How Depop is changing the retail game

Simon Beckerman is the founder of Depop, a community mobile marketplace where the world’s creatives come to buy, sell and discover the most inspiring and unique objects.

How do you innovate? Can you break down the thinking behind your company’s innovation process?

What I do is start from scratch every time, so I pretend there is no context nor tech solutions available on the market—a technique Steve Jobs used. It’s a very practical approach: designing a product starting from a need that you feel in the air, but which people haven’t expressed yet.

With Depop, I wanted to create a 100% mobile marketplace. It was 2010 and I used to tell myself, forget everything you know, think as if laptops were still to be invented. Back then, the boom of apps had just started—Instagram was launched in October 2010 and Depop in the spring of the following year: there was no set path to follow.

So I came up with the idea of integrating social networks, geolocation and push notifications in a single platform—all features that today are taken for granted. In the beginning, it worked liked eBay: if you wanted to purchase a pair of sneakers, you had to send an email to the seller and wait for someone to read it and reply. My intuition was to introduce a chat paired with a smart notifications system to replace the emails: this approach lowered the waiting time down to zero, bringing ‘instantaneousness’ to the purchasing process. We were the first ones to build such a marketplace with a specific focus on young users, and we were relying on Instagram, which boomed shortly after our launch, as our marketing platform. We tested Depop in Italy first, then we expanded to the UK, and we’re now focusing on the US.

What has changed in the e-commerce scenario since last year? What are the most interesting things you’ve seen happening?

Actually, things have moved on pretty slowly since the smartphone revolution of 2010-2011. The only really relevant innovation—which we are considering implementing—is the consignment services’ evolution: instead of putting an item on sale and waiting to receive an offer, the item is given off consignment to a third party website which takes pictures and guarantees its authenticity. It’s what, for example, Vestiaire Collective and TheRealReal are doing right now—and this sector is expected to grow over the next few years.

The second next big thing is the impact of Machine Learning: we can finally train machines to have taste and recognize what we like or not. But we’re only at the beginning of this revolution. There’s still a lot to work needed in order to create integrated systems with AI and humans working in deep synergy. One of the best examples of this is Apple Music, where a human editorial team preselects songs for users and AI generates a playlist of songs they might like based on that first curators’ handpick.

Do you see this as an opportunity for Depop, too?

We’re still a bit behind on this, but we’ve put together a data science team that is creating an infrastructure right now. Our model will be similar to Apple Music’s, because we believe in the effectiveness of the combination of machine learning and human touch. To us, curation is pivotal.

I don’t believe in fully-automated systems. In the last few months, there’s been much ado about a robot that makes pizza: they say its pizza is twice as good and prepared twice as fast than the one baked by the best pizza chef out there. Even though I’m a technology optimist, the very idea of full automation doesn’t turn me on. I’m not saying that it shouldn’t or wouldn’t be a part of the future of work, but there has to be some balance, with 40% human intervention in processes performed for the remaining 60% by machines and AI for example.

But there’s more. The more information available online, the most difficult it will be for the user to find what they’re looking for. We want to simplify the discovery process. And we will do this through curation, which we will deliver both in traditional and unexpected ways. This might depend on my age and on the romantic vision I have on this, or maybe it’s society itself that’s taken a step back and is looking for the human touch after the tech frenzy of the last decade.

Another current trend is voice recognition technology.

Yeah, and we’re really into it. IOS has just launched the API library, which lets you create new ways of dialogue with your app through Siri. We’re working on improving the app by leveraging everything Apple has to offer, from post-touch to voice recognition. We’ll implement a voice-powered search feature, too.

Do chatbots intrigue you?

Very much, even though we’re not developing anything specific yet. Let’s just say that if we decided to expand to the Asian market, we’d surely bet on this WeChat, which is the most popular app in that continent and heavily relies on bots.

My interest in chatbots is also linked to a personal event: in 2008, a few months before Apple bought Siri, I swear I imagined something similar. At that time, Steve Jobs’ visionary strength was disruptive already, so I started wondering what would technology be like if Apple didn’t exist. According to my need to start from scratch each time, I started thinking about how things worked in the 80’s. Back then, the main operating system was DOS: you wrote a command, and DOS would perform it. It was very complex thought, because you had to know to code, learn its own language first. So I figured that maybe we could teach DOS speak our language instead—something like: ‘Hey, DOS, search for the pictures I took last month at the beach.’

In the heat of enthusiasm, I took a picture of an iPod nano, deleted the Click wheel and enlarged the screen with Photoshop. Then, I filled the screen with a chatbot interface similar to the AOL one—which I used to play with a lot back then. I had even named it after my nickname: Zimen. Then, I sent an email to Steve Jobs that read something like that: ‘Dear Steve, to me that’s what the future will look like: there will be chatbots only. IOS will be a chat which we’ll use to be constantly in touch with our friends. Other than them, there will also be a virtual friend, Zimen, who will reply to any of our questions.’ I went on: ‘If you like the idea, since I’m one of your most devoted admirers, you can develop it—possibly with me.’ He never replied. But what I mean is that, at the end of the day, even if Apple didn’t exist in the world, we would still have evolved towards voice recognition.

Depop has been conceived as a community for the so-called Gen-Z, a place where youngsters could feel actively involved and build their own marketplace at the same time. How has your audience evolved since 2011?

The cool thing about Depop is that, thanks to its Instagram-like interface and design, buying and selling is extremely easy. We have a feed where people can post pictures, an “explore” section to find inspiration and private chats: we use these paradigms to attract young customers that up until not long ago were not sellers. To us, they’re the entrepreneurs of the future. There are kids who earn hundreds of thousands of pounds per year on Depop: they buy at a good price at flea markets, Supreme stores or on eBay; then, they sell everything back on Depop.

There are the so-called sneakerheads, who buy and sell streetwear and love brands such as Levi’s and Calvin Klein, those who are passionate about vintage and post-vintage clothing; users selling furniture or watches—someone even sold a vintage Fiat 500 once. And then there’s a category no one talks about but which is a big player in Depop: rich and glamorous grannies who sell garments coming from their wardrobe or handmade items. Fashion is our main driver, but in the future we might expand to other categories.

Payment systems are constantly evolving, and making easier payments is what makes a real difference now.

That’s right—and we’re two years behind China on this matter. But Gen-Z uses them all: Venmo, Monzo, Square, Cash, PayPal, and it takes ten seconds to buy a pair of shoes or jeans. Apple is integrating payment within iMessage: we’ll consider the idea of doing the same in case Apple opens the API to developers like us. We’re also thinking of integrating a proprietary payment system in our app to avoid our clients paying the PayPal fees.

Why did you at some point feel the need to open physical stores?

We were looking for real contact with our community: we wanted to meet them, to look each other in the eyes, to know what they think of us. We’ve always organized parties, events, workshops. We like the idea of having shop windows overlooking the sidewalk, a door always open. A place to have meetings in, but also places to sell items selected by us from the Depop marketplace. We already have an “office-store” in Los Angeles and New York, in 2019, we may open one in London and Milan as well.

Which markets are you expanding into?

In 2018 we’ll focus on the US only. In 2019 we’ll think about expanding to other countries, but not in China and Asia: the technical and infrastructural effort is too demanding. If we manage to grow big enough in 2018, we’ll take Japan and Brazil into consideration—which have a strong European taste and a strong inclination towards technology—as well as other European countries. So far, the new signups show that traffic mainly comes from the US and the UK. But the US expansion is taking a lot of time and energy.

What are the possible evolutions of Depop?

I’d love it to become a media company. I imagine a community where you are able to discover what creative people are producing—a Condé Nast of the future with different verticals, where the marketplace is just one of the services on offer. We’re taking into serious consideration launching a radio and perhaps even a kind of in app television network. We want to offer a platform with a very opinionated point of view that is not influenced by advertisers. If we manage to build a media company around Depop, we can create culture, too.

Today, youngsters are hungry for curation and for good quality content, they listen to tons of podcasts. Radios such as Know Wave, NTS and Boiler Room are reaching huge audiences—they’re the ’70s pirate radios of today. All these platforms are becoming new media. My gauges are Brooklyn, East London, Silver Lake in Los Angeles, certain areas of Berlin: anywhere, for Gen-Z Youtube is the main channel. Online you can find hundreds of Depop Haul and How-to videos.

We’re keeping our eyes open and riding the wave, even though so far we’ve collaborated with creators for marketing campaigns and only produced one original series, ‘Depop Here I Am,’ in which we interview our favorite sellers. But things will soon change. We’ve just hired Danielle Greco from VFiles: she’ll be our head of content and will manage a team as well as the media company that we will build over the next few years.

Some people are still comparing you to eBay. 

That’s okay. eBay might decide to invest in us (laughs). Let’s say we’re the eBay of our generation, we have the right interface and language.

Healthcare in the age of precision medicine

This year, 2018, marks the 15th anniversary of the draft sequence of the human genome – a milestone in healthcare innovation that took 13 years and $2.7 billion to complete. The Human Genome Project aimed to ‘read’ the DNA sequence of as much of the human genome as was technically possible. And although the Human Genome Project hasn’t immediately brought the genetic revolution that some advocates hoped, it marked a major first step towards realising the ultimate promise of precision medicine.

But what is precision medicine, exactly? Simply put, it means prescribing the right drug, to the right patient, in the right dosage and at the right time, allowing fully customised, tailored treatment based on the genetic makeup of an individual and their disease. In many ways this is nothing new: for centuries, doctors have attuned their care to the individual, taking into account not only the patient but their relatives too, bringing valuable insights from such a personal, one-on-one relationship.

Advances in technology now allow us to take this personal relationship a step further, particularly drawing on genomics: a branch of science that provides us with the ability to read and interpret the genetic ‘instruction manual’ encoded in our DNA. Together with innovative technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), ‘Big Data’ and machine and deep learning, we are capable of sequencing, decoding, interpreting and analysing DNA in ever more detail. Genomics gives us access to a natural database that allows us to predict an individual’s chance of developing various diseases as well as insights into managing and mitigating those risks. This knowledge is what will eventually lead to fully personalised therapies, meaning longer, healthier and more productive lives.

Some of this knowledge is already being used in current medical practice – for example, in the new generation of molecularly targeted cancer drugs that are designed to hit specific genetic flaws in an individual tumour. In the future, the impact could be truly revolutionary. Doctors may be able to devise tailored gene therapies, adding in functional copies of damaged genes or using gene editing techniques such as CRIPSR to fix faulty ones. To use another example, rather than taking a pill every day for the rest of their life to control a chronic illness, a patient might be able to have a personalised stem cell transplant that regenerates the organ that’s causing the problem.

Looking at the bigger picture, not only does this mean a fundamental change in the quality of life for an individual, it also has systemic implications both in terms of productivity and business models. A significant proportion of global healthcare budgets is invested in the management of chronic diseases. The clearest example here is the US, which allocates roughly three quarters of its $4 trillion budget to this sector alone – yet many therapies provide incomplete disease control or fail to work at all. The full application of personalised medicine, informed by genomic technology, would greatly reduce the costs of healthcare by getting the right treatment to the right patient, first time, leaving more money free to invest in research and innovation.

The idea of personalised treatment leading to longer and healthier lives for people worldwide while reducing healthcare budgets sounds impressive and exciting. But there’s still a long way to go to make this vision a reality. Precision medicine is still in an embryonic phase, and there are several practical, technical and ethical issues that need to be overcome.

One major stumbling block is a persistent bias in current genetic databases, which are skewed overwhelmingly towards white, Western populations. According to a 2016 analysis in the journal Nature Genetics, Caucasians made up 81 per cent of the participants in the world’s genome-wide association studies, which measure relationships between genetic makeup and disease risk. Staggeringly, 60 per cent of the world’s population comprises less than 5 per cent of all the genomic data and insights available.

This means that the data being used to develop and deliver personalised, precision medicine is not fully representative of the global population and is therefore of limited value to the majority of the world’s inhabitants. If we want to make these incredible technologies accessible and available to all, irrespective of where they come from and their ethnic ancestry, we need to be able to analyse a wider spectrum of information, understanding and cataloguing the genetic peculiarities of different populations and ethnicities and mapping them back to health and disease.

This is just the first issue to be addressed in a wider discussion about how to set the guidelines of an ethical framework for precision medicine in the 21st century. As tools and technologies move forward, we need to think now about how to embed diversity into the genetic research frameworks that will form the basis for what will become commonplace medical care in the future. Without this vital step, the genomic revolution could fail to realise its promise of a healthier future for everyone.

Fifteen years have passed since the completion of the Human Genome Project in 2003, where it all started. We can say that precision medicine is currently in the same position the Internet was in 1995: Amazon was newly founded, Google did not exist and devices like iPhones were still the stuff of science fiction. Considering the phenomenal transformations in internet technology and applications that have happened in less than a couple of decades, we can expect the same to happen for precision medicine over the next few years. By ensuring an understanding of the richness and diversity of humanity, we are making sure that these advances truly achieve the promise of genomics and deliver precision medicine for all.

The future is human

When working with corporates and discussing innovation, two distinct attitudes emerge when addressing potential future scenarios. Although different, what these two approaches lead to is the overarching understanding that putting the human factor first – will definitely become a differentiator in capitalizing on new forms of innovation for the future.

The first approach is what we define as the “tech-enthusiast”. These are companies which are usually led by hands-on, tech-savvy experts who understand the potential of technologies and look to create new solutions or enhance ongoing operations by leveraging on the disruptive – integrating new sophisticated solutions such as AI, robotics, automation or simply creating new digital experiences.

The second approach can be defined as “holistic-adventurer”. These companies tend to have a more conservative approach that focuses on preparing the internal corporate terrain so it can better absorb the impact of new technologies. A prime example is a company that starts investing in its people and their growth. This begins a process of overall cultural change through individual learning or through the integration of new profiles that can infuse fresh ways of thinking into the organization at large, offering broader reach.

There is no right or wrong, for there is diversity in corporate DNA, our role is to respect both and light up the pathway to transformation. The reality is that between these two extremes there is a grey area in which companies tend to position themselves based on their level of readiness, managerial commitment, role of internal transformation promoter, and overall vision.

One thing that is becoming increasingly evident is that the we as people evolve much faster than the companies we work for. This, coupled with the fact that we live in an era wherein machines have penetrated every aspect of our lives, means that the ability to maintain a human perspective is paramount.

Acknowledging that innovation is not only a “light bulb” moment, but a natural organic exchange between humans and the context in which they operate means that we are able to maintain a relational, behavioral and ethical perspective whenever we define an innovation strategy within an organization – creating a fruitful exchange between the organisation itself and the outside world.

We refer to this exchange as conversation and, more than anything, it entails forging a new common language that channels the expectations and desires of both external and internal “clients” directly back into the organisational core, impacting not only products and services but also organizational structure and people strategy. Once this has been achieved, it means that the wall that up until today has been separating the organization from the outside world has finally been taken down.

This free-flowing exchange of ideas can also be seen in the ever-growing integration of methodologies, such as service design (or others), for the creation and validation of new ideas. These methodologies use a human-centric approach for designing new solutions for both internal and external customers while at the same time trying to maintain an agile, inclusive approach that is both tailor made and memorable.

Another interesting example is the adaptation of processes, such as open innovation, that combine internal and external ideas, resources and paths to market in order to advance the development of new technologies, new business and new value creation. Open innovation constantly seeks external stimuli to respond to customer expectations (both internal or external) remembering and acknowledging the fact that the answer doesn’t always come from within.

With this in mind, “The Future is Human” is both a concept and philosophy that should be passionately promoted as part of the overall understanding of what innovation and Digital Transformation truly mean.

Today’s constellation of global innovation eco-systems provide an opportunity to access an organized network of solutions in a structured and organic manner. It is up to us, companies and individuals, to leverage those eco-systems and use them as a vehicle for shaping our vision and solutions while giving our point of view of what “HUMAN” actually means.

If we are able to make people feel special, acknowledge the value they bring and design around their needs they will, more often then not, excel.

In his book “Drive”, Daniel Pink explains three components that complete intrinsic motivation:

Autonomy – Being self-motivated and self-organized. It is about trusting people to do the right thing and distributing authority.

Mastery – Honing skills and talents. It’s about setting aside space for self-accomplishment and individual passion as well as growing expertise and knowledge in areas of interest.

Purpose – Being connected to a clear inspirational purpose and establishing individual purpose as part of the aforementioned greater purpose.

So whether a corporate is more of a “tech-enthusiast” or a “holistic-adventurer”, by recognizing the importance of people (and what drives them) we can design the right journey and arrive at the desired destination.

The Future is Human is not about distancing ourselves from technologies, rather, it is about making them work for us and cater to our needs. As either clients or employees, it is crucial to design a system in which Humans can move freely around in a natural and intuitive way whenever searching for a solution.

Space, benefits, products, services, communications or even sustainable processes, whichever innovative solution we embark upon, human-centric solutions should be co-created for and with the people around us.

The Future is Human means organizations are shifting into a space that doesn’t simply manage people transformation from a change management perspective, but rather begins the transformation with the individual at its helm creating a fluid, sustainable connection between organizational change and new offerings.

The Future is Human means that in a technologically and digitally driven society we are reconquering our space and repossessing our own individual selves without compromising on personality, needs and expectations. In this sense, the individual can finally be acknowledged as the main driver and differentiator in a transformation journey that is part of an overall innovation Strategic agenda.