The Guardian Media Network - 29th September 2014
Tech levels the playing field with multinationals for small businesses
The deep and prolonged economic contraction has obscured the powerful positive effects of recent technology for small and start-up businesses.
I have set up two fashion retail businesses – Myla in 2001 and Charlotte & Co in 2007 – and we are now doing with two people, VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol), WeChat, WeTransfer and the cloud, in a single room what used to need 20 people over two floors.
New technologies have made my second business, Charlotte & Co, a relative nirvana to grow.
We are an e-commerce business but we have no tech know-how in house. Our website runs on an open-source Magento platform and it never occurs to me to worry whether the site is up or down. It is utterly stable, always has been. When e-commerce works, you are not spending on the increasingly expensive, increasingly rare high street locations that are still economically viable. Instead, we are free to invest in the parts of the business that the customer cares about: beautifully designed, high quality lingerie and lounge wear, and outstanding personal customer service.
We do not invest in expensive office space either because very few of our team actually come into the office to work. Instead we are enthusiastic users of remote working technologies: VoIP is an integral part of our daily processes. In fact, it has killed off the curse of big businesses: the hour-long meeting.
We recruit new team members in a location-blind manner via online forums and platforms such as People per Hour. Our financial director is still known as Charles S because that was how LinkedIn had shortened his name when we first went looking for someone to take the financial reins.
We can test new markets quickly and cheaply too; thank you Amazon for allowing us to discover that our designer pyjamas are a hit with the Germans.
With Dropbox and WeTransfer, we can use a supplier base that is as global as that of any multinational. We are manufacturing in Asia and Portugal, re-touching photography in India, using reprographic services in Leeds and printing our catalogues in Germany, all without ever getting on a plane. And it feels seamless. I am the CEO yet I also find time to create a hundred designs for each new collection. When I brief out a creative project I am as likely to hire a textile print designer in Amsterdam as in London.
The team's productivity is enhanced massively by our cultural emphasis on asynchronous communication – also known as email. Email is particularly valuable because we work with partners across time zones and with colleagues who work remotely and do not work the same hours as each other. This way of working has allowed us to tap the vast reservoir of highly skilled women who, for whatever reason, are no longer prepared to commit to a traditional corporate lifestyle.
We do all this without having an IT department and with a fraction of the number of people we would have needed a decade ago. The most complex machine in our office has a Nespresso logo on it. I cannot help but believe that many corporates must look at how much we achieve with so little resource and want to weep into their plastic cups of insipid vending machine coffee.
Charlotte Semler is Creative Director and CEO of Charlotte & Co. and Founder of Myla
Charlotte has been selected as a mentor for 2011 Marie Claire Inspire & Mentor campaign! The campaign is covered in the June issue.
FT How to Spend It
9th August 2010
Flair on a G-string - Times Online
25th April 2010
How does Charlotte make it work?
14th March 2010