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MBA Students' Retail Tech Ventures Find Fortunes In Europe

Retail start-ups are winning the most start-up backing in some parts of Europe. Entrepreneurs are utilizing business schools and technology to launch fashion and design ventures.

Tue Dec 2 2014

MyCreationDesign is a treasure of Paris’ council of stylish design start-ups. Delphine Lau, the founder who launched the business with her husband because of her passion for interior fashion, is one of a growing band of successful entrepreneurs utilizing technology to boost retail sales.

Delphine believes that she can thrive in the French start-up scene by investing in web and mobile commerce platforms. Two thirds of the company’s sales are now online. She plans to expand into both the Belgium and Swiss markets in 2015, all being well.

“A lot of customers see the products online and then buy them in the showroom,” says Delphine, from her shop front off Rue Saint-Maur in the eastern side of the city. She has just begun an MBA at ESSEC Business School nearby in France. “The variety of the students is a real wealth and is as valuable as the classes taught,” she says.

The start-up, launched in 2012, sells Scandinavian inspired furniture to mostly local clientele. “My husband and I have always been passionate about home decoration,” Delphine says.

The business is small, with a product range of about 500, but the way in which it fuses tech, a bricks-and-mortar outlet and Delphine’s personal tastes illustrates how retailers are adapting to a changing consumer base and the onset of innovation.

“Digital is constantly changing so it's important to keep up with trends and new developments in both social media and e-tail,” says Bronwyn Lowenthal, founder of Lowie, a London-based vintage fashion house.

Many retailers find it difficult to target younger consumers, who have grown up on tablet devices and smartphones, and prefer to discover brands through social media rather than on a highstreet. This has opened the way for new upstarts to make their mark, such as Lyst, a personalized fashion marketplace, and online fashion retailer Farfetch, both fast-growing groups.

While pure tech companies prefer to set-up in Silicon Valley, blended retailers are often based in Europe. They are also often products of business schools, which offer the advantage of providing angel investment and start-up mentoring.

“Oxford and other similar universities are building ecosystems with a long-term sustainability approach,” says Maria Nikolou, senior program manager at Oxford’s entrepreneurship centre, part of Saïd Business School. “These communities of founders and supporters take time to mature, and many of the important pillars are now in place.”

Sentier, Paris’ historic garment district, and Saint-Georges, home to the Moulin Rouge burlesque palace, has seen a blossoming of tech start-ups that are creating a useful network for entrepreneurs. Such clusters help entrepreneurs like Delphine, whose city base is seen as a hub for design and fashion.

“Our clients are mostly Parisian,” she says. “They like our products because they have a unique design, small prices and are perfectly designed for smaller interiors.”

Other hubs of retail start-ups which rely on e-commerce platforms to drive sales growth are popping up in Milan and New York City as well as in London, the UK’s capital.

“Retail start-ups clearly have a central role to play in growing the UK’s creative output,” says James Pattison, CEO of Startup Direct, a London-based delivery partner of the UK government’s small business support initiative.

Investment is helping to foster the city’s creative corners. Balderton Capital, a London-based venture capital firm, has invested nearly $700 million in fashion start-ups in the past ten years. The fund has pumped sizeable investments into online-focused retail groups such as Girl Meets Dress and Secret Sales.

Retail entrepreneurs in the capital are borrowing more in start-up loans than any other sector, accounting for 35% of seed funding invested in 2014 by Startup Direct, according to the organization.

This is critical for MBAs because a lack of finance will often hold back promising business ideas from bearing fruit.

“The largest segment of applicants for funding from the SBS Seed Fund has come from students within the business school,” says Maria at Oxford, about 40% of the 75 applications received in 2013.

According to Crunchbase, a data provider of start-up activity, about 50 fashion start-ups have been founded in London in the past five years.

Retail upstarts are helping to expand entrepreneurial clusters at local business schools such as City University’s Cass Business School, London Business School and Imperial College Business School.

Bronwyn, who is studying on Cass' executive MBA program, hopes to use management training to continue growing her small fashion empire.

“As part of our marketing modules there was some information taught about retail,” she says, adding that she will pursue the sector as her main EMBA project in 2015.

Lowie sells ethical women’s fashion and accessories – specializing in winter hand-knits – from a store in southeast London but it also operates on an e-commerce platform.

About 50% of sales are online, Bronwyn says, but she expects to increase website sales five-fold during the upcoming crucial Christmas trading period. She is also utilizing a click and collect portal, StreetHub, and plans to organize yoga classes to up in-store interest.

“Customers still love highstreet shopping as a leisure activity so I don't think the high street will ever die,” she adds. “[But] shops need to provide an ‘experience’ that makes customers come back for more.”

Around £731 million is now spent online each week in the UK, an increase of 10% compared with 2013, according to data compiled by the Office for National Statistics in September 2014.

It is now easier than ever before for entrepreneurs to market and sell directly to their target customers and remain in control of the selling experience.

Chloe Hoole, founder of ethical babywear brand Darlo, knows that better than most. She has used two Startup Direct loans totalling £7,500 to launch the company, which, through an online sales channel set-up in November, helps disadvantaged children in developing countries.

She launched Darlo after a trip to India and South America in 2013. Each product sold in the UK provides a week’s worth of meals for a child in India. “I was overwhelmed by the lack of support structures in various developing countries,”  says Chloe, whose living room is piled high with product boxes, labels, packing, tissue paper and string from her first shipment of clothes from overseas. “I had always dreamt of starting a fashion retail business,” she says.

Chloe is one of the London-based founders that James, CEO of Startup Direct, believes are driving a “hotbed of creative ideas”.

“The online shopping revolution has come hand in hand with growing demand for unique, niche products and our entrepreneurs are grabbing the bull by the horns,” he says.

Retail entrepreneurs are receiving more investment but for Delphine in Paris business school is her key to unlocking the funds needed to expand in Europe.

“ESSEC Business School regularly organizes events for successful alumni who are entrepreneurs to come to speak with current students,” she says. “For me, I now understand how they created their networks, and how they found investors or loans.” 

Student Reviews

Bayes Business School




On Campus

Best Journalism school in Europe

When I first stepped onto the campus of City, University of London, I knew I was in for a ride - and not just on the Tube! With its vibrant energy and an impressive repertoire of programs, City U became my home away from home. The Journalism program was kind of a big deal. Rumour was that we were the best in Europe! The lecturers were not just experts in their field; they’re practically journalistic royalty. They were invested, passionate, and had a knack for turning the most flat press release into a riveting news story. With their guidance, I’ve learned to navigate the chaotic world of media like a pro. The campus was a melting pot of every culture, being that we had such a diverse international crowd. Being in the heart of London, I had the world at my fingertips - there was always a new corner to explore, a hidden gem of a cafe to discover, or a street performer! City, University of London wasn't just a university; it was a chapter in my life story that I’ll never forget.




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Learning environment

The teacher-learner ration is manageable, giving each learner a chance to gain personal attention. It is also easier following up on the progress of a student, as the numbers per class is not large. the conducive environment for learning includes clean classes, standard desks, world class instructional facilities and the opportunity to engage lecturers even after their sessions. The team spirit at City is above board, with learners getting chance to learn both from instructors and colleagues. This is the university of choice; the place to be.




On Campus


I liked that each class had a manageable number of learners, making the professor-learner ratio favor knowledge acquisition. I also liked that study schedules were manageable, and not overwhelming. The focus on talents and gifts even within the learning environment makes it possible for learners to achieve the best of their potential, and this has worked to the advantage of those that have schooled at City, University of London




On Campus


The diversity at City University facilitates interactions and is a direction toward the unity of the world. The classes are well built to match the number and needs of all students regardless of the elements of diversity that set people apart. The use of technology in delivery makes learning even more interesting and achievable. At City University there is no distinction pegged on the issues that make people unique.




On Campus


The team of lecturers at the Uiversity are well experienced. Their level of insight and the methodologies of delivery works for the interes of the leaeners. My learning experience was largely boosted by the level of knowledge of the professors at the institution, and their passion to transfer the same to learners. I appreciate every class I attended because of the level of insight I was able to gather




On Campus

The best university I’ve been to

The campus and the people I've met have made it a wonderful experience. I was reared in a small town with a graduating class of only 88 individuals, so moving to City University was a huge adjustment for me. My dorm has more residents than my whole high school combined! I enjoy the atmosphere here, and everyone is so friendly. Outstanding academic options and a stunning campus. Really great from beginning to end. The educators genuinely love what they do, and the students are ready to learn. On or around college, there is always something to do with friends, and the social scene is particularly warm.




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Bayes Business School

As a student at City university attending Bayes Business School I would totally recommend choosing this university as the experience is exceptional with great social networking opportunities . Professors are significantly helpful, delivering with excellence and professionalism. Everyone is happy to help and make you feel welcomed in such an esteem university as City, offering exceptional development and guidance through out the course.




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Economics and Politics

Incredibly amazing university, the way they polish students and help them boost their morale and think intellectually is worthwhile. Many universities have international partnerships to allow exchanges between their students. The most obvious subjects for these opportunities would be those that involve languages, and the study of people and places.




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Clinical biology

I really like it it’s perfect for me with not too many people and not too few either. All the modules are amazing. I love the toy bar. I love all the societies that I’ma part of. Especially the colour Bollywood society