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A man of many titles: Simon Pound on Vend, new ventures and the value of a good brand

Simon Pound was one of Vend's early employees and witnessed the madness of its rapid growth firsthand. He was there for more than four years, but recently became a partner at ventures startup Previously Unavailable. He's also managing director of his partner Ingrid Starnes's self-named fashion label. Sarah Dunn chats to him about his new role, the insights he has gleaned from hosting the Business is Boring podcast, changing consumer trends and the future of retail.

Like most years in retail, the years from 2013 – 2018 Pound spent at Vend as head of brand and communications were turbulent ones for retailers. Pound was marketing director, creative and communications, and travelled around the country keeping in touch with its retail clients.

As Vend’s clients were using the company’s cloud software, they tended to be “quite progressive, confident” retailers who were at the forefront of trends, Pound says. They gave him a valuable insight into the industry’s shifts.

Pound says the key change he’s noticed across his time at Vend is that many of the tech tools retailers use have been democratised.

“It used to be that if you did want to have a really great customer engagement platform or customer marketing platform like MailChimp, or if you wanted to have one of the best ecommerce things like Shopify, you had to pay enormous amounts of money, and so only the big stores were able to invest in that.

“But actually, SaaS software and online tools have meant that small businesses have got these amazing tools now.”

Pound is skeptical about existing narratives forecasting doom and gloom on traditional retailers.

“Media loves a big narrative, like ecommerce is killing bricks and mortar, or Amazon’s killing everything, or the chain stores are killing main street, and it’s just not the case,” says Pound. “Generic, undifferentiated shoe stores or menswear stores or whatever are at risk, of course.”

“But retailers doing interesting things with a real point of view and a point of difference and creating great experiences and products that people love and really knowing their customer are always going to do well.”

Pound believes these successful retailers will be across both bricks and mortar and ecommerce.

Retailers in New Zealand fall into several different camps, Pound says. When his family visits Gisborne, Starnes’ hometown, he’s excited to visit its traditional retail stores on the main street.

“There’s Colliers Menswear there, which is just the most magic menswear store. They’ve got a whole wall of stubbies.”

“It’s been the same approach and set-up for generations and it’s such a cool retail experience.”

Pound says the more standardised big-box flavour of retail is “kind of sad” in its homogeneity, but on the other hand, he rates New Zealand’s high-end fashion and food retail offering as “way better than a country this small could expect”.

“It’s hard to generalise it, but from travelling around with Vend… the retail stores in New Zealand that are good are as good as any in the world.”

He cites fashion labels World and Lonely as being world-class retail leaders with differentiated offerings and sophisticated in-store experiences: “I think we’re extremely well-served in our top-end retail.”

From talking with retailers, Pound reports that there’s a sense New Zealand’s retail community has been protected from Amazon and its international peers.

“It’s only very recently that H&M and Zara have been having any real trade happening here. Even free delivery from the Book Depository and Asos and Net-a-Porter, it hasn’t hit here to the scale it has even in Australia, and so I think retail probably sees itself as under threat by a lot of these forces. We’re only in the early days of what those forces will mean, and I am an optimist in that.

“Not every company’s going to come out well from Amazon being a real force in New Zealand, which it will be before too long,” Pound says. “But as long as you’re not selling undifferentiated products… the reason stores are on streets is because people love shopping.”

Pound has been hosting The Spinoff’s ‘Business is Boring’ podcast since its inception two years ago, and has nearly clocked over 100 episodes. It’s a massive privilege to run the podcast, he says.

“Coming from media, I’ve always loved the way you get to chat with people about interesting things,” says Pound. “I’ve always been a big business nerd, so to get to talk to people about their highs and lows, what makes them tick, how they measure success, words to live by – I’ve always lived for that stuff.”

His goal with Business is Boring is to create a “magazine-style” programme which introduces listeners to new perspectives on business. Ideally, any listener can search through the archive and find an industry or an individual they’re interested in.

Asked for any kind of generalisation about the interviewees, Pound says he deliberately searches for outliers and exceptions to the rule, but notes that there are commonalities found among many entrepreneurs.

Persistence is common, as is “a level of intensity – not necessarily in their personality, but they’re really laser-focused, intent on their goals.” Entrepreneurs tend to be high-energy people who are committed to their business.

Diversity is an important component of Business is Boring, says Pound: “It’s not just accountants turning into company directors turning into politicians.”

He’s also worked hard to avoid giving undue prominence to “male, pale and stale” individuals over businesspeople from less comprehensively represented demographics. The podcast has achieved “at least 50 percent gender diversity”, and Pound is aiming for wider ethnic diversity also.

It’s typically more difficult to encourage diverse businesspeople onto the show, Pound says: “I think people often have a bad experience [with previous media opportunities] and you have to work twice as hard to provide a safe situation for them.” He says it’s a privilege to chat with so many different business leaders, noting that stories which let listeners connect with a person behind a brand they love have been most popular.

Among the podcast’s most memorable guests for Pound are Burger Burger CEO Mimi Gilmour; The Warehouse Group and Mercury board chair Joan Withers; broadcaster Brooke Howard-Smith; peanut-butter maker Pic Picot and fashion mogul Karen Walker.

“People have been very honest and open with their advice and hard times, even big names,” Pound says.

He singles Walker out for admiration: “I really admire Karen Walker. The coolest people in the world at their coolest moments are choosing to wear the glasses that they built.”

Pound says he comes back often to a concept Walker introduced to him during their podcast that likened brand-building to a colony of coral.

“Coral isn’t all built up in one hit, it’s hundreds and thousands and millions of little interactions, and they all build up into a shape.”

“We’re so good at making primary stuff, but it’s basically the brand and the marketing and the idea that’s the difference between a margin and no margin.”

Pound’s own theory on branding is very practical: “Your brand is what you do.”

“That means you have to do interesting and cool things. That’s what’s exciting about brands, you have to keep doing it. You can’t just say it.”

The company that Pound’s just joined as a partner, Previously Unavailable, is in the business of helping brands become interesting and cool. The Auckland-based ventures company specialises in the rapid creation of innovative products with untraditional business models.

Pound says he loves the ventures space, noting that around the world, more and more agencies are co-creating products with their clients: “It goes to figure too - if an agency has a track record of making communications that tap into something in the culture and that really ring true with people, then it’s likely that if they can be part of the product making process they can add that same value and help a product go further.”

Previously Unavailable’s own ventures in market include subscription toothbrush company Toothcrush and Storytech, an online tool that helps small companies define and so grow their brand story.

“There are amazing products, some real world-changers,” Pound says. “Like Biobags from Bagriculture, that are a plastic-bag alternative, as strong and versatile as your supermarket plastic bags but 100 percent made from plants and that completely home compost in 24 weeks. It's really cool to help launch a product like that.”

Pound’s particular niche in Previously Unavailable is helping firms with internal content-creation capabilities identify brand strategies, applying the expertise he gained at Vend and through Ingrid Starnes to find differentiators and brand identity in other companies.

“Having the chance to work with James [Hurman], who is literally one of the best in the world at what he does, makes it a pretty compelling proposition for companies - as it was for me to move here,” Pound says. “The chance to learn from him, and also Chris [Paykel] with his experience at innovation pioneer Whatif, and Eddy [Dever] out of Curative and Air NZ.”

Pound says the excitement of starting, building and making things happen at Previously Unavailable is like the early days of Vend or Ingrid Starnes, and he loves it.

“Friends keep popping out of the woodwork to tell me what a good move it was to join all of the team here which is nice. I’m feeling really lucky.”

This story originally appeared on The Register. 

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