For 28-year-old Sarah Jones, e-commerce was in her blood. From being an avid ‘eBayer’ at the age of 13 to setting up her own online retail business, Mini Exchange, two years ago, she has mastered the art of internet transactions. Sharon Carvalho speaks to the young entrepreneur to find out what it took to build her dream
How did it all begin?
As a teenager, I was buying and selling stuff from eBay all the time. I was importing items from China and US and selling them off. My parents thought I was crazy with shipments coming through the door one day and out the next. And while I did make a lot of money, I realised that I had to get a proper job. So, I went to University, studied for a degree in Economics and then got a job at Deloitte as an Assistant Manager in Mergers and Acquisitions. Through the job I learnt a lot about retail, about structure and how to work hard and deliver. But it wasn’t for me. I needed the freedom to pivot if I wanted.
So that led to creating your own business?
I moved to Dubai a little while after that and noticed a number of problems with the e-commerce sector over here. I wasn’t shopping online the way I used to in the UK and that had me noticing the gap in the market. Now, there were places to buy apparel, accessories, tech and such but no one was dealing with products for children. As one of seven children and with a number of friends who were mothers, I knew the area well, even though I didn’t have children of my own. Plus, the market for children’s items is more products based and less fashion conscious. In the UK, big brands such as Mothercare and Amazon deliver on a daily basis and that was what I wanted to bring here. But I didn’t want to buy anything; I wanted to make it a consignment business. I also knew that from a scalability and fund raising point of view, I didn’t want to run a pretty little shop. I wanted to scale the tech business and I wanted to keep it lean and build an e-commerce market base.
How did you come up with the name?
Mini, for mini people, and exchange because there used to be an aspect on the website that allowed people to sell pre-loved stuff to one another. But we removed that bit from the model.
What successes have come your way since then?
I started this business in my dressing gown, at home, in my bedroom. And the next thing I knew I was going out to meet retailers and trying to sound sincere when talking to them. About two and a half months after launching, we were selected as one the best three start up businesses at ArabNet Beirut. After that, the company just started expanding and navigating all of it was a challenge. Then, last February, I was among the 15 entrepreneurs selected to go to Silicon Valley with Goggle for a two-week residential program called Blackbox Connect. Through that I was able to meet investors, listen to amazing talks from people like the founder of Skype and learn how to take a company global. The time spent there was definitely a challenge. I would attend the talks all day, come back to the hotel, nap, wake up at 2am to talk to my team and keep the business running, go to sleep, wake up and do it all over again. The 12-hour time difference was insane but it was a wonderful experience. After this, I knew that the business needed to grow more and that meant raising funds. Up until that point I was funding the business myself but it had grown beyond the two people sitting in my home with keys to my front door, working at my dining table. It was time to expand.
How did the fund raising come about?
Once I came back from Blackbox, I closed our first round of funding where we set out to raise $1Million. Coming from my financial background I knew how important it was to get the right people involved in the business. There are a lot of people with money that want to invest but they don’t necessarily bring value. I needed people who were going to help me with the aspects I knew little of. I wanted experts from legal, banking, e-commerce, social, retail and more. I wanted to surround myself with those who could give me advice and help me. I had gone from an Assistant Manager with two people reporting to me to a full fledged business that had me dipping into branding, designing logos, hiring people, firing them, processing visas and so much more and I needed help. So, I was very careful about who I worked with. And as humbling as it is, these investors have put their faith and money in me, not just the idea or revenues.
How has the business grown since then?
Mini Exchange offers a drop ship model and we’ve designed technology to help with that. Basically, we could be sleeping when an order comes in and a signal will be send to logistics, to the customer and to the supplier and the shipment gets delivered without it passing through our hands. We’re also scaling our product base. We started with 500 products and have now hit 30,000 with the hopes to hit 100,000 by next year. Suppliers are launching between 10-20 new brands on the side and we’ve gone from just children’s fashion to launching 150 product categories in the last two months. It’s growing really fast and I’ve been lucky to work with a great team so it’s a lot of fun.
What does power mean to you?
Off the top of my head, without too much thought given to it, I think power is having people want to deliver for you and working unbelievably hard for you when it’s not their personal business. So, being powerful is when you can get a team to dedicate themselves to your business idea. Basically, how can I inspire a person to want to make this business work even though it makes no difference to them if it is successful? It’s powerful when your team is dedicated enough to stay late and come in on bank holidays when I haven’t asked them to do that but they still do it because they want to make this business happen.
What is your favourite aspect of running your own business?
Being able to come to work in leggings! And also having an idea and being able to implement it straight away.
Least favourite aspect?
Never being able to switch off, which is a plus and a minus. It’s not like I’m a hermit that sits in the office only working, I have a very active social life. But I’m always thinking about the business. It’s what I live and breathe. And that burns me out sometimes, I get physically sick!
What have you learnt about yourself over the past two years?
That I am good at multi-tasking. My father is an entrepreneur too and I once asked him how he was so successful and he told me that he was good at multi-tasking. I think I’m the same. I don’t enjoy doing just one thing a day. I think if you’re passionate about something, you end up multi-tasking. I believe I’m also quite good at inspiring people. I sit down for feedback sessions and realise that the person I’m talking to has left the table buzzing with energy and ideas.
What advice would you give to the next generation of entrepreneurs?
Get out there and meet as many people as you can. I always say yes to meeting new people even if I don’t have the time for it. I find a way to make time because you never know how people are going to be able to help you. And especially in a place ike Dubai that has a start up ecosystem, people are willing to connect you and help you.
Photograph by: Sarfaraz Ali Photography