Cas Paton, founder of OnBuy, talks about creating a fair and level marketplace for sellers and buyers to better Amazon and eBay.

Selling online, building a business from your kitchen table, entire industries have grown up around the soaring possibilities of the internet. eBay, Amazon, the platforms carving out a huge market share have facilitated vast new frontiers in online retail, but also brought with them a rule book so complex, that the small print can floor the average seller. Years in the learning, punitive sometimes, unfair often. How many a retailer has heard a horror story of a hugely successful eBay store shut down from one day to the next due to a minor infringement? And what of corporate tax avoidance, staff treated like battery hens? Yes, there are many looking for an alternative to the corporate giants.

That’s where Cas Paton comes in. The 33 year old entrepreneur had had enough of the status quo - cue ligh tbulb moment: Why not build a platform for sellers with transparency at its core, no listing fees, just a monthly subscription, and one that isn’t bias towards the buyer or the seller? That’s how OnBuy was born. ‘As a British company we appeal to a number of people who are boycotting sites like Amazon,’ Paton says, ‘whether it’s due to tax issues or maybe they have watched programmes about employment.’

It’s a piranha tank out there in the world of online selling. £12 million businesses reduced to £1 million turn over as quickly as you can say ‘new bar code policy’. ‘We hear over and over again sellers saying they just cant’ do this Amazon thing anymore,’ Paton says, 'They take on staff when sales are high, then have to let them go when sales fall due to a policy change.’ That is the world we live in, where platforms can and will change the playing field from one moment to the next, because they feel like it and they can.

Whilst the urban myth as presented in Girl Boss, the Netflix interpretation of Sophia Amoruso’s best selling biography charting her meteoric rise from hugely successful eBay trader to owner of Nasty Gal, (multi million pound fashion retailer) was hugely dramatised, a kernel of truth remains that from one day to the next Amoruso’s lucrative eBay store was shut down due to a policy infringement. This forced her to build a site of her own, but what if the seller doesn’t have the capital to weather the intermittent storm of losing custom? The fact is huge companies like Amazon and eBay hold the livelihood of a seller in their decidedly capricious hands. ‘You need other marketplaces to balance the losses that might occur in some,’ Paton says. ‘Don’t trust that the bigger bullish marketplaces that are known for not having any loyalty to sellers at al, don’t put all your eggs in one basket with them, you will get burnt.’

Lesser known infringements against the seller: Amazon will invite you to bring your business to them, and profit from it but will also compete against you, introducing the same product range once you have successfully dipped a toe in. This is one thing OnBuy will never do; ‘We will never compete against our own sellers,' Paton says. Sound good? Sellers across the world collectively exhale. OnBuy also eschew listing fees: ‘We want to help sellers reduce their operational expenses so they can pass the savings onto customers. Customers will learn this over time and sellers will be better off.’ Further: ‘We won’t automatically side with either party. We try to have buyers and sellers resolve their own concerns.’ Double sigh of relief.

For the last twelve years Paton’s background has been firmly rooted in tech. From the age of seventeen to twenty-one he worked for the Royal Navy as an aircraft engineer, then set up his first web building company (whilst also working for Dorset police) with the last £80 he had in the bank. It was hugely successful; within three and a half years they had bought their first premises. ‘Around the age of twenty-five, I realised how much I had learnt and that is when I changed the business to become more consultancy based. We’ve worked for Nato, the NHS…’ But there was a glass ceiling given the limited number of clients they could take on. ‘It seemed a natural leap then to host these businesses on an ethical marketplace,’ Paton says. ‘What if we took everyone’s products off their e-commerce platforms and put them on a central website? It was an idea that sprung off the back of the consultancy work we were already doing.’

Paton has some words of truth for those who want to run a business similar to OnBuy. ‘In the course of twelve years I have had thousands of entrepreneurs come to me with ideas, and in every single case, one of the most annoying things is that I know what it takes, I’ve worked with successful business founders of all different types, from businesses of a quarter of a million to millions; what it takes is absolute commitment. Some people have an idea based on their current position, they feel that what their employer does is so easy they could do it themselves. Operating a business is not like being employed. You have to give it everything, it cannot be a 9-5.’ Paton knows this more than most, ‘In the first four years of running my business, there was not one night where I didn’t finish at 1 or 2 a.m and then start again at 7 a.m the next morning… The higher you’re aiming for, the more it needs.’

How on Earth does he fit it all in? ‘If I didn’t have a family I would never go home,’ he jokes. There is a dogged drive that is clear when you talk to him. He should be on a podium giving lectures on entrepreneurship. ‘I don’t have time,’ he laughs, bringing the conversation back to his raison d’être, helping sellers and buyers by proxy. ‘A lot of people are fed up of their money going to the US or wherever it is, they think, we need to go local, we need to buy British…. Brexit has actually helped that to a degree because it’s one positive effect is that people are working together in a more patriotic way.’ Over the next twelve months Paton is aiming to take OnBuy from one million to twelve million products listed, thanks to the help of two angel investors. He has invested his own money alongside them. ‘You sell a super car for a Vauxhall Astra again,’ he jokes. ‘I think you have to put your own money in otherwise you will never treat it the same.’ With 150% growth on the month before it’s clearly money well spent.

As the interview draws to a close, I ask Paton in passing what his favourite quote is. ‘It’s not a quote,’ he says pensively, ‘but a picture I have in my cupboard that I see every morning; ‘All the fish are swimming one way and one is going the other way and below the caption is, what if they are all wrong?’ Which says it all really.

July 2017