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CEO Corner: Sourcing Takes on the Gig Economy

What if brands and retailers could browse sourcing experts who, metaphorically and literally, knew the local terrain, the shortest routes, the roadblocks and the customs? What if sourcing experts got rated, and high rankers became the next superstars of the gig economy?

Sourcing veteran Minesh Pore not only envisioned such a world, but as the co-founder and CEO of sourcing platform startup BuyHive, he brought the concept to fruition. Here, Pore—who has worked in India, China, Taiwan, Latin America, Europe and is now back in Asia—explains how recent events threw a wrench in sourcing as we knew it and accelerated the need for vetted, freelance agents.

The BuyHive platform features 5,000 expert sourcing agents, with an average of 10 years experience. Each one is personally vetted by the company to ensure expertise with local suppliers.

Sourcing Journal: You launched BuyHive in 2020, just as the pandemic was getting started, and you built BuyHive’s credibility mainly sourcing PPE. Was that just happenstance?

M.P.: It’s funny, because PPE was never in the plans, even though we started the company in January 2020. BuyHive co-founder Brent Barnes and I started working on the company in early February 2019 while we were still working at Global Sources. We were aiming to solve the issues of the sourcing industry and discovered two major things. One, big retailers in the U.S. were having major problems and significantly reducing staff in sourcing departments. Two, the rise of third-party marketplaces like Shopify or Amazon, which meant that sellers—often smaller, less organized brands more focused on building their brand image—suddenly had to concentrate on sourcing but didn’t necessarily know how.

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Sourcing experts were losing their jobs, or retiring, so we thought we would create a platform that matches the skills of these sourcing professionals to merchants and buyers who needed their help.

Then suddenly everyone needed PPE…

One of our first clients was an association formed by billionaires like Mark Cuban called Austin Emergency Supply Foundation, and they were saying, ‘We want to buy $6 million worth of product but we don’t know how to get this out. Can you help?’

The pandemic certainly illuminated the fact that sourcing isn’t as easy as people might think. How is BuyHive different from existing sourcing platforms?

Alibaba, as well as Made in China, VHD and Global Sources, are very supplier-focused models, meaning, someone searching the site will see suppliers who paid the most for their listings. But buyers all have different requirements, which are constantly changing. We thought: where is the buyer-centric model? We wanted to curate suppliers who could meet a buyer’s ever-changing requirements in a more personal, individual way.

So, human agents versus algorithms to match up suppliers and buyers?

The experts on our platform—call them the hive—are people who have sourced for brands, retailers, importers and they have experienced sourcing those kinds of products for an average of 10 years. We now have more than 5,000 sourcing experts in 20-plus countries, and each lists his or her respective country and category areas of expertise.

On the buyer side, we work with companies of all sizes, but our target is anyone with a million dollars in gross merchandise value (GMV). But sometimes larger companies will use us just to source a non-core product for them.

If people are the backbone of your operation, how are they vetted?

We vet every single one of them with extensive interviews. It is very labor intensive but it cannot happen any other way. We have to make sure these people are qualified, that they speak the business language, the technical language and the local language so they can go to trade shows and the factories. First, we give them a rating based on their resume and the interviews, and that later becomes feedback when they work with the buyer. Like Uber, those ratings will go up and down.

What are you hearing from your buyers on their challenges today, and how is BuyHive helping companies overcome them?

The biggest challenge is how to find suppliers who they can trust and who could reliably supply products to sell through their e-commerce sites. It’s also necessary to get directly to the factories and understand their capability, but it’s like a needle in a haystack to find the right supplier that meets your needs. And that can be weeks and months of time, where you should be focusing on selling and growing your business. So we are helping you identify suppliers who meet your needs. BuyHive can also manage the entire process, finding the supplier and negotiating the terms, for a fee.

Are the BuyHive agents trained to look for ESG compliance or uncover concerns?

Our people on the ground know about ESG more than anybody else. Agents who were sourcing for Walmart or Gap or Marks & Spencer have done all this work for those companies. They know the suppliers in and out and that knowledge can be transferred to the new buyers that come to us.

How do you plan to scale the business?

On a category side, now we’re specializing in fashion and textiles, but expanding into home textiles, home décor, garden outdoor, kitchen and houseware, children’s products and so on. We are also starting to build Latin American suppliers and sourcing experts.

You are collecting a lot of data. How does that factor into your future ‘sourcing as a service’ plans?

We are still building the AI tools into machine learning into this. We will then be able to do a few things. One, contract manufacturing, as we’ll know the suppliers and their capabilities. Two, trade financing, since we will have data on what is being bought at what price, at what quantities and who is buying and selling it, and we can feed that data fed into trade finance modules. Three, we can do logistics, shipping product from point A to point B. Four, we can build a module to help sourcing agents find full-time careers. Finally, we can provide services such as creating LLCs, building out security documents, quality assurance, quality control, and so on. The growth potential is huge.

There is definitely a lot involved. Do you think smaller buyers don’t always understand the complexities of sourcing?

Sourcing is the non-glamorous part of the business, but it can take you down if you don’t do it properly. People don’t understand that sourcing and procurement are the backbone of these businesses, and they don’t pay that much attention to that. So let us be the backbone of your business!