In 2015, geographic borders are virtually meaningless. The world is shrinking, and we’re more connected than ever. This has had flow-on effects in creativity, where an artist can collab with another half way across the world in real time, in relationships, where your friend’s and jet lagged face can be beamed into your lounge, and in retail, where the location of manufacturer, stock, retailer, and buyer, no longer need to align.
Thieve, a start-up straight outta Britomart, is capitalising on that last one.
You know Ali Baba, that website which blew up about a decade ago when regular folks realised they didn’t need to go to the Warehouse to purchase a bucket, but could instead get it directly from the factory producing that bucket for less coin? Anecdotally, it spawned numerous local one-man-band companies selling things like ties, which people bought in bulk, and by undercutting big businesses who’d kept the secret for far too long, a number of 20-somethings started turning themselves some serious dollars.
Several years before he started Thieve, Tim Scullin was one of those 20-somethings. As a fresh Marketing and Management University of Auckland grad, the guy started a small business shifting aftermarket car alarms, imported directly from factories located through Ali Baba.
Nine months in to the business, he took a weekend out to indulge in kitesurfing in Orewa. Jumping over some rocks, the next thing he remembered, he was lying on the sand, waking up to people staring over him. He’d broken six vertebrae - for all intents and purposes smashing his neck.
At this point, all he could do was lie on the couch, so he set-up the TV and his keyboard sideways. He taught himself internet marketing, and started a blog to reinforce everything he was teaching himself - learning in the morning, and writing about it in the afternoon.
When I sat down with Tim to discuss Thieve (which we’ll get to in a minute), my first question was why didn’t he just do what the average person would, relaxing, and perhaps even feeling sorry for themselves? He paused for a moment, like he’d never thought of an alternative. He'd just been interested in it.
His blog was bringing in around 10 cents per day. Continuing to push in the marketing sector, Tim ended up with some freelance gigs. These clients became the foundation for his next business post recover, Launch Agent. Founded on testing assumptions, finding what works and doesn’t work in the marketplace, the start-up attempted to approached digital strategy iteratively - fragmenting the market with a comparatively cheap offering.
Fast-forward a few years to mid-2014, when Tim was spending a lunch break back trawling through Ali Express (a more consumer-oriented offshoot of Ali Baba, not requiring minimum orders). Finding a good looking watch, Tim decided to purchase it for the meagre $8, bargaining that if it didn’t even turn up, it was only $8 in the first place, and if it did, and it was poor quality, it was only $8. Two to three weeks later, the watch turned up. The hands weren’t ticking. Gutted, but nonetheless vividly aware that it was only $8 wasted, Tim showed the thing to his brother, who called him an idiot and told him to pull out the pin. The watch started working. For $8.
Some Thieve products, ordered for review.
The biggest problem with Ali Express, Tim argues, is the lack of trust consumers have for its products. Of course, it doesn’t so much matter when we’re thinking about throwing eight disposable dollars at a watch. But then there’s bigger purchases, multiple purchases, and people who don’t have eight disposable dollars.
As is the nature of many the internet start-up, Launch Agent entertains ‘Make Stuff Fridays’ on the last day of each working week, giving the growing team the opportunity to build whatever they want.
Thinking of the watch, why the hell not build something that capitalised on all of the cool shit on Ali Express? Something that leveraged influencers as curators?
40 Thieves (hold on, we’ll get to the name) was built in three Friday afternoons, semi-officially launching on March 4th with a post in the infamous Facebook group, Walk In Wardobe Mens. And they asked for feedback.
This struck me as a little odd, myself unaware of any local business who so actively sought feedback - let alone criticism - from a crowd of teenage boys who are just as likely to rip each other and their style choices to shreds as they are to quip, “Swaps for Zespys?”
This, however, is the nature of the lean start-up, I’m told. It’s for those uninterested in the ‘undercover start-up’, which spends long periods ‘perfecting’ something to bring it to market, then crossing their fingers it works. Following the ethos of Eric Ryans, who wrote a book about the phenomenon, the Launch Agent guys preferred the process of cycling and recycling through a build, measure, learn process - doing it as quickly and cheaply as possible. They just wanted to get the service in front of the kind of people who would be using it and sharing it, and get their opinion. Without users, 40 Thieves was nothing.
Classic profile shot: Tim Scullin checking out Thieve.
It obviously didn’t take long for them to be made aware that the ‘40 Thieves’ name was taken by a local streetwear brand. I was told they’d spent far too long coming up with a name, and having gone through the legend of Ali Baba, and the story of the forty thieves, they thought they’d come up with a relevant winner - highlighted by the fact that the ‘.co’ url was available. They hit up one of the co-owners of 40 Thieves to apologise, then purchased the shorter, snappier, and unheard-of-in-a-day-people-invest-in-urls-one-word-url, ‘thieve.co’.
Asked to characterise Thieve’s demographic, Tim saw them as Generations X and Y; people who are style-oriented, not necessarily brand oriented; “People who aren’t Gucci from the socks up.”
The service leverages the trendy folk of the internet, such as bloggers, designers, and creatives, incentivising them with vouchers to curate the best of the best on Ali Express (which contains tens of thousands of products), providing that intel to Thieve, who then further moderate, before posting the most aesthetic images of the product on to Thieve itself. Users come to the site because they don’t have the time, inclination, or trust to trawl Ali Express. As time progresses, the Launch Agent team orders and tests each product, with aims to have all of the goods on the site reviewed and trustworthy. In case you’re wondering, if something doesn’t work, it’s replaced with a working close alternative.
As a curation platform only, the relationship is entirely between Ali Express and the buyer - something that some may be wary of with regard to the earlier mentioned trust factor. Mitigated by the upcoming reviewing process, the lack of blatant fakes, and the Ali Baba buyer guarantee (if it doesn’t turn up, or it’s significantly different than was advertised, the buyer is refunded), Thieve are working to remove that barrier.
When you’re dealing with unmonitored factories producing for larger brands, you’re quickly faced with the issue of ‘fakes’ - the likes of those $49 Nike runners that your Facebook friends are tagged in by spammers. Thieve gets around this with a blanket rule on hosting no larger brands (which very obviously fall within the rip-off area). Of the things that are ‘branded’, they research to pair the value of that brand, its product, and the Ali Baba offering - if it equates, it’s probably genuine, and it stays up.
So how do they make their money? Well, there’s a 3% commission if someone clicks through and buys something. It’s one of those ideas you wish you had, isn’t it?
It’s only been a few months, but Thieve appears in the top results when Googling ‘Ali Express’. Despite being based in a shared space in Britomart, Auckland, only 20-30% of their traffic is domestic - huge chunks of it now coming from the USA and Europe. Such is the beauty of the internet.
In celebrating this entrepreneurial endeavour, however, it was important to reflect on the business’ context, within a globalised, consumerist world. The two main things in my mind were their potential impact on local retailers, and further, their thoughts on working conditions in unmonitored foreign countries, which they are directing buyers to.
In terms of local retailers, Tim had me quickly thinking of another area in which the internet has revolutionised payment behaviour: charity. Our generation view traditional charities as the middle man, coming with substantial overhead and administrative costs. We want to give directly to the cause, and emerging technology allows us to do so. He argues it’s a similar case with local retailers; it’s a bad reason to not progress the human race simply because it’s the way we’ve been doing this for ages. It’s a hard truth, but what can a local retailer add to justify consumers paying extra? Especially when they’re importing directly from the same factories Ali Express connects purchasers with directly. Retailers bulk buying power, and subsequently discounted shipping, should mean that they can bring things to the shelves cheaper than an individual buying and shipping a product to themselves. If retailers aren’t dealing in the realm of cheap basics, then the goods should have a strong enough point of difference other than price, and should remain unaffected.
In regards to the ethical dilemma of not knowing the real origins of their curated wares, Tim was quite vocal about their difficulty serving as a curation platform. Because they aren’t ordering the production of anything, nor branding it, the 500+ products from 350+ manufacturers are presently not overseen or investigated for working condition standards. Thieve want to get massive, in order to have the clout to get factories to each work to that standard, in the beginning featuring and profiling only those who fit that MO.
As we wound to the end of our discussion, I reflected on the brief car alarm salesmanship, Launch Agent, Thieve, and Stomptricks, and asked Tim when he last had a conventional job. He told me he’d called the bank the other day, after losing his Eftpos card. For identification purposes, they needed the name of his last employer. He couldn’t remember. Turns out, it was McDonalds, back when he was in high school.