Real Business sat down with the founders of the innovative gift service, needi, Louise Doyle and Steph Scholes to find out where their business idea came from and what it’s like to be part of an unstoppable duo in business.
Who are you and what is your business backstory?
Lou: I’m Lou, I am a mother, a mentor, a mentee and before needi I was the Global Sales Director for a group of travel companies. Steph and myself began needi because we could see that there was a real problem with how people give gifts and could see a way of gifting with kindness and for the greater good.
Steph: I’m Steph, I have previously lead the highest performing team of a global business with an annual turnover of £12m. I am proud to be an empowering leader and would say as a business we just really love people. I particularly love working with people – I love making people feel good, and that is really the foundation of why needi is important to us. For us, whether you work with us or have navigated the website – any interaction should feel good.
What was the inspiration for needi?
Lou: When we found out that 1 in 5 gifts go straight to landfill and 80% find gift shopping stressful, that was really where the inspiration came from. Steph and I are passionate gift givers, we never turn up empty handed, and celebrate any occasion we can. We found that there really needed to be a better way of gift giving and something had to change environmentally too.
In my previous role, we had a remote sales team and a small budget – so the only way to find thoughtful and interesting gifts was to google local business and find them. It was a huge amount of time spent researching and was really quite difficult to find websites. It was also obvious that these small businesses couldn’t really compete in terms of marketing. That is where needi really comes to fruition, it supports local businesses, it isn’t time consuming and the gift giving options are nice, loving and thoughtful – which really enhances a relationship. It shouldn’t be stressful and the gift should be what people want and need.
In the future we also want to give back to the local communities by having an option to add on gifts for someone that genuinely needs a gift.
Steph: For me the inspiration was independent businesses and being able to spread the word of how amazing they are. We’ve done so much research into this subject and one of the things that kept cropping up was that independent brands struggle with the fact that the market place is drowning in presents that are not as good quality as those of smaller merchants, but it’s much harder for small, local independent’s to get their name out there and spread the message of how amazing they are!
One of your intentions is very clearly to reduce waste, what is the history behind your environmental aims and bringing a more sustainable business model to the gift industry?
Steph: The history behind the environmental aims that needi solves is multi-dimensional. It obviously puts a stop to 1 in 5 gifts going to landfill, but it also reduces the amount of time spent searching and browsing for the perfect gift. We both love shopping and buying gifts, but it has to be made easier and in a more guilt free fashion.
Lou: Like a lot of people, we suffer from Amazon fatigue. Before, we both used Amazon because it’s quick and easy, but then instantly felt bad about it as we saw these massive boxes coming through the post. We want people to be able to find independent brands as easy as scrolling on Amazon and understand that shopping with needi actually looks after environment.
Could you break down your business model, and how does this fit into the mantra of supporting other small businesses?
Steph: So, our business model is simple – we charge merchants a percentage. The customer receives the same price as any other website. We take a small commission from merchants which is then redistributed through our marketing and tech departments, which is essential for us to produce the best platform for the customer.
We also offer a yearly subscription to needi for our merchants, which is dependent on the amount of money they make. We guarantee that the website won’t be over saturated with the same product from different merchants, and they are also included in all our marketing campaigns. For example, if we have an independent brands that makes scarves, you won’t then see another 50 scarf merchants. If you’re on needi, you’re the best and will thrive on the platform.
We also offer business development support. Quite commonly, new independent brands are a side line for someone that usually works elsewhere. Owners often don’t know how to set the right budget and all the other elements in the background of a business. The needi team offer that 360 degree support, which is so important.
What kind of questions do you ask during the gift selection process?
Steph: Firstly, we look at what occasion the product is for, as that’s really important. Is it for a bereavement, birthday celebration, Christmas present etc? Then we look at the age bracket which the product falls into. The next stage explores a more personal look at how the gift receiver wants to feel when they receive the gift, so we look at the emotions we want the gift to evoke – will they feel loved, supported, or bonded? These questions ensure the person gifting will get the best possible gift.
Lou: We began by speaking with psychologists who focussed their attentions on gift giving and specialised in human altruism. So originally the questions we asked were based on their studies and research into the history of gifting and why we do it. We’re at phase 1 on the platform at the moment, with a nod to psychology based questions. As we move to the next phase, we hope to see more detailed questions launched, to have the gift matching as close to 100% correct as possible.
How did you initially get merchants to collaborate with you?
Steph: We handpicked them ourselves, which involved a lot of research online and looking through various gift guides. Then it would be a simple case of calling them and having a conversation. At the moment that has worked for us – we’ve had a 100% conversion rate, which is great. We hope to continue in that way.
Lou: For us, it was really important to partner with merchants who have the best product and services, which are perfectly aligned to our goals at needi. Merchants know that we build an understanding of their business and set the expectation for what we want to deliver through our goals.
Is there a company you would love to stock or work with?
Steph: We would love to work with homeless charities. Dress for Success, which helps unemployed women get back into work, Wood Street Mission in Greater Manchester which are helping families in need, and FareShare, which help fight hunger for children across the UK.
Lou: We’d also love to partner with the ‘Make A Wish’ foundation because in the future we want people to be able to donate gifts to charity and make people smile. It would be amazing to see our customers having that same ethos too. Once we have that, then we will be achieving everything that we set out to do – doing something good is what gives us goosebumps.
What was your biggest challenge establishing needi?
Steph: The biggest challenge was being a two-man band. We both come from leading teams, where you have that classic brainstorm session and then send out to others in the team to action. With needi, we are every single hat – we are the investment finance onboarding team, the customer service team, the tech managers and everything else in between.
Lou: Our old IT manager would laugh right now that we are building a tech company. I think the other challenge in the early days was also having confidence in our own ability. Our abilities in business and sales mean we’re very confident in that area, but we’re new to the tech world and being two female entrepreneurs in the tech start up industry means we are not what people are expecting. We’ve had to learn so much, in the early days being in a meeting talking about artificial intelligence, for example, was once quite terrifying. But now we are in a place where we’ve got some extremely experienced advisors, graduated from the Founder Institute Tech Business Accelerator programme and have done our research and due diligence to ensure we are now experts in this field and understand the business dynamics and can instil confidence in the team and wider stakeholders, which is a real achievement and something we’re proud of.
Where would you like to be in the next five years?
Steph: I think in the next five years we will want to be the best in the UK and on the road to taking it global.
Lou: In the next five years we would hope that needi is the first choice and most successful profitable gifting website. When someone thinks gifts – they think needi.
What is your ultimate goal for needi?
Lou: To prove that you can be successful, profitable and kind. Be an empowering blueprint for other companies in how you treat staff and the people you work with, while creating a kind, empowering, profitable and fulfilling business.
I’d like needi to be the sort of place that my daughter will work. Somewhere everyone is encouraged to treat people with kindness and yet still be profitable. We’re not politicians, we never will be, but it’s how we can help change the ruthless world of business to be a kinder place.
How would you define success as a business owner?
Steph: Profitability is a big part of it, but for us it’s down to the staff and how they feel. I’d like to have an external assessment done with the employees of needi and the results speak for themselves with answers such as ‘I’m paid fairly’, ‘I love my job’ and ‘I feel empowered at work’.
Lou: I’d love to see staff saying they work at the best company in the world. It is one of the only ways to succeed as a company, by having the happiest and fulfilled workforce. They have to be paid well to be happy, so the business has to be profitable – but for the true success of the business to be measured on happiness and success collectively.