Cally Russell
Cally Russell

My Story: Cally Russell of Mallzee – The Weekly Scaleup with Kim McAllister

The trouble with interviewing the chief executive of shopping app Mallzee is that the research takes days.

Swipe left, swipe right, present for my sister, present for me…

When I finally tear myself away and catch up with Cally Russell, he informs me they’ve just released an update in time for the black Friday shopping mania. I’m tempted to call him back…

He sounds tired, but he may just be out of breath from cycling into work. In fact he’s just returned from a trip to Spain to see his beloved Liverpool draw with Sevilla – his first away game abroad. I get the impression there’s not been much time for a break since the ‘Tinder for shopping’ app launched in 2014. Now with 1.2million subscribers and an investment of £2.5m from Royal Mail, Mallzee is starting to change the retail landscape.

“We’re B2C2B,” he says, succinctly. “We use the data from the consumers to inform the brands.”

It was always a five stage plan, starting with providing a great shopping experience, followed by scaling and then using the data to help the brands improve their own performance.

“The reason why we had that mission is a lot of the retailers are operating in a way that doesn’t really bring in other data sources. They were reactive instead of proactive and we wanted to do something to help that process,” he says.

It’s not often that a company can serve both sides of the equation – heck, it’s not often that traditional industries totally embrace online. Present company excluded, I’d suggest the media is struggling to move online and adapt models to suit consumer behaviour – rather than throwing up paywalls or insisting on subscriptions.

“Well, when you’re disruptive and doing something no one else is doing you have to build your argument, so we’re saying we can test their product before going to market. You’ve got to show the value,” Cally says.

Cohesion between departments is therefore crucial. He describes the quarterly goals which each department interprets for their own objectives.

“Having that whole ‘this is what we want to achieve and this is where we want to get to’ attitude is super, super important for any company,” he explains.

“Sometimes you build the wrong things because you’re listening to the wrong people and every company goes through that. I think we’re in a good place now but I do believe it’s really important for startups to be trying things and using data and instinct. As long as you get enough things right, and move enough things forward, eventually you’ll be successful,” he says.

Cally is closely involved in the entrepreneurial scene in Scotland. The Dunoon-born 29 year-old could potentially have moved to London, but the ecosystem in Edinburgh breeds success in his opinion. The ‘trickle-down’ effect of FanDuel and Skyscanner has resulted in an inclusive community willing to share ideas. Add to that the four excellent universities producing talented people and you have a winning combination.

“I think the two unicorns deserve a lot of credit for building this community and allowing a lot of other people to go and follow their dreams,” he says. “I think people can go on about skills shortages but I don’t see it! You learn every day, that’s the joy of startup. It’s all new things so you just need to try it – it’s a specific mentality. Startup people are much more relaxed about failure, we’ve got to try lots of different ways.”

Mallzee has been able to fast track their approach thanks to a huge investment of £2.5m from Royal Mail in July 2015. Cally had previously turned down £75,000 from Peter Jones on Dragons’ Den because it was too high a price to pay in terms of equity. A brave decision, I suggest.

“You do have to have faith,” he agrees. “You do have to stop and look at it as a step by step process. You need to think, ‘this is where we are today, where will we be in six months, 12 months, 36 months?’ That decision could potentially be the worst one I ever made – or it could be the best – I don’t know. We’ll see in a couple of years’ time.”

He won’t be drawn on the question of his exit – though he does admit to enjoying the process of building a company. Neither will he say what kind of boss he is, just that he tries not to be a micromanager.

“I’m trying to change my skills set in that space all the time,” he admits. “We have an amazing management team and they are the ones that really get on with things. You have to get people who are far smarter than you are!”

Cally may only be at the start of his entrepreneurial journey with Mallzee, but the biggest lesson he has learned so far is about attitude.

 “I think having the right mindset is the thing,” he muses. “Knowing ‘this is what I’m willing to sacrifice, this is where I’m going to get to’ – without it, you will just get worn down.”

Shortly after I returned to my (now updated) Mallzee app to order even more Christmas presents (ahem, party outfits) I got a text. It was from Jenny at Mallzee. It said the dress I’d ordered wasn’t actually in stock in the colour I wanted, would I prefer it in black or a refund? Astonished at this personal service, I replied that the black one would be great…She instantly replied to confirm, with a smiley face and the kind of language that proved she wasn’t a bot.

Now this is the future of retail.

Kim McAllister is a Journalist & Communications Consultant and director of Impact Online


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