James Harford-Tyrer is the Founder and CEO of Cudoni, a market-leading luxury fashion resale marketplace that has raised $9M in venture capital to date. James also sits on the board of the Prince’s Trust and has been recognized on the Forbes 30 Under 30 list.
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Let’s learn a little about you and really get to experience what makes us tick – starting at our beginnings. Where did your story begin?
James Harford-Tyrer: As a teenager, I was selling items from my parents’ garage, both online via eBay, and by setting up a table in the street and selling to people. I was focused on getting people to buy things by any means possible and at the same time, decluttering our own garage, which incidentally turned into a business.
As a young teen, I wasn’t allowed to go to the post office – it wasn’t located in the nicest of places. But people would always be out and about so naturally, that stirred up a bit of interest from the neighbors who were also quite happy for me to rummage through their belongings and sell their pre-loved items. Busy people have better things to do with their time instead of sitting on peer-to-peer platforms like eBay or Gumtree.
I became interested in technology at 16 when I won a business competition, and at 18, I started working in nightclubs; sweeping floors, cleaning glassware, nothing glamorous, but I ended up progressing through the ranks to helping start and run venues in Manchester, UK.
Then I moved into investment banking and the last investment bank I worked at was UBS. I was there for a short period of time before I enrolled in the New Entrepreneurs Foundation and was then the Chief Operating Officer of a tech company. I had a great time there, learned a lot on the job, and did that for a year before then leaving to set up what has now become Cudoni.
We’ve been trading for about four years, but it wasn’t always Cudoni. There were a couple of iterations beforehand which weren’t particularly incredible, but we made it here, and all of that played its part in who we are now, which I’m very proud of.
Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
James Harford-Tyrer: Matt Cooper, hands down. The proudest moment of my career was a) when I managed to convince him to let me in his house for a coffee and b) to convince him to invest in the business and to do so in every subsequent fundraiser. The biggest milestone for me has been getting him as chairman for a couple of reasons. Firstly, he’s succeeded in building a business like Capital One, and now he’s the chairman of Octopus Capital; one of the most notable venture capital funds in Europe. Moreover, when I think about how I want to model myself as a leader, Matt is my benchmark – tenacious, unrelenting and resilient.
We live in a world where there are lots of questionable ethics and the decisions that people and leaders make, sometimes I question what the motives are. Matt is incredibly humble for a man who has achieved what he has. He’s very honest and taught me that feedback is a gift. He’s very happy to tell me what I’m not good at rather than singing my praises all the time. He’s the guy that I look up to more than anyone. I’d love to achieve half of what he has achieved, but more importantly, by going about it in the way he has.
What are the most common mistakes you see entrepreneurs make and what would you suggest they do?
James Harford-Tyrer: Stubbornness. I’ve been fortunate enough to be exposed to some very successful entrepreneurs and also those who have tunnel vision. I think having the humility to understand when you mess up and take one on the chin is something that’s very easy to say and something people often will pretend they do, but don’t necessarily feel internally or act upon.
Another common thing I see is people regarding their staff as ‘just’ numbers. It might simplify it in someone’s head and detach them emotionally from the highs and lows of the roller coaster, but ultimately, people are absolutely the most important thing in what you do and that also extends to your customers.
I, lastly, can’t tell you how many businesses fail because they don’t actually solve a genuine problem. There are some businesses that have gotten to quite a frightening scale and failed because people just don’t actually need what they are offering. I think it’s an acceptance and willingness to understand your audience, whether that be internal or external. Businesses succeed because of their people, businesses fail because of their people, and there’s nothing in between.
Resilience is critical in critical times like the ones we are going through now. How would you define resilience?
James Harford-Tyrer: For me, there are two things that intertwine. My personal story – when my mum was diagnosed with cancer I realized very quickly that I was only going to live life once. You only get one opportunity and I thought what will give me the sense of purpose that would not only make my family proud but also make me happy within myself.
I am a natural fighter, I love the battle, and setting up a business is the ultimate fight. For me, that’s considerably more rewarding than working a more traditional corporate life. I also think there’s a greater sense of purpose in what we’re doing and that isn’t just about sustainability and circularity. They are things that I am incredibly passionate about and have been involved in since I was a teenager. But it’s also the sense of doing something that people have tried and failed to do before me.
This kind of operating model has been difficult for people in the past and businesses have, regrettably, shut down. We’re actually doing something good, we’re making a meaningful mark on the way society is shifting towards circularity and sustainability, and we’re also helping people relax and enjoy their lives. You could be on eBay and other platforms doing the selling yourself, but you could also be spending time with loved ones whilst we do it all for you. So, there’s a sense of feeling and reward when we know someone has had a great experience. There’s that idea of being a future-conscious and innovative business. But there’s also my personal background which means I have a deep-rooted sense of purpose in doing something meaningful, and this just happens to be meaningful for me. If you find meaning in what you do, it’s easier to get through the most challenging of times.
In your opinion, what makes your company stand out from the competition?
James Harford-Tyrer: Firstly, the operating model allows us to be completely convenience-focused. I will straight up say openly to the market – if you can find a more convenient solution than what we offer we’ll pack up our bags and go home. But you won’t, because our business is built on the principles that put the customer at the heart of everything we do, and that’s a key differential you’ll struggle to find amongst peer-to-peer marketplaces. Then there’s the technology and innovation behind the scenes that allow us to offer what the brick-and-mortar stores could only offer to the few people who walk in and hand items over. We can offer it to tens of thousands of people simultaneously in a way that is completely seamless, completely frictionless. We can roll it out on a huge scale because it’s technology and data science-led. We try to take human elements out of the decision-making process as much as possible when it comes to valuing and processing items to ensure that it’s consistent.
What do you consider are your strengths when dealing with staff workers, colleagues, senior management, and customers?
James Harford-Tyrer: Your business is as good as your best and your worst person. I think hiring the best people, at scale, rapidly, and then maintaining the culture you’ve developed on a smaller scale is really difficult. For us, it’s all about hiring and retaining top talent and keeping people motivated and eager to be where they are, which means giving them a sense of purpose.
It is very easy to throw some slides in front of people and say this is what we’re doing and this is why it’s important, but lip service doesn’t go far. Trying to scale people while still maintaining a positive culture is, I think, a challenge for any business, and so it’s imperative that you demand diversity, and have a genuine empathy towards people as individuals, as well as being part of a team.
Being a CEO of the company, do you think that your personal brand reflects your company’s values?
James Harford-Tyrer: I’ve always aspired to be an innovator and sought to make people’s lives easier, and that is the whole reason Cudoni exists – to help simplify busy people’s lives through the application of data science and technology. Ultimately, however, the foundation of Cudoni is the team, and I’m proud that we’ve built such a great one that truly strives to uphold values around trust and integrity. Our business is future-conscious, which is absolutely something that I relate to. Offering a technology led-solution to improve people’s lives is what we do, and fashion is the primary vertical we operate in – and although I’m very much a technology entrepreneur, I’m proud to probably be the most unfashionable man in fashion!
How would you define “leadership”?
James Harford-Tyrer: Leadership, for me, is taking the ultimate responsibility in making decisions and living with the consequences.
Leadership starts though, with finding like-minded, ambitious people to work with, and then nurturing their talents so they find a place to grow – you can’t run a business alone, and no leader knows everything. When you have a group of people who are really great at what they do, it is essential that you listen to them when they have something to contribute. It is a team game after all, and through a foundation of mutual respect and trust, you will grow and succeed together.
What advice would you give to our younger readers that want to become entrepreneurs?
James Harford-Tyrer: Maintain a strong support network and find and talk to other business owners; both those who have succeeded and those who have failed. Find value in working and interacting with people who will push you and challenge your thinking. There is so much to learn and so many people are willing to support and share.
Personally, I have gained a lot of insight and matured as an entrepreneur through my interactions with experienced business leaders, like Matt Cooper, our Chairman, and other Cudoni investors such as Nick Wheeler, founder of Charles Tyrwhitt, and Andrew Jennings (formerly Harrods, House of Fraser and Saks Fifth Avenue), all of whom are giving and humble people, as well very successful in business.
What’s your favorite “business” quote and how has it affected your business decisions?
James Harford-Tyrer: “Those who think they can, and those who think they can’t, are both right.”
Larry Yatch, VIP Contributor to ValiantCEO and the host of this interview would like to thank James Harford-Tyrer for taking the time to do this interview and share his knowledge and experience with our readers.
If you would like to get in touch with James Harford-Tyrer or his company, you can do it through his – Linkedin Page
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