The era of the digital high street

Your Ready Business met with Alex Schlagman, CEO and co-founder of PocketHighStreet, a London based start-up on a mission to reinvent and revive the British high street.

What’s the idea behind your business?

PocketHighStreet helps online shoppers discover and order products and services for sale on the high street. We launched our own mobile app as a beta test last year but more significantly we power personalised online to offline shopping experiences across a distributed network of 3rd party blogs, newsletters, directories, social media feeds, location-based services and more… making it simple for anyone with relevant online audience to promote the high street and get rewarded for it.

I’ve been building businesses that help connect local supply and online demand for almost a decade. From launching a peer-to-peer online marketplace for students in 2006 to a search engine optimisation (SEO) online marketing agency for small businesses in London.

What was the inspiration for PocketHighStreet?

Back in 2012 lots of people were convinced the high street was dying and that the Internet was its lead executioner. My future business partners and I disagreed – instead we saw an opportunity.

The vast majority of retail was still on the high street and consumers regularly used the Internet to research online before purchasing locally. If the high street was better connected to the Internet, surely this could help local shops in the digital age? If consumers could more easily find things for sale nearby in the physical world by looking online, local retailers would be able to convert online browsers into footfall and sales.

We envisaged a third phase of the high street. A high street that didn’t have a conflict with the Internet but that used it to its advantage. We felt we were entering the era of the Digital High Street.

What was the greatest challenge you had to overcome when developing your business? And how did you do it?

Turning 0 into 1, an idea into a fully functioning version of the business you want to build, is harder than it sounds. For us it required us achieving lots of related milestones last year.

Some of our major early milestones included actually setting the business up. I took out a loan from the Startup Loans Company when we officially formed the business back in 2013. My co-founder Colin matched the investment with his own money.

Finding our entry strategy was another hurdle to overcome. After an exploratory few months spent talking to local shopkeepers and developing (and scrapping) some early prototypes, we realised we need to focus all our attention as narrowly as possible… a single online to offline marketplace for a specific niche: London’s cycling community.

When we had this plan in place, things started coming together. The wider founding team was formed and they invested into the business. At this point in time, we all felt ready to take on the world.

I had already signed up a handful of bike shops when we raised our first round of seed investment from a mix of angel investors that helped us bring PocketHighStreet to market.

Launching the 1st shopping marketplace on the PocketHighStreet Platform (Our own iOS mobile app) late Summer 2014 was a big milestone for us. Over the next few months we learnt a huge amount about how online shoppers like to find and order things for sale locally while helping local shops connect with online shoppers nearby.

In the final quarter of 2014, we realized our transformation into the 1st Open Platform for the Digital High Street. We invested in the tech needed, enabled our first publisher partner (an independent blogger called Londoncyclist.co.uk) to create their own digital high street experience on their site and began to allow anyone with a shop on the high street to join PocketHighStreet.

What do you think has driven the success to date of the PocketHighStreet?

We are offering something of genuine value to any business selling products and services on the high street as well as any site, blog, social influencer or app that has a local audience online.

We have also used some unconventional but effective methods of raising awareness about our business on the high street. We’ve been recruiting a team of ambassadors who join the PocketHighStreet Professional Development Accelerator Programme. This gives enthusiastic but inexperienced and non-technical people with the training, mentoring, experience and network they need to accelerate a career in Tech City. In turn they help us spread the word in targeted boroughs across London.

PocketHighStreet is an example of the convergence of the physical and digital worlds of retail. How do you see the future of shopping?

We envisage a high street where shoppers have seamless experiences between online and offline worlds. It is our firm belief that this digital high street will see the Internet as a force for good for both big and small retailers.

The future shopping environment will be a place where click-and-collect, ship-from-store and other local delivery options will be available from every seller. Also the way we pay for things will change and mobile payment will be an option at every till.

Moreover, online publishers and services with a local audience will be able to access and use data to seamlessly offer personalised shopping services, generating incremental revenue, engaging their users and supporting their local retail community. Even everyday consumers will get rewarded for promoting their favourite stores and products to their friends.

Within a couple of clicks on any web-enabled device, shoppers will be able to access and purchase anything available for sale in their local area. And they will receive far more personalised offers from shops based on both their geo-location and interests.

Which entrepreneurs do you admire and why?

Elon Musk, the Canadian entrepreneur, engineer and investor, stands out to me as the entrepreneur of this generation. He’s taking on the biggest challenges and winning (for example from PayPal to Tesla, Solar City, Hyperloop and Space X).

Any business idea you wish you’d developed yourself?

I love businesses that enable and have a ripple effect through entire ecosystems. A good example for me is the impact Salesforce.com has had on sales teams, CRM industry, B2B app developers and the development of the SaaS business model.

And on a personal level I’m not sure what I’d do without the app Citymapper!

What’s the best piece of advice that someone has given you? And what would you say to a budding entrepreneur?

Fred Wilson, a venture capitalist and prolific blogger from New York once said “Right person + right idea + right product + right time + right market = Magic”

The bit that struck me is that you need all the components in place.

I think the best advice I can give to anyone starting out with huge ambition is to work on a problem you personally and genuinely would love to solve. As well as making the inevitable tough parts of the journey painless, you have a real shot at the being the right person and creating some real magic!

What are your plans for the future? What’s next for PocketHighStreet?

At the moment we’re still exclusively focused on London, but a nationwide rollout begins this year. We’re currently going through an exploration phase with regional partners already.  More retailers, bloggers, directories, social influencers and location-based services are joining the network every day. We intend to accelerate this growth through the year.

Visit PocketHighStreet to learn more about the app.