An interview with Ravi Jay and Asaf Nahum, cofounders of myMzone...

The first time I encounter startup myMzone is on an Easyjet flight to Geneva; it’s August, my weary eye trips over an article entitled, “The CEO’s Guide to Launching an Internet Start-Up” – and who’s featured in prime position? Ravi Jay of course, MBA alumni, entrepreneur and founder. My interest is piqued, not so much by the context but by the concept; by the man who (along with partners Asaf Nahum, Tal Etzyon and Gabriel Ayache) has set about creating an online market place – for well London’s markets.

A few weeks later and I’m sitting in the offices of myMzone speaking to the man himself, not just Ravi in fact – but I’m blessed with the presence of co-founder Asaf Nahum... And what a journey it’s been; after meeting at Middlesex University and bonding over their shared love of Cyberspace, the pair are a year into their ‘project’. I say project, in fact it’s a booming startup with several ‘colleagues’ (‘They are people who work with us but they are not below us’), a vibrant little office on a tiny back road in Camden, and a vibe that quite frankly brings to mind the Googleplex back in the day when Larry and Sergey were tripping right out of Stanford (but more of that later).

To start with how did the pair come up with the idea? ‘We saw that Camden Market had a great atmosphere,’ Ravi says. ‘It had profit and was a platform for success, small brands were created and it was an inspirational environment for creativity. Because of the unhealthy competition [from highstreet brands] this is not happening anymore.’

‘When you open myMzone it’s multi vendor site, exactly like eBay or Amazon,’ Asaf chimes in. ‘However unlike those sites communication is usually virtual. What we create is a win-win situation; there are no listing or account fees, we look at the merchant as a business partner.’ Along with help of marketing, the firm also set about training merchants with essential online skills in the form of a workshop open to all. ‘Merchants started to arrive from Camden Town, Spitalfields, Notting Hill and somehow it started a sense of community.’

Community is of course at the heart of myMzone. Starting with a limited budget; (‘We wanted to prove the concept with our money before asking for money’) - this is one startup that’s all about the personal touch and I can more than vouch for this; mint tea, engaging chatter and a sign above the door that reads ‘Happily Regressing in Maturity.’ There’s a real sense of taking the work seriously but not themselves. ‘I remember I had an interview with a designer a while ago,‘ Asaf reminisces. ‘She asked me about dress code and I told her I wanted her to paint her hair green, and then she understood that we were quite far from being corporate.'

But don’t let this fun filled fodder fool you, Ravi and Asaf are sitting on a service that has its roots in a seriously well researched business model; ‘To give an example London markets have a revenue of four hundred and thirty million pounds.’ Asaf explains. ‘Camden has ten million alone in footfall, yearly. A lot of businesses struggle because they don’t have an online presence and something that creates a larger market for them. In addition, what we are trying to do is create something for tourists to take their London experience back home with them.’

And so they have, but there must have been some struggles along the way? ‘The single biggest challenge is the merchants not accepting cards,’ Ravi says. ‘While people are shopping in Camden they might see something for £15 and not have it in cash but they have it in card. It doesn’t register that they can go home and buy it online.’ Ever solution based, the pair came up with the ‘We Find It’ search facility, allowing shoppers to locate the product online via a simple description based process.

I wonder where this experience came from; this tendency to think outside the box? Perhaps from Asaf’s experience as a multipreneur, to coin a phrase – he’s the proud founder of multiple startups, one of which (a nail art product) he created, manufactured and sold to a successful toy store chain. Another an online business for beauty goods named Moyou is still running online. Ravi is not without relevant experience however; ‘I was a software technology consultant before I did a masters in Artificial Intelligence. To add value to my technical skills, I took up business consultancy and the next logical step was to do an MBA.’

All the elements came together; an auspicious combination of serendipity shared vision and latent business acumen. So where to from here? Global domination? Every single market in the world online? ‘The next step is British markets. Then Europe.’ Ravi says. ‘We are trying to keep it simple for now,’ Asaf adds. ‘We don’t just want to expand without any logic behind it. We try to do it wisely.’

I wonder for a moment if there’s a danger of compromising the discovery process of the markets, now that everything is online? ‘I agree with you.’ Asaf states, though there’s a flip side to this – creating a sizeable market for vendors who might otherwise go out of business. Also for the customer the benefits are huge. ‘A few months ago, we were in Sterling,’ Asaf continues. ‘I remember speaking with a businessman about the concept.... His wife didn’t hear our conversation she just told us: ‘We were just in China, in the market and we purchased things’. Then she said: ‘You know what’s the worst thing? That you can never buy enough.’

Customer service is another arena that is core to the business; ‘We’re trying to give added value.’ Asaf says spiritedly. ‘Let’s say you’re in Manchester but came from France and you purchased an item in the market. Now you’re thinking: ‘Oh god, I got the wrong size, or I got the wrong colour, or something went wrong.’ With myMzone people will start to have this sense of customer service, and it’s creating return custom, repeated sales… It’s good for everybody.’

I have to say from where I’m sitting it does seem to be a ‘win win’ situation. But what of the fact that there are other sites with a similar ethos already in the marketplace? notonthehighstreet, Etsy, EBay to name but a few... Ravi is not worried; ‘We might be sharing the customer base, but we’re not going to be sharing - because the idea is different. Everybody can sell on Etsy but not everybody can sell on My Own Shop? Our customer base is not just hand-made. It’s also hand-made.’

If anything the presence of these sites confirms myMzone’s business model – all the foursome have to do now is grab their share of the market; ‘Etsy take 13 million dollars a month,’ Ravi states, ‘And that’s based on a business model slightly different to ours.’ Core to their ability to compete is their low commission rates; ‘We do a lot of things for the merchants, so much so they understand that selling in a store is not selling online with us. It’s much cheaper, because then they don’t encounter any logistics costs, with no transport to a store.’

The interview is drawing to a close, on this tiny little road in Camden; it’s time to leave Ravi and Asaf.... But before I leave the Technicolour hues of the office, mood boards lighting up the walls, the buzz of the market just round the corner, I have one final question; bar the aforementioned Easyjet article there’s scarcely a whisper about the pair in the press – why is this? ‘We haven’t made a big splash yet because we are still analyzing the data collected; but soon, I think we’re going to make a lot of noise.’

And I have to concur – unless something goes badly wrong, Ravi and Asaf/Larry and Sergey might soon be making a rucus.

November 2012

Interview by Alice Kahrmann