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Q&A with Gary Elphick of Disrupt Sports

Welcome to a new weekly series, where we conduct a Q&A with one of Internet Retailing’s 2017 Top 50 People in E-Commerce

This week, editor Heather McIlvaine speaks to Gary Elphick, CEO and founder of Disrupt Sports, a pureplay online retailer that lets customers design their own sporting items and manufactures them on demand.

Short on time? Here are three key takeaways from the interview:

  • Disrupt Sports is building a VR commerce platform to give customers another path to purchase.
  • The pureplay online retailer will open an office in LA and New York in the next six months.
  • The GST on low-value imports is bad for consumers and small businesses, according to Elphick.

Heather McIlvaine: How did you get your start in e-commerce?

Gary Elphick: Going right back to the beginning, I had a business buying and selling bits and pieces on Ebay while I was at school in the UK. I sold those plastic wristbands because they had the best margin of any product. I could buy them for 15 cents and sell them for 5-6 GBP.

From there, I started developing WordPress platforms and eventually got a few friends working for me too. I was just looking for a way to make money in my off-time so I could afford to go traveling, but I was reprimanded for running a private enterprise at university. The funny thing is that the business school later gave me an award for entrepreneurism.

After university, I worked at an advertising agency with a big technology focus. I got into RFID quite early and created an RFID platform with some friends that we gave away for free. That’s also where I developed a passion for IT solutions for sports companies, which led me to create Disrupt Sports. It was all kind of self-taught. I just love playing around with new technology.

HM: What are you working on now?

GE: We’ve been working on a new virtual reality (VR) commerce platform for Disrupt Sports for the past six months. It lets people ‘walk’ into a store, pick up a bike and play around with the wheels, flip the whole thing over with one hand and actually get a feel for the product. Because we don’t make the product until the customer designs it and pays for it, it can be tough to convey what the quality is going to be like. VR overcomes that barrier.

The bit that I really love is that it brings the retail side of things to life, without it being a super expensive exercise. Our store on the VR platform is huge; we have 62 products all around the space, which we’d never be able to afford – or want to afford – in real life. And if we want to make any changes, we can push them out overnight.

HM: Disrupt Sports is a pureplay online retailer, but not everyone has access to VR technology at home. Do you envision people using the VR platform at home, or in a physical retail space?

GE: I think both. Mixed reality and VR commerce will become mainstream, but it’s going to take some time for the education to occur. I need my mum to know how to use VR before the platform is ready for mass adoption. We’ll release it on the App Store, so people can use it at home, but we’ll also make it available in physical retail spaces through pop-ups and concessions.

HM: What else can we expect from Disrupt Sports over the next year?

GE: We’re just about to open an office in LA and then in New York. That’s our big focus for the next 6-8 months. We’ll also be working on systems integration. I really want to get the manufacturing integrated into the order process as tightly as possible. Also, better quality control. Our returns rates are ridiculously low, but they could get better. And then just playing around with cool new stuff. I’m interested in bots.

HM: What most excites you about working in e-commerce today?

GE: I think it’s the pace of change that technology enables today. You can see a good idea, develop it and implement it straight away. You used to have to spend so much money on educating consumers and developing marketing campaigns. But now we can film a quick video in our office, put it out overnight and customers get it. The speed of consumer adoption is quite amazing.

I also love distributed manufacturing. If I want to buy something from America, the amount of waste involved in having it manufactured and then shipped to Australia is mind boggling. I want to see manufacturing become as hyper-local as my street or suburb. My ideal scenario would be to go into a physical retail space, make and order a product using VR, have it made locally and delivered to my house three hours later when I’m home.

HM: That would certainly be one way to solve the current debate on GST for low-value imports. What are your thoughts on that topic?

GE: I actually started a campaign called Keep Shopping Open, which is urging the government to think very carefully about their next steps. So far we’ve got 40,000 signatures.

My personal opinion is that it’s a bad thing for us as consumers and it’s not a good for small businesses either. It’s a short-term protectionist measure. Australia is a small country, so why are we hurting our exports? The US and Europe have already said they’ll reciprocate if this goes ahead. And if the US taxes Australian goods, that’s going to be unsustainable for exports. Either [overseas] customers will stop buying them, or the goods will get taken away at border.

The last bit that really bugs me is the government has already done a study that says this is a loss-making measure. There’s clearly lobbying from certain large organisations pushing this ahead, but I want to make sure the interests of small business are represented too. I actually met with Malcolm Turnbull recently and we had a good balanced conversation.

Gary Elphick was named to Internet Retailing’s 2017 Top 50 People in E-Commerce, which can be downloaded here.

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