Business management

Q&A: How a fancy-dress start-up became an e-commerce success

Described by one of his angel investors as a nimble entrepreneur adept at moving with the times, Dom Portman, founder and CEO of Boulevard Online, has a fascinating story to tell. 

When and why did you start your own business?

“Throughout university I learned students wear fancy dress a lot. I realised I could provide a fancy-dress package for fresher’s week and so I started Fancy Fresher in 2012. I ran it for a few years with 14 universities and 10 student unions involved.

“I’d noticed some retailers were struggling with the transition to online because they had legacy systems and I thought if we built a bit of unique software, maybe we could work on a just-in-time warehouse stocking solution. So in 2016 I started working full-time on the business, which at that time was called Fancy Dress Worldwide.

“The business evolved into a platform representing wholesalers, manufacturers and retailers on large marketplaces like Amazon and eBay. We rebranded as Boulevard in 2020 to reflect our wider offering, and now we carry 580,000 products and onboard 10 new suppliers per month on average.”

Was investment in software your key decision?

“Tech-enablement is a massive thing within the business and it’s what leads us. Being able to build a platform from the foundation up so that you have full control has been crucial.

“Given that everything had changed so quickly from the high street to online and marketplaces, I wanted to build something that was agile. I reached out to some website developers and it became clear we needed to build our own platform. In 2018, we did a round of investment to support the software development.

“In 2021 we raised our seed round of £2.2m and down the road, depending on future projects, we may look to raise more capital. We’ll continue to grow with our team.”

When I set the business up, I wanted to build something that was truly agile and able to pivot and I think we have managed to do that. It has been quite challenging, but it’s been good

How many employees do you have now?

“Currently there are about 70 throughout the year. We have 49 permanent staff members, with an average of 20 seasonal staff within our two warehouses. I was on my own at the beginning of the business, so we’ve come quite a long way. My family, particularly my mum, has been very helpful at the beginning and ever since. She actually still has a part-time role in the company.”

What has been your proudest achievement?

“The period during the Covid-19 disruptions, because instead of battening down the hatches until we were through it, we accelerated our diversification into more products, probably at quite an unnatural pace.

“Our staff were very positive and we didn’t have to furlough anyone, even though it was a pretty poor situation for a costumes and party-wear retailer then. We’ve managed to create jobs, and also give an opportunity within those jobs to perhaps build something a little bit different.”

And your biggest challenge?

“It was probably putting the right team together, not just in terms of culture and personality, but finding the right people for the right roles. Some roles we had to fill were very new to the industry because dynamic marketplaces were just becoming places where people would shop. There were skills gaps between what was once done on the high street, to what was once done on .com websites, to what’s now being done for marketplaces.

“You don’t necessarily have a lot of people with experience for what we wanted, so finding the right people for the right roles was a challenge.”

How have recent events affected what you do?

“I think it’s been quite interesting a bounce out of Brexit, into Covid-19 and now the cost-of-living crisis. Being a business that sells stock, the supply chain element has been quite difficult at times. In January this year, we saw a record low for stock availability in the UK. It’s starting to bounce back now slowly, which is good.

“The cost-of-living crisis means we’re starting to look at the more transactional products, and at which products are going to be prioritised by customers who are having to make tougher choices about where to spend their money.”

What have you learned?

“How important our people are and having staff who are adaptable – who are willing to come in to work or work from home. It’s so important to continue to have a good open culture in your business.

“When I set the business up, I wanted to build something that was truly agile and able to pivot and I think we have managed to do that. It has been quite challenging, but it’s been good.”

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