experience; people harass you or there are loads of people and I just really dislike that whole experience of shopping.” He explains to me that Mallzee’s app aims to accomplish two things. Firstly, it’s about bringing together the high street; “you should be able to look at Topman beside Urban Outfitters, Orlando beside Puma, and so on,” he argues. The second aim is to filter the options presented based on style preferences; “you shouldn’t have to go through five hundred pairs of jeans. You should be able to fund the thing you want to buy really quickly,” Cally explains.
“I really like buying clothes — I like having nice clothes and stuff — but I really hate going to shops. I mean, it’s quite a broken experience; people harass you or there are loads of people and I just really dislike that whole experience of shopping.”
— Cally Russell, Founder of Mallzee
“So how do you tailor the choices to suit your customers’ tastes?” I ask Cally. “You can build a style feed for different parts of your life. So you can build a work wear style, a weekend wear style, etc and you build a profile linked to that which goes out and finds you clothes.” Although we don’t compare style feeds, I can safely assume that Cally’s work wear style feed and my own are miles apart — he’s sat in front of me wearing a casual grey shirt, black trousers, sneakers and a pair of Rayban sunglasses, a stark contrast to my ironed work shirt, chinos and pointed brown leather shoes.
In the space of two years, Mallzee have become one of the biggest mobile shopping apps in the UK — they are, Cally suggests, the original ‘Tinder for Fashion’ — and have also launched an American version which recently featured on Fox News. I’m intrigued as to where Cally plans to take Mallzee next, however, the former PR-agency employee tells me that this is one of those questions he won’t be answering. He does give some hints as to his ambition, though, saying “what’s great about our product is that it’s a global product. People have to buy clothes everywhere in the world and most of the retailers now ship internationally so it’s just the currency we need to look into.”
Perhaps in an attempt to trick him into a clearer answer, I ask Cally where he sees his company being in two or three years time. “Uh, oh, IPO,” he says rapidly. “Nah, only joking.” Cally goes on to explain that, for him, the next three years is all about taking their app to ‘the next stage’, opening up new territories and adding new products and brands. When I ask him how they sign-up new retailers, he says, bluntly, “we’re just a bunch of persistent buffers.” He goes on, however, to explain that, “as part of our deal with Royal Mail, they now introduce us to lots of retailers so that means we have really fantastic high-level conversations with all the major retailers in the UK which is a huge thing for us.”
As part of their investment deal with Royal Mail, Cally is also able to expand in another way — by acquiring people. From my first impression, Cally is very much a ‘people person’ and cannot help himself from repeatedly explaining that, in his view, ‘people are fundamentally good people.’ As such, it is no surprise that he and his senior management team enjoy hiring new staff as much as they do. “My colleague Callum — who’s my COO — said the other day that his favourite part of the job is offering someone a job and getting excited when they say ‘yes,’,” he says. But Cally is clear that Mallzee don’t just hire for the sake of hiring; “you don’t just want to have bums on seats, you have got to be really specific and know what roles you need and stuff.” In the past two weeks alone, the company has hired three new employees, having received more than one hundred applications for one role, and they plan to hire at least two more in the coming week. “It’s great to meet new people, acquire new skills and use them to go further,” Cally says with a smile.
“So tell me a little bit about seeking investment. What advice would you offer other entrepreneurs on that front?” I ask him. He pauses to consider his response. “Investment, at the end of the day, is really hard. It’s a difficult journey, it’s a long road,” Cally warns. He explains to me that, in order to receive the cash and resources to back up their global business ambitions, he leaves the business for three months to focus entirely on fundraising. Nevertheless, Cally assures me that seeking investment doesn’t need to be terrifying; “Some people are really terrified by it but, if you’ve got a good proposition, you understand your market and you can prove that you can deliver — and that’s the most important point — then there’s people out there who will want to back you,” he says. Citing his weekly trips from Edinburgh to London, as well as other trips to Manchester, Ireland and New York, Cally advises, however, that anyone seeking investment buy themselves a comfy pair of shoes and determine where to buy the best coffee.
“Some people are really terrified by it but, if you’ve got a good proposition, you understand your market and you can prove that you can deliver — and that’s the most important point — then there’s people out there who will want to back you.”
— Cally Russell, Founder of Mallzee
Before I finish my interview, I want to know what it is that makes Edinburgh the right environment to launch and grow Mallzee. There appear to be a few factors, not least of which are Cally’s six minute walk to work and being a passionate Scot. “I think Edinburgh proves that you can achieve and make big businesses here,” he says. “I was reading a report last night about the top ten places to start a startup in Wired magazine and they didn’t even have Edinburgh as one of the cities. We have two billion dollar companies here and a lot of the cities they covered didn’t have that. It’s time to put Edinburgh on the map and say ‘we can do this.‘” It’s fighting talk but he hasn’t finished yet. “We have fantastic technical talent, we have an entrepreneurial kind of society which is getting really strong, we have great transport links from around the world, a direct flight to wherever you want to go to, and London’s just four hours away if you need to go there and get cash out. Quality of life is fantastic as well.” Well that’s that argument made then.
I want to give Cally the opportunity to leave his mark at the end of the interview so I ask him what last thought he would like to leave the reader with. I’m hoping that he won’t pitch his product but, unfortunately, I don’t get my own way. “Download Mallzee on the App Store now and give us a five-star review,” he exclaims before admitting, “shameless plug at the end there.” Cally grins. You can tell that this is someone who worked in PR.