eSellerPro, Volo and Beyond: An Interview with Paul Watson

Paul Watson Volo Interview

Since 2006 eSellerPro has been a software platform for businesses selling high volumes of products on Amazon and eBay.

Over those years they’ve established a solid reputation, but in typical British fashion they haven’t made a lot of noise about what they were doing. It was undoubtedly an effective piece of software – a reliable workhorse – but seldom in the news.

Then in February 2015 a new company emerged. That business, Volo, had a bold design, distinctive videos, and big photos featuring happy customers and team members. Volo seemed full of confidence, innovation and ambition. This was eSellerPro’s new brand, and it couldn’t have been more different.

Why did they make such a big change, and what does it mean for the company? To find out I spoke to Volo’s CEO Paul Watson, who’s been running the business since October 2013. It turned out there’s a lot more going on than just a new brand. Volo also has 50% more staff at the company, a brand new user interface coming soon, and an imminent expansion into the US.

Yet there’s still a focus on high performance: Volo’s customers hold the records for both the highest sales by value, and the highest by order volume, in a single day on eBay, worldwide. It was definitely time to find out more about this company.

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Andy: What was your background prior to Volo?

Paul Watson: I started off in mining actually. I spent the first three years of my working life in a goldmine, three kilometres underground.

I spent the first three years of my working life in a goldmine

I was a geologist and I got a job in South Africa. I didn’t realise that being a geologist meant that you had to be right on the working face most of the time, making sure they were mining the right rocks. The face was about a metre high so it was all about crawling around on your hands and knees about three kilometres underground. It was an interesting experience, terrifying and exciting in equal measure!

Wow, it sounds dangerous.

We had a fatality rate of one a week on average. There were a lot of employees there, tens of thousands actually. In my department you were paid a bonus based on performance against two indicators. One was grams of gold per ton of rock extracted, so that made sure we were only mining gold bearing rock and not too much waste. The other one was fatality-free shifts. If there were no fatalities in the quarter, everyone got a big pat on the back and a bonus. After three years I realised I’d never had a bonus for that fatality-free shift piece and thought it was time to move on.

Are there any learnings that you’ve applied from those years underground?

Don’t be scared of anything that can’t break your bones

It’s a long time ago now. But I think it teaches you not to be scared of anything that can’t break your bones. The consequences of getting something wrong when you’re down there is quite devastating. So I think it taught me to be brave, to take risks.

What did you do after gold mining?

I set up a software-as-a-service company called 4th Contact at the beginning of the 2000s. I was working in financial services at the time, and realised that there was a lot of paper being pushed around to administer HR and employee benefits – pension schemes, share option schemes, healthcare, all that sort of stuff. Employers were transferring paper to the pension administrators, the healthcare administrators, all of the other benefits you can think of. And they were doing that every time they had a new employee, or someone had a promotion or pay rise.

I saw an opportunity to use the internet to connect the payroll and HR systems of an employer, to the admin systems of a benefits provider. That became an automated admin system. We then created an interface for employees to be able to choose their own benefits, or to trade salary for more pension, or less pension for more pay, and all of that good stuff. I started that in 2000, raised venture capital, and built the business to a very sensible size with customers like Walt Disney, the London Stock Exchange, Daimler Chrysler, Volkswagen.

We sold that business to a company called Star, which was part of MessageLabs Group. Over the following 10 years I led various functions of the business and ultimately in 2012 I oversaw the sale of Star to Claranet as CEO. Then I took some time off, chilled out and had a nice rest. In 2013 I was asked if I would like to get involved in eSellerPro, as it was then. So I came and had a look and was very excited to get involved. I joined as CEO in October 2013.

So you’ve been in the SaaS business for a while, but was Volo your first experience of ecommerce?

Those growing pains and challenges are all relevant to the space I’m in today

Yeah. 4th Contact was the original SaaS business I set up. That was focused on larger companies, enterprises. But Star was very much SME [equivalent to SMB in the US] and midmarket-focused, engaging with entrepreneurs and business owners. We were quite often selling to owner-managers and companies that didn’t have a great deal of resource, and needed to outsource a lot of their IT and communications. We were enhancing their capabilities as much as anything, through a managed service.

My experience of owning and running SMEs, I think is relevant. And my experience in running a business that’s bigger than this, but has grown from a very similar starting point. All those growing pains and challenges that you get as you grow, and the challenges in the market as things change, they’re all relevant to the space that I’m in today.

My only retail background is that my dad owned toy shops when I was younger. I was made to work in those every spare minute.

That sound’s like a boy’s dream, growing up in toy shops.

You’d think it would be a pleasure. But you know what it’s like when you’re stocktaking and sweeping the floors and trying to chase off shoplifters, being sent around the neighbourhood putting leaflets through the doors.

I consider that I’ve been brought up in a retail family. And I’ve got that experience where everyone’s got to play their part. It’s unsociable hours and an ever-changing market. So that has stood me in good stead.

What was it like moving into an ecommerce technology company?

Retail technology is at an innovation stage where you’re finding solutions to new problems, and there’s ways of making businesses more effective that haven’t been done before. In the IT managed services world, it’s quite commoditised. It becomes quite a vanilla service and it’s difficult to differentiate. So it’s a much more exciting space, with a lot more ability to help our customers in new ways to make them more effective, and help us be more successful as a consequence.

So you’ve been at Volo for a year and a half. What are the biggest changes you’ve undertaken at the company in that time?

It started with the team. I brought in new capability on the engineering and operations side, and we invested more in sales and marketing. On implementations and project management we have a larger team too. The size of the company has grown 50%, and we’re now up to just short of a hundred people. We had to move office to accommodate everybody. The plan was to accommodate all of our R&D and operational staff in one building on one floor, which we’ve done successfully in Cheltenham.

Volo Office

Then we looked at making the business much more customer-centric, putting the customer in the centre of the decisions and improvements that we were making. We started to look at areas where we needed to improve from a customer satisfaction perspective. That was on things like responsiveness.

Our business model is a shared-value model. When our customers win, we win.

Then we focused on our product and making sure that it was a clear solution for our target market which would enable them to grow their business. At that time there were some gaps which our customers were telling us about, as soon as we started talking to them. So we spent the next nine to twelve months completing on those gaps. It was things like data analytics, reporting, alerting around their business KPIs – giving them intelligence about how they could be more effective in their business.

At the end of the day our business model is a shared-value model. When our customers win, we win. So it was about getting back to understanding the complexities that they were suffering from, or needing to overcome. And making them more effective in a way that gave them a better overall experience of being a customer with Volo.

I see a lot of ecommerce software tools as “point solutions” that address just one need, like shipping orders. You provide more of an all-in-one solution. Why have you chosen the all-in-one approach? Are there additional challenges that it brings?

I think it served us very well and continues to serve us very well. Within that broad suite, we are much more focused on certain areas than others. We do have a broad solution and for the customer that means that they don’t have to integrate with three or four other providers, and have the overhead of managing a number of vendors, or maintaining integrations between those platforms. So we believe that the total cost of ownership is lower over time if you take it from us.

Clearly we can’t be market leading in everything. Multichannel management is a core focus for us. It’s one thing to be able to sell your products, but if you can’t fulfil them in a fashion that provides satisfaction to the end customer at the scale that supports your sales you have a different problem. Our beginnings are actually in fulfilment and making sure that orders can be despatched to customers in a decent and timely fashion. Connecting that to multichannel management provides an overall solution for most of our customers that is the right thing for them.

When a customer wants to use a third-party tool instead of your built-in functionality, like a repricer for example, where do you stand on that? Do you help them or just look the other way?

Our objective is to be more and more inclusive. You can use all of our suite, or you can connect pieces to it.

Our objective is to be more and more inclusive. We create a multichannel hub and you can choose to use all of our suite, or you can connect pieces to that suite. From a warehouse management perspective, we connect to PeopleVox. We connect to Magento, and there’s the ability for people to connect repricers and translation services to us. We don’t want to create barriers for people to have that choice. That’s absolutely not what we want to do. Openness is key and we’re becoming more and more open.

How do you go about deciding which feature you’re going to add next, or which platform you’re going to add an integration with?

Well, it’s generally customer-driven. We have mechanisms whereby we capture customer drivers, and there’s also the changes that are inherent in the channels that we connect to. But typically what we want to do is remove the complexity of our customers trading on multiple online channels, and give them extended reach into other markets – that could be other geographies or other marketplaces.

Our objective is to make that connection as straightforward as possible for our customer so they can experiment at low cost and understand whether they can receive the gain with little of the pain, if that makes sense. Then ensuring that the information that we hold on our system gives them the right intelligence to be more successful.

We have requests from marketplaces and other channels all the time, from all parts of the globe. We’ll assess them on their merits, based on how it relates to our types of customer. We are quite selective with what we connect to – if you’re not careful you’ll get carried away with adding all of the different channels and being superficial. We like to understand the business case by speaking to a broad set of our customers. We don’t want to throw R&D money into delivering channels that don’t actually pay back, although over time our plan is to add a very broad set.

What types of businesses do use your platform?

There’s two primary customers. You’ve got the traditional merchant seller who uses the broad suite from listings and sales processing to despatch. Then you’ve got those with their own ecommerce platform, ERP or warehouse management tool, particularly larger retailers and manufacturers who are using our platform to manage the marketplaces. So we integrate to their ERP, provide the listings out to the marketplaces, manage the sales orders back, and pass the orders to an inventory or a warehouse management tool.

How do you balance the needs of both the smaller marketplaces and the bigger brand names?

Our bread and butter, our core focus, is the merchants who are generally smaller companies, owner-managed. If we can satisfy them, and the multichannel management element of our platform is highly scalable, highly resilient, then it satisfies the larger enterprises as well.

Our bread and butter, our core focus, is the smaller owner-managed companies

In effect we design for the merchants, who are our mainstay. As a consequence of the high volume that they put through the platform, we’ve got the scale that satisfies the large enterprises as well. But the marketplace sellers are our core customer. They’re the centre of how we plan, and we don’t expect that to change.

If you put our customers together there aren’t a vast number of them, less than 400. But collectively in 2014, they sold 39 million items that then converted to 25 million labels printed by the platform and parcels shipped. They went to every single country in the world apart from North Korea. There’s a lot of volume that goes through the system and it ends up in a lot of parcels.

In terms of merchants we’ve got KMS Direct, Linens Limited, ShopTo, Ace Parts, Passion for Autos, Cheapest Electrical, Laptop Outlet. On the brands and retailers we have Superdry, Euro Car Parts, Tesco Outlet, Homebase, there’s a whole long list.

Moving on to the rebrand, it’s such a big difference. eSellerPro was a very descriptive name, whereas Volo’s much more abstract. Was that part of the strategy?

Yeah. We felt that eSellerPro described a piece of software, and that’s what people considered it to be. Our company name was Sandbourne Systems and the software was eSellerPro, but over time we just became known as the product name eSellerPro. We don’t want to be just a product provider, we want to provide a proposition that drives growth. We sell and deliver growth, we don’t just sell technology.

Volo large logo

But don’t get me wrong, technology is the cornerstone of helping our customers grow, it’s a very, very key part of it. But our customers are very busy people, and just by giving them a new channel or another feature or function doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re going to be successful. So we’ve built resources in our company that are there to help our customers grow. When they come on board they get a dedicated implementer who helps them with managing their data, and optimizes the data for multiple channels. So it becomes easier for them to list on multiple channels over time. They optimise as much as they can with the customer, they’ll help them configure the system for their business process, depending on which market they’re in, and what their business is today. And they get real value from that process.

Don’t get me wrong, technology is the cornerstone of helping our customers grow

We’re not saying, “Here you go, here’s some software, there’s the user guide, get on with it.” We are actually holding their hand through the process, which means they’re well equipped to grow when they come out the other side.

Then when they are live on the platform they get an account manager. These are ecommerce professionals, people that have had their own marketplace businesses or have worked in ecommerce agencies, and they are tasked with growth. Their job is to work with that customer to advise on inventory, to advise on positioning and appropriate channels, countries, so the company can be more successful – so an extension of their team.

eSellerPro as a brand couldn’t really capture that. Although Volo is abstract, it does have an underlying meaning – it means “to fly” in Italian. Our objective is to help our customers’ companies take off and really fly, and see their products fly around the world. When we got into the process of how we would rebrand, our objective was to connect better with our marketplace and explain what we do, which is more than technology. The whole thing about flight and the pioneering age of air travel was in parallel with the ecommerce world, which is still a pioneering market segment. It all wove together in this flight theme, hence Volo.

So you’ve aligned the brand with the business as it stands now. Is there more that the brand helps you to do? Is the business going to change further?

Volo means “to fly” in Italian. Our objective is to help our customers’ companies take off and really fly.

It means we are focused as a business internally on helping our customers grow. And there’s a subtle difference in the brand, and the vision and the values that come with that brand. If you can change the culture in your business to support that, then the results are quite substantially different for you and the customer. This is all part of bringing to the forefront all of the value that we add, and making sure that everybody helps customers grow as opposed to just giving them technology.

We also felt that we wanted to have a refreshed brand when we enter new markets. We will be moving into the US shortly, and we felt it would be the right time to go in with a new brand, rather than go in and then change the brand.

Most people know you best as a UK company with UK customers. How will you go about expanding into the US?

We do have US customers today and we regularly take on new US customers. They come through recommendations and sites like Web Retailer, and we are very happy to take them on and implement them. We provide a product that fits their requirement.

But we feel that we’ve proven our product does fit that market so we’re now going to establish a physical presence over there. We’re in the process of a new fund raise, and part of that is to put people on the ground, not just sales people but implementation staff and project managers. The R&D hub will still be over here, but we want to provide the same level of service in the US. Inevitably it’s going to be a phased approach, so we’re not going to ship loads of people over there and hire people in a big bang. We’re going to phase it over time. But we will be landing imminently in New York – in the second half of this calendar year 2015.

Definitely exciting times for you and the business. I’d like to talk some more about the software, and some of the things I’ve heard over the years. There’s a perception that it’s very feature-rich and powerful but also expensive, and sometimes the user interface is hard to work with.

Yeah. It’s got amazing capability. I think the expensive perception, we would look at it as providing exceptional value for money. When you compare the total cost of ownership of putting it all together separately, managing multiple vendors, paying for all the separate components, we generally come out very cost-effective.

Our customers do a million pounds plus of GMV, but have aspirations to grow significantly higher

Our target market are the larger sellers. We don’t really want to appeal to small sellers – it’s a sledgehammer to crack a nut at that level. Our customers are those that do a million pounds and above of GMV, but have aspirations to grow significantly higher than that. Maybe they have hit limits in other systems, or have got scale issues around how they manage fulfilment, or it might be they can’t get more inventory onto the marketplaces. The classic challenges of a larger scale is where we position ourselves.

As far as the UI is concerned, we’re a year into overhauling that. It’s now being built in HTML5 with a fresh set of eyes to make it much more intuitive and easy to use. That will also be a second half launch to the market. But we appreciate that it could be easier to use at times.

OK, so no longer a Java app but a more conventional SaaS application?

Yeah the front end is a Java app, with all the data and logic in the data centre, but you do have to open up an application. It will become HTML5 delivered on any device. It’s a massive project that’s been in flight for the last year. We have a very significant team here and a partner in Belarus that we’re working with.

There is an opportunity for us to launch certain modules to certain users. We’re just about to beta some of those, and we’ll get feedback from customers. It’s unlikely to be a big bang release. We’ve got customers who have ten employees who only work in the sales orders module and another ten that only work in inventory, so there’s the opportunity to launch module-by-module.

What else are you working on at the moment?

We are adding more channels. We’re working on CDiscount, Allegro, La Redoute, NewEgg, TradeMe, we’ve just completed Rakuten. It’s customer driven. Where there’s significant demand, we add them. We’ve also added the odd one that isn’t particularly well known, but had a particularly interesting business case. So we’ve added Shopa, which is a social marketplace for fashion.

Our customers are very, very busy people. It has to be easy and frictionless.

We’ve added translation within the platform which is through the eBay Lionbridge tie-up. Also a key focus for us is data – how we manage data on behalf of our customers to make it frictionless to sell on new channels. But as I said before, all of our customers are very, very busy people. It has to be easy and frictionless, otherwise they can’t experiment at low cost – they end up putting in a lot of hard work for potentially no gain. It needs to be easy so they can experiment.

Another core part around the data is analytics and data-driven decision making. We’ve just launched the latest release of our analytics tool, and added a KPI-based solution where people can add in the lead time for a particular product. We know how many they have on hand, and can use the actual sales velocity over seven days, thirty days, sixty days, whatever they choose, then it will alert them when they should be reordering. The objective is to ensure that they have the best use of cash, and they don’t have a warehouse full of inventory that is unnecessary. As time goes by we’re going to be adding more and more alerting.

It ties into a key part that’s little known about our platform, which is the automated purchase orders. Once you hit certain limits of stock in our system we’ll send off a purchase order and you know you’ll have automated replenishment. Things like that can be as important from a profitability perspective as looking for more things to sell.

We’re bringing in an enhanced level of profit reporting too, that will allow people to really understand where they are making money. A lot of sellers are focused on revenue, and over time that’s not necessarily the best way to focus. So there will be more and more information about how their business is doing, where they’re making money, how they can preserve cash better, which markets they should be selling products into and so on.

You’ve mentioned the scalability of your technology. What kind of order volume can it handle?

Inevitably technology becomes commoditised, and we feel very secure that we’ve got a highly scalable platform. Our customers are typically very high volume sellers, but we’ve never hit a limitation. We have one customer who has the record for the highest sales in a single day on eBay, worldwide. They are a merchant, not a brand, and sold over £2m that day.

One customer has the record for the highest sales in a single day on eBay, worldwide.

We have another customer that holds a record for the highest volume of sales on eBay worldwide as well. That was Superdry, and they processed 90,000 orders in 3 days when they launched on eBay, with the biggest single day being 35,000. They did a homepage takeover and were doing tens of thousands of orders a day. They use our system end-to-end including dispatch. The platform was very much built for scale and making sure products could be fulfilled as well as sold.

What do you think is coming in terms of trends or changes in the ecommerce world?

I think the most important thing as far as we’re concerned is there’s going to be many, many more channels that people can sell on. There’s going to be many disparate opportunities and the world is going to become smaller logistically. The opportunity is going to become bigger as a consequence.

But the complexities of taking advantage of all of those channels is going to be equally higher. Our purpose in life is to make that as simple as possible.

Thank you Paul for sharing so much. It has been fascinating to hear, and I wish the best for you and Volo.

You can find Volo reviews, discussions, news and compatibility information in the Web Retailer directory: Volo.

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