From fancy dress to marketplace super-seller

SME Magazine catches up with Dominic Portman, below, founder of Boulevard, who started by selling fancy dress while at university and is now a multi-million-pound Marketplace Super Seller with a £10m turnover and 70 employees

You started selling fancy dress outfits while at university. What was the impetus to start this?

I have always had a keen interest in retail, with one of my initial forays into this space including buying up pallets of returned toys, fixing and re-selling them. I set up my company which I called Fancy Fresher after I spotted a gap in the market providing access to affordable costumes for students. While I didn’t realise it at the time, this was the start of my journey into building supply chain relationships.

 

What were the key business lessons that you took from this enterprise?

Fancy Fresher was a huge learning experience for me. It taught me the power of networking, and listening to those key players within your industry, as well as the importance of really getting to grips with the market size you’re operating in. These are the things that help you to grow a business from day one.

How did you progress from Fancy Fresher to your next business, Fancy Dress Worldwide?

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I witnessed the shift that was happening from the high street to dot com websites, and then the more recent emergence of online marketplaces, and I also saw that many of the industry leaders were lagging severely behind with marketplace tech. Each channel has its own unique requirements, and I felt that if we could focus on building the tech to sell purely on marketplaces, we would gain a significant advantage while being able to sell to a wider market.

What was the key difference between the two in terms of how you developed your business model?

Once our tech platform, Eiger, was built, it enabled us to connect with our supply base and with rapidly growing marketplaces to sell faster and to a wider market. It was a real shock to me in the first year of operations, when we went from a very small outfit to over 50,000 orders worldwide!

Tell us more about Eiger, how it works and how this enabled impressive growth for Fancy Dress Worldwide.

Eiger is our end-to-end platform which is used by every function of our business for day-to-day tasks. It covers everything from our supplier connections, inventory management, order processing and dispatch, courier management and marketplace listing and pricing. It has uniqueness in every pillar of the business because we have built it from strong foundations, innovating to build something that perfects every function we require. Put simply, Eiger allows for scale in a very complex market.

With nobody needing fancy dress during the pandemic, how did you pivot your business to survive?

Ever since Fancy Dress Worldwide took off in Year One, the plan was to eventually expand into more product categories, and explore if those same problems existed. Those plans were expedited substantially by the loss of costume and partyware revenue, with over 20 new suppliers being onboarded in the following 12 months. We then built out a team of 15 BDMs and data analysts to continue the growth, raising our seed round with Fuel Ventures in the process.

How did you go about securing and investment at such a tricky economic time?

I think what ultimately swung the balance in our favour was that it was clear to investors that not only did we have a strong proof of concept in what we had achieved in the party and costume category, but we had proven our determination and grit when our backs were against the wall during the pandemic, by achieving a rapid and successful pivot.

At the time, I think investors saw this agile process as a crucial trait for any business to have at such a turbulent time. Additionally, I had spoken to Fuel about three years before they ever invested. While it had only been a casual discussion, we were already on their radar when we decided to push for investment.

You are now a top seller in multiple countries across Amazon, eBay and other huge marketplaces. What is your forecast and what are your plans for the next five years?

We want to add more and more marketplaces and channels to Eiger to further increase the visibility of products for our suppliers. Our other main aim is to add even more additional value to our suppliers through finance, data and much more. We want to ensure that when brands think of marketplaces, Boulevard is the first company that comes to mind.

Looking back, would you have done anything differently?

Ultimately, no. Where we are today is a direct result of every up and down that comes with growing and scaling a business. I have a growth mentality, which means I try to view lessons learnt and, more importantly, the application of those lessons, as a very positive thing for myself and for the business. This can only strengthen the likelihood of things going to plan over time.

What advice would you give to any budding entrepreneurs starting out from a university bedroom?

I would advise they learn as much as they can about their chosen industry, and then begin today! There is no perfect time to do something, but you must commit 100%. That commitment means shutting out negative voicing and, no matter what, continuing to persevere, even if you have to adapt time and time again in order to reach your goals.

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