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Thread's Ben Phillips: the tech innovator shaking up shopping

Tom Bottomley
22 March 2019

 Previously CTO and co-founder of Playfire, a social network for gamers backed by the founders of Skype that grew to 1.5m users and was acquired in 2012, Ben Phillips then went about using software and data science to turn his attention to how the world buys clothes through launching the Thread.com website, the AI-powered fashion sales company, in 2012.

First and foremost describing himself as “computer programmer by trade”, Phillips was on hand to talk about his business model in the latest of TheIndustry.fashion’s "In Conversation..." events at the W London hotel in Leicester Square this week, hosted by Lauretta Roberts and staged in partnership with Klarna.

Combining the algorithm with the personal touch of online stylists has proved to be a popular combination with men who, like Phillips himself, felt uncomfortable going out shopping and putting outfits together themselves. So much so that in October 2018 Phillips and his business partner, Kieran O’Neill, raised £17m ($22m) in funding, in a round led by H&M.

Phillips believes you should choose investors who share your vision and trust you, and also those who you can really talk to and feel comfortable with and who won’t try to get involved in the day to day running.

Thread currently has something in the region of 100,000 monthly active users, and a new app has recently been launched which will be sure to grow Thread’s customer base still further, and at a rapid rate, having already reached some 9,000 users.

Looking for a new entrepreneurial venture, the idea for Thread originally came up when Phillips and O’Neill admitted to each other they that couldn’t really dress themselves. “I didn’t know what to wear, I didn’t know how to buy clothes and I’d go on the high street and be confused,” admits Phillips.

"The days I felt good were the days when, say, I was putting on my favourite shirt that I’d been complimented on. So, it was the idea of building something than can give you that feeling every day."

“I often left my house feeling sad after looking in the mirror. The days I felt good were the days when, say, I was putting on my favourite shirt that I’d been complimented on. So, it was the idea of building something than can give you that feeling every day. It was quite a selfish thing because I actually wanted it for myself, so I’ve spent the past seven years building this thing that was to solve a problem I had.”

Thread

Ben Phillips (c) with TheIndustry.fashion's Antony Hawman and Lauretta Roberts

Sometimes it takes someone from outside the world of fashion to shake it up, and that seems the case here. “Coming from outside of fashion, you don’t have any biases, in fact you come in really stupidly – and that can be an advantage. The reason I wanted to start the company was because I like solving problems. That was my approach, and I’ve used technology to do that.

Putting the right team together was key in taking Thread to the next level, and getting former Selfridges former buying director of menswear, Terry Betts, in as head of business development in September 2015 was a key moment.

Thread operates as a hybrid online retailer, having both bought-in product and product ordered by customers then got in from brands, repackaged and sent out to the customer by Thread, which usually takes a day – though can take slightly longer depending on the supplier. The nature of the Thread business means they would have to sit on an enormous amount of stock if it was all bought-in, and the business model does not support that.

Phillips believes that they were lucky in the way that the time they started Thread coincided with the rise in the use and ability to use machine learning. The way it works is, potential customers sign up and get assigned a human stylist. “That’s something we think is really important,” he offers. “You answer a few questions and then receive regular recommendations of outfits, ideas and content that is personalised to you. The point of the personalisation is we’re all different and all different shapes and sizes, and we have different budgets and different lifestyles.

“Going to a generic online shop, where the front page is the same for everyone, is like a high street shop window, but it should be different for every person."

“Going to a generic online shop, where the front page is the same for everyone, is like a high street shop window, but it should be different for every person. And technology can give you that.” The power of computers and the memory they now hold means information can be stored on each individual person for years, with recommendations made accordingly. A stylist may have the talent to pick the right things, but they can’t remember thousands of clients and what they bought or looked at last year, or the year before. That’s where the technology really comes in.

Focusing on a 25-35 year-old demographic, though not in a way where they exclude others, Phillips cites changing times, social media (Facebook is the most important for Thread’s current customer acquisition) and the rising importance of the impact of dressing well for men, combined with the rate of the growth in the menswear market, as other key factors in their business strategy.

Ben Phillips

Guests listen to the talk at TheIndustry.fashion

“It is a generalisation, but the problem that men have in dressing is greater than it is for women,” he says. “I think women are generally more knowledgeable about clothes. With social media and the internet there’s more exposure to people who are dressing well – and the benefits that gives you. Also, everything has also got a little less formal, and you have more ability to express your personality through what you wear. But that comes with having to make decisions and needing some knowledge and expertise, or letting someone help you make those decisions.” That’s where Thread has found its niche. The personal stylist touch is key as Phillips doesn’t think we’re ready to be dressed by a computer alone just yet. “The human aspect is so important,” he says.

Producing relevant content is also important, because Phillips says they can’t just recommend clothes to customers, they need to explain why. “Also, the algorithm may recommend a shirt that you then buy, then you can try it on and ask your stylist what they think to get the thumbs up or down. It’s about finding the right things for you.”

Ben Phillips

Networking after the event

Validation from your assigned stylist builds a valuable relationship and customer loyalty. It’s that personal touch that can be lost when a stylist leaves the company, though all past data from the customer is saved by the algorithm, ready for the next stylist to step in. Whether algorithms can every really understand fashion was a question raised. It may not be the case that they can, but an improvement in data science, and the customer information storage capability, means accuracy is becoming greater.

“One of the things that is vital is understanding your customer,” says Phillips. “So, we regularly speak to users, and different types of users – even those who haven’t bought yet because of certain reasons. Our goal is to really understand them.” It ultimately means the lifetime value of customer loyalty is high, and users keep coming back.

TheIndustry.fashion In Conversation series is proudly staged in partnership with Klarna.

Klarna


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