Brad Aspess, Founder and Chairman of Rarewaves, one of the fastest growing online tech retailers in the UK, spoke with World First’s Jeremy Cook at Retail Without Borders last month. Find out how Brad harnessed the power of online marketplaces to take Rarewaves from passion project to booming global business with 2017 sales touching £30 million.

Jeremy Cook: Good morning, so Brad do you want to introduce yourself to the crowd?

Brad Aspess: I’m Brad Aspess, the founder of Rarewaves; it’s my third and last start-up and I’ve been in the music business originally from the 1970s. I have had wholesale businesses and retail businesses and in the 90s I had concessions. That really was the forerunner for marketplaces and I exited that business at the end of the 1990s because I could see where the world was going with retail and then began Rarewaves about 11 years ago.

JC: And it was a U2 album that helped kick everything off?

BA: Yes, I collected memorabilia and I had a range of products and a friend of mine had recently taken a job at a company called Ebay, which was just launching in the UK and they were doing auctions at the time. He wanted to sell some of my stuff—he wanted me to sell some of my memorabilia online. Being a little technophobic at that time I said to him, ‘you do it for me’ and I gave him a U2 flight case of The Joshua Tree album which had the album, a CD and a cassette in it and he put it on for a penny. I said, ‘it’s probably worth a bit more’ and it went for £1800. He gave me very little of the £1800, there was a lot of commission and he said, ‘do it yourself’. So I did and one or two of my old suppliers in the music industry came along and said, ‘would you mind selling our products?’ Universal Music came along and said, ‘we’d like to work out Ebay and maybe there is another channel for us to retail product’ and that is where it started.

JC: So it started in the UK it started by auctioning on Ebay UK?

BA: It did and we got into new product quite quickly but we weren’t auctioning. We were doing ‘Buy It Now’. We became a new product seller and we were exclusively Ebay until 2007 or 2008 which was when Amazon started their marketplace and had a real drive to get retailers on to their marketplace not just in the UK but worldwide. They actively worked with you to launch and grow your products.

JC: So it is HQ’d in the UK still to this day?

BA: Yes, it was the UK that started us off but the US Amazon offices got interested very quickly because of the range of products that we were beginning to sell – we had 30,000 to 40,000 products that we were beginning to sell originally. Today we’re up to about half a million and that is across many different product groups, not just entertainment.

JC: How many marketplaces are you guys working with?

BA: We see the UK as quite a small market and in the big scheme of things it’s not really where you want to be totally based. So the quicker you can move into Western Europe, North America, Australia the quicker you will grow your business. You do have to understand the local market problems though because you are responsible for what you sell into those markets legally and you have to make sure that you are covered. It takes a while to understand each market. I would say that selling on Amazon it took us about two years to work out what they wanted to do and how we should approach our business. So we grew pretty quickly as soon as we realised that it is all about the customer experience. You have to understand what the platforms really want to deliver to their consumer and then try to replicate it yourselves which is, ‘the consumer is always right and this is how it works and this is how returns work’. If or when you understand that and understand the systems then you can really move on to another platform or another territory.

JC: And that’s allowed the business to expand from the UK back in…

BA: 2005 was when I think we launched as a business. I was selling personally on Ebay prior to that and understanding what the marketplace was. We launched in Japan as long ago as 2008 and then we began launching in the US, Germany, France, Italy, Spain as Amazon opened marketplaces there and we followed them around the world. It became a simple easy entry to market. One thing we never did was open our own website so you can’t come to to buy directly from us. We found the cost of launching your own website is very expensive and then you have to market it and get people there. It was a small business; you want as many people to buy from you as quickly as possible. You widen your net as wide as possible and we allow Amazon or Ebay or Fnac or Priceminister to bring in the customers to look at our products and decide what to buy.

JC: Is it a necessity for a business like yours to sell as much as you can, as varied a selection as you can?

BA: Well, we don’t curate—we have no idea what the consumer wants. We’ve supplied I think 12 million consumers worldwide so far and if we were to try and put in front of them what we thought they wanted to buy we would get it wrong. In media it’s quite difficult because you might not sell anything for a period of time and suddenly a famous person passes away and demand becomes incredible. If you curated then you wouldn’t have that available.

JC: What happened after David Bowie died?

BA: Phenomenal. It’s one of the very strange things about selling media that there is a phenomenal spike in people saying, ‘I really want that David Bowie Greatest Hits album’ or Prince or even Chuck Berry very recently. The demand is such that it outweighs the previous five years in a day or two. It also works in film as well; Robin Williams, he was in 42 films and when he died all of them started selling again. If we tried to curate for one particular day we could only get it wrong. So what we try and do is put all the product out there which is where marketplaces tend to work. With no insertion fees you can put a product out there and if it sells you pay a commission and if it doesn’t then you haven’t really lost anything by putting it out there.

JC: What’s the timeline like for an investment into a new market for Rarewaves?

BA: It would probably take a 12-month period really, from  ‘we quite like the idea of that’ to it being in full flow. The integration takes time, the payment process needs time to be worked out. Whether we can sell the particular products in that territory as well. Even in the EU there are some products that we can sell in France that we can’t sell in Germany.

JC: What are the challenges of growth in taking it to the next step?

BA: Trying to keep a lid on it honestly. We have suppliers who can see that we have all these different products and suppliers from other areas that want us to stock their products and platforms saying ‘come and open with us’. So we’re actually quite well received so we have to make sure that we don’t try and do too much within our business model. We grow at about 50-60% a year compound and we try and stay very true to what we started at the beginning which is to understand your market before you move on and understand your product before you move on.

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