NearSt’s
lightbulb
moment

NearSt is evolving from a technology start-up
to a retail-focused global enterprise, thanks
in part to a call from Google. But the founders’
mission remains the same: to bring shoppers
back to the High Street. Everywhere.


NearSt’s
lightbulb
moment

NearSt is evolving from a technology start-up to a retail-focused global enterprise, thanks in part to a call from Google. But the founders’ mission remains the same: to bring shoppers
back to the High Street. Everywhere.


NearSt’s
lightbulb
moment

NearSt is evolving from a technology start-up to a retail-focused global enterprise, thanks in part to a call from Google. But the founders’ mission remains the same: to bring shoppers back to the High Street. Everywhere.

What kind of people do you expect to be behind a tech start-up? Hard-working and passionate? Easy-going, dedicated, with perhaps a hint of geek chic? The founders of NearSt don’t disappoint on all fronts. However, Nick Brackenbury and Max Kreijn didn’t set out on tech-orientated careers, although Brackenbury confesses to breaking more than a few computers in his student days on a quest to understand how they worked.

The pair met after they’d just joined advertising giant Ogilvy in London. The timing was fortuitous admits Brackenbury:

“We started when the whole concept of digital was a new thing in the world of communications and our team was building some of the earliest social and analytics products there. It was a madly exciting time, very fast-paced.”

And it was a good grounding for their future venture.


The lightbulb moment

The idea for NearSt was – literally – a lightbulb moment.

One night, Kreijn’s room was plunged into darkness and he needed a particular lightbulb. He sighs: “The lightbulb had blown. Sure, I could order one online, but I needed it that evening. And searching online couldn’t tell me where the nearest place to buy a replacement was”. The episode flicked a switch in his mind and together he and Brackenbury discussed the concept of using the web to bring locally-stocked products and consumers together. The duo decided to research their market, though they didn’t start with lightbulbs, or even electrical products. Instead they chose books.


The lightbulb moment

The idea for NearSt was – literally – a lightbulb moment.

One night, Kreijn’s room was plunged into darkness and he needed a particular lightbulb. He sighs: “The lightbulb had blown. Sure, I could order one online, but I needed it that evening. And searching online couldn’t tell me where the nearest place to buy a replacement was”. The episode flicked a switch in his mind and together he and Brackenbury discussed the concept of using the web to bring locally-stocked products and consumers together. The duo decided to research their market, though they didn’t start with lightbulbs, or even electrical products. Instead they chose books.


The lightbulb moment

The idea for NearSt was – literally – a lightbulb moment.

One night, Kreijn’s room was plunged into darkness and he needed a particular lightbulb. He sighs: “The lightbulb had blown. Sure, I could order one online, but I needed it that evening. And searching online couldn’t tell me where the nearest place to buy a replacement was”. The episode flicked a switch in his mind and together he and Brackenbury discussed the concept of using the web to bring locally-stocked products and consumers together. The duo decided to research their market, though they didn’t start with lightbulbs, or even electrical products. Instead they chose books.


I remember puffing up Primrose Hill, but I didn’t mind because we just wanted to learn as much as we could.

Kreijn explains: Books are an interesting technical challenge – most retailers don’t stock multiple copies of most items and that industry was going through a rocky period at the time. Also, our initial subscribers told us that’s what they were interested in.

With a target product identified, the pair then began to talk to booksellers to gauge whether their ideas might work. For six weeks they criss-crossed the capital on Boris bikes going from bookshop to bookshop. “I remember puffing up Primrose Hill, but I didn’t mind because we just wanted to learn as much as we could,” Brackenbury recalls.

With a social media-style thumbs up from their potential client base, the pair began designing both the back-end (software to extract live book inventory information) and the front-end (a website and app to connect with book buyers). NearSt was launched in 2015 when a proof of concept – 10 London bookshops on an app – went live.

Kreijn explains: Books are an interesting technical challenge – most retailers don’t stock multiple copies of most items and that industry was going through a rocky period at the time. Also, our initial subscribers told us that’s what they were interested in.

With a target product identified, the pair then began to talk to booksellers to gauge whether their ideas might work. For six weeks they criss-crossed the capital on Boris bikes going from bookshop to bookshop. “I remember puffing up Primrose Hill, but I didn’t mind because we just wanted to learn as much as we could,” Brackenbury recalls.

With a social media-style thumbs up from their potential client base, the pair began designing both the back-end (software to extract live book inventory information) and the front-end (a website and app to connect with book buyers). NearSt was launched in 2015 when a proof of concept – 10 London bookshops on an app – went live.


Moving up a gear

After this modest start the business moved up a gear. One-hour delivery and Click & Collect were added to the platform in 2016 - the same year that Kreijn and Brackenbury were confident enough of their technology to widen their offer to encompass all retailers in London.

But it was a call from Google in 2017 (deliberately not publicised for a year, to allow the product to be developed before launch) that elevated the company to its next level. “With Google on board we could extend our offer across the whole of the UK and when we did that in Q4 2018 it was a really big thing for us,” says Brackenbury. Google had seen the potential to link product searches in its search engine with local retailers, based on the location of the device making the search.

“Coincidentally,” adds Brackenbury, “it happened at exactly the time we realised that the real value of our business is our technology and not necessarily the platform or marketplace on top of it. The analogy I use it that we went from being a car-maker to an engine-maker. It gave us the ability to do fewer things better.”

The essence of that technology, now branded NearLive, extracts basic inventory information from the Point of Sale and inventory management systems in individual stores. This very rudimentary data is then processed to ensure that it is accurate and able to integrate reliably with modern webpages.

Kreijn explains:“When you look at the raw data in these systems, it’s just a string of numbers,”

“We separate that out so you can see those digits are actually, for example, a North Face jacket and you can trust us that it’s in a particular location right now.”

If that sounds deceptively easy, the NearSt founders will quickly assure you that it isn’t – if it was, they doubt Google would have come calling. But technology wasn’t the only hurdle facing NearSt. Persuading retailers to let a relatively unknown company anywhere near their inventory systems might seem like a big ask. And in 2015 it was. Brackenbury nods: “What retailers stocked used to be their trade secret. Yet we’ve seen a significant change over the last four years and now they realise the benefit of making this information accessible to their customers.”

With a new funding round underway for the business at the time of this interview, the founders were understandably reticent to discuss the financials of the business, but the basis of revenue are the fees paid by retailers plus commission from any Google ads that retailers subsequently decided to take out.

The founders suggest that their future income stream will change as their technology is adopted beyond the Google-sphere into many other parts of the web. “We have some forecasts for how we see it,” admits BrackenburyKreijn, “but what I’m 100% sure of is that whatever we put in the forecast right now not just in terms of how much, but where it comes from, will definitely change by this time next year.”

And the future is what Brackenbury and Kreijn are firmly focused on, not least growing their team from six at the start of 2019 to 15 by the end of the summer. That is in anticipation of a launch in the USA later in 2019. As excited as they are about NearSt’s growth potential, both founders are decidedly nonplussed by regular predictions of the imminent demise of the High Street.

Brackenbury rolls his eyes.“It’s just bonkers, because there’s so much value on the High Street, and yet so much of it is locked away from these things” he says, waving his phone in the air. NearSt is clearly wedded to the idea of town centre revivals.


Kreijn is explicit: “Our goal is to get people all around the world into High Street shops. How do we do it? By connecting every product in every shop in every High Street to the web. That’s our big mission.”


Different Magazine | Issue 13