BIG INTERVIEW: Online ‘dementia supermarket’ reveals plans for mobility sector

James Ashwell, founder, of Unforgettable.org

Unforgettable.org, a relatively young but already hugely successful online reseller of dementia products, has just raised £2.25m in funding from US venture capitalists. Founder James Ashwell reveals where his business fits into the mobility market and discusses how much the two channels are likely to collide.

What made you start Unforgettable.org?
My experience caring for my mum who had dementia for five years led me to certain realisations. One was not knowing what to expect when, and not knowing which products existed. I started to try and find solutions for some of our biggest problems. It made me think we’ve got really big issues that we’re really struggling with and things exist which make a difference but are not readily available anywhere.

You’ve described the market as ‘broken’. Why is that?
The solutions exist and there are loads of products available designed to help people with dementia. But no one knows about them, they’re really hard to find and they’re not available in one place. Most professionals and carers are unaware of them and that’s what led me to start Unforgettable — a social business to address what I saw as a broken market and a huge opportunity to make a difference.

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Has the business evolved in the way you expected it to since launching in 2015?
I have to say it’s evolved just as I wanted it to. We launched on the high street in May with Lloyds Pharmacy in 500 stores. It’s the first time anywhere in the world that dementia products are available on the high street. That was my absolute aim. We’ve grown much faster than I thought and we’re growing our customer base all the time. We had 1.2 million visitors to the site last year and so we’ve got more traffic and interest than I expected. My next aim is to get these products available to people globally so we can get high volume products at low pricing. At the end of the day, the issue in the market is that things are still more expensive than they should be. I’m on a mission to keep reducing the price of these products.

How big is the business in terms of employees and turnover?
Eight people and we got a run rate last month of nearly $1 million, around £778,000.

What does the market look like for dementia products?
The most popular products are those that address time orientation problems because that affects people with dementia from very early on all the way to later stages. There’s a range of clocks and we’ve designed our own Unforgettable day clock which changes to become more simple as the dementia progresses. Other product categories that are popular are trackers to help with wandering. 60% of people with dementia will experience wandering at some point within their journey. The other two things are legal services. We’ve created the world’s first dementia lasting power of attorney. If you’ve got dementia you’re pretty much guaranteed to lose your cognitive ability to make decisions on your own behalf and yet no one had created a product for that. And finally books. We’ve written a range of books on how to cope with dementia and a family guide. We write those in association with the NHS and some leading specialists in the dementia field.

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What does the competitive landscape look like?
Amazon is a competitor for everybody. A lot of retailers would be worried. I’m not because I think we have a unique position in that we have our expertise and a network and specialise in dementia. In terms of direct competitors, there isn’t anyone in this space that has the ability or is trying to address the challenges. Amazon is a competitor but only if people know what they’re looking for. There are a couple of providers of dementia products but generally they have a very small range. Generally they have very small traffic and revenue because people don’t trust them. What I think we have created is a John Lewis for dementia — somewhere you really trust and that’s as professional as you expect it to be.

Do you expect to face more competition from mobility dealers in the future?
I would love there to be more competition. The market is big enough for many people and I would love to see more people helping address dementia together. We work with the whole market so if a competitor emerged we would be able to sell our own-brand products to them. The fact of the matter is though that it’s really hard. I’ve had to raise £1.5m to get this far. It’s very difficult to raise that type of money. As much as I’d love competition I’m not really expecting much. We’ve got so much investment behind us I think it’s very difficult for someone to enter the market.

Are you intending to expand into more traditional areas covered by mobility retailers?
We do sell ‘traditional’ mobility aids because as a market place we want to be a one-stop-shop. We work with all the big mobility providers to put their products on our site so that you can go on our site and buy most of the range through a drop-ship model. We already do that. Our focus is on dementia-specific products. You can go on our site and get GPS trackers and board games designed for dementia but at the same time you can buy a scooter or a mobility aid.

Will the planned launch of retail sites affect the range and size of products?
It will because the products we’re selling through Lloyds are different to what we sell on our site because they know a retail environment requires a different packaging and pricing point. The way it will affect us is that it forces us to continue to professionalise our approach and allows us to reduce prices further. This whole market has been dominated since its beginning in the 90s with too high pricing because it’s too low volume. Getting products on the high street is one step further to getting higher volume and lower prices.

Do you have plans to open retail sites on the high street?
Not really. We have our partnership with Lloyds and we’re rolling out across 500 stores. The step further than that is too far in the future for me to speculate.

What sort of challenges did you face starting your venture and securing the investment?
It’s really difficult. My first challenge was being committed enough not to give up. I think Steve Jobs said any sane person would give up and that’s true. For me it was being so personally affected by something that I wouldn’t give up until I got there. Raising finance is difficult, especially for ecommerce. The thing that helped us was that we’re a social business. I wasn’t going after traditional mainstream private equity. We were looking to work with investors who wanted to address a deep social issue and that really helped. Securing good people is always difficult and I think we’ve achieved that. Again being a social business has helped that.

What are your next investment or funding targets?
Luckily, our investment means we’re not looking for funding for at least two years. Now we’re just focusing on product development, reducing price points and looking at new markets including the US.

What role does McKesson have in the running of the business?
Very little. They believe in our management team and our plans. They are a key strategic player because of their ownership of Lloyds Pharmacy and they supply to 50% of US care homes and a huge number of pharmaceutical companies in the US. They allow us to have our products in more places.

What’s been the biggest business lesson you’ve learnt so far?
To test things as quickly, simply and cheaply as possible and to fail quickly. If it doesn’t work, move on.

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