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Changing the face of buying and selling in the industry?

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Ray Vernon, Managing Director and founder of Mysokoni

Amazon. eBay. Etsy. Not on the High Street. Booking.com. These are just a few of the wildly successful online marketplaces that connect customers and sellers together. For many companies, such websites offer the benefits of an online store, secure payment facilities and access to a vast number of customers. Conversely, such websites offer customers the opportunity to view and compare thousands of products from the comfort of their homes from a multitude of vendors. Online marketplaces have changed the face of the retail world, becoming the norm for millions of shoppers globally and potentially leading to the rise of direct-to-consumer retail models adopted increasingly by manufacturers. THIIS interviewed Ray Vernon, Managing Director and founder of Mysokoni, a digital marketplace specialised in the mobility and independent living industry launched in July 2018, to find out more about what makes his potentially revolutionary and disruptive platform different to all the others.

What inspired you to look at creating your own business?

I stumbled into the market completely by accident after speaking with a friend who was trying to find a solution for her mother and was growing frustrated by being unable to find something suitable.

At that same time, I was looking for ideas to launch my own business but was struggling to come up with one. Initially, I thought about something in travel because my wife and I love to travel and explore; however, we did not have the money to open our own travel company so began exploring different niches relating to the travel industry.

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How did a niche in travel evolve into an online marketplace in the mobility and independent living sector?

It was during a visit to the Travel Technology exhibition that I first came across the mobility, disability and independent living market.

There was a speaker talking about travel and the disabled market. My friend who was looking for a product for her mother had specifically mentioned travel as a particular issue, so I decided to go to find out more.

Luckily, it was just me, a gentleman from Holland and the speaker at her talk, so we were able to sit and discuss the travel industry and disability in detail for 45-minutes. At the end of it, she said to me that if I wanted to find out more about the disability side of things, go to Naidex.

How did your time at Naidex influence your decision to launch Mysokoni?

My background is in marketing and consultancy, having owned a digital marketing agency, so I had never heard of Naidex before and assumed I was going with the goal of speaking to people about disability and the travel sector.

When I arrived, however, I was absolutely gobsmacked by the innovations that I saw. There were solutions I never knew existed. One company that really caught my eye were offering an experience to take quadriplegics up to the top of mountains and ski the person down. Absolutely incredible and I couldn’t believe I had never heard or even considered such a thing.

As I went around the show talking to people, I asked different vendors why they exhibited at Naidex and many of them said it was to raise awareness of their products or services because many people like me had no idea their company and products existed.

I thought that was a real travesty as there were so many products and services there that could improve and change the quality of a person’s life. I left the show thinking that there should be more awareness of these products.

After talking to my wife about the show, the products and looking through all the literature I had come back laden down with, she asked me, “how would you help?” That is what got me thinking about Mysokoni.

What made you consider launching an online marketplace for sellers and buyers?

Following the show, I started researching online what source disabled and older people use as the de-facto standard for finding disability solutions but couldn’t find anything in the UK. Being Canadian, I searched my own country and couldn’t find any comprehensive resource there either. The situation was the same in America.

After having conversations with people, I was told that it doesn’t really exist like that but what I did find during my research is actual disabled customers complaining of feeling ignored, being unable to find specific solutions or struggling to get hold of trustworthy advice and guidance.

To tackle these problems, my solution was to create what I would term as the Amazon of the disabled and older people product market, although I do not like relating it to Amazon as there are a number of important differences.

What makes the Mysokoni platform different from Amazon and other online marketplaces?

Amazon is primarily concerned about selling, box shifting really, however, we didn’t want our platform to just be about selling products but instead incorporate a real educational and informational element to it.

From the people I have spoken with, be it the end-users themselves, their partners, family members or friends, they highlighted that as well as a lack of awareness regarding what solutions are out there, there is also a lack of good quality advice for how people can best help a loved-one.

That is why the educational content is such an important difference for Mysokoni and to that end, we decided to create a video channel dedicated to informative and insightful content. So far, we have created a handful of videos which can be seen at www.vimeo.com/possabilitytv.

There is a massive gap between what is available and what is known. Many people want to help those close to them but do not know how to because a lot of the products and shops are specialist and not widely known about outside of the industry, so Mysokoni aims to bridge that gap.

How has the website grown over the past few months?

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We showed Mysokoni at Naidex 2018 and only had 12 products and one vendor on the site. By December, we had over 900 products on the website with 20 vendors, so it is growing quickly in a short space of time.

It is positive because it validates the concept and proves there is an appetite for our platform in the market. The number of people that came to our stand at Naidex asking for specific products surprised us. Many OTs and nursing professionals came to give us support and feedback, so we are on the right track.

It has been a really good start for where we want to go, however, our BHAG (big hairy audacious goal) is to reach a point where half of the products in the industry will filter through the Mysokoni marketplace.

Can you explain more about this big hairy goal?

We have some big ambitions for where we would like to take Mysokoni. When we get further investment, we want to have fully trained people available to talk over the phone to field enquiries and provide their advice and expertise to customers and those buying for users like family members and carers.

Ideally, we want to get to a point where a user could go online, see a product and then choose to purchase the product there and then or have the option to pick up the phone and speak to a member of staff who is trained in that particular product sector, for example, wheelchairs or sensory, for additional advice.

This is something I think online marketplaces like Amazon and eBay could implement today but choose not to.

Understanding this sector and the customers, some of these products require that extra level of service. For users who know what product fits their needs, that is fine. For those who are unsure or coming in cold to the market, it would be great if they could receive additional information from an actual person. Then that product category expert could recommend a selection of products for the user or the best next course of action.

Would that include recommending that person on to see specific healthcare professionals or undergo an assessment?

If that is what is required then yes. We are hoping some of the people on those phones will be the occupational therapists and healthcare professionals qualified to give the advice.

It isn’t just about selling otherwise we would become like another Amazon or eBay, it needs to be tailored for the needs of this marketplace and the customers in it.

If a trained advisor is talking to someone on the phone and they believe that a person needs a full assessment or to see another professional, then that member of staff could help recommend and advise how to organise and arrange that.

“Our big hairy audacious goal is to reach a point where half of the products in the industry will filter through the Mysokoni marketplace” Ray Vernon

At the end of the day, the recommendation needs to be what is best for the person at the other end of the line as everything we do is always aimed at helping that end-user.

How do you ensure customers receive the right level of customer service from companies selling through the Mysokoni platform?

If we have vendors on the site that are not responding to customer queries, not living up to expectations or not selling products that are fit for purpose, then they will not be allowed on our site. We will cut them out of the process.

I am acutely aware of just how much of an important role these products play in ensuring someone is able to live a good quality, independent life, so ensuring the products are suitable and the vendor is providing the right information and customer service is vital for the platform’s success.

What steps as a platform do you take to guarantee only good sellers engage with the platform?

This is an area we spend a lot of time and attention on.

For example, on the platform currently, we have mobility batteries. Before they were put on Mysokoni, we asked questions of the manufacturer to validate what kind of support they offer our customers, what does the warranty of their products include, how fast is it sent out when a customer orders it and when a customer needs service.

These are the kind of questions we ask and we plan to do that with the vast majority of vendors who plan to sell through our website. We are being contacted by Chinese and other Far East manufacturers all the time to sell on our site and we ask how do they support our customers once they have purchased the product and if they have a representative in this country that can look after our customers if there is a problem. The companies are unable to offer the type of support we feel is required so we deny them the opportunity to sell via the platform.

So, there are elements of due diligence to ensure suppliers can back up with service?

Certainly. If you can’t supply service to our customers, then we do not want you on the platform until you can. That is essential for us and it is what makes us different to alternatives such as Amazon and eBay I believe.

We want to build a trusted brand so that when people look at Mysokoni, they know they can go on and buy safely because the vendors have proven they are reputable and trustworthy.

As we grow, we would love to get to a position where we can begin to potentially influence manufacturers and retailers in the way they create and supply products to customers to drive best practice.

How do you see Mysokoni benefitting the industry?

We believe in the idea of the “triple win” whereby the experience should benefit all parties involved.

What does a “triple win” mean?

The most important person to win is the customer by getting the best products and experience possible, which really is first and foremost.

Secondly, the vendors also have a business to run and the only way for businesses to grow is to invest in better products and services by being profitable, so they also need to win.

“We would love to have more vendors providing both physical and mental health products on the platform.” Ray Vernon

Lastly, Mysokoni, which sits in the middle, also needs to win so we can be there to support both sides and ensure the right products are reaching the right people.

For us, the best situation is when all parties win and I think we have created a platform and environment where this can happen.

If a customer does have a problem with a vendor and the vendor is not engaging with the customer or hasn’t offered a level of customer service the customer feels is acceptable, what steps does Mysokoni take in that event?

Legally, we are not obligated to get involved in a dispute between the customer and the vendor, as when a customer purchases from a vendor, the relationship is formed between those two parties.

However, we do state, and it says this clearly in the emails we send out to our clients, that if they experience a problem with the purchase, contact the vendor first. If it cannot be resolved between the customer and the supplier, then we ask end-users to contact us and we will become involved at that point.

There are statutory rights customers receive, such as a 14 days return policy and warranties, however, if the customer has exhausted all of these options and is still unsatisfied with the vendor, then we will look to get involved.

We contact the vendor directly to discuss the situation on behalf of the customer, hear both sides of the story and try to find a solution for the customer because our primary focus improving the quality of life of end users.

We are also considering working with an insurance company or two to help mitigate the risks that buyers sometimes have with a seller to give added reassurance to customers. This is something that we would look to introduce in the future and are currently in the process of formulating how this could work.

How can you help ensure end-users find the right products for their needs?

I am aware that the wrong products can actually cause harm to people and at the moment, anyone can go onto Amazon or eBay, look at a range of products and buy what they want without any form of assessment. It is these elements of online marketplaces that we want to challenge with Mysokoni.

In the future, we intend to build what we call ‘Wizards’. Essentially, wizards are the mapping of a category expert’s brain. It isn’t as exotic as it sounds!

In essence, it is aiming to replicate the questions that a fully trained expert would ask in order to determine which product is right for a customer.

We want to create a feature on the platform that will ask users, depending on which product category they are searching, questions to determine their needs, wants and suitability for products.

If we take the example of a wheelchair, the Wizard would ask the same questions as a professional. It would then use all this different data to recommend products that meet the needs of the customer.

Again, going back to the idea of the platform being more than just sales, this recommendation could be to inform the individual that they need an assessment and then signpost them to the relevant places.

We have the vision, now we just need the momentum to get the funds to turn the vision into a reality.

The initiative certainly doesn’t lack ambition.

“We want to have fully trained people available to talk over the phone to field enquiries and provide their advice and expertise to customers and those buying for users like family members and carers.” Ray Vernon

You need to have a high goal to reach so you are constantly driving towards it but at the very heart of it, everything we do is focused around the customer and their needs. We want Mysokoni to be the single place where people with disabilities can find, compare and make an informed decision about products that will positively impact their lives.

We can only build as much as our resource allows and we are realistic about what is achievable at the moment but as we continue to develop and build the platform and receive the necessary funds to kickstart some of our bigger plans, then we’ll hopefully find that we have solved those challenges that inspired me to start the company.

What do the next 12 months look like for Mysokoni?

Building our vendor base is a key objective for us in the coming months to offer more products and more options for consumers. We want to grow to a point where customers are able to make comparisons against a large range of products.

We certainly do not want to be a platform where there is only one manufacturer selling one type of product, customers much have choices.

We want customers to be able to see multiple products and compare various products to see which best fits their needs, be that in terms of features, function or price.

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What type of vendors are you looking for?

We would love to have more vendors providing both physical and mental health products on the platform. Our objective is to create a professional environment that is competitive and helps facilitate the buying process, bringing together those selling products and those buying them, without interfering with the buyer/seller relationship.

All we ask is that vendors are diligent with their customer service and answer customer queries properly and promptly, as well as offering competitive pricing and ensuring their products are fit for purpose because as we mentioned, we do to let end-users down.

How much does it cost companies looking to feature and sell products on the platform?

It costs absolutely nothing to put products on to the platform and retailers can feature products in multiple categories at no cost. One of the features we have included for vendors is a free chat facility, so if a customer is on a vendor’s Mysokoni store and the vendor is logged in, they can engage with potential customers in a live chat, answering questions and learning more about the customer’s needs.

How does Mysokoni generate revenue?

We have the attitude that when a vendor is selling products, it is a lot of responsibility and it is someone’s livelihood, so we want to help support them as much as we can. The way the system works is that we won’t make money until they make money.

When a vendor sells something, all we ask for is a flat 10 percent of the invoice. If it is the case that the product requires assessment, such as a wheelchair for example, then the site can generate a lead that goes to the vendor.

Rather than charging a vendor for a lead that may not give them a sale, we ask the customers to complete a very short form. Our system automatically includes the product information and the customer details and a copy is sent to the customer, the vendor and ourselves.

We then follow up to make sure the vendor has responded and is dealing with the request. We rely on the honour system for vendors to say they have sold a product and the amount that is owed to us from the sale. It really is a simple process.

For companies interested in becoming involved with Mysokoni, they can get in contact with us at vendors@mysokoni.co.uk, call 0333 370 1607 or click on the ‘Become a Vendor’ link at the top of the website which takes them through an application process.

We hope as time goes on, we’ll keep working towards our big hairy, audacious goal of changing lives.

www.mysokoni.co.uk

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