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“Innovation sometimes
tries to be everything, when really it just needs to start quite small, solve a single problem and go from there.”
11 May, 2021

Following on from our first interviews of 2021, we catch up with Carla Scott, CEO and co-founder of Populace Threads – A digital platform that makes it easier for you to clean out your wardrobe and shop in other people’s wardrobes, all while doing good things for the planet and making a bit of cash on the way through. Founded in 2020 in the midst of the pandemic, Populace Threads’ original desire was to build an online community to share clothes. After witnessing how enthusiastically people were embracing swapping their wardrobes with others, the Populace Threads team decided to add in more functionality and have recently relaunched to include the ability to shop, swap and sell pre-loved garments and accessories.

Populace Threads’ mission is to create a community of likeminded individuals and organisations that through collective action, change the nature of how we as consumers shop for fashion. Carla is passionate about sustainability, limiting the negative impact fashion has on the environment and delivering projects that make it easy to apply a sustainable practice. With a background in transformation throughout multiple executive positions, she gained a deep understanding and interest in the Circular Economy and Shared Economy. Carla’s areas of expertise are Innovation, Strategy, Business Transformation and Management Consulting, with a particular passion in sustainable and circular fashion. She empowers people to extend the life of their once-loved items and contribute to the sustainable fashion movement

Q. How innovative do you need to be when setting up a business?

A. The successes I’ve had in developing ideas into commercial entities have all come from lived experience – or probably more accurately – frustration felt during lived experiences. Most of the day-to-day engagement that we have with the world around us involves dealing with people or organisations that supply services and/or products to us as consumers. The supply of these ‘things’ are supported by end-to-end value or process chains. I believe that many innovative start-ups have started from a person asking the question ‘how can I do that better?’. More often than not it’s not the whole value chain that is frustrating you – maybe there’s just one tiny piece of it where you truly believe you can build something that will be better, faster, easier. Sometimes that’s a tech idea – sometimes it’s a business process idea – sometimes it’s a big gutsy idea that changes the way a sector operates, sometimes it’s a small idea that just makes things easier for a small target group – whatever it looks like, I believe it’s all innovation. So – I think that yes – you do need to be innovative when setting up a business – but innovation looks very different depending on the problem you are trying to solve.

Q. What’s your best advice for getting started?

A.Back yourself and just get started! You don’t need a lot of money to explore an idea or to do initial market research or user / customer experience research. You also don’t need a lot of money nowadays to bash together a prototype, so you’ve got something beyond the conceptual to test the market with. The worst thing you can do is sit around and ruminate over an idea for months on end, or try to make something look and feel absolutely perfect before you socialise it with your target demographic. You need to get the people who are going to use it, to play with it, because what works in your head doesn’t always necessarily translate to a valuable user experience.

One of the things I’ve been guilty of over the years, is trying to work out which ‘great’ idea to progress with – there’s always a few kicking around in most of our heads. What tends to help me to pick one, is to go back to that process of looking at the value chain that I’m operating within and where things don’t work well in that chain, and then making a call on which one of those ‘great’ ideas is going to have the best impact and achieve the outcome I’m trying to achieve. In the case of Populace Threads, this was keeping clothing in circulation for as long as possible, reducing landfill and making it easier for people to be eco-aware when clearing out their wardrobes.

Q. What is your advice on how to become more innovative?

A. I think it’s really tough for many big established organisations to get out of their own way when it comes to innovation. As organisations grow they tend to put complicated processes in place, they can become increasingly governed by regulation and compliance, their risk appetite starts to align with revenue projection (and protection) and success metrics change and become tightly controlled by timeframes and return on investment. In most cases, all of this is absolutely necessary, but innovation works to a different timeline and to different success metrics than standard business deliverables. When the business case you’re developing doesn’t have anything to benchmark against, how do you give assurance around ROI at a particular rate within a particular timeframe? Quite often the best you can do is say, if it hasn’t worked by x – then we call it a failure, if it has – we move on. This is why so many organisations fail to invest in fostering ideas within, or in partnering with the start-up community - both of which can help to drive an internal innovation culture, which of course, in turn, leads to innovative outcomes. For individuals to become more innovative, an environment needs to exist in which they are supported to think and act differently.

For organisations to become more innovative they need to fundamentally change the valuation, or success metrics, applied to innovation projects so that these projects can contribute to the ways in which the organisation realises value for its customers.

Q. What trends should business owners be watching out for in the coming years?

A. Through my work with Populace Threads I am seeing a growing emphasis on sustainability and environmental impact – particularly from younger generations who more than any other generation before them are starting to put sustainability right at the core of their consumer purchasing power. This means that organisations have to be able to do more than greenwash - they have to be able to tangibly demonstrate that they are trying to do something to be a better environmental citizen in order to do business with this consumer cohort.

From my perspective, sustainability is going to be massive, recycling and /or upcycling is going to be massive, and disposal is going to be massive. Around the world we are starting to see legislation being considered that looks at the viability of exporting/offshoring waste management. We’re also seeing countries in Europe, like France, starting to ban textiles being sent to landfill. It seems logical to me that solutions have to start emerging that address both the changing consumer behaviour and these types of legislative changes. As I said earlier, my driver for innovative ideas and business development is always about finding the areas in the value /supply chain where I can create something that can make a difference. For me, building Populace Threads was about building a platform that makes it easier for consumers to start to do the right thing when cleaning out their wardrobes.

Q. It’s great that you can tie the idea of sustainability and environmental impacts in line with what you’re trying to do and what you drive around the customer experience. If you make it more difficult for the customer, they’re not going to do it right?

A. That’s what happens now, right? You clean out your wardrobe and you’ll make a number of piles of ‘stuff’. You’ll have the stuff that needs repair, the stuff that you don’t want anymore (but maybe someone else will?), the stuff that think you can sell or rent out and make some money out of, the stuff you want to send to a particular charity and then the stuff that you think no-one is going to want because it’s at end of life. A growing awareness of the environmental impact of the fashion sector combined with a bit of an obsession with share economy business models and doing my own wardrobe cleanout is what started the thinking around Populace Threads in the first place. There is currently no single place where you can manage everything that you want to do with a wardrobe cleanout, and when it comes to the ‘throw out’ pile – there is very limited information or options available for consumers. Which is crazy – right? We know that the fashion sector is one of the highest polluters on the planet, we know that we are sending billions and billions of kgs of clothing into landfill globally each year – but we still don’t have an easy way to do the right thing as a consumer..! That’s the dream with Populace Threads. We started as an online swapping wardrobe, we have relaunched as a shop, swap, sell digital platform, and we are working towards building in, rent, repair, donate, and dispose over the next 12 months.

Q. What are your thoughts on swapping clothes with your friends?

A. Some of the early thinking about Populace Threads came from getting ready with friends to go out and swapping and borrowing outfits from each other. With Populace Threads a swap is permanent – which removes the biggest pain point of lending something to someone, i.e. they don’t give it back. I love the clothes swapping foundations of Populace Threads. We first launched Populace Threads as a swap wardrobe only in early February 2020. Two weeks after that we went into COVID lockdown, which kind of blew a lot of our market development ideas out of the water. We had these grand ideas of having these physical swap meets at this beautiful old building in Brisbane as a way to promote the ‘art’ of swapping and providing both the physical and the online means for consumers to continue to embrace swapping clothes rather than always buying new. We weren’t able to continue with the physical swap meets (we’ll come back to those), but the online concept really took off. It showed that consumers were willing to look at pre-loved clothing and accessories as a viable alternative to traditional retail.

Q. What are some common mistakes to avoid when trying to be more innovative?

A.I’m passionate about innovative ideas that make a positive impact on people and the planet. It’s really easy to get caught up in your own head when you’re defining problem solving in that way, so I know that one of the biggest mistakes I make when trying to be more innovative is that I tend to overcomplicate things. When I find myself doing this, I try to remember to break things down into small milestones, and measure success at each milestone – build incrementally I guess – so that investment of money and time is made based on a defined outcome achievement. The other (related) mistake that I’ve made is wanting to make something perfect before I let my target demographic see it – which is crazy because early engagement with your customer will always result in a solution with higher engagement and adoption rates than the one that you have built inside your own head. It’s hard to let go when you’re a founder though – you have a vision that you want to share with the world and it’s hard when you realise that maybe you’ve overcooked it a bit…..

I’m not always successful at remembering these lessons. I still get carried away a lot. But, I’ve learned over time that if I can drag myself back to basics – what problem am I trying to solve and what do I need to develop to present a viable solution – then I am more successful at achieving something in the end that is not only truly innovative but also commercially viable.