One Cherry is the fruit of both a vision and a necessity. In May 2017, University of Edinburgh student Anton Puzorjov and two of his friends had decided to participate in the annual Climate Launchpad competition for green business ideas. After two nights of brainstorming about how to build an environmentally- and wallet-friendly business, a simple question brought the decisive spark: why is there no online sales platform for local charity shops in a place like Edinburgh, home to seventy of them? The trio was keen on working with the concept of charity shops because they represent a unique concept which resembles the retail world and is yet radically different from it, and because they are hubs for the local re-use of items. Considering that fast fashion is one of the most polluting industries, a project involving the opposition in the shape of charity shops, seemed like a good place to start. Charity shops are also popular among people of different ages and backgrounds because of their generally low prices, as well as the charity and sustainability elements, and a start-up promoting their increased visibility and accessibility also seemed promising from a business point of view.
The basic idea of Puzorjov and his friends was to take local charity shops where everything happens these days: the internet. They wanted to improve the customer experience and success rate for customers and the number of sales for shops. After all, what is great about charity shops is potentially also their greatest weakness; you never know what you will find where. This can be a nuisance even for people wearing average sizes, without any accessibility issues and lots of time on their hands, and a real issue preventing people from going to charity shops. Puzorjov himself can relate to this: “I’d love to be a regular charity shopper, but as an insanely busy person I simply struggle to find the time to dig for the stuff I need.”
With a prototype version of what would eventually become One Cherry, Puzorjov and his friends became fourth in the competition in September 2017 and just missed the opportunity to proceed to the next stage. As Puzorjov’s friends decided to focus on their main careers, and he himself was about to begin his PhD in Synthetic Biology, that moment could have been the end of the project. However, being a realistic visionary and keen on starting his own business, Puzorjov was determined not to bury months’ worth of hard work, while pursuing his academic path. He managed to get two other enthusiasts on board and began volunteering at a Shelter Scotland shop in order to get an insider’s perspective on the workings, necessities and limitations of charity shops. There, he “learned more in [his] first two hours on shift than during three months of research.” The new team also successfully applied for grants. Puzorjov says they experienced Scotland as a pleasant and generous place for eco-start-ups, both in terms of networking opportunities and financial support. They continued to build a simple website where customers could browse selected items from three charity shops in Edinburgh in the winter of 2017. “We had 400 visitors in three days, received really good customer feedback, and sold a couple of products. It was not a massive success, but the concept seemed to work,” Puzorjov recalls.
One Cherry, the website and service allowing customers to cherry-pick and to search for just what they need in the local charity shop repertoire was finally launched in July 2018. The first charity shop to sign up happened to be the Birthlink Thrift Shop in Bruntsfield, the oldest of its kind in Scotland. Just like on any other online sale website, shoppers pick the items they want, pay for them online and then they have got three working days to pick them up from the shop. The system is more sophisticated and secure than Facebook Marketplace, eBay or Gumtree, and delivers a service which many volunteers and customers of charity shops have probably been waiting for for a long time – but anyone who is slightly acquainted with how charity shops work will know that given their structures and resources, it is simply unfeasible to systematically manage online sales themselves. Just in time for Christmas, One Cherry also launched a delivery service. If customers are not happy with a product after collecting it, they get a full refund.
By expanding the scope of this simple but genius project, Puzorjov and his team are hoping to accelerate the creation of a circular economy, where the choice or consideration of a second-hand clothing item is a customer’s default choice.
Evaluating the success of One Cherry in the first six months of its existence, Puzorjov sounds sober but content. “Building a start-up is a process of figuring out what works and what does not. So, by default, it is packed with both failures and successes. And the more of both the better, meaning the faster you will be able to figure out what works. At One Cherry we are just patiently working our way through this journey.” Much of One Cherry’s strategy is still about experimenting, networking, gathering feedback, analysing hits and misses, and encouraging passionate individuals to join the team. Puzorjov is not a newbie in the field. He has wanted to create a business for six years and seen previous ideas of his failing. An entrepreneur through and through, he focuses on the lessons that are to be learned from failures.
While One Cherry’s future path is by no means clearly set out, Puzorjov is hoping that it will develop new bases across the UK, and that entire charities will sign up for collaboration, instead of just some of their individual shops. For the time being, Puzorjov notes that One Cherry still needs to increase its profile and credibility, because it is tricky to impress CEOs of the big charities, particularly with a project that is not completely new and has not been successful in different start-ups in the past. Commissions from big charities would allow One Cherry to make a profit, and to pay its staff members who are now mostly volunteers, which would mean that they could dedicate more of their time and energy to the project, and probably for a longer period of time. Puzorjov is, however, keen to stress that he does not at all want to discourage people to get involved even just for a few weeks. He adopts the refreshing viewpoint that a start-up hugely benefits from a constant inflow of new ideas, and also wants people to be able to benefit from what they learned at One Cherry in their consecutive career path.
Image: One Cherry via onecherry.co.uk