Why startup giant Redbubble is tackling the world of augmented reality: Lessons in innovation for startups


Redbubble chief executive and founder Martin Hosking. Source: Supplied.

Online art marketplace Redbubble is taking on the world of augmented reality after releasing a new feature that allows users to try before they buy on its mobile app.

Released yesterday, the update uses augmented reality (AR) to place an item from the Redbubble store in their own homes.

The idea came from the startup’s desire to produce “a differentiated offering” for its rapidly-growing mobile user base, which now accounts for 50% of visits to the Redbubble site, says chief executive and founder Martin Hosking.

Redbubble was founded in Australia in 2006, and listed on the Australian Securities Exchange 10 years later. It now has 600,000 artists selling 11 million artworks on the platform, and a workforce of 200 spread across offices in Melbourne, San Francisco, and Berlin.

Billed by Hosking as the “largest global marketplace for artists”, the company banked $175 million in sales last year and is experiencing revenue growth of 30% year-on-year, according to the founder.

It was with this rapid growth in mind that Hosking and the Redbubble team decided to launch the AR update, as a way to both harness the rise in mobile purchasing and leverage the rise in popularity of AR technology.

“From our perspective what we’ve found is our customers were moving towards mobile experiences — as a native app you need a differentiated offering,” Hosking tells StartupSmart.

“All of our products are unique, and for customers to have experiences of these products through AR was critical.”

Hosking says startups should always ask themselves, “what makes your company different?”, and then leverage those unique offerings to drive brand loyalty.

“Startups that are successful do things that are unique to them,” he explains.

“We moved down the path of AR because our tagline is ‘Find Your Thing’. So customers finding their thing and seeing that in their environment [through AR] is deeply aligned with our brand and positioning,” he says. 

“Look at what’s available and tailor it to what your customers are looking for and the brand proposition for your customers,” he advises. 

How to innovate from within

Alex Lunnon is the product manager at Redbubble, and spearheaded the initiative to introduce AR to Redbubble’s users.

“We spent time identifying the problem we wanted to solve and thinking, ‘what is the value proposition?'” Lunnon explains. 

The team settled on exploring how AR could help customers purchasing Redbubble’s home decor offerings, and from the time the idea was born, it only took three weeks to build, test and release it to the world.

Working to such short turnaround times is no small feat for a company with 200 employees, but Hosking and Lunnon say the key to driving innovation is autonomy and agility.

“The reason why we can be flexible and innovative is because we have created teams with broad mandates and the resources to carry them out,” Hosking explains.

“When Alex came to me with the idea he already had the resources and was able to deploy them as he saw fit. We give our team a broad mandate and resources to achieve what they believe is important without seeking approval from me.”

Lunnon says this autonomy was essential for his team in creating this AR update.

“Thinking back to other roles, without that autonomy and without the alignment and strategy [we have at Redbubble] it would be very hard to do something like this within this time frame with the innovation and creativity we had,” Lunnon says.

“I think startups need to have the agility and need to trust their teams,” Hosking adds.  

Hosking advises, however, that for founders to afford their teams this freedom they first need to establish a “clear strategic intent” for the business, which will naturally come from “a deep engagement with the problem they are trying to solve”.

“I’ve seen startups go from one thing to the next thing without clarity about what the next goal is,” he says. 

“There are many things we’ve chosen to not implement just because they were popular; you don’t do things because they are the flavour of the month, you do things because they fit with your strategic goal.” 

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