John Buni co-founder Tailor Made and CleanCloud met Zoya Malik, Managing Editor SME magazine to discuss his entrepreneurial journey and tells how advanced technology invested into traditional industries can grow business opportunities and transform customer experience
Which are your businesses and reasons for setting them up?
I run two businesses—Tailor Made London and CleanCloud—and both of them operate in traditional industries. In many ways, this is unusual: there aren’t many tech businesses working in either space. But I’ve always thought that technology can be used to improve, rather than harm, the customer experience. There’s a widespread idea that all tech companies are like Amazon or Uber, ‘disrupting’ industries and putting people out of work. But neither of my businesses are ‘disruptive’ in the widely understood sense. They empower ordinary people working in traditional industries by making many of their daily tasks easier. This allows those business owners to do what they do best: deliver a great experience to their customers.
How did you arrive at the road map for operations?
Tailor Made uses 3D body-scanning technology to make perfectly fitted suits, and in the beginning it was all about improving the quality of the tailoring and the experience of it. CleanCloud, my second business, came about almost accidentally. Soon after I’d launched Tailor Made, I realised that we needed a way to manage clothes as they went to and from alteration. (When suits are made, adjustments are often needed, so we had to find a way to track garments wherever they might happen to be at that time.) My friend David was renting a desk from me in my office while he worked on various online businesses. I was telling him about my problem and he said that he could probably build something ‘quite easily’ to fix it. We went away for a couple of days and built a system that allowed us to do what we needed to do. By chance I was in my local dry cleaner a few days later, and I could neither find my ticket nor the suit that had been taken in. It struck me that the system David and I had created could help dry cleaners to manage their inventory, as well as keep their customers updated. So I suggested it, they accepted it, and over the following months we built CleanCloud.
What have been challenges on your journey?
As any entrepreneur will tell you, the easiest part of starting a business is starting a business. The real challenges come afterwards. For instance, Tailor Made had to earn-to-grow for years: I appeared on the BBC’s Dragons’ Den hoping to get investment, but they turned me down. Incidents like that become hinge moments for entrepreneurs and founders: you respond either by giving up or by working with renewed determination and ambition. We took the second option and it paid off.
CleanCloud has a different class of challenges, in that the space in which we operate contains big, well-funded, tech-driven companies promising convenience at the cost of the customer experience. CleanCloud isn’t competing with these companies, but our clients are. And crucially, they’re competing on different terms with our help. By giving small, independent dry cleaners the digital infrastructure needed to streamline time-intensive processes and procedures, the business owners and staff have more time to focus on what they do best: deliver a great customer experience. Those tech-driven companies are offering something different—something valuable, but something different. So our clients are carving out a niche into which their big, tech-driven rivals can’t fit.
What can entrepreneurs learn from market experience?
This can be difficult to illustrate, so by way of analogy, consider what’s happened in the retail sector in recent years. Amazon has decimated the high street, but it’s made life difficult in particular for businesses that ‘stack em’ high and sell em’ cheap’: when it comes to cost and convenience, no one can compete with Amazon. But Amazon hasn’t affected small, independent businesses (which offer a sense of discovery as well as a great customer experience) in the same way. Florists, beauticians and barbers, as well as highly original, fluid brands such as Supreme, have endured the ‘retail apocalypse’ and thrived. The same thing can take place (and is taking place) in the cleaning world.
What have been marketing successes to expand your businesses?
It’s hugely satisfying to be part of this trend and to have so much support. Until recently, we had spent almost nothing on getting the CleanCloud message out there. Purely through word of mouth, the business has grown to have more than 5,000 users in more than 70 countries. Clearly there’s an appetite for what we have to offer: dry cleaners exist the world over, and they’re often run by successive generations of the same family. They’re part of the fabric of local communities. In such a traditional space, where digital literacy is relatively low and people are understandably resistant to change, this readiness to embrace CleanCloud has been great to see. We have every reason to be confident that this growth will continue. At the moment, we’re exploring moving into Japan, where the population density is so high that commercial cleaning is popular.
What’s the differentiator that that will set your businesses apart?
I don’t know of any other businesses using exactly the kind of technology that we’re using, but cloud usage is unquestionably increasing rapidly. A major part of our appeal to our clients is that we’re a cloud service. That means that, in return for a monthly subscription fee, we manage the software, we keep it secure, and we roll out new updates almost every week. Off-the-shelf solutions age quickly, but they also require a minimum of digital proficiency from the owner which, in certain industries, isn’t there. But the cloud has appeal to just about everyone. Many people and businesses use Google Drive so they don’t have to store files and folders on their personal computer. Dropbox and WordPress are household names. In the coming years, we’re likely to see an inexorable shift towards cloud services, and that bodes well for CleanCloud.
Fundamentally, what unites my businesses is the belief that traditional industries deliver real value, and technology can be used in such a way as to allow them to do that. It’s very satisfying to be able to see that happening.