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Sarah Hughes – Co-Founder, Datitude

Sarah Hughes, is a serial entrepreneur and cofounder of Datitude, a platform that gives clients easy and timely access to their own data, allowing them to make the right decisions at the right time.

Transcript

Asil

Hi, everyone, and welcome to another episode of Turban Thinker Talks. So today we’re gonna be talking tech, specifically women in tech. Now we all know that data capture data analytics and AI seem to be the only subject on every business mind today, and especially over the last few years. Most certainly, we’re facing a very challenging time. We’ve never seen anything like this in the history of fashion and retail in my generation, for sure, businesses are shutting down resizing and frantically trying to navigate in a very surreal time. So I would imagine that data becomes one of the most valuable commodities a business can own today. And today, I’m joined by Sarah Hughes, who calls herself a serial entrepreneur. She’s the co founder of Datitude, which is a platform that gives clients easy and timely access to their own data and allows them to make the right decisions at the right time. So Sarah, thank you very much for joining me on turbin thinker.

Asil

I’m delighted to be chatting with you Asil.

Asil

No, it’s great to have you here. So before we sort of get into the detailed questions, I wanted to have you share with us a little bit about your background and what actually brought you into the world of tech.

Sarah

Well, I’ve always been something of a scientist at heart. I started my professional life with a degree in electrical engineering from the University of Sheffield. And that was really my first career. I had a sponsorship from ICI, under my belt. ICI was a multinational chemical and pharma Corporation.

Asil

Gosh, that’s taken us back many years. He is it is you know, for many decades, it was the largest manufacturer in the UK . And I spent 10 fantastic years with them. I gained an MBA through distance learning, which gave me a platform then for getting into starting my own business. But it’s been a wonderful time, fantastic experiences across, you know, many parts of the globe. And, you know, I absolutely loved it. Then after 10 years, the internet was kicking off. And that call to me,

Asil

It was interesting, because I was, you know, and I quote, you said that you swerved into the world of entrepreneurship. So what year was it specifically that you then got drawn into the, you know, the sort of whole internet boom? What made you decide to venture in that particular field?

Asil

So it was back in 2000, it was, I have to say it was a really hard decision. On the one hand, I had this fabulous career doing something I loved in a brilliant company, and I had great prospects. On the other hand, the opportunity to get involved with something I knew pretty much nothing about, in an industry that was exploding. And the idea of taking that risk was just incredibly exciting. You know, if you think that the internet only started in 1991.

Asil

It’s ridiculous, isn’t

Asil

Yeah, nine years later. And of course, I knew it could all go horribly wrong. But I thought I was young enough that I thought if it does go horribly wrong, I’ll find something else.

Asil

Well, what’s interesting is I’d imagine at the time, it was very male dominated space as well. So I mean, I don’t recall too many women. Actually, one of the first women who really came to my attention was Natalie Massenet, for Net a Porter, you know, that was like, wow, you know, a very powerful presence. But other than that, so that’s also really interesting decision from you, isn’t it?

Sarah

Well yes. And, and, um, you know, I very much recognise the space that you’re describing there. Equally, because I’d come from the world of engineering and manufacturing. It was less male dominated than what I was used to, I would say, I’m thinking back now, you could certainly see that the women involved in the technology industry then were stereotypically female occupations, so they might be doing the account management. Where were the programmers and the techies, and many of the senior people, and probably all of the, you know, the money people, the people who had investments to make that was very much male dominated.

Asil

I mean, as I was reading about sort of the history, so you’ve basically founded Fresca, that was the first business, your first tech business and before we get on to what that tech business is, and then how you sort of evolved into that. You chose to have your husband Gavin Wilkinson, who’s still your partner today and this and you involved, you know, Jane Hughes as well your sister who was doing business development. So first of all, talk to me about working with family because you’re entering a space that was really new to you, and then you decide to work with your family in this space. How was that?

Sarah

Well, we didn’t start working together initially, actually. My husband, Gavin, he was running his own business doing web projects, and e commerce.

Asil

So he was involved in that industry.

Sarah

Yes, he was, we met at university, we both had careers in engineering, different parts of the country doing different things. And then, pretty much at the same time, he got involved with a web agency. And I started up Fresca. And over a few years, we started to realise that our services were overlapping. And we had a number of mutual clients as well. We started to have a little bit of a competitive edge to what we were both doing. And I still remember very clearly a difficult conversation, we were driving somewhere on the motorway. And we had this conversation that essentially went, that’s my client. And that’s my project.

Asil

Oh, no, no.

Sarah

And the other one said, No, that’s my plan. That’s my portfolio. And fortunately, Gavin is very constructive. And he said, Well, we could do this a different way we could merge our businesses. And actually, that was the catalyst that allowed us to bring together the two distinct parts of an e commerce platform that Fresca became. So in his experience, his expertise was web development, and e commerce. And what my company was doing was hosting management and Client Services.

Asil

A perfect match, right?

Sarah

Yes, absolutely. With the benefit of hindsight, that absolutely was the catalyst that took us from, you know, a small business. And, you know, from that point onwards, we saw incredible growth.

Asil

I mean, you evolved Fresca into that ecommerce platform provider. And in a few years, you became one of the UK leading e commerce platforms, you had many multi channel retailers, you were sort of working with a lot of the online stores and really big brands. So then you took a decision to sell, why? First of all, was that always in your plan that you wanted to exit the business? Or was there another reason why you chose to sell?

Sarah

I think both. We, the shareholders had always had a view that we would sell the business at some point. So that was always on the agenda. We probably didn’t expect to sell at that point in time. It was only after seven or eight years.

Asil

Yeah. Which, is quite a long time. I mean, you know,

Sarah

You know, I think at the time when you’re in it, you’re working so hard, and it’s going, it’s everything is moving so fast. It does feel a long time, of course, with hindsight, seven or eight years that that’s nothing is that. And of course, for entrepreneurs, I think it’s one of the hardest judgement calls, when is the right time to sell.

Asil

Oh, gosh, absolutely. So when was the right time for you?

Sarah

So there were the two things really two dynamics were at play. One was we had, in fact, when I started Fresco in 2000, I handed in my notice to my company. And as I was working out my notice, I probably handed in my notice in March. And that was when the .com boom started to turn bust. And so we were very aware that there are external factors that can come into play at any time. So that was always in the back of our mind. And I think the other thing was that we had had a couple of very low key approaches over the years. But when BT approached us, for the first time, there was a really sound strategic reason for them to buy us. So they have a they had a retail software division, which had point of sale software, merchandise and software trading software for retailers, but they didn’t have an e commerce offer. And this was in 2007 2008. And of course, multichannel retail was starting to become really, really important. So they were looking for an e commerce platform. And for us, it felt like a really good strategic decision to nestle Fresca into this broader retail software business.

Asil

I mean, obviously BT, amazing, amazing business to have approached you and clearly that was very much a sound decision that you made but being the serial entrepreneur that you are, then he went on to fine. And you found it, you know, Dattitude. And again, that’s the platform that, you know gives your clients sort of timely access to their own data. It allows them to make the right decisions. So tell us about that venture. So when did you specifically launch it? And what’s the actual vision behind it?

Sarah

So we founded Dattitude towards the end of 2012. And our vision is to help businesses make better decisions by understanding their data. So, businesses in the modern world, whether they’re pure plays, or multichannel have huge amounts of data. And there is so much value in that data, especially with you know, in the digital world, we know so much about what’s happening. We’re capturing so

much information about consumers. But and this is the big but, it is all held in different systems that usually don’t talk to each other.

Asil

Definitely. Yeah.

Sarah

And, and getting that data out of those systems into a useful, understandable way, is a real headache. So that is the essence of the magic we bring, we’re integrating data from these disparate data sources into a huge data warehouse, it’s very fast, very secure ecetera, we model the data. And then we have very easy to use interfaces for users within a retailer. So you don’t have to be a data analyst, you don’t have to be, you know, a technical programmer in order to be able to pull data out. So it means that, you know, whether you’re a marketing manager, you’re trading or e commerce, finance, you can understand what’s going on. You can see trends, and then you can explore more deeply to work out why it’s happening, and then, of course, make decisions make better decisions on the back of that.

Asil

Of course, and we see increasingly that data trends, you know, in the fashion industry, play a very pivotal role. You know, always companies are looking at understanding the consumer profile, boosting their profits, etc. But how do you I mean, there’s so many tools out there that are now available. So how do you keep your competitive advantage?

Sarah

You’re absolutely right. There are so many tools.

Asil

There are too many right now, you know, Sarah is like overwhelming when you’re trying to figure out what to use and how to use it.

Sarah

That’s a very good point. Competition is a huge motivator to any business, whether it’s a you know, startup and entrepreneurial business or an existing business. So I always, you know, I always take that very sort of positive approach towards competition. I think it’s really helpful to have much more competition in the market now. Because a few years ago, people might not necessarily understand what an offer is, where now you can say, you know, this is Datitude. We do this. And somebody might say, Ah, is that like this? alternative? And actually, that’s really helpful, you know, in some sense of creating the marketplace for data analytics.

Asil

I mean, but specifically, it must be a constant, trying to keep ahead of the game, because you know, tech is absolutely the forefront. So yeah, I completely get it keeps you on your toes, basically, is what we’re saying, you know, it does keep you on your toes, and it keeps you always ahead of the curve.

Sarah

Yes. So for us, specifically, we always ask, there are so many different things we could do, we could expand our product and our services in so many different ways. So we always come back to is this going to add value? And if we choose to do this, can we do it really well. And then we work really closely with our clients, and, you know, all of the people we meet with, with our partners too, so that we’re always clear that what we develop is useful. And we can deliver it to a really high standard.

Asil

And I’d imagine by sort of reading your profile and speaking to you that it’s also quite a personal approach that you bring to the game which is actually a really huge advantage because often when you are sort of taking on the consultants or the advisors or these different programmes, you don’t get that feeling, you know, you don’t. So I think that’s one of the key things that a company like yours brings to the table. And clearly, that must be a huge advantage because you do and have worked with some of them amazing brands like, you know, Burberry and Matalon, and some of the great retail giants. So, seeing that the evolution of sort of the whole omni channel integration over the last few years, again, that seems to be a top focus and priority for every business globally. But there is that constant, dynamic changing requirements. So what’s the most, I guess, repetitive requests that you get from businesses? What kind of data capture? What are they looking for?

Sarah

So, you’re absolutely right, it is a top focus for businesses. It is well documented now that a customer who shops across all channels is measurably more valuable and more loyal than a customer that shops with you through a single channel. So customers have really high expectations now, they know what they want. They want it anytime at the time of their own choosing. And they want it anywhere. What we’re seeing is from product choice, and accuracy, stock availability, to delivery options, consumers expect superfast delivery. Often they expect that without paying for it as well. And they’re looking for real convenience across their delivery options. There’s been a lot of innovation in payment methods. And so we see credit cards have been around for a long time. PayPal. But recently over the last few years, the Kleiner type payment methods where people can spread out their spend over several weeks or several months, returns in a particular fashion. Of course, returns are incredibly important. The consumer is looking for, you know, frictionless returns, easy ways to return, certainty that their money will come back to their credit card in a tidy way And of course, social experiences are really important, very much what consumers are looking for. And, you know, I think the omni channel experience it, it needs to represent the brand, represent the brand really well at all of those touch points.

Asil

That’s right, and provide that seamless, you know, transaction and that seamless experience. And yes, what’s interesting, of course, we’re seeing how data capture, you know, has enabled so many

companies, and sometimes they gain sort of 50%, uplift, and, you know, category sales, and then their targeted marketing campaigns. And they can do cross promotions, there’s so many benefits. But at the same time, I do also see that many businesses worldwide are still not fully integrated with or into the mindset because it is a mindset changing. I mean, I’ve been in groups that I’ve led. And we’ve actually done projects where we have part of the project is the actual mindset change of the entire workforce, because you do have to have a different outlook when you are talking about data capture. And so there’s so many businesses that are sort of lagging on that and don’t really quite understand the use, and I think a lot of it is is because it’s not just a tool, and it’s magically does the work for you, you have to be able to capture it from, you know, the point of sale all the way through to every single transaction department touch point. So it is a total integration of a whole business and the methodology and like I said, the mindset. So what do you think is the challenge, aside the ones I mentioned that businesses aren’t sort of taking this seriously or building it as part of their strategy?

Sarah

Again, you’re absolutely right. Many businesses are behind the curve, and there will be different reasons for for different businesses. I think businesses that are starting out now or a very young still in their evolution, they are able to build it in from the ground up. Older businesses. seeing more and more of this, it needs to start from the top. So somebody at the top who has executive level responsibility for the data strategy. Whilst also I think recognising that data cuts across every function, it’s not just the preserve of marketing, or it’s not, IT is responsibility, because they’re the ones that kind of own the systems. It absolutely cuts across every function. And it needs everybody to be engaged with it. And I think that changing the requirements of staff through the organisation. And so that’s the sort of tools that Datitude brings is, you don’t need to be a highly qualified data analyst or, you know, have a PhD in writing programmes to be able to use it. You do need to be very capable. No, not very capable, you need to be very competent in Excel. And I think that’s very much the sort of skill level that an employer can reasonably expect from people when they when they take them on no matter what your job function.

Asil

Yeah, absolutely. It’s a basic requirement.

Sarah

It is yes. So those businesses that are starting to have responsibilities have clear responsibilities at board level, but also cascaded through the organisation, right through all of the functions, I think these are the ones that are getting ahead of the game here

Asil

Definitely

Sarah

And starting to get that competitive advantage.

Asil

And I think that’s, that’s the point that I was saying, I mean, when we took on these projects before, I mean, the accountability, rested with HR, because they were doing all the campaigns and, you know, driving that mindset, also training them training and developing all the people to understand and then all the way across cross functional, so it has to be a total buy in from the organisation. And not like you said, just resting with marketing, or it, which is typically what people assume. So I’m gonna just shift the conversation a little bit to obviously the situation that we’re you know, everyone is facing and the pandemic that we’re all experiencing. And clearly, that’s had a huge impact in the fashion and retail industry with, you know, brands, groups, businesses, all the inventory that they’re sitting on, is just a mess. And like I said, in the beginning of conversation, so many businesses have, unfortunately had to close down. And that impact and that cost, has has really detrimented to their existence. But at the same time there has been over the last so many years is excessive purchasing and purchasing more than you would ever need. I mean, I remember a time when you know, when I was in retail, or merchandising or buying, that we were looking at sell throughs. And we’re looking at margins, and we were purchasing, literally trying to get an 80% sell through on collections. And that’s how close we sort of work the numbers. And now it’s fascinating for me, when I see businesses say, Well, if you’ve achieved 40%, and we’re doing a great job, because they have this immediate mindset to you know, you just mark it down. But actually, it’s excessive buying from the get go, it should have never been allowed. And now they’re all feeling that. But so my point being is, and I think you mentioned that, that data capture, especially as we’re moving away in the industry is talking about no more seasons, you know, moving away from seasonality, talking about slow fashion. So more than ever, I’d imagine you’re going to be very busy, specifically on the inventory control and sort of the logistics element and ensuring that you are making more precise decisions and then all the way down to how you market them and how you sort of translate that to the consumer and to allow the situation to hopefully never happen again, because I’d hoped that they would have learned from this. What’s your take on that because you are in it. Are you being asked? Is there a big move? Are you sort of busy specifically in that part?

Sarah

Yes. This is, I think there are a few dynamics coming together here. I think the increasing understanding and importance for so many people about our footprints on the world and reducing that footprint, coupled with things like the COVID crisis that have been such a shock to, you know, business foundations and executives, understanding that it is time to make a change, like the open letter that many executives have signed. About slowing down fashion and taking out some of the wastefulness, these have got to be good things for us going forward?

Asil

Of course, you hope.

Sarah

Yes. You know, and some statistics, awful statistics, you know, we’re buying twice the amount of clothes than we did 15 years ago. Whilst you know, fast fashion, half of it is disposed of in less than a year. It’s quite shocking. And of course, you know, Brits, we are the worst consumers of clothes in Europe buying 27 kilos of items a year, on average complete capacity compares to 17 in Germany, 14

in Italy, 12 in Sweden, it doesn’t read well, does this?

Asil

Nope. No,

Sarah

But but against that we’re seeing real success stories in pre loved and rental markets. We’re seeing retailers and brands becoming increasingly aware and articulate about what they are doing to promote their sustainability efforts. So for example, H&M they have introduced I think, fairly recently, for each product, some detailed information about the product background, the materials, and what each material means, even down to the factory where it’s produced. And it’s obviously a huge investment for them to do that. But it’s so important, isn’t it?

Asil

Of course, and I mean consumers are demanding that and then, you know, I know for a fact that businesses will find themselves having no choice, they have to start to implement these different measures, and hopefully bring that change. So what’s your vision for Dattitude? Sarah. Is it something that very much like Fresco, you’re looking to eventually exit or sell the business? Where are you at with with what you want to achieve?

Sarah

So, in the short term. We have no plans to exit the business. You know that is somewhere way out there on the radar. e love what we do. We’ve got a fantastic team. We love working with our clients. You know, it has been a tricky few months, I think. I can’t imagine there are many businesses, especially small businesses, SMEs, who aren’t saying that at the minute. But the future is bright. And the future is really exciting. So our vision is definitely about growing the business, doing great work, doing challenging things. And doing it with with a fantastic team. You know, what, I’ve done some some different things in my careers. I’ve loved them all. But I have to say, I, I’ve realised I am a data geek. And I thrive on the highs and the lows of running my own business. So for me, this is absolutely where I want to be.

Asil

Well, that’s wonderful. And it’s, you know, so, so great to get your insights and to know more about your business and, and it’s such an important thing that obviously are working towards and I’m certain that it’s going to be the key thing that any business needs to continue to survive in this day and age. So Sarah, before we sort of, say farewell till next time, I’d love for you to perhaps give some words of inspiration and motivation to let’s say, you know, the woman out there, they’re looking to enter the world of tech.

Sarah

Go for it. It is a wonderful, exciting world. And, for me, something that I hold very true. Something

my father often used to say to me, is very simply be bold. And it’s something that I aim to be, and I absolutely encourage my own children to be as well. Comfort zones are so safe. You know, and when you’re outside your comfort zone, it can be uncomfortable and things can go wrong. But it’s absolutely the place where you can learn. not regret, but learn from it and move forward.

Asil

Fantastic words are very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining Turban Thinker. It’s been wonderful having you and we wish you the very best in your business because it definitely sounds like you love it and you’ve got a fantastic team leading it. So until next time, thank you so much and have a brilliant day.

Sarah

Thank you very much. It’s been an absolute pleasure.

Asil

Thank you speak soon. Bye bye

Turban Thinker talks to Chris Igwe, founder of Chris Igwe International, on commercial real estate and strategic advising. We talk about a post Covid world where tough times call for tough measures. Chris runs his own international retail advisory firm, providing services to luxury and premium brands, as well as shopping center owners and high street landlords. His advice is both strategic and implementational and given his vast knowledge of, and experience within, global retail he is the perfect individual to interview. Chris is also a coach and mentor, with a shared passion for making a difference.