Tinyme Director and Chief Operating Officer Ben Hare talks about the changing landscape of online retailing, and how his company stays ahead of the curve.
Tinyme started with a single product: a personalised wooden name puzzle, created by company founder Mike Wilson in 2006. His fellow industrial designer Nick McLennan soon joined the business, cementing a focus on unique product design. Today, personalisation remains at the core of Tinyme – which has grown into a not-so-tiny online pureplay retailer with responsive made-to-order manufacturing.
“Customisation is the core differentiator of our offering,” says Ben Hare, Director and Chief Operating Officer. “By offering lots of design, colour and font options, we are able to offer millions of options to our customers so that they can, hopefully, get exactly what they want.”
Tinyme specialises in children’s products, but its range of personalised products also extends to bags, name labels, name puzzles, and books.
Design, marketing, web, and product development remain in-house, and Hare acknowledges this as an important part of the online retailer’s success: “From early on we’ve done web development in-house. That’s been a real strength for us, as we’ve had to develop novel customer experiences to enable product customisation. It’s a huge challenge to present millions of options in a frictionless way, so being able to continuously test and refine our website has been really important.”
Of the tech platforms he uses, Hare asks, “‘Where do I start? Our website is built on Magento. All of our backend production systems are proprietary. We use umpteen different bits of third-party tech to perform different functions.” Responsive web design is important to the Tinyme website, which won an Online Retail Industry Award for Best Mobile Site in 2017. “We’ve adopted a mobile-first approach to UX design, as more than half of our website visits are on a mobile device,” says Hare. “This seems to be paying off with massive growth in our mobile conversion rates.”
Tinyme explores technologies not only in its business platforms, but also in its products. “Of late there’s been a lot of focus on using data to create highly relevant user experiences – an area with enormous potential to improve the shopping experience,” Hare explains. “We’ve already launched an augmented reality personalised storybook, so that’s another technology that we will continue to dabble with.”
Hare highlights the changeability of the online retail space, and how this is a strength rather than a challenge: “I love the way the landscape keeps changing. It’s an industry where you have to run hard just to stay still and requires constant innovation. I’ve also really appreciated the people … We’ve developed a lot of friends and contacts within the industry who are so willing to share from their experiences.”
An important way to benefit from online retailing is to keep track of the movements in this changing landscape. For example, Hare feels that “mass customisation is a key trend, so we’re certainly looking to ride that wave.” He also points out that “Customer expectations are rapidly escalating. Having companies with scale like Amazon investing in the Australian market is going to push that even faster. So I think the biggest challenge for Australian e-commerce businesses is executing fast enough to stay ahead of the curve. It’s really important to find the key differentiators that will enable you to stand out to customers and focus your efforts there.”
Of the challenges Tinyme has experienced, Hare admits to early mistakes. “We essentially dived straight into a very complicated business model right from the start – not very strategically, I might add. From the outset we were an importer, a manufacturer, a retailer and a design agency and we quickly added being a technology developer and exporter to the list.”
Yet these challenges ultimately strengthened the business instead of working against it. “We’ve had to build quite sophisticated proprietary technology to facilitate a manufacturing process where every item is unique in one of the highest labour-cost environments in the world,” explains Hare. “We’ve always adopted the approach that if something goes wrong, then we need to get to the root cause of the problem and change the way we do things to make sure it never happens again. If you can do that consistently then, over time, your business becomes more and more robust.”
The Australian company also operates in the UK and US, and it now employs over 50 staff. Despite this growth, Hare isn’t complacent; he’s still on the lookout for ways to improve. “Taking the friction out of online purchases is a massive opportunity,” he says. “As customer experiences improve I’m expecting that we will see some very significant growth in online retail as a proportion of total retail sales. Australia has generally lagged on this front, but that means there is still very significant upside.”
Tinyme also understands the importance of knowing your audience – not surprising for a company founded on the idea of personalisation. “Our key customer demographic, mums with young kids, are frequent users of social media so it’s been important for us to engage through those channels,” explains Hare. “Facebook and Instagram are the two platforms where we are most active. We’ve grown our Facebook fans to over 300,000 now. In terms of measurement, we look at revenue and engagement metrics and we also track how much time it’s taking for us to maintain those channels.”
Hare advises e-commerce business owners to “be diligent in maintaining the culture of your business. It takes concerted effort to get the right elements established.” Tinyme exemplifies this diligent maintaining of culture; despite a flexible and adaptive approach to e-commerce, the business has stayed true to its roots.
Hare cites “developing awesome products” as a key strategy, with good old-fashioned customer satisfaction and word of mouth serving as its own form of marketing. In an industry dominated by new and ever-changing technologies, it can be easy to lose sight of product innovation. Tinyme, however, uses e-commerce platforms to develop its products and its community, and the success of this approach shows in its continued growth.