It was the search for a new pair of black jeans that proved the spark for entrepreneur Cally Russell to set up a personal shopping app that has been dubbed the “Tinder of fashion”.
“I’ll be honest – I’m not too far away from a pair of black jeans at any one point in time,” laughs the founder of Edinburgh-based Mallzee, which launched in late 2013.
“But I was online and trying to find a new pair and ended up on one retailer’s website with 400 different styles in front of me. I realised there was something a little bit broken in this process – just because you can have all these products and have the ability to showcase them doesn’t mean it makes the shopping process any easier for the consumer.”
Russell says he wanted to make life easier for shoppers being faced with this level of choice, so set about a way of combining the range of different retailers in an easy-to-use format.
“Most industries have a ‘discoverability’ problem online, and the big winners in any one category are generally those that tackle that problem – think of Skyscanner and the success they’ve had. When we looked at clothes we saw there was exactly the same problem.”
Depending on the retail partner, Mallzee users are either directed to each store’s own website to complete a transaction or can buy products through the app itself, and Russell says this integration has “taken a lot of work over the last two years” to make the buying process smoother.
The entrepreneur had set up an online student magazine before “playing about in the e-commerce field” and deciding to launch Mallzee, which now employs 25 people, “all of whom wear black jeans”.
He says: “I’d been looking at the idea of a recommendations website but came up with the idea of tackling my own black jeans problem, which I thought was much more interesting and viable long term.”
The firm is mainly focused on the UK and US, but Russell – the son of Scotland’s Brexit minister Mike Russell – says it has users all over the world and an Israeli news outlet recently ranked Mallzee alongside the likes of Nike, Airbnb and Starbucks when it comes to the best apps for personalisation.
“From our perspective that’s great for a relatively small young company based in Edinburgh,” he says.
In 2015, Russell appeared on the BBC show Dragons’ Den and turned down a £75,000 offer from tycoon Peter Jones in return for a 20 per cent slice of Mallzee.
However, he went on to strike a deal with technology giant Samsung and secure a £2.5 million cash injection from Royal Mail and other investors including the Scottish Investment Bank and Gareth Williams, the co-founder of Edinburgh-based travel search engine Skyscanner – acquired by Chinese giant Ctrip.com last year in a deal worth about £1.4 billion.
Russell says that Scotland has built up a formidable reputation for its start-up business community and believes a number of other fledgling firms are “bubbling under that Skyscanner and FanDuel level that, over the next three to five years, will go on to achieve the same levels of success”.
He adds: “I’m hopeful that we’ll be one of them, because we’re tackling a problem that’s big enough to give us that scope and ability.”
Looking at the wider retail world, Russell says that 2017 “doesn’t look like being a great year”, with an underlying sense of “worry and negativity” despite a range of blue-chip chains releasing rather upbeat trading figures for the all-important festive season.
With inflation rising and putting the squeeze on consumers’ finances, the business world is also having to come to terms with the impact of Brexit, which has knocked the value of sterling, although he steers the conversation away from becoming overtly political.
But he does acknowledge that the economic and political landscape is “going to continue changing” and online fashion retailing is an industry that is “heavily linked to either importing or exporting products, and where your currency is volatile like the pound just now, that becomes an issue”.
Russell adds: “Over the last couple of years we’ve seen a huge evolution in terms of online shopping and I think we’re coming into what I describe as the ‘third quarter’, to borrow an American sports analogy. There’s been an explosion in new brands and seen the troubles that have faced some of our retailers.
“2017 doesn’t look like being a great year for retail, but we’ve been looking at how we can have an impact on that and move the needle for partners in different and interesting ways.”
Education: Dunoon Grammar School, Dundee University
Ambition at school: To become a lawyer
First job: Kitchen porter
Can’t live without: My iPhone
Kindle or book? Book
Favourite city: New York
Preferred mode of transport: Plane
What car do you drive? I ride a bike
What makes you angry? Bad plane etiquette
What inspires you? Tackling big problems
Best thing about your job? The great people I get to work with every day