Provenance, a software firm, helps companies share and authenticate their supply chains. But how can founder Jessi Baker persuade a well-known brand to become its first big-name customer? Our panel of experts advise…
When buying from the web, it has become second nature to determine the colour, size and weight of goods with a click of the mouse. But as entrepreneur Jessi Baker discovered, it’s rare for websites to provide the complete origin of the materials and products you’re purchasing. The supply chain, she found, is often shrouded in mystery.
“There’s a rising new generation of consumers who are concerned about where stuff comes from,” says Baker. “I found myself frustrated by the lack of information, even when you’re shopping in a situation where data should be abundantly available.”
For tech-minded Baker the solution seemed obvious: create B2B software that brokers this type of social and environmental information and, by doing so, authenticates and strengthens existing certifications.
She bootstrapped the project while studying for a PhD in computer science and formally launched Provenance two years ago, having worked with small independent businesses to identify the journey their products and raw materials had been on. One such company is Pact Coffee, which sources beans from South American locations and roasts to order at its roastery in Bermondsey, south London.
“We help Pact share the story behind their beans with tools to gather production photos and locations, and are working towards mapping the full chain of custody of the coffee, down to the individual packets.”
Developing the Provenance software alerted Baker to just how disconnected supply chains are. “Every business has its own data sitting in a data silo. You might have lots of different producers to engage with in mapping your supply chain and proving certification is real,” she explains.
Mapping parts of the supply chain that are closest to the consumer is the easy part, she admits, but to reach the very ends of the supply chains has meant adopting new technology.
“Middle-men aren’t keen to give their data to a big software service if it’s run by the final retailer. They’re a bit more willing to work with NGOs and social enterprises like us, but [having] all that data stored in a centralised server is still a fundamentally flawed model,” she says.
The solution was to use cutting-edge technology called Blockchain (the underlying technology of cryptocurrency Bitcoin) to create a database that isn’t owned by anybody.
“It’s a pseudo-anonymous database that is immutable, fully auditable and it allows data about products and materials to be shared in a format that means nobody owns it, so there’s no big centralised operator or any fear that your data is being brokered by someone else.”
Many companies are using Blockchain technology for financial applications, though few, says the Provenance founder, are using it for non-financial purposes.
“We built a prototype to allow for a chain of custody for certifications to be carried along a supply chain. Our main focus is allowing information that can be verified at different stages to be carried along a supply chain without compromising anyone on the way.”
With £250,000 in investment, Baker has employed five full-time and five part-time staff to build the software at Provenance’s offices in north London. This pre-seed investment will need bolstering sooner rather than later, but Baker is resisting pressure from potential investors to turn Provenance into an e-commerce platform.
“My motivation is to make information more accessible,” she says. “An obvious way to make money would be for us to help to map the story of products and start selling them. But I really feel like we need to be not selling products if Provenance is going to be truly about transparency.”
None of the businesses currently working with Provenance pay for the software but Baker recognises this needs to change once it comes out of the beta testing stage. “We’re lucky to get funding to do it, but at some point someone has to buy it.
“Businesses will pay us to broker data, make it accessible and easy to serve up. It’s mainly the consumer-facing brands that will pay for this, but potentially it’s another revenue stream to retailers who would obviously find that data very useful if they were selling the product.”
With her resources focused on refining the technology, Baker admits the sales side of the business is lacking. She is keen to find out from Director’s virtual board how Provenance can approach the sales process and get companies and brands to adopt its new technology.
“Everyone says they’ll make the leap when everyone else does, but how do you get that first household name to commit?” she ponders.
Get it right and Provenance’s technology may soon be influencing all our online purchases.
How can Provenance get its first household name, company or brand to commit to using its new technology? Our experts advise…
Phil Jones, Managing director, Brother UK
In a revved-up world, it’s no longer the big that eat the small, but the fast that eat the slow! Decision-making in large organisations is becoming more devolved to the line of business (LOB), away from traditional departmental functional expertise, in order to speed up and accelerate time to market, plus relevancy of offer.
An influential stakeholder (or LOBster as we call them) can quickly become your biggest fan, bypassing traditional decision-making structures. They can take more risk, cut through the red tape and be the internal evangelists for change. Get your solution going with them first, then spread. Your job is to identify who that person might be and give them a killer reason, linked to their strategic objectives, which they can take to the business to amplify what they are doing.
Focus your initial trawl on prospects who are the enlightened of a sector first, the early adopters, and innovators – they are most likely to pay attention and want to understand ways to be first to market.
And when all else fails, drop their chief executive a line and tell them you’re about to take it to their biggest competitor. See where that gets you! Phil Jones is a fellow of IoD North West
Mark Hathway, Managing director, NL Group
The initial approach would be to make the software available on a free trial basis, and then offer a discounted rate. But the greater incentive has to be how quickly the benefits can be realised. The first household name, company or brand on board would have to be aligned to the obvious ethical benefits that the software will provide.
A potential way would be to show marketing, brand ambassadors and chief executives of business how it works. You would instantly engage them by showing what an impact knowing the provenance of
a product has on your purchasing decisions.
You would need to really tell the story, tell it about a product that a target household company sells, to capture their imagination. Anyone worth their salt will see how this could affect the end purchaser’s ability to choose one product from another. Coffee is a good example – if a purchaser can quickly identify full traceability this can greatly influence the purchase.
QR codes on products (whether example products or real) which take the consumer to a simple online storyboard that is content-rich are cheap to set up
and distribute. Moreover, it can often be very effective to have people wondering, so tell them very little and get them to try it out. Mark Hathway is a member of IoD Yorkshire
Pam Wilde, Global marketing director, SSP
To secure the commitment of your big household name you need to de-risk their decision – they’ve a reputation to protect. Being able to demonstrate capabilities and wins in related areas helps, but you need to demonstrate you understand their issue and show them a way of addressing this.
For example, in the technology software system space, provide the option of incremental system improvements in a phased, planned way.
Show you understand their industry and their challenges – this can be done through thought leadership content, social media engagement and press coverage. Talk then about the capabilities you have that will enable them to address their challenges.
Paint a future scenario for them; as large operators they’re in danger of being usurped by new innovative entrants, and show how by adopting your technology they can reduce that risk.
Finally, build a portfolio of references. Operators need to see you have the experience and capability to work with them. You could offer to work on a small element of their business first to prove yourself, targeting an area you have the references to support. Pam Wilde is a fellow of IoD West Midlands
What is Provenance founder Jessi Baker’s response to the advice from our panel?
Great insights. Clearly visualising what Provenance can do for bigger companies is my next step – with stats to support the vision.
We have already been testing the effects of having accessible, trusted provenance information on various food and fashion products, but it appears that this data may be more crucial to the sales process than I thought.
I will look at publishing it, along with references from our existing users. I can see the ‘future-proof’ argument is key – building consumer trust is a long game so it’s important to show our software can help brands de-risk and avoid losing market share to start-ups with a more advanced approach to storytelling and transparency. And then it’s time to find the LOBsters and get them to try it out.
Provenance founder Jessi Baker’s CV
Education Master’s in manufacturing and engineering, Cambridge; master’s in design, Royal College of Art; PhD in computer science, UCL
Career Creative technologist at ad agency, engineer for Arup
Hobbies Running, walking and swimming, plus a passion for soul music and going to gigs
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