- Marjorie van Elven |
Part vetted manufacturer network, part production management tool, Supplycompass wants to make it easier for small and medium-sized fashion, accessories and interior brands to source responsibly-produced products overseas. The company connects around 40 of these brands to a select group of 50 manufacturers and mills working with sustainable materials, most of them in India and Portugal, but businesses from Nepal, Sri Lanka and Spain are also part of the network.
The company is based in both the UK, where co-founders Flora Davidson and Gus Bartholomew are from, and India, where they moved for two years in 2016 to start building their network of suppliers.
Founded in 2016, Supplycompass claims its platform, launched 18 months ago, helps brands reduce the time from design to delivery by 50 percent, and save up to 45 percent on production costs. Since the company’s inception, over 1 million products have been made with its mediation. Brand clients include Morville Beachwear, Hip & Healthy, and Ethcs.
“80 percent of the brands we work with have come to us with the principal aim of helping them to design, source and manufacture more sustainably”, Davidson told FashionUnited during a phone conversation about the company’s mission, business model and future plans.
Tell me a little bit about yourself and Gus. How did you meet and how did you start the company?
We met at the University of Bristol. He studied engineering and I studied French, which took us on different paths, but about three years ago, we decided to start Supplycompass. I was working as a fashion innovation consultant, researching for lots of big clients such as L’Oréal, Stella McCartney and Adidas, helping them to design products around their customers’ needs. Working with these huge brands showed me that I was much more interested in the way things are made rather than how to sell things.
In 2016 I decided to start my own brand, Badger Badger, and I built my supply chain network in India. While in India, Gus had already started to form the idea of Supplycompass and I joined him in that. We couldn’t understand why the process of finding a factory and getting products made was so difficult, so he wanted to build a solution for small and medium-sized businesses.
At first, we thought we’d be more of a marketplace, helping to match brands and factories. We spent two years in India, living in Mumbai, visiting over 200 factories and asking them questions, as we knew the problems we were seeing didn’t exist only for brands. Nobody really asks the factories ‘hey, how are you, guys? If you could improve the process, what would you do?’. So, we went about building relationships with factories which were open-minded and aligned with our values. We specifically looked for factories with between 15-500 employees.
Initially, we were just an agent, without a platform, but then we raised investment and built a platform and that’s how we are where we are today: we’re a marketplace production automation tool. But we’re only three years in, so we’re not everything we want to be yet.
We wanted to pick a country where factories would be closed to raw materials. We also needed a certain level of flexibility in order quantities, as we’re mainly working with small and medium-sized businesses at the moment, so we need factories to be able to go down to 200-300 pieces a style. Last but not least, we needed competitive price points as well, we considered Europe but the potential for digital disruption would be far greater outside of Europe.
Why did you choose to work with fashion, accessories and home decor?
We were overwhelmingly fashion-focused when we first started, but there was repeated demand from our existing clients for these other ‘lifestyle’ areas. When fashion brands want to expand, they usually expand into the accessories and home decor categories. We help brands which want to expand but don’t have the time, money and resources to find factories. We don’t do footwear, because that’s a whole other game and you need a different skill set, but we want to be able to cater for all the needs of one brand.
How does Supplycompass approach brands to join the platform?
At first, we relied on our network, word of mouth and cold calling potential clients. Now we know exactly who our target client is, we make an effort to look and act different to traditional sourcing agents. We send boxes in the post with a handwritten note and a sample for a factory, for example. That works really well for us. In the past six months, we’ve been investing more in digital marketing so potential clients can find us through search engines.
What makes Supplycompass’ platform different? Why should a brand use it?
There are very few solutions out there that are specifically designed for fashion, accessories and interiors brands to help bring structure and standardization to the sourcing process. What we’re doing is a starting point, we’re building the Supplycompass way of working together. What really causes problems in sourcing is the tech pack. We looked at thousands of different tech packs from different brands and no one had a perfect one. No one had all the information. Brands can upload their designs to our platform and send them to the factory, but they only get submitted if all boxes are correctly filled in. This way, factories can create a much better sample to fit the demands. Some brands submit sketches with a few measurements, and factories say ‘this is not what I asked for!’. There was so much room for ambiguity! We want to reduce the misinterpretation of things and help them to build clear communication.
Supplycompass says on its website that it mission is to create “the world’s most transparent and trusted supply chains”. What kind of information is available about the manufacturers and how is this information collected and verified?
Every factory we work with has a profile so we can match brands with the best factory for them. On this profile there is a mix of information provided by the factory and our own observations, accompanied by photos taken by the Supplycompass team. In order to take a factory in, we have to visit them and verify their claims. We ask for copies of their certifications to make sure they’re in date, for example. When we see a certification has expired, we get in touch with the factory to ask whether they intend to renew it or not. You can also see the brands they’ve worked with and product photos so brands can make sure that factory can make the products they need.
One of your press releases says Supplycompass wants to inspire companies to “embed sustainable practices in their business”. However, we don’t see the same sentence on your website. What does Supplycompass do to achieve that goal?
We made the decision to not market ourselves as a sustainable company because we feel sustainable and ethical practices should be embedded in every step of the way. We know that it’s a journey for many brands and it’s not a ‘one size fits all’ thing, so we chose the word ‘responsible’ instead. But it is getting through to brands somehow, because many brands come to us for help in that area, so we like to show rather than tell in the sustainability front. We give guidance on the best materials and packaging, we have a partner who makes packaging using waste cotton from the factory floor and turns it into paper. But our network of partners is always expanding because there are always new businesses out there developing new things.
What’s the most challenging thing about setting up a business such as Supplycompass?
The main challenge is behavioral change, getting brands and everyone in the supply chain to change their habits. We can’t move too fast, we have to move in the pace people are willing to move. Going fully tech doesn’t work, if you suddenly shove a tech solution to all these suppliers we’re working with, it might not get used the right way, so there’s an education point around it. Finding the right factories to work with was also a challenge, it takes a long time to find the good ones. They’re the hardest to find because they don’t need to be found, they’re in high demand.
And what would you say is the thing you’re most proud of?
Transitioning brands which aren’t interested in sustainability to working with organic fabrics and recycled packaging materials because it actually made more sense and it ended up being cheaper than what they were producing.
What are Supplycompass’ plans for the future?
We want to invest heavily in our technology to grow our platform and bring more brands and suppliers to join us. We want to reduce the time it takes for brands to get from idea to delivery without sacrificing on ethics and sustainability. Good quality, fast products that are also good for the planet: that’s what we want to enable.