Callum Campbell of Linnworks: “Build a multichannel strategy”

Build a multichannel strategy — The expectation of the modern consumer is to be able to shop on any channel they choose: marketplaces, websites, social media, in store — this is what we call the Effortless Economy. Brands and retailers therefore need to meet these consumer expectations and build the operational ability to sell to their customers wherever they […]

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Build a multichannel strategy — The expectation of the modern consumer is to be able to shop on any channel they choose: marketplaces, websites, social media, in store — this is what we call the Effortless Economy. Brands and retailers therefore need to meet these consumer expectations and build the operational ability to sell to their customers wherever they choose to shop: A concept Linnworks calls Total Commerce.

As part of our series about the future of retail, I had the pleasure of interviewing Callum Campbell, CEO of Linnworks, a leading SaaS commerce platform that works with brands like Ford, Casio, Belkin and Ten Thousand. As CEO, Callum is responsible for ensuring Linnworks empowers brands to grow their business online. Prior to becoming Linnworks CEO in 2017, Callum founded Autonative, a global automotive ecommerce software and services business, where he currently sits as a board member. Callum earned a first-class honors degree in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Bath. Through Linnworks’ partnerships with leading global marketplaces including Amazon, eBay, Alibaba, Google and Facebook, Callum champions the vision of Total Commerce and the need for brands and retailers to be set-up to sell to their customers wherever they choose to purchase.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I always had a deep interest in systems and numbers, which led me to pursue a degree in engineering, and in my free time, I have always loved adventure activities like surfing and skiing. As I began to think about my future, I knew that I wanted to somehow combine critical thinking with the thrill of risk and reward, and that idea led me to entrepreneurship. Starting out, my future business partner, Warren Spokes, and I had a number of small business ventures until our first full-time venture in 2015. We actually started out selling car parts online, but as we saw the world of retail rapidly changing, we founded Autonative to help vehicle manufacturers, dealers, and parts suppliers take advantage of the opportunity for online and omnichannel retail. As the company grew, Autonative and Linnworks established a partnership which led to us investing in Linnworks, and I joined Linnworks as CEO. This decision was a result of three factors: the market, the industry, and the company. We recognized that the market was great, and eCommerce was only going to continue to grow, and we saw how Linnworks’ product and people were addressing a shift in the industry and creating customer value. This helped us define our vision of the future of retail: Total Commerce — providing access to customers across every channel. There was an opportunity to build a great business that could have a real impact on the world, and that was something that I was excited to be a part of.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

In 2015, we had a pitch meeting with an important client from a well-known brand. The stakes were high for us to land the deal, and we knew our proposal was a bold move. The opportunity we delivered to him was so big, he refused to believe that we could deliver on it and actually ended the meeting early. He said we would never be able to achieve buy-in for what we predicted as the bold move in his industry. Looking back now, his hesitancy isn’t surprising. Mitigating an industry shift is challenging and doesn’t come without risk. But our experience navigating e-commerce’s impact on retail would not deter the confidence we had in our vision or our product. We took our pitch to a direct competitor brand and secured a deal that now operates at a global scale. For me, the experience proved that success can come from adversity. What seemed like a major failure turned into a new opportunity. Because we were able to manage emotions when facing potential failure and push forward in spite of resistance, we were able to build something truly successful and visionary.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson or takeaway you learned from that?

Well, where do I begin? There were certainly many mistakes in learning how to effectively start a business. Specifically, early on as a leader, I often tried to do way too much on my own. In the early stages of Autonative, there were only two or three people in the company, and I tried to be involved in everything. Whether it was editing other people’s emails or trying to do graphic design work myself, it just didn’t scale. I actually tried to develop our own infographics at first. It took months to create and when we finally took the graphics to market, no one understood what they were! I thought they would secure us lots of buy-in, but they were useless and a waste of time — but a valuable lesson. While that was a hard pill to swallow, it changed my outlook on leadership and how to scale a company. Leadership is all about recruiting great people, setting them up to do their magic, and getting out of their way. No one person has all the answers and no one person is the ‘silver bullet’. In order to build a successful business, you have to build a successful team.

Are you working on any new exciting projects now? How do you think that might help people?

My passion right now is to continue developing Linnworks to help online retailers automate key processes, reduce costs, and grow their business. The company is experiencing rapid growth and we are having a big impact on the world of commerce. More specifically, we are focused on analytics capability and bringing valuable insights to our customers to allow a clear central view of their business that will empower them to make great decisions. In addition to product development, we are focused on growth in new markets. I do also serve as a board member at Autonative and enjoy supporting that team as they continue to grow.

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

Burnout is very much linked to state of mind. When running a business, it’s important to detach your identity and sense of self-worth from the success of the business — this is not easy, but it is a game changer. All companies go through periods of success and periods of struggle.

Learning to accept that reality, and embrace the difficult times is key to avoiding mental exhaustion and burn out. After all, the seasons of struggle oftentimes turn into opportunities for learning and growth.

And of course, eat vegetables, see friends, exercise, and switch off 100% for one full day per week (although that is very hard in the early stages of any venture) — there’s a lot more to life than work alone!

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person to whom you are grateful, who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

There are two people who have played a special role in my career. The first is Warren Spokes: co-founder, partner, and friend. Warren and I bring very different skills to the table, which has made us great partners. We both share the same ambition, adventurous spirit, and values. He’s widely talented and stretches me every day. His optimism and ‘make it happen’ attitude has kept me energized and motivated me through challenging times.

The second person that has helped me in my success is Tony Ruane, now the Linnworks Chairman. I was introduced to him in a pub in Devon, and we hit it off straight away. In the early years, Tony mentored me and gave me lots of his time, with no expectation attached. As a young CEO, it’s been hugely valuable to be able to lean on his experience and wisdom and learn from his fun and generous spirit. He has been a solid rock.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

As a leader, I believe it is my responsibility to first bring goodness to the people within my organization. Linnworks is a good organization and that is something we are truly trying to improve each day. A Ben Horowitz quote that resonates with me is this; “a happy company is an end in itself.” This statement makes clear that building a happy company should not just be a means to achieving economic success, but should be pursued as a priority in itself, because people matter.

Outside of Linnworks, I do spend time mentoring other young business leaders. As someone who started a business at a young age, I know the value of having guidance in your journey and I hope to give others what was given to me to help me succeed.

Ok super. Now let’s jump to the main questions of our interview. The Pandemic has changed many aspects of all of our lives. One of them is the fact that so many of us have gotten used to shopping almost exclusively online. Can you share five examples of different ideas that large retail outlets are implementing to adapt to the new realities created by the Pandemic?

  1. Build a multichannel strategy — The expectation of the modern consumer is to be able to shop on any channel they choose: marketplaces, websites, social media, in store — this is what we call the Effortless Economy. Brands and retailers therefore need to meet these consumer expectations and build the operational ability to sell to their customers wherever they choose to shop: A concept Linnworks calls Total Commerce.
  2. Click and collect — A concept that continues to gain momentum — especially considering the pandemic. Shoppers want to be able to purchase items online and pick them up in-store. This merging of ecommerce and bricks and mortar is certainly a part of the Total Commerce concept.
  3. Embrace marketplaces — This is where so much of the consumer traffic now goes. Marketplaces are the experts at driving traffic. It is important to find a smart way to work with them, integrate and align into your business strategy. (Not just Amazon and eBay, but other platforms like Wayfair, Zalando, Fruugo, etc.)
  4. Adopt products like NearSt that allow you to list your retail-store inventory levels on Google — this helps consumers find nearest location to them where they can find a given product
  5. Become a marketplace — Direct-To-Consumer (DTC) is on the rise and retail is being squeezed, the pandemic has accelerated that. Some retailers are opting to take a completely different direction and evolve into online marketplaces through which brands can buy products, fundamentally a shift in business model. Examples of this are Urban outfitters, Best Buy, and Walmart.

In your opinion, will retail stores or malls continue to exist? How would you articulate the role of physical retail spaces at a time when online commerce platforms like Amazon Prime or Instacart can deliver the same day or the next day?

Yes, retail stores will continue to exist, but they are going to look very different. Online shopping is removing the need for brands and retailers to hold a lot of stock in urban centers for easy access. It doesn’t make economic sense for most businesses to do so given the fact that the internet allows for this. Therefore, retail stores will be used to differentiate through experience and service, rather than stock availability. They will probably only stock the fastest moving product lines and showcase pieces, for example, Direct-To-Consumer (DTC) brands like LuluLemon.

The so-called “Retail Apocalypse” has been going on for about a decade. While many retailers are struggling, some retailers, like Lululemon, Kroger, and Costco are quite profitable. Can you share a few lessons that other retailers can learn from the success of profitable retailers?

Retail is different from brand. Pure play retailers are resellers of branded product lines that they do not own. Therefore the ‘retail apocalypse’ highlights the ongoing battle between retailers and brands. Retailers (i.e., businesses who don’t own the branded lines of product they sell) in most product categories ultimately face extinction, both through their online and offline channels (e.g., bricks and mortar). Why? Well because in most product categories, the business model of reselling someone else’s branded lines of product has been undermined by the emergence of internet technologies and ecommerce. The traditional retail model (reseller) does not really add value to the customer in the age of ecommerce.

Lululemon succeeds because it sells DTC and therefore has far more control over its brand and margins than a retailer that stocks Lululemon products. Costco is an interesting example — ultimately, Costco succeeds because its model is differentiated through exclusive relationships with customers (via membership), rather than just being a pure-play retailer.

Amazon is going to exert pressure on all of retail for the foreseeable future. New Direct-To-Consumer companies based in China are emerging that offer prices that are much cheaper than US and European brands. What would you advise to retail companies and e-commerce companies, for them to be successful in the face of such strong competition?

Develop your own branded lines of products and sell them DTC. Develop a DTC selling strategy for online marketplaces (as well as just your website and in-store) as these powerful online selling channels are only going to get stronger and capture an increasing share of eCommerce volumes. With that in mind, it is important to build a multi-channel selling framework that aligns with your business goals and allows your business to work with marketplaces effectively. If you dismiss marketplaces you will miss out on a huge share of the eCommerce prize.

Additionally, build total commerce control — establish the core technology platform in your business that allows you to:

  • Sell your products to your customers, wherever they are choosing to shop — maximizing revenues
  • Automate processes like inventory management, order management, and product information management, so that you can optimize your cost base
  • Control and access the data that you need, centrally from across your entire business, to empower you to make the best decisions for growing your organization
  • Being a retailer is not where you want to be, brands are going D2C — customers are going to buy you where they can find you. The B2B model is not relevant anymore due to acceleration in ecommerce.

How can our readers further follow your work?

Readers can follow my work by connecting on LinkedIn —

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

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