Dealer Spotlight: Mobilegear

Mobile' is the word of the moment and Chicago-based operator Mobilegear the company of the hour.

Certain eras – often even fairly short-term – conjure up associations with certain topics and trends. The OP industry is no stranger to these – think MPS a few years ago when it first became a hot topic or numerous product-related silver bullets like jan/san and, more recently, ‘facilities’.

The term of the moment revolves around all things mobile – mobile marketing, mobile shopping, mobile working…

All these derivatives create opportunities and Chicago-based entrepreneur Douglas Nash – known to many in the OP industry from his years at United Stationers as well as GBC – has taken the specific mobile working trend and created Mobilegear from it. 

Mobile target

A front-facing online office products website is nothing unusual, of course, but mobilegear.com is different in that it specifically targets the mobile workforce. And that’s quite a workforce, according to President/CEO Nash. He is backed up by numerous research reports, including one from IDC which predicts that by 2015 – just a year away – over 1.3 billion employees will be working in “mobile ways”. That is a staggering 37.2% of what is anticipated to be the world’s entire workforce and the US is likely to have a sizeable share of that percentage.

Nash says: “Mobilegear identified its target group as the workforce which no longer works in a traditional office environment. Yesterday’s ‘road warriors’ have evolved into a much broader segment of SMBs and Fortune 500 workers who are motivated by flexibility in their work environments and have budgets to spend on office supplies and tech accessories.”

Very much a fledgling still, Mobilegear is in its first year of full operation. It’s owned by LaunchFX, a company first established two years ago and focused on building innovative e-commerce solutions. Mobilegear was acquired by LaunchFX and then redesigned and relaunched last April.

In terms of the website’s look and feel, Nash partnered with San Francisco-based Lunar Design to create an intuitive and visual shopping experience. The overall design is broadly based on e-tailers with similar models such as Zappos and Crate & Barrel, and Mobilegear recently won two major US design awards, the Good Design and Spark awards. 

The result, says Nash, is an e-procurement platform that aims to become “the trusted source for products and services that empower mobile workers to work anywhere”. He adds: “Mobilegear.com creates value on three major levels: It offers a curated product assortment targeted at today’s mobile work environments; it’s organised into eight intuitive and easy-to-shop categories; and it’s presented visually so the products and their stories are the ‘heroes’.” 

Indeed, Nash points to the importance of his relationship with suppliers with regards to these so-called heroes. He adds: “Manufacturers spend so much time creating unique and innovative products, and their stories often aren’t being told. When you go to Mobilegear, you’re browsing and seeing what’s out there.”

Nash has appeared on a number of US television stations, illustrating first-hand how some of the products on the website work. Not only is this clever marketing and personalised product endorsement, it also enhances Mobilegear’s first-to-market advantage in its niche sector.  

Nash says: “There are over 47,000 items that are available to the average worker. The secret is finding those with the right ‘stories to tell’, and the right features and functions that can help people who work in multiple locations. The ongoing quest to find these products, understand the unique needs of today’s mobile workers and ultimately create an innovative ecosystem is what makes Mobilegear.com very different.”

From a competitive point of view, Mobilegear is chiefly up against the two major OP resellers Office Depot and Staples, Amazon and some smaller, more niche, sites like Poppin.com. The majority of independents simply haven’t got the level of mobile-oriented products, nor indeed such an outward-facing web presence.

Deep and focused 

Nash is fully aware that, for the major OP resellers, the focus is increasingly on getting larger and broader in their offering, while Mobilegear’s expertise and competitive advantage comes from being narrow, deep and focused. “Yes, there is a strong movement by many OP resellers to broaden their portfolio of products, not wanting to miss any sales opportunities and creating value by offering a single order/invoice/delivery for many products,” he says. 

“Given the rise of the ‘millennials’ in the workforce – men and women between 25 and 35 – the empowerment of the employee and the continued growth of e-commerce shopping, however, we believe focused expertise and knowledge is a viable alternative business model. Connecting targeted consumers with innovative product manufacturers can create a win/win scenario for all parts of the channel. I would also add that every time large industries move towards mass commoditisation, the pendulum swings back towards niche value-added businesses. In my opinion, both models create value and both have a place in the industry.”

The fact that technology accessories, particularly those that work well with tablets and smartphones, and office supplies which enable people to work more effectively in multiple locations, are Mobilegear’s strongest growth categories also illustrates that more is not necessarily better. 

Another feature that’s become more common across the OP reseller channel – and distribution for that matter – is the trend towards offering add-on services, be that MPS, copy and print products and services, sales training, etc. Mobilegear, partly due to its relative newness in the market, is different. It is purely a product-based e-commerce platform at the moment. Nash doesn’t rule out more of a service offering at some stage, but says it’s currently an ‘evaluation’ in progress.

As a privately-held start-up, specific financial information about Mobilegear remains confidential, but Nash points to strong quarter over quarter growth and increasing new visitors to the site.

From a logistics point of view, Nash has rekindled his long-standing relationship with United Stationers where he worked for over eight years prior to leaving to set up Mobilegear. United is now the e-tailer’s first-call wholesale partner. Generally speaking, and in line with a low-cost overhead model, orders are drop-shipped either from wholesalers or, in some cases, directly from niche manufacturers. 

Mobilegear is riding the wave and is definitely a company of the moment, but it’s early days yet as Nash is the first to admit. “Mobilegear is looking to create a new model and will use very different marketing routes to reach this important business consumer. The journey will take some time, but it should be an exciting and valuable ride.”