Interview: Kalkidan Legesse, Co-Founder of OWNI

Sketch of Kalkidan Legesse with transparent background

I’m back with another interview in my Sustainability Advocates interview series, and this time, I’ve had the pleasure of speaking with Kalkidan Legesse, the co-founder of Sancho’s and OWNI. You probably know Kalkidan already – she’s a brilliant public speaker, and has a personal presence across Sancho’s, sharing the goings on from her studio, leading anti-racism discussions, and even modelling new pieces from the store. But it was the launch of OWNI that really drove me to reach out and ask for this interview. Pitched as the world’s first e-commerce AI, I wanted to understand how OWNI and its machine learning could possibly support a more sustainable fashion industry.

OWNI was created by Kalkidan Legesse and Vidmantas Markevicius, with the mission to change the way we buy and sell second-hand in a bid to reduce waste and move away from a fast fashion throwaway culture. As the world’s first AI powered digital wardrobe and resale technology, OWNI digitises your existing wardrobe through the power of data you already own – email receipts, purchase confirmations, and more. It saves on the hassle of identifying items to sell, photographing, listing, and waiting, instead already curating everything in one place for you.

Having been backed by big players like Google, and secured £350,000 investment from angel investors and VCs, I get the feeling that OWNI could bring about real change – and soon. Here’s more about OWNI, and Kalkidan’s journey, from our recent interview:

1. Hi Kalkidan. I’m excited to talk about OWNI! What led to the creation of the platform?

OWNI is the world’s first e-commerce AI. It’s something we’ve been working on for a few years at Sancho’s and generally. We recognised that a lot of people – in fact, most people – have items that they own and they don’t use. We all have things that we’re either intending to repair, or give away, or put on eBay. But most of the time, we don’t do anything with them, despite having these opportunities available to us. And what that means is that they’re idle. In the UK, there’s at least 1.7 billion idle items of clothing, and that number is growing every year.

In the UK, there’s at least 1.7 billion idle items of clothing, and that number is growing every year.

We really wanted to investigate and begin to solve the causing factor of that idleness. And what we realised was that the majority of people simply just don’t have the time. Selling is quite high effort, you have to have a lot of different skills: you have to be able to take great photos, message people, merchandise… And with a lot of resales platforms, you also have to market yourself, become your own seller. And most people don’t have the time.

Despite being a fashion retailer and e-commerce operator [at Sancho’s], I personally don’t have the time either. And the flip-side of us storing these idle items is when buyers shop for items, the actual potential inventory – the products that could be in the market – aren’t in the market, because they’re tucked away in people’s homes. Not to mention what happens when they lose their market value completely. [At that stage] they’re given to charity shops, they’re exported, they become another person’s problem. It’s a huge problem. And we wanted to solve it, in a meaningful way. And so the question was: how can we understand what people own efficiently? And that’s when we set up to create our digitisation AI.

2. How are you using AI with OWNI, and how does it benefit wearers?

We’ve been working hard on the digitisation, so OWNI can digitise your ownership information for you. A lot of people think what we mean by that is you can take a photo of an item and digitise it yourself, like you might do with a digital wardrobe. But that’s not what we mean. OWNI can connect to brands, your inbox, and other sources of data and create a digital inventory of the items you own. And that’s fundamentally what OWNI is; a digital inventory that’s made for you.

A lot of us shop online, most online orders come with an order confirmation email or text message, so that data is there. It’s just dispersed and not useful. We organise that information for you, and create a digital wardrobe of everything you own. Then using this wardrobe, we have a marketplace of curated owned items, so that buyers can shop items that you own. And then when they buy those items, we offer you the sale. So, we say “Hey Besma, someone wants to purchase this coat that we noticed you have in your wardrobe. Would you like to sell it?” And then if you’d like to sell it you just click yes!

OWNI gives you like all the flexibility in the world because you get to just accept or reject offers for items. What it means is that all of those items that are idle – be it, you’ve not picked them up for three years, or maybe they’re out of season where you are – they can go to a person who needs them right now. So we’re trying to create much more efficiency in the secondary market.

Up until now, we’ve been digitising wardrobes through our brand partners. So for example, if you are Sancho’s customer, we could give you your digital wardrobe with Sancho’s feeding into that. But by the summer of this year, we’re releasing the tool that can connect to your email. So anything you have a receipt for, can be digitised.

It has been a bit of a journey because I think we’ve been really familiar with the problem for a while. But we were experimenting with different ways to execute against it. What we’re doing now is being received better than anything we’ve ever done. We’re at a point where we have created something that is meaningfully helping our users rather than just a cool idea.

3. This is really exciting. Will OWNI be for people in the sustainable fashion space, or is it aimed at every fashion consumer?

So OWNI is for everybody. For example, my dad has this coat that he bought in the John Lewis sale, it was £150 and he hasn’t worn it once. It’s just sitting in his wardrobe. And he doesn’t like it. But he also doesn’t have time to figure things out. So it’s definitely for everyone. The end goal of OWNI isn’t that it serves only the sustainable fashion community, or even people who are actively changing their consumption habits. It’s more about the time-restricted person, or even the income-restricted person.

I’m obviously a member of the sustainable fashion community, and that’s definitely my world and my community, so I think our natural networks and first networks are these people. But I think for sustainable fashion thinkers in particular, we’re talking about mass consumer behaviour change. We want a reduction in demand and we want reduction in consumption. We want a mass shift in consumption to second-hand, but that’s not possible when there are so many barriers to switching to second-hand.

As sustainable fashion activists, if we want people to buy second-hand because second-hand has less impact on people and planet, we need to make sure that the supply of inventory is sufficient as well. An actual meaningful supply of inventory, not just the stuff that a small proportion of people can access. That’s my biggest job, persuading investors that the majority of things that people can buy just isn’t available for sale currently. Like it’s just not anywhere to buy.

One of my favourite things to do is go to our local skip, and it will just blow your mind the things that people throw away. My partner is really into bikes, so we have seven bikes now (!) and it’s from people throwing these things away, that don’t need to be thrown away at all. But they’ve had them until they got fed up with then and then have no space for them and then eventually it’s logical for them to put it in the bin, even though there was this huge opportunity for it to go to another home.

4. In the past, I’ve criticised resales platforms for prioritising sales over circularity. How are you balancing the profitability of OWNI while providing a truly circular solution?

I think that the difference between a resale platform and OWNI is that it’s this digital inventory piece. It’s really recognising that there’s so much value in items that exist and that value extends from its current commercial user interests, to just the actual physical value of the component materials of that good. And [realising] that value is absolutely essential for the circular economy.

In a circular economy, the end goal of that loop is that an item is recovered and regenerated into something new. From my perspective, understanding what exists and where it is, is crucial for us to be able to have an efficient circular system.

OWNI’s goal is to create a universal inventory, a database of items that exist, fashion and more. We’re using resale as a way to give people a reason to participate with OWNI because we recognise that to the average person, the biggest pain point isn’t whether or not we have a circular economy. It’s things like, do they have the style what they want, do they have enough money? Do they have the stuff that they need? These are the things that drive an individual’s initial decisions. We believe that this ownership data can be utilised in a way that helps them with those like mutual experiences.

In terms of OWNI being a circular solution, our mission for circularity isn’t a one or two year goal. We have a 10-year integrated goal to facilitate not just resell but to facilitate repair and recycling efficiently as well. In terms of encouraging overconsumption, we make money through the sale of items, so we earn commission on sales, not through data or anything else. And so for that reason, we do need sales, and we encourage them. If you are a consumption purist, and you think that people should just consume less, than there is an inherent conflict, because the way we operate will be to get people to consume more, but we’re focusing on them consuming second-hand, because we think that it’s a more environmentally-sound choice. Consuming second-hand on a peer-to-peer basis also circulates income better. And one thing that really motivates me is that a lot of people, particularly millennials and Gen Z, tie up their wealth in the items they own. So it’s not in cash, not in property, it’s in your stuff. Your physical inventory. So to be able to liquidate those assets, in a way that suits you, is an important tool for making better financial choices.

[As a business] we deal with impact investors who have long term return goals. A typical VC [venture capital] fund looks at 10x return. With our investors, we’ve communicated that a 3-5x return is more likely. And so there’s far less pressure to grow for growth’s sake, and also every single person, every shareholder, is mission aligned.

In addition to that, one of the things that’s important to me is to not just have very wealthy people invest in OWNI. So we do have what’s called a “low ticket size”, which basically means you can invest from £1000 up in OWNI, which means that people with less money can invest.

White dresses hanging on a rack

Read next:
Brand Owned Fashion Resale: Green or Greenwash?

With everyone from PrettyLittleThing through to Gucci announcing upcoming resales platforms, the fashion business space is buzzing with anticipation. But will they be any good? Read more →

5. Great work. To round things off, can I ask, what sparked your initial interest in sustainability, and sustainable fashion?

The reason I’m interested in sustainability is that I studied Development Economics, and I thought I’d work for an NGO in sustainable development. The reason I became interested in fashion is because in doing that work, I saw that fashion actually can create good incomes for people. So in Ethiopia in particular, one of the best paid jobs is in local traditional clothing manufacturing. The reason for this is because you can create a brand and then own that brand, therefore retaining value. In comparison, my grandma is a coffee farmer and with coffee, it’s very hard to say “this coffee is different from that coffee”. And so she earned very little doing that. So my interest in fashion really came about from that perspective, and then learned about the rest of the industry not behaving like that (!)

In terms of what’s interests me now, is recognising that even with Sancho’s, while it’s a brilliant business, it’s also [operating on] a linear business model where we’re just selling new items. I realised the mechanism for growth is just selling more and I had to sit down and think, is that the goal? Are we just trying to sell more stuff? Nice things, important things, necessary things, but is it our goal to sell more of it?

In the context of resource depletion, and, you know, the 10 years left until Armageddon… It feels like there needs to be more. And so I think I just wanted to take on a bigger problem. A problem that we could apply ourselves to, to make a bigger impact. And one where we could see it go from 0 to 1,000, to a million, to a billion…

OWNI is now available to download in the UK and US on Apple AppStore and Google Play.
Stay up to date with Kalkidan’s work by following and @wowsancho


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