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There is no substitute for experience – and André Brown has bucketloads of that.

Brown had already spent more than 15 years in sales, marketing and executive roles at companies including Adobe and UK PLCs when he co-founded merchandising platform Attraqt in 2002.

After serving as CEO for 16 years – overseeing the group’s admission to London’s junior AIM public market in 2014 – he left the company and took six months off before turning his attention to his next venture.

Fast-forward five years and Advanced Commerce, founded in 2020, is flying. “When you do something a second time, you tend to do it much better, don’t you?” he tells TechBlast. “You’ve learned all the hard lessons the first time around.”

Attraqt is used by over 300 enterprise retail clients, from ASOS to The White Company and Screwfix. Meanwhile Advanced Commerce, which placed fifth on our sister publication BusinessCloud’s RetailTech 50 ranking this year, has already grown to 40 clients.

The London firm’s platform GrapheneHC combines three technologies – site search, visual merchandising and product recommendations – to help clients deliver a better, more personalised online shopping experience on their websites, increasing sales and reducing drop-off rates.

“We’ve structured it so that it is much easier to do the merchandising in our platform than it was in Attraqt,” says Brown.

“We’ve also built out a very effective partner programme. That was a big learning from my time at Attraqt, where we pretty much did all the sales and all the delivery ourselves: every single Graphene client has been implemented either by the retailer themselves or their agency. 

“We’ve built out a whole technical model and commercial model that says to an agency: ‘it’s your client, you do the build’ – but we will train them, we’ll support them and obviously we run the site on our infrastructure.

“You give away margin because you’re paying them a sales referral fee; it’s not as quick, it takes a long time to nurture a partner programme; but then you get this exponential growth. We’ve got about 30 partners that we work with fairly regularly. We’d like to get to the point where each one brings us one new client each per month. We’re not quite there yet – it’s probably one a quarter at the moment – but that’s how you get growth. 

“You spend a lot of time visiting partners where they’re based, doing partner events… you have to be really committed to that and just keep doing it.”

When Advanced Commerce launched, it had no clients, no revenue and no funding. “Your first few clients tend to be through personal relationships you’ve already got – LK Bennett and The Conran Shop, in our case – then you just build from there,” explains Brown.

The startup has since been through three oversubscribed fundraises and grown its workforce to 20 people, including tech specialists who worked with Brown at Attraqt. Brown says the company, which has access to co-working space in London, is remote-first.

“The tech guys like working remotely, while the sales team and I are out a lot of the time anyway – so I’m not sure there’s a need for an office right now,” he says.

“I’m more interested in providing a new, innovative solution to our clients and looking after them – and doing what’s right for our shareholders – than having a big office or a big team.”

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Asked how he promotes communications across departments – such as between salespeople and developers – he answers: “I’ve worked with a lot of the tech team for a long time: we trust each other and we are quite a tech-led business.

“Often what will happen is the salespeople will say to the tech guys, ‘look, the client’s got this particular problem, do we think we can solve that?’ That then drives incremental development on the platform.”

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Integrating with existing eCommerce platforms, GrapheneHC allows users to blend product attributes like price, size and ‘in stock’ with site metrics such as popular, trending and average basket adds, plus further metrics from external data feeds if required. GrapheneHC then uses this blend to determine a personalised product display sequence for the potential customer.

Brown says a second big learning from Attraqt was to not build connectors to every platform but instead “to build everything API-to-API”.

“In my previous business, we built a Magento connector and it was just awful because you get conflicts and contention with other plugins. The API approach is much better. 

“We also learned a lot of lessons about how to do the onboarding process: you explain to clients ‘these are your options’ rather than saying ‘what would you like?’”

Asked for one final piece of advice for fledgling entrepreneurs, he offers: “Everything takes much longer than you think [when building a product and business]. And nobody’s your friend!”

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