How I Started The World’s
Most Sophisticated Shopping App
Hi! Who are you and what business did you start?
Hi! I’m Will Broome, CEO and Founder of what has been called “the World’s most sophisticated shopping app”, Ubamarket – an end-to-end, scan, pay & go solution, designed to remove the friction from in-store shopping.
Ubamarket is a white-label mobile app, offering a comprehensive shopping solution that helps retailers and hospitality venues to offer a streamlined, convenient and hyper-personalised “select and pay” experience to their customers. We effectively put the till in the customer’s hand, on their own trusted device.
By using the Ubamarket app, shops, bars and restaurants are able to offer a range of features to dramatically improve the experiential nature of their customers’ shop. Features such as pre-written shopping lists, aisle sat-nav, one-tap in-app payments, exclusive access to personalised deals, automatic loyalty point collection, table delivery, collection points and facial recognition/age verification (for age-restricted products) are brought together in one all-encompassing app, helping to rebuild consumer confidence in-store by enabling a fully socially distanced experience, whilst simultaneously reducing their shopping time, leaving them with the more enjoyable aspects of the process.
What is your personal story and how did you come up with the idea?
Having formed a band at boarding school in the early 90’s, we were signed and I toured the USA before returning to the UK to attend Brighton University where I studied the History of Architecture and Design, doing my thesis on The Sociology of Postmodernism at Disney Theme Parks (as my family are in the theme park business). During that time I did an internship in Dallas, Texas, marketing touring productions of Broadway Musicals before starting a career in London at one of the world’s largest PR Agencies, managing accounts including London Fashion Week, Vidal Sassoon, Wonderbra and Wrangler Jeans amongst others.
I then set up a dot.com business in the hospitality sector before coming up with the idea for Ubamarket after receiving a text message of a lengthy shopping list. Upon entering the store I thought, “Wouldn’t it be cool if this text message magically rearranged itself into the order the items are displayed in-store and guided me to them?”.
Having discovered that 52% of us use a shopping list to shop in-store, I deemed the idea worth pursuing and expanded the concept to a full end-to-end experience including list management, scanning of products, allergy alerts, personalised offers and one-tap, till-less payment. My hobbies and interests (when I find time for them!) still include songwriting, playing guitar, singing, cycling, running, playing football and tennis.
What challenges did you face when creating your product/service?
Having the greatest idea in the world is still only 1% of what you need. You then have to document, articulate, communicate and sell your idea, into all the right and necessary people which, in itself can be a herculean task!
I was lucky enough to discover a fantastic Private Equity House, I.W.Capital, who helped me raise the necessary funds in record time so that we could stay ahead of the curve and create a robust and reliable ‘best in class’ solution ahead of any others who have subsequently tried to imitate our product. This, I believe, gave us a two-year advantage, during which we built and tested the app in live retail environments.
In addition we carried out detailed market research to establish the viability of the product and to help us plan our features and roadmap trajectory. This has resulted in the publishing of our revered annual ‘Retail Trends report’. It’s one thing having a potentially great idea but, initially, it’s only conceptual so you have to establish tangible evidence that the concept is viable (and needed) in the real world!
Who is your target market?
Influenced by the apparent convenience of online shopping, shoppers were demanding a faster, easier, more personalised in-store experience before the Coronavirus pandemic. Now, with the accelerated need for till-less payment and social distancing in stores, retailers who require a quick, effective, reliable solution which is branded to their stores, can affordably opt into the Ubamarket app (native to both iOS and Android) so it’s the retailers themselves (and their Point of Sale vendors) who are our core clients.
In terms of app users, it’s designed with a simple and intuitive user experience so it’s universally accessible to anyone who has a debit card or method of payment. Our oldest regular app user is 94 years old, so it’s not just for Gen Y shoppers!
The app suits shoppers who want to quickly pop into a store for a couple of items without queuing as well as shoppers who want to use the full ‘magic shopping list’ functionality of the app for a large number of items, without having to queue at the end of it. Likewise, shoppers can use the app to track allergens, sustainability and can even verify their age in-app to purchase alcohol or other restricted items without ever visiting a till or self-checkout unit!
How do you market your business and which approaches have been the most successful?
We work on a very affordable set-up fee and SAAS licence fee model so the app, despite being World Class (as well as being a multi-million pound solution) is accessible and affordable to all retailers – from a small convenience store to the World’s largest major chain and everyone in between.
Essentially, we market our business directly to Retailers who tend to read about us in the Trade Press, or sometimes in the national press. We’ve also won numerous retail and technology Awards which is a great endorsement of our product. Because of the innovative, topical and technological nature of our product, we’ve been lucky enough to have been featured on prime time BBC 1 as well as holding regular slots on National Radio shows such as the Penny Smith Breakfast Show on Radio 5 Live.
I also speak at conferences and conventions which are attended by retailers and industry leaders. Interestingly, we’ve been fortunate in that we seem to have captured the collective imagination of the retail and hospitality sectors early enough to be recognised as true leaders and pioneers of in-store tech so, to that end, we’ve been invited to meetings by a number of MD/CEO level executives within many major groups which have given us a real boost.
Since you launched, what has worked in not only attracting but retaining customers?
It’s all about meticulous planning, not cutting corners, careful research and testing, testing, testing. As long as the functionality is robust and sound, what really differentiates us is the excellent user experience (UX) we provide. To that end we’ve invested in a specialist UX/Design team whose sole purpose in life is to make this highly sophisticated and intricate app simple and fun to use.
The greatest test of that is uptake and we know that once a shopper has used the app for the first time, they’re statistically 92% likely to use it again! What we also do is work closely with the retailer, treating them as a close partner and assisting with integration, implementation, deployment, marketing and ultimately, customer uptake. We do this via a dedicated team and Account Manager as well as detailed literature, artwork, PR, marketing and general promotional assistance.
What kind of culture exists in your company, and how did you establish it?
The culture at Ubamarket is highly autonomous and all our team members are empowered to be bold, forward-thinking, innovative and are certainly openly encouraged to come up with ideas, suggestions and actions to help further both the business and their careers. There is very little hierarchy, and that’s a deliberate decision because our culture is to all muck-in wherever necessary.
It helps that we’re a small, nimble, fast-moving and fast-thinking organisation that thrives on re-imagining the way traditional things have been done in the past, but with a strong link to, and an understanding of, age-old shopping habits and retail know-how. It’s this eclectic mix of old and new which helps maintain the equilibrium between frictionless convenience and familiarity.
It’s important that shoppers are instantly comfortable with our technology. Because we work with such a vast and wide-ranging demographic – both logistically and geographically, we tend to work remotely, only using our Central London office for Board meetings, investor briefings and the occasional high-level sales meeting. We’re also members of Soho House so we host many a breakfast, lunch or even dinner in a variety of their venues at home and abroad.
What software, services or tools do you use within your business?
As a tech company, all of our app software is built in-house, including our ‘Behaviour Pattern’ data analysis and AI algorithms which are all integrated via our front-end and back office to various retail systems.
We have a partnership with leading Age Verification specialists, Yoti, too. The key here is versatility and flexibility as our sophisticated and detailed product needs to be compatible with a wide variety of existing, incumbent and legacy systems – with no additional hardware required.
We also have a partnership with Google Cloud Platform for hosting and analytics. In terms of the day to day running of the business, we use various software packages from Xero (accounting) to Docsend (for sending secure documents), Docusign (for contracts, agreements etc) and various other similar packages.
What are the most important lessons have you learned on your business journey?
Firstly, as I’ve said previously, the best idea in the world is 1% of the journey. At most. I can honestly say, even running a small business before I embarked upon this particular journey, I had no idea of the detail, the intricacies and the magnitude of the gauntlet you have successfully run (and conquer) to get your concept to fruition.
In fact, I rarely meet anyone who understands this unless they’ve been through it themselves. I think the biggest misconception is “I have a great idea! I’ll tell someone, get funding and make it happen!”. Whilst that’s ironically the reality of what you have to do, the intricacies of actually doing it are very real too – and most give up too soon! Much of the time, the world will seemingly conspire against you and will try to put you off on the basis ‘it’s already been done’ or ‘it’s a crazy idea’ but, never forget, so was the autonomous vehicle, the iPod and, back in the day, the lightbulb!
Secondly, I live life by a series of mantras which I scrawl in the inside front cover of my ever-present moleskine notebook, one of my favourites being “You don’t drown by falling in the river. You drown by staying there!” This is a simple way of saying, you’ll get knocked down but don’t feel sorry for yourself – just keep getting back up! Another one of my many favourites is “Hard work beats talent, when talent doesn’t work hard!” Oh and “Never give up your daydream!” because that’s always where it all begins!
Other more practical learnings along the way include, thinking a meeting has gone better than it actually has! I’m so wrapped up in my own enthusiasm and positivity that I sometimes can’t fathom any negativity or downside and plough on regardless. This has definitely resulted in a few missed opportunities!
Another lesson is that ‘throwing the kitchen sink at people’ can have the opposite effect to your intentions. Sometimes, particularly when it’s an innovative tech based product, the simplest MVP is more attractive (and less scary) than a much more detailed product, to your first batch of clients! Keep it simple. Always. Because once you have a foot in the door, you can build on that platform…
And finally – however much money you think you need – double it! And possibly double it again. Even the thriftiest of organisations can burn through cash doing what they intended to do with it, what they never anticipated happening, fixing mistakes and pivoting/chasing opportunities.
Having built “the World’s most sophisticated shopping app”, Ubamarket – Scan, Pay, Go, we pivoted and also created a ‘sister app’ in our uBARmarket – Order, Pay, Stay product which is designed for bars, pubs, cafes, hotels and restaurants. This was before COVID-19 as we’d already spotted a need for it in the market, but the pandemic has now accelerated the need for this product, almost universally, by at least 2-3 years! Luckily, we feel we have the best product in the marketplace and we’ve already signed-up some major clients!
What is your favourite aspect of being an entrepreneur?
The creativity, the sense of achievement, changing the World (even in the tiniest way!) and, ultimately, the sense that destiny is firmly in your own hands. I believe that it’s a common characteristic of start-up entrepreneurs that it’s not so much about the money (although that’s a fantastic peripheral benefit); rather, it’s more about the recognition and accolade of creating something innovative, new and useful to improve something that really needed improving!
If it’s primarily about the money then it would be far easier to train for and obtain a professional career in the City where you have a specific (lucrative) skill which you can apply across multiple businesses in a peripatetic fashion – and charge great money for it!
With entrepreneurialism, you’re very much putting all your eggs in one particular style of basket, absolutely believing in it and sticking to Plan A. Because, if you have a Plan B, it means you’re considering Plan A to be a failure before you’ve even started! And failure is always better than regret.
What is your LEAST favourite aspect of being an entrepreneur?
Aside from all the adventure, the creativity and being in control of your own destiny (live by the sword/die by the sword!) there’s an inevitable sense of loneliness. When things are building nicely and going well, there’s no better feeling and the world is with you. When times are tough, it’s amazing how quickly you find that others need to protect their own interests and pursue their own opportunities. If you can’t pay, they won’t play!
You’re the only one you can completely rely on to make things right and it’s you who has to live with yourself as you lie awake at night! It’s akin to the old adage “If you want something done, ask a busy person!” meaning that the busier you are, the more efficient you become and the more capacity you find you have. If your back’s up against the wall, you’ll inevitably come out fighting – and as the Prodigy once said – ‘always outnumbered, never outgunned!’
It’s sometimes hard to accept that you care about your business considerably more than anyone else in the world, even within your own organisation, but it’s a fact of life and the sooner you accept that the sooner you’ll pick yourself back up and forge ahead once more. There are always going to be bad times and, without them, the good times probably wouldn’t feel worth it! So keep on keeping on…
What books, podcasts or other resources have inspired and influenced your business journey?
When I was staring out I went through a phase of reading inspirational biographies and business success stories which really helped me to be brave. Books of note are “Good to Great” by Jim Collins, “It’s Not About the Coffee” (the Starbucks story), The Beermat Entrepreneur and Walt Disney’s biography.
I also read lots of Sports and Rockstar biographies – but they’re probably more what not to do than the other way round!! Over the years, I’ve also been inspired by some sensational keynote speakers including unlikely Olympic Gold Medallists, people who have achieved almost inhuman feats of bravery or exploration (from climbing Everest to rowing the Atlantic alone having been abandoned by her team-mate (and husband!)) and even Space Shuttle Commanders!
I’ve found that you can equate and relate almost all of these escapades to the adventure of starting your own business and that you can gain a lot of strength from an eternal ‘us against the world’ mentality which I believe is a common prerequisite for all entrepreneurs. You have to be willing to lose absolutely everything in your quest for success whilst realising that 9.9 times out of 10, that’s exactly what will happen!
That danger needs to excite and inspire you, rather than cripple you. You have to have the inner strength and sheer belligerence to make sure you have every chance of being the one percent – because the harder you work, the luckier you’ll get! And, after all, I firmly believe that if you’re striving hard enough, you’ll either get there or you won’t have time to notice you haven’t!
Above all else. you have to realise that ‘difficult’ is good. I love the line in the Tom Cruise movie that goes “It’s not mission difficult, it’s mission impossible!” meaning that nobody said it was easy and if it was easy, everyone would do it. The harder it is, the bigger the prize! I always do a token little bit of work on Christmas day, just for the inner psychological upper hand it gives me!
Where do you see your business 2-3 years from now?
I see the business providing the default app for many of the World’s major retail and hospitality groups, expanding rapidly on the great foundation we’ve already laid with a number of prominent customers ranging from Spar and Co-Op to Booker and Searcys. With the contracts we already have in place, we have the opportunity to roll-out to more than 1,000 venues, with many more pending.
Based on our cumulative revenue model, if we’re live in 2,000 retail outlets and 2,000 bars, hotels and/or restaurants, we should be turning over in excess of £10m in the next 2-3 years.
We also have prominent alliances in place with major tech and payment companies, so there could be opportunities to expand on those partnerships and collaborations in the not too distant future. As a consumer-facing tool which effectively puts the till in the hand of consumers, leap-frogging expensive legacy tech in the process, we could be the key to modernising POS vendors, loyalty systems and payment gateways in equal measure, creating new revenue opportunities and channels for more traditional businesses who need to pivot and adapt to a rapidly changing world, especially post-COVID.