Interview: Cally Russell, Mallzee founder and CEO

Cally Russell, founder of online shopping app Mallzee, was named in the recent Forbes "30 under 30" list. Picture: Neil HannaCally Russell, founder of online shopping app Mallzee, was named in the recent Forbes "30 under 30" list. Picture: Neil Hanna
Cally Russell, founder of online shopping app Mallzee, was named in the recent Forbes "30 under 30" list. Picture: Neil Hanna
People management is a skill that both football coaches and tech start-up bosses require in spades, according to one of Scotland's rising entrepreneurial stars.

Cally Russell, founder of personalised shopping app Mallzee, is a particular fan of Jurgen Klopp, manager of his beloved Liverpool.

“He’s got great style,” he said. The 27-year-old should know about dressing well, having founded an increasingly popular digital business that allows shoppers to easily browse the collections of more than 150 retailers at once.

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“I met someone from the New York financial world recently and the first thing he wanted to talk about was football management,” Russell continued. “He had been reading Sir Alex Ferguson’s book on leadership and wanted to discuss the techniques coaches use to motivate - which can also apply to start-ups.”

Russell is taking a keen interest in management as the number of employees at his Edinburgh-based firm grows.

Mallzee, described as “Tinder for fashion”, recently relocated from a shared office space in Greenside Row to its own dedicated headquarters in Lauriston Street - an area that Russell refers to as the city’s “silicon triangle”.

The move will allow the company, established in 2012, to continue its expansion. Six months ago, there were just seven staff on the books. Now there are 20 and Russell is ready to hire again.

“I feel like I’m doing either three month or six month probation reviews every couple of days,” he said.

“A huge part of our mantra is that we want to create a happy place for people to work. We’ve got a room that’s pretty much full of bean bags. We do a lot of activities as a team - it was our Christmas night out last weekend, and we have an intern finishing up this week so we’re all going out for dinner. It’s a really close-knit group of people.”

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Mallzee’s expansion follows a £2.5 million investment in July last year from a consortium led by Royal Mail. Russell had previously turned down a £75,000 offer from Peter Jones on the BBC programme Dragon’s Den - leading the star to quip you had to be “ballsy to invest in Mallzee”.

The company is now the biggest non-retailer shopping app in the UK, with Yahoo calling it “one of the six apps that will change the way we shop forever”.

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Its success led American business bible Forbes to name Russell this week as one of its “30 under 30 in Europe”. The list includes 30 young innovators, entrepreneurs and leaders from across the continent who are transforming sectors including business, technology, finance, media, culture and entertainment.

“It’s always nice to get a form of recognition, especially from something that is Europe-wide,” Russell commented.

“A huge part of what we have to do is fundraising and building resources to build the business. And from being in Forbes we’ve had quite a few people get in touch with us.”

Russell, who grew up in Dunoon and is the son of former Scottish education secretary Mike Russell, didn’t always see his future in business.

Upon completing a degree in politics and international affairs at the University of Dundee he briefly worked at PR firm Weber Shandwick and launched an online student magazine.

It was while trying to buy a pair of black jeans online - one of his personal fashion staples - that he realised there was a demand for an app that “makes it easy to find stuff that you like.”

Russell added: “Malzee create feeds - or what we call shops - full of products and then you swipe your way through. It’s a bit like Tinder - if you like something, you go one direction, if you don’t like it you go the other. Anything you do say you like is saved. If the price drops in the future, we’ll issue a notification.”

The entrepreneur spends an increasing amount of time travelling to meet potential new investors and clients but has no plans to relocate from Edinburgh.

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Scotland right now is a great place for tech start-ups,” he said. “There’s some great success stories like SkyScanner and FreeAgent. Those guys are so open and willing to share their stories on how they got there.

“Edinburgh is a fantastic city to live and work in. So as long as we can remain here we will. It has been proven you can build global businesses from Scotland.”