SMART COMPANY : A big fish in the pond

There’s sign on the door that says ‘Aquarium’. Behind this cryptic label is room where Fishpond staff can play. There’s pool table, casual chairs and polaroids of team members stuck inside wall-sized Fishpond smiling fish logo.
But Daniel Robertson doesn’t need to come here to play. Every day for him is play, and every year he’s playing in different place.“This is our fourth building in six years,” he admits, little shame-faced. “The problem is, the company keeps getting bigger and outgrowing its premises, and that means another move. It’s getting expensive.”
Surely getting bigger is not problem. Robertson grins, looking, at 29, more than ever like one of the junior staff, in his ill-fitting Fishpond uniform shirt and pants. “We started without stock, just ordering from suppliers, but keeping stock of the most popular items allows us to fulfil orders faster.”
Speed is the name of the game, when your major advantage over your international competitors is next-day delivery. “At Amazon they can’t physically get something to you next day, so that’s good for us.” That explains the rows of bookshelves in the company’s huge warehouse near Auckland airport. Here are the popular titles that can be grabbed and shipped immediately round the country.
The number of staff has grown enormously since the days when Robertson’s first staff member was school student who did accounts and data entry in his living room. For time, he also recruited staff through WINZ subsidies for the unemployed.
There are now 75 people working for Fishpond, many of them remotely from home. Some of the development team are based offshore and IT support is on shifts around the clock. The business has become so big, it has to be 24-hour operation waiting to pounce on all the customer mouse clicks at all hours of the day and night.
Robertson and his team must be doing something right. The company is doubling in size every year. But he’s humble kind of chief executive, who freely admits he fell into business with no experience. “I was at university studying electrical engineering and after three and half years I decided that it wasn’t for me. I made the decision to start business.
“I thought retail would be easy – just buy something someone else has produced, add bit of mark-up and sell it on again. And I decided on online retailing because I saw that overseas customers had lot more choice in online stores and the quality of those stores was lot better than we had in New Zealand. I saw there was gap in the market.”
He believes online retailing will become an increasingly important part of the retail landscape, with its obvious advantages. “You’re not constrained by space and you have an infinite shelf that conventional retailers would give their eye-teeth for. You can be more efficient because you don’t have to fill shelves and you can pass those savings on to the customer.”
Getting started was as simple as installing free open-source website package he found on the internet. Robertson added products to it one by one. His marketing tool was Google Ad Words, with ads positioned so that customers searching Google for keywords would find themselves side-tracked by Fishpond ads for books on that topic.
“When there were four of us working out of bedroom it got pretty squashed, so we moved out to Wiri. Then each day, each week, each month, we just got little bigger. Each year we’ve doubled in sales so six to seven years on, it becomes reasonably big number, but we’re still small compared to most retailers.”
Small? Despite his modesty, an inventory of 3.2 million titles has catapulted Fishpond to New Zealand’s largest online retailer, fact that’s proudly sign-written on the company’s warehouse.
Some of that size is due to second-hand sales. “With our system you just search for the title and, say, the condition of the book and the price and you’re in,” boasts Robertson.
But books are just the start. The plan was always to start small and build base to grow from, he says. Already Robertson has added toys and electronic goods categories. Does that mean another move to an even larger warehouse? Maybe, maybe not. “The perfect base model is to source as much as you can on demand, or just in time.”
In recent years, Robertson has employed two managers to help him in areas where he has no formal expertise. “This is my first real job and I didn’t do any business or management degree. It’s only been in the last two and half years that we’ve been able to afford to hire managers.”
He also has some high-powered help to grow the business. An investor came on board last year, private equity company Direct Capital.
Rowan Simpson, the third partner in TradeMe with Sam and Gareth Morgan, is on the advisory board. Early on Maurice Brigham of PC Direct, then Exonet and Sealegs, was involved and he’s now director. “Being very inexperienced myself, it’s good to surround myself with people who’ve done it before.”
So, does he plan to retire millionaire at 30? He could spend more time with his wife Yvette, who used to work for Fishpond in the early days, and his daughters, aged 3, and 7 months. “No,” he laughs. “I have the workaholic gene, so I’ll keep on growing, employing more people, getting more skills. There’s quite few years of growth in it still. I’m having fun, so while I’m having fun, I’ll keep going,” he quips as he heads back to play some more.

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