On the up · 10 November 2015

Custom: The personalised fashion platform led by a former Google exec

The Custom founders led by Max Madile (centre)
The Custom founders: Robin Wong, Max Madile and Andy Weir

While entrepreneurship is something that should be encouraged at any stage of a person’s career, there is a lot to be said for having a bit of corporate experience behind you. For Max Madile, he’s using seven years at Google as a sound base for his new company.

Tackling what he describes as the current “inadequate and cluttered online fashion search experience”, Custom takes the form of a personalised search engine – providing a service tailored to an individual’s vitals.

Alongside fellow co-founders Andy Weir and Robin Wong, and charged with some helpful angel investment, Madile sees big potential for his business in a world which is increasingly turning to online when it comes to shopping. We found out why by sitting down with him.

(1) Who are you and what’s your business?

We’re a team of technology geeks who spotted a gap in the market for a truly personal online fashion experience. I worked at Google for seven years and my co-founders ran their own design agency. Together we’ve built Custom, a personalised search engine for people who like to buy fashion online.

Our starting point is the individual – we aim to return items that are relevant only to the individual shopper, reflecting their tastes, style and brand preferences. You can search across almost half a million items of clothing, across 4,000+ brands and find what you’re looking for available in your size, location and style in the fewest clicks possible. The more brands and products you “like” or discard as you search, the more the system learns about your style and can make better suggestions.

(2) What was the inspiration for the company?

It started with me trying to buy my wife a winter coat. There were endless different retailers and brands to search through, many of which only had tiny images of the coats or “tick box” filters to help narrow down my options. Then when I did find something suitable it was out of stock. It was pretty time consuming and frustrating.

With my Google background, I immediately started thinking that technology must be able to make the process more personalised, relevant and organised. It seemed there was a gap in the market for an aggregated, seamless experience which reflected individual style, the brands you love and your price bracket. I believed in its potential so much that I quit working at Google to launch Custom with my co-founders.

(3) How do you make money?

We’re a consumer platform, so there are lots of potential ways that we can monetise in the future. We’ve just launched, so right now our focus is on reaching, engaging and retaining our target audience. We believe our greatest strength is our ability to understand each individual user and provide them with relevant products. Over time, this understanding will also drive our biggest opportunity, namely offering highly targeted ad formats to brands and retailers.

The Customer platform provides a more enjoyable shopping experience
The Customer platform provides a more enjoyable shopping experience

(4) What makes you different and why should people take notice?

If there’s one industry that should be getting personalisation right it’s fashion, yet most online fashion retailers take a “one-size-fits-all” approach. It doesn’t matter who searches for something, you get the same answer regardless of your tastes. Even companies that provide a bespoke service tend to put people in categories, or push products that earn them higher margins. Consequently it’s more of a jumble sale for the masses than a personal catwalk.

We’ve flipped this model on its head by putting the person first. Essentially every shopper has their own personal search algorithm as the technology learns from their searches, specifically what they like, dislike and click on. We’ve also put a big emphasis on a visual, magazine-like format where the item of clothing takes centre stage.

(5) What was key in terms of getting started, and what does the next year have in store?

Getting the right team in place was crucial. Building a search algorithm that will learn from every person that uses it and yet be simple to use required finding the best engineers in the business. We were lucky enough to have personal connections that referred us to great talents and within a few months we were ready to go.

Next year we are planning to hire more developers to build a personal discovery feed and improved search functionality. Above all we want to focus on adding more and more relevancy. Ultimately, our aim is to create a shop just for you where the rails always reflect who you are.

(6) What’s your biggest achievement to date?

Opening Custom to the general public was a big moment for us. All the hard work, planning, coding and coffee-fuelled nights were worth it when we went live to great feedback. It’s one thing believing in your own idea and your own product, it’s another entirely when others validate that for you.

(7) What setbacks have you had along the way?

Having worked at Google for seven years I was used to anything being possible. In a large corporate environment you are exposed to “reach for the sky” projects and a wealth of resources.

Starting Custom quickly brought me back down to earth. People will stand you up and ignore your emails in a way they don’t when you are working for a reputed company. Plus, the technology challenge we’d set ourselves was a hard one. The toughest thing to do when you are building any sophisticated technology is to keep the experience simple. We approach it with constant iteration, permanent interaction with our users and meticulous tracking of our metrics. It’s all served to make us a stronger team with an amazing amount of resilience and optimism.

(8) In five years’ time, I will be…

Overlooking the global operation of the premier search engine for fashion. By then, we will have indexed all major retailers around the globe and formed partnerships with them so that we are completely integrated in the purchasing process and orders will rapidly arrive on shoppers’ doorsteps. Also, Custom will be able to help in every shopping situation – whether through our personalised discovery feed that surfaces new purchasing suggestions, or out on the high street, telling you the nearest location of your favourite products.

(9) What one tip would you give to others starting out?

Keep the faith. Starting your own business is not easy and there will be ups and downs along the way. You need to develop a thick skin and have the willpower to drive things forward yourself. No one else will do it for you so you have to be the person that believes in you the most. When it comes down to it though, the experience of being your own boss and building something from scratch is hard to beat.

(10) Who are your business heroes and why?

I know he’s everybody’s darling right now, but I worked with Sundar Pichai when I was coordinating marketing efforts for Google Chrome in EMEA and he is indeed a real role model. He not only has razor sharp analytical skills but is also living proof that hard work and personality can get you to the very top.

Another example is Bernardo Hernandez who was my first boss at Google. I haven’t met many people with such drive and ambition. He is a successful entrepreneur, investor and manager and never seems to stop spinning new ideas. Most importantly though, he still supports me and always has sage words of advice which have really shaped my career.

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ABOUT THE EXPERT

Hunter Ruthven is the editor of Business Advice. He is also the editor of Real Business, the UK's most-read website for entrepreneurs and business leaders at the helm of growing SMEs. Alongside this, he is part of the team that hosts the Growing Business Awards, First Women Awards and Future 50 initiative. Prior to his role at Real Business, he was editor at competitor website Growth Business and head reporter at M&A Deals. Throughout his career he has interviewed leading entrepreneurs including Alex Chesterman, Lopo Champalimaud, Sarah Wood, James Averdeick and Alex Saint.

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