Interviews – Technology – Guy Mallison

Guy Mallison, 26, is the commercial director of, the e-commerce website aimed at teenagers co-founded with colleague Adam Hamdy. Having left university without knowing what he wanted to do Mallison tells us how he became a dotcom entrepreneur. He and Handy are charting the company’s progress in a weekly column in the Guardian newspaper

Starting out in the dotcom world

How did you get the idea for the site?
It was actually Adam who had the idea. We were looking at getting into an e-commerce venture and it was one of a number of ideas we had. It was the one we felt had the longest legs. It met an obvious market need and was something we could get enthusiastic about.

What made you choose the business-to-teenage (B2T) market?
After doing some investigation we realised it was a genuine market opportunity and that no-one was actually doing it. The teenage market is worth about 3n ($4.5bn) a year in the UK. Teenagers have quite a lot of disposable income, but have no way of buying online. It looked like an obvious market need.

Fifty per cent of teenagers are online – more than any other generation in the UK. They’ve grown up with the technology and are comfortable with how it works. If we can tap into that it will be a significant market.

How will the site work?
You can’t get a credit card if you are under 18 and there are age-related restrictions on debit cards. So we’re offering an online debit service where teenagers can open up a Rools account into which funds are deposited. They can then use those funds to shop at stores in our network. Those retailers will sell products that are both appealing and appropriate for under-18s.

They can put parental donations into the account or maybe money they’ve earned themselves from a Saturday job. It’s giving them independence. That’s the key thing.

The current situation is effectively an unnatural constraint on teenage spending. We are not going to encourage them to go mad. We are purely a facilitator for young people who want to buy online.

How are you making the idea a reality?
We are still in the process. Initially we had incubation support from our previous employers, Bridgewater (a UK growth management consultancy), who have provided us with some seed finance to help get us on our feet.

Scoring our first banking partner was a key milestone. It provides security. The second important element was getting financial backing from some fairly major Internet investors in the UK and across Europe. We have secured 9 ($10.5m). We are now in the process of developing the technology and building a team to run the service.

We’re planning a soft launch in September with very limited marketing support, with more marketing support in the pre-Christmas period, which I think is going to be very busy.

What does a typical day involve?
It varies a lot. My responsibilities as commercial director are on the partnership side. So a lot of my day is taken up with meetings with potential marketing, retail or strategic partners.

Recruiting staff for

What kind of staff are you looking to recruit?
You need to suit an environment that is relatively unstructured and yet hard-working. We are looking for people who are flexible. So even if we hire a director we would expect them to be able to roll up their shirt sleeves and muck in.

We are looking for people in a number of areas from the more technical side – programmers and operations – through to marketing and business development.

Certain areas are more difficult to build than others. Technology is quite difficult, operations is very difficult.

The actual skills would depend on the role. In some areas we are looking for specific experience and in others we’re looking for potential and relevant experience, but no necessarily direct, experience.

Given we’re a small organisation the early recruits will have a big impact on the culture and feel of the company. So it’s very important that there is a fit and that they share some core vision about how the organisation should be run.

Patrick Boylan, former chief executive of NatWest Cards, recently joined your board as a non-executive director. How important a hiring was that?
It is very important. He will make key contributions to the business through his 30 years experience within banking and payments. We come from a consultancy background. We’re not experts in payments. We’re not expert teenage marketers. Some of these things you can pick up and we have obviously learnt a lot already, but we’re seeking to bring in that expertise that is required to add balance to the team.

Patrick is a good example of that because he’s got fantastic expertise in the area of banking and payments. He was with NatWest Cards and has recently retired from the Global Board of MasterCard.

Finding a winning business-to-teenager Internet formula

The B2C (business to consumer) sector is still in its infancy and has recently seen its first casualty with the demise of online sports fashion retailer What makes you sure won’t go the same way?
There’s absolutely no guarantee that’ not going happen. But we’ve put a lot of things in place to hopefully prevent that. One of our key appointments will be a finance director to make sure we put a control on costs. We’re not extravagant and have got very strong limitations on what is acceptable and what is not. Also we believe we meet a real need in the market place.

What’s going to make a success?
It’s in the execution. It’s the quality of the retail partners we get on board. It’s the backing from financial institutions that we get. It’s the combination of youth and experience that is the strength of the team we have built.

The career path from Cambridge University to dotcom start-up

What steps did you take when you started your career?
I studied economics at Jesus College in Cambridge and graduated in 1995. I was one of those unfocussed people. I made half-hearted attempts to find a fairly standard milk round type job during my final year, but realised it wasn’t really for me and concentrated on my exams and having a good time instead.

I had a brief gap and worked for a company near home and then went to work for Bridgewater. At the time it was a fairly small, focussed business management consultancy. By the time I left four years later I was one of their longest standing consultants.

Bridgewater effectively incubated so it was quite a smooth transition for us. Consultancy gives you quite a broad business background that can be quite helpful. I worked for a number of clients in a whole range of sectors. You do get a feel for a number of different organisations.

What advice would you give to graduates embarking on a career?
There are two types of people: those who know what they want to do and those who are a bit intimidated and don’t know what they want to do. I suppose I fell into the latter category.

The best thing to do is actually get involved. There is a huge difference between the world of study and the world of work and until you take your first step in you don’t really know what you are comparing things against. You can’t always make the right choice. I would suggest you just get involved in something. You can always move, especially in the first few years.

I’ve ended up running my own business, which from my point of view is very rewarding. It certainly hasn’t been a structured career path.

What are you plans for the future?
We are here to enjoy it, learn and gain a huge amount of experience. What happens in the future we must wait and see. This business could take us anywhere.

The ambition is certainly there for this business. The focus at the moment is the UK and we’ll be launching across Europe hopefully later on this year. Then we’ll take it global.

Share with:

Business, career, interview