Spotlight on Innovation: Shopping Links

Key points at a glance:

  • Founded by Kim Westwood, Shopping Links is not her first foray into the world of startups. After establishing her first online social shopping platform in 2012, Kim quickly fell in love with the agility, excitement and potential of another idea
  • Kim discovered the true value of influencer image while testing customer response to influencer content with one of our large international partner’s influencer collaborations
  • By intentionally developing a proprietary algorithm and enhanced analytics Shopping Links has been eligible to claim the R&D Tax Incentive twice, using Nifty Grants
  • The benefit of the incentive has been reinvested back into the business to hire key new staff and continually drive improvements for customers and ultimately revenue for the business
  • Kim says that while the R&D Tax Incentive is complex, it is a crucial benefit that should be considered by as many startups as possible and the claim process navigated with the support of a trusted provider such as PwC's Nifty Grants

Take a scroll through your Instagram feed and you’ll likely see a few beautifully-curated beach shots, some marble-backed flatlays, and pictures of artfully minimalist interiors; the rise of independent creators on Instagram shows blogging is no longer just a hobby, but serious business.

Shopping Links founder Kim Westwood witnessed firsthand the transformation of bloggers into fully-fledged social influencers during the past four years. Yet despite the industry’s rapid growth, there was still a lack of transparency in influencer marketing – brands would pay agencies for access to influencers, without a clear understanding of how the collaboration would affect their marketing efforts or their bottom line.

After being approached by both influencers and brands looking for a better way to venture into this new industry, Kim saw a timely gap in the market begging to be filled. In 2014, Shopping Links was born.

Think dating site meets recruitment platform, and you’ve got a pretty good idea of what Shopping Links offers. Designed to connect brands with influencers in a transparent, trustworthy way, Shopping Links works to empower creatives from around the world by pairing them with international brands hungry for unique content and engaged audiences.

From Topshop to NastyGal, Marks & Spencer to Macy’s, Shopping Links has worked with some of the heavy-hitters of the retail scene, helping brands see greater return on investment, and helping bloggers get paid for doing what they love.

About Shopping Links' founder, Kim Westwood

Shopping Links is not Kim’s first foray into the world of startups. After establishing her first online social shopping platform in 2012, Kim quickly fell in love with the agility, excitement and potential of another idea. Learning the ropes from her first startup venture, Kim was inspired to put it all on the line and founded Shopping Links: a move equally validating and terrifying in its possibilities.
This was in 2014, a time when Influencer Marketing was not even considered an industry yet. It was a gamble Kim took early and as a result she has experienced the growth and transformation first hand.

Four years on, and that gamble is paying off after years of testing, research and customer validation. The origins of Shopping Links were born over countless coffees, phone calls, and emails: discussions with bloggers about their needs was essential to create the platform. Back then, bloggers were desperate to connect with brands – there were no DM’s and it was a time when having 10k followers was the mark of a successful influencer! Creatives could only turn to expensive agencies to find representation and work. Marketplaces, however, were just taking off, offering the perfect way for Shopping Links to fill a much needed gap in the market.

From creating a marketplace built on conversations, collaboration and relationships in an infant industry, Kim has since guided Shopping Links to win the Business Services category at the 2016 Governor of Victoria Export Award, gaining a nomination for Female Entrepreneur of the Year in the Telstra Women’s Business Awards along the way. With Shopping Links also named to Anthill Magazine’s SMART100 Index of most innovative Australian companies in 2016, the business continues to grow and push the boundaries of its industry.

The ‘aha!’ innovation moment?

There have been many ‘AHA’ moments in the Shopping Links journey, but the most recent came as a result of organically growing in step with the needs of their blogger and brand community.

The true value of influencer images was discovered while testing customer responses to influencer content with one of Shopping Links large international partner’s influencer collaborations. As the first case study Kim was surprised by the findings and excited by the potential: influencer images were enjoying a 33% higher click-through rate and a 22% increase in sales when compared to brand campaign images. The team were at a point where they realized the incredible value of influencer images and the untapped potential.

This discovery was validated by industry research through L2 Insights, which found that although 70 per cent of brands work with influencers, 90 per cent of brands failed to feature their influencer content on their own social media accounts and digital assets. Discovering this huge missed opportunity offered Shopping Links a chance to enhance their offering and share the findings with their customers. Since then, they have been developing strategies and structuring their marketplace to make it even easier for brands to leverage their influencer content and collaboration.

This ‘aha!’ moment will now lead to a series of system developments, research and tests to help optimize the way the platform stores, retrieves and tags images. This research and development is helping craft an offering that can be commercialized and monetized to help both their brands and influencers make the most of their collaborations.

This was a realization Kim and team wouldn’t have discovered if it were not for the R&D Tax Incentive. As a small business, Shopping Links doesn't have the luxury of large R&D budgets like many established companies and hence the importance of this initiative to our ongoing success.

The market problem and opportunity identified

Synonymous with being a startup is the need to constantly innovate and articulate our customer’s needs – this helps Shopping Links drive growth and remain frontrunners in their field. Disruptive startups are the ones continually making headlines. As a small company in a rapidly evolving sector, Kim and team can’t afford to lose ground on their competitors: the funds from the R&D Tax Incentive allow them to continually innovate and stay ahead of the curve.

Although some of experiments may not be successful, finding out what doesn’t work is as important as finding out what does. Kim knows for sure that if she wasn't innovating and exploring new ways to do things, someone else would be. The opportunity to explore, research, experiment and learn is key to Shopping Links ongoing success as a startup.

Finding out about the R&D Tax Incentive

Kim first heard about the R&D Tax Incentive while working for a local organic food startup. As she became more involved in the ecosystem, she learnt how the incentive was fundamental to our sustainability. Kim says she was fortunate to be able to work with PwC’s Nifty Grants when it was first launched and has now continued to use the platform (with support from the team) since.

With innovation an imperative to success in the startup world, having the extra funds for research has enabled us to remain agile, innovative, and ahead of the influencer marketing curve. The changeable nature of Australia's R&D Tax Incentive, means it can be hard for bootstrapped startups like ours to navigate the rules and regulations. This is where the Nifty team has really helped us to kickstart our hustle and better understand not only the requirements but how to optimize the opportunity.

Claiming the R&D Tax Incentive with Nifty Grants

Shopping Links has used Nifty’s services to make two R&D claims to date: these were from 2014-15 and 2015-16. For the 2016-17 period, Shopping Links intend on submitting a claim that focuses primarily on the continued innovation and development of their content offering.

Using the R&D Tax Incentive benefit

The benefit received from the R&D Incentive is allowing Shopping Links to build innovative technology in the realm of Google Analytics to developing affiliate technology integration, Shopping Links has used the R&D benefit to continually drive improvements for our customers and revenue for our business. The incentive has also helped them strategise new developments within our platform, track and report on the success of campaigns and optimize our user experience.

One of the key features developed under the incentive was implementing blogger payments, enabling brands to offer flat fee payments in addition to gifts and commission on sales. Shopping Links are still one of the only influencer marketing platforms to offer integration with the brand’s chosen affiliate network if required.

In the coming year, the Incentive will enable Shopping Links to help brands recall their influencer imagery with ease, as they work with long-time clients to further develop these features. This is a direct response to the existing gap in the market they've been able to identify while undertaking industry research under this last year’s incentive.

Being able to increase their R&D budget has not only helped Shopping Links to become more agile and innovative, it has also seen substantial developments in how the product is perceived in an international market. R&D incentives benefit more than just their startup: in a wider sense, being able to spend more on developing Shopping Links has helped our customers in turn, by providing better ways for influencers and brands to collaborate and connect.

In the future, Shopping Links wants to stay focused on their customers and delivering solutions and services that meet their needs. The team want to continue to constantly innovate, test and validate everything we design and develop. The relationships they have with their influencers and brands is critical to ongoing success, and the team will continue to work hand in hand with long-term brand partners to develop features that will benefit both our existing and future customers.

The newness of the industry provides a fertile ground for Shopping Links to continually grow and consolidate our market share, and its unchartered, ever-changing landscape is a constant source of inspiration. As an industry that’s evolved so much in the last four years, the rise of influencer marketing has been phenomenal, and Kim is incredibly excited about what the future holds for us.

Advice for other startups considering the R&D Tax Incentive

While the R&D Tax Incentive is constantly undergoing amendments and changes; and despite its complexity, it is a crucial benefit that should be considered by as many startups as possible. That being said, startups can often fall foul of the strict provisions relating to what can and cannot be claimed as research and development under the incentive, so it's always best to be safe and gain outside advice from experts, like the team at Nifty!