Cas Paton, talks about the rise in e-commerce and online marketplaces – and how he scaled up by £146 million in a year
Cas has further plans to skyrocket his business – and now has his sights set on achieving unicorn status
“We didn’t have the infrastructure to scale so quickly,” Cas Paton, founder and CEO of OnBuy.com tells me. “What usually takes years to do was happening in months, even weeks.” The UK-based online marketplace has set its sights on unicorn status, which is only awarded to privately held start-up firms valued at over $1 billion. While the pandemic has caused several businesses to slump, e-commerce platforms have seen an astounding rise as consumers switch to online marketplaces – causing OnBuy.com to grow its business by six times in just over a year. “Scaling our team in the middle of a pandemic wasn’t the easiest feat, but we quickly adapted and have become much stronger for it,” Cas continued. “Our efforts to scale up to meet demand have been rewarded as we’ve reported a record-breaking start to 2021.”
Cas started his career in the Royal Navy and at 20-years-old, he was selected to become a pilot. He was released from the navy to study a law degree which at the time was a requirement to attain his pilot license. However, Cas ended up launching his own web development business and left the navy to start his entrepreneur adventure.
“Even as a young kid and in my early teens, I was looking at how businesses could make more money and finding solutions,” Cas said. “I remember walking around supermarkets as a teenager thinking about ways, they could make more sales and worked with them to introduce systems that would help them easily maintain their margins. I started my own web development business at 21 to help businesses grow. I’m not a software developer myself, so I would work with clients to find ways for them to be more efficient and more profitable. I would find the technical skill needed to build the system and we’d make it happen! I consulted for eCommerce companies and internationalised brands, and within the space of a few years I was consulting technical solutions for NATO and the NHS.”
Cas realised there was a gap in the market for online marketplaces that truly supported SMEs and created an equal playing field for its sellers. In 2016, Cas launched OnBuy.com, allowing businesses to operate in a fairer, more transparent and ethical way, helping independent businesses to increase their sales and profits effectively. “Having worked in e-commerce for most of my life, I noticed a gap in the market,” Cas told me. “Early in my career I was encouraging businesses to monopolise on what marketplaces had to offer, but that changed over the years. I got to the point where I was guiding businesses to use marketplaces, but to do so carefully, because small and medium businesses were getting stung by the very platforms that were meant to be supporting them.
“There was a need for an online marketplace that operated professionally, provided a level playing field for all its sellers, and that, operationally speaking, truly supported its retailers,” he added. “I knew that if we got the supply side right, then the customer side of the business could flourish in a positive and ethical eCommerce ecosystem. It was from there that OnBuy was born, and our core values of fairness, transparency and ethics are reflected in everything we do today. I created OnBuy to shake up the status quo and be a partner to the retailers that sell on our platform, not a competitor. A business model that favours the marketplace platform over the retailers who sell through it is ultimately flawed, and we’re seeing the fallout of that way of operating now, with some big names being caught on the wrong side of competition laws.”
As a self-funded platform at the start, launching OnBuy.com was no easy feat. With no sellers and no products to start with, Cas relied on the value and mission of his company to attract businesses who believed in his vision. “Marketplaces are notoriously tough to launch,” Cas said. “Open your doors on day one and you’re faced with what I’ve labelled ‘the marketplace conundrum’ – you’ve got no sellers, which means no products for buyers to purchase, while sellers want to see that the platform will make sales.”
As more sellers joined the platform, OnBuy experienced a snowball effect with high street names, including joining the platform in late 2020, including P&G, Swan, Paladone, which increased their overall sales by ten per cent each month. “We had to keep chipping away at sellers and find those that were willing to give OnBuy a shot,” Cas said. “It only took a few retailers to join, then it snowballed and we were away. Ultimately, retailers realised the value of what we offered and saw that our model would change the eCommerce industry. Just over four years since On Buy’s launch, the platform is now valued at an estimated £180 million and are on track to achieving over £1 billion in gross profit margin by 2023. OnBuy has now been ranked as one of the world’s fastest-growing online marketplaces (according to Alexa rankings), with more than eight million buyers and offers up to 30 million products from reputable sellers and just under seven million monthly website visitors.
During the pandemic, thousands of firms were left scrambling to make ends meet as lockdown restrictions placed immense pressure on businesses – particularly SMEs. The pandemic brought about a rise in e-commerce as consumers switched to online shopping – and this spelled major success for OnBuy.com. It just nine months, OnBuy’s platform skyrocketed, forcing them to increase their staff from 14 employees to over 60 workers in order to keep up with the rising demand – and they plan to scale up even more.
“The switch to online shopping since COVID-19 began has been immense on a global scale. Government restrictions, together with consumer caution, accelerated the online shift and impacted in-store selling for many retailers. With this incredible boom in online shopping, our business became extremely fast-paced – even more so than it was already! While growing a business can take years, we experienced a massive surge and grew by 6 times. We didn’t have the infrastructure to scale so quickly. What usually takes years to do was happening in months, even weeks. With such rapid growth, we’ve needed more resources to keep things going. In just nine months, we went from 14 employees to over 60 and we’re hiring for another 30 positions now. Scaling our team in the middle of a pandemic wasn’t the easiest feat, but we quickly adapted and have become much stronger for it. Our efforts to scale up to meet demand have been rewarded as we’ve reported a record-breaking start to 2021. We witnessed an 800% year on year growth in early January, beating last January’s sales figures in the first three days of the year. This growth announcement comes as we prepare to launch OnBuy’s Series B funding round.”
In a few words of advice to other SMEs struggling during the pandemic, Cas said: “Stay positive and find opportunities to protect your business at this moment. We have to accept what we’re dealing with here and all business owners must look at ways to continue through the challenges the pandemic is causing. Hats off to the restaurants that have introduced a takeaway function that they didn’t have before - SMEs must diversify to accommodate the changes we are witnessing during this difficult time.”