The BoF Podcast | Ross Bailey on Building a Business From Humble Beginnings

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Ross Bailey’s love of entrepreneurship didn’t start in business school or a corporate job, but at the hair salon his parents owned in the outskirts of London.

“I watched my parents take this little shop and it became their livelihood,” he says to BoF’s founder and editor in chief, Imran Amed, describing himself as a “busybody” who rearranged furniture and conducted customer satisfaction surveys from a young age. “To me, entrepreneurship was a game. It was about ‘how do I get people involved and have a bit of fun?’”

That mindset eventually led him to found Appear Here, “the Airbnb of retail,” in 2014. “The story of the world… was that the high street is dead, nobody wants it. And we had a contrarian view on that. When you have small high street stores and streets, people want to be on them… our data has always backed it up.”

By 2019, Appear Here was a global business with 250,000 entrepreneurs signed up to the platform and about 30,000 stores launched. The company has facilitated pop-ups for fashion giants like Louis Vuitton, Loewe and Supreme, a bookstore for Michelle Obama’s autobiography, as well as Harry’s House for pop superstar Harry Styles.

Then the pandemic hit. Appear Here went from having its best year ever and closing a funding round with a nine-figure valuation, to losing 95 percent of revenue with just months’ worth of cash left.

On this week’s episode of The BoF Podcast, Bailey shares his lessons and advice from the early days of founding a business and the role leaders play in leading employees and stakeholders through challenging times.

Key Insights:

  • The traditional world of commercial real estate and retail is inaccessible and opaque, creating systemic barriers for entrepreneurs from marginalised backgrounds. But small independent stores are also the backbone of entrepreneurship for immigrants and other communities. “Whether it’s the local takeaway restaurant, whether it’s the local shop, all of those places… were people who were entrepreneurial, who were doing something, who were trying to build a livelihood.”
  • Despite Covid’s impact on retail, Bailey doubled down on Appear Here’s mission. Seeing people returning to streets, even when non-essential retail was curbed, and queuing for coffees highlighted the human desire for in-person community. “I just felt that this wasn’t the time to pivot, this wasn’t the time to relax on our idea or rein it in. Actually, Appear Here would make more sense coming out of this than ever before.”
  • The future of retail is hyper-local, says Bailey, citing examples of global brands playing into cultural niches, like Adidas and Gucci’s takeover of a working men’s social club in Peckham. “It’s no longer about Fifth Avenue and Regent Street or the Champs-Élysées, it’s about neighbourhoods and interesting places.”

Additional Resources:

  • How Temporary Pop-Ups Became a Permanent Strategy: Once a way to temporarily fill vacant storefronts, landlords and brands alike see pop-ups as a long-term fixture in the retail landscape.
  • What Happens When the E-Commerce Boom Ends: Online sales growth is returning to its slower, pre-pandemic trajectory. As shoppers head back into stores, new expectations around service are setting the stage for the next chapter of retail.
  • How to Open a Store in 2022: From seamless online-to-offline offerings to Metaverse-inspired installations, the standards of brick-and-mortar retail have evolved since the pandemic struck.

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