The e-commerce underdog shaking up the online marketplace
After the comparison start-up Thomas Vosper and James Valbuena were working for went into administration at the beginning of the pandemic, the pair who share over three decades of collective e-commerce experience, decided to build their own company. In March 2020, they founded aisle 3, a comparison site for consumer goods that gives shoppers a complete view of all their buying options on one page. In just over a year, aisle 3 has completed two successful funding rounds, grown an international team, and set up a subsidiary company in India. Here, Co-founder and CEO, Thomas J. Vosper shares his story.
Taking on the tech giants
Thomas J. Vosper spent the first half of his 14-year e-commerce career at Amazon UK, which when he started had just a few hundred staff and none of the various services and categories associated with it today.
After this, he spent a few years working with Tesco, before joining a price comparison start-up. The company went into administration unexpectedly in March 2020, just as the first wave of the pandemic hit.
“It came as a bit of a surprise,” Thomas explains. “I was at a conference in Manchester, and I got a group WhatsApp message letting us all know that the company was being placed into administration and that we no longer had a job or an income.”
Faced with unemployment and the looming pandemic, the former retail manager decided to leap into entrepreneurship, pursuing a concept that had been maturing throughout his career.
Five days after the receipt of that WhatsApp message, Thomas, alongside former colleague James Valbuena, officially registered aisle 3 on Companies House.
“It was either impressive or foolhardy,” Thomas reflects. “James and I had been working together for the past six months, obviously during a difficult time for the business. When it went bust, we could have tried to find another role, but I've always been motivated by the challenge of the underdog, especially when I see the tech giants crushing it.”
The entrepreneur continues: “Plenty of people say they want to shop locally, but then load their baskets with Amazon products because it’s easy.
“You only need to look at Amazon’s stock price to see who is coming out on top. And when people don’t know the name of the brand or the seller they bought from on Amazon, that’s a problem for every retailer in the country.”
From this rebellious spirt and the two co-founders' deep understanding of e-commerce, aisle 3 was born.
The ‘Wikipedia of product search'
The concept of aisle 3 is simple, a comparison site for everyday consumer goods to help customers find the best deals by aggregating all available buying options. A “Wikipedia of product search, that puts the power of a personal shopper in your pocket”, as Thomas describes it. But the reality of building the company, was far from a simple task.
Starting any business can be an arduous venture, but starting a business completely remotely, during a pandemic presented an array of unforeseen obstacles.
“Having worked in a start-up for three years, I hadn’t even been getting paid my usual market rate and when we needed money for aisle 3, we were in the midst of the pandemic. Even opening a bank account was difficult because the institutions were shutting down.”
Undeterred, Thomas took out a Virgin Start-up Loan and began building the business from there. Capitalising on their different professional skills, the pair carved up the business roles, with James taking the tech and development aspects, and Thomas building the brand and raising the cash.
“Lockdown made a significant difference to raising finance. You can’t shake an investor’s hand and look them in the eye and tell them you’ll look after their money.”
As a former employee of a start-up, Thomas was under no illusions about how much work was needed if aisle 3 was to succeed.
“You don’t get investment off the back of a PowerPoint and a few LinkedIn messages. You need a proper financial model, a thorough pitch deck, all the legal documents and shareholder agreements.
“About 4% of meetings end in investment, so if you’re only contacting 30 people, your chances are incredibly slim”.
The co-founder estimates that over the course of six months he took around 600 meetings, all in the attempt to raise finance.
“We were incredibly picky,” the co-founder explains. “We knew that we would need support and advice as we grew so we worked hard to ensure that we were bringing in the right investors. It is a two-way commitment.”
But his efforts paid off, and in its pre-seed funding round, aisle 3 was backed with just under £500,000.
With the genesis of the business starting from zero, they adopted a mindset of little and often to raise investment. That way, aisle 3 would be able to build its team and prove the tech, in parallel to raising funds.
Remote working and global recruiting
Despite the challenges that COVID-19 presented, the introduction of mass remote working gave aisle 3 the opportunity to recruit on a global scale, sourcing talent from across the world.
Utilising the global talent pool, the co-founders scaled the aisle 3 team with recruits from India, Europe and the US - a process Thomas admits was surprisingly difficult.
“You have to understand completely different cultures and practices, not just in terms of employees, but employers too.”
Passionate about ensuring aisle 3 was a ‘people first’ business that worked for its overseas recruits, James and Thomas increased their commitment by setting up a subsidiary of aisle 3 in India. “We didn’t want to just hire willy-nilly and pay our Indian employees in dollars and let them work out their own tax, we wanted to prove our commitment to them and their country,” Thomas explains.
“Setting up the subsidiary was a monumental effort. In the UK you basically go to Companies House, pay £12, pick a name and you’re done.
“To set up the business in India, there were 18 different forms and declarations we needed to process. Then we had to find office space in India, print all the documentation required for that, sign it, get it notarised, take it to the Foreign Office so they could vouch it was all legit. In the end I was putting £1,000 worth of paperwork in a FedEx envelope onto a plane and praying it reached India.”
Thomas is well aware of the irony of founding a business from home with the only official office space being situated nearly 5,000 miles away. But remote working has become the norm for aisle 3’s co-founders. The pair have seen each other a handful of times since establishing the business but have compensated by overcommunicating everything. The soundtrack of their working week becoming a cacophony of Slack ‘pops’ and WhatsApp ‘pings’.
Not taking the easy route
From day one, the e-commerce entrepreneurs haven’t made things easy, choosing trainers as the initial product aisle 3 would compare.
Thomas explains: “We chose trainers because they’re highly complex with lots of variables. Amazon started with books because they’re tax efficient and easy. We thought if we go in with something that is a challenge and solve the problem from the get-go, the business would be far easier to scale.”
Aside from his sincere commitment to staff and unwavering determination, the aisle 3 co-founder credits a large portion of his success to the network he has built through spending a career “being kind to everyone”.
He adds: “You never know who you’ll need to lean on later in your journey. I never thought I’d need a lawyer to help me set up an Indian registered business, but from talking to a guy at a free London awards evening years ago, I knew one.
“Make connections and take calls that don’t necessarily have an immediate benefit to you,” Thomas recommends.
Whatever the approach, it’s certainly working for aisle 3. The company recently closed another successful funding round and is in the process of doubling their team. The future plans include the continued development of aisle 3’s machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI) deployment to allow users to make purchase decisions based on values like price, delivery options, locality and even brand sustainability.
Thomas doesn’t see anyone as competition and is aware of the fact much bigger comparison companies exist.
“It is bizarre you can buy something complex like car insurance through a comparison site, but you can’t find a pair of trainers that fit, in a colour you like, without opening a bunch of tabs on your browser,” he reflects.
It is Thomas and James’ hope that by giving shoppers a wide range of product information and seller comparison, aisle 3 can join the rich ecosystem of entrepreneurs working to level the playing field and create a better, fairer marketplace for both consumers and retailers alike.
- After securing a Virgin Start-up loan in March 2020, Thomas Vosper and Co-founder James Valbuena began building aisle 3 – an e-commerce comparison site which uses machine learning and AI algorithms to give shoppers a complete view of their buying options, all in one place.
- Since launching, aisle 3 has raised close to £500,000 in pre-seed funding, and more recently secured a further £250,000.
- Despite both working from home, the aisle 3 co-founders opted to grow the team internationally, recruiting team members from India, Europe and the US.
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