‘It should be a right to fix your phone’: the boss of booming secondhand tech firm Back Market

Thibaud Hug de Larauze is waving his iPhone, boasting that it is more than seven years old. “It works great,” he says. Not what you’d expect from a tech entrepreneur heading one of France’s biggest “unicorn” startups – Back Market – which has raised more than $1bn to expand into 18 countries.

The chief executive of the secondhand gadget marketplace says he would rather identify as an eco-warrior than a tech guru, fighting to persuade us all to buy pre-owned phones, laptops and other devices, and repair or recycle our old ones.

New technology contributes more than 1bn tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions a year, just under 3% of the global total, making it the seventh biggest contributor – about half the size of the fashion industry – according to Our World in Data.

Mending a smartphone just once can save more than 77kg of carbon emissions, research by the French ecological transition agency Ademe has found, helping to lighten our impact on the planet, solve a gigantic electronic waste problem that equates to more than 60m tonnes a year globally, and reduce the need to mine scarce resources, including gold, platinum and palladium.

“It’s a big driver to wake up and at the end of the day … know that I’m trying to achieve something that is positive,” Hug de Larauze says. He says that what he likes about the company is that it doesn’t compromise values for value. “The more we grow the business, the best it is in terms of impact.”

The group, which has headquarters in Paris and Bordeaux and employs 700 people globally, expects to deliver its first annual underlying profit this year, shortly after its 10th anniversary in November. Sales continue to surge, on the back of 45% growth last year to €320m (£270m), which makes the company about a quarter of the size of UK online electrical goods retailer AO.

The UK, where Back Market opened for business four years ago, is now its fastest growing country – with sales up 80% year on year. The group holds 44% of Britain’s online refurbished tech market, rising to more than half for smartphones. Hug de Larauze says interest has surged in the UK because people are “fighting inflation and so looking for options to basically save money on tech”, but also because they are “very sustainability-oriented”. “E-waste is a big topic; it’s something that matters to people.”

Back Market – now a certified B Corp, which guarantees certain ethical standards – was founded in 2014 by Hug de Larauze and two friends, Quentin Le Brouster and Vianney Vaute. He says the launch was inspired by working with refurbishment specialists who were selling their wares on the likes of eBay.

Hug de Larauze felt refurbished products needed a higher profile and smoother sales experience to give shoppers more confidence. They may be cheaper and greener, but refurbished items are up against expensively marketed household brands and “there was a big trust gap between those two worlds that needed to be filled”.

Having started selling smartphones only in France, Back Market now sells 200 different types of refurbished gadget – from smartphones and laptops to baby monitors and gaming consoles – in 18 countries. These include the US and much of Europe as well as Japan, South Korea and Australia, with 4.5 million new customers last year taking the total to more than 13 million since launch.

Back Market does not acquire or hold stock, or carry out refurbishment itself. It works with 1,700 traders and refurbishers who are rigorously screened before they are allowed to list. Sellers get their products from a mix of sources, including telecoms companies that offer trade-ins and upgrades to clients.

Last year, after several rounds of funding, with money to fuel growth pumped in by the likes of Goldman Sachs and the Airbnb and Spotify investor Aglaé Ventures, Back Market decided to shift focus to making a profit. It is now funding itself, after interest rate rises and a weak IPO market meant sources of new cash became less promising.

While a flotation is not completely ruled out, Hug de Larauze says new cash is not needed to continue expansion. He is confident the group is on a trajectory to book a profit in December. It has pulled back on hiring and has paused entering new territories or product categories to make the most of its established position.

Back Market’s growth comes not only from its existing markets, but also from new services such as trade-in on certain products in the UK, France, US and other markets, and recycling, which is being tested in France. Hug de Larauze says he wants to offer the public a method of getting rid of unwanted tech in an easy, and potentially profitable, way rather than letting gadgets build up in a drawer. Buying back or offering to recycle items also provides a steady stream of products for Back Market’s army of refurbishers.

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With households in the UK each now hoarding an estimated 30 broken tech items – up from 20 four years ago, according to Material Focus – there is clearly lots of scope for such services. Further change is being driven by “right to repair” legislation, which will come into law across the EU member states by 2026, forcing manufacturers to make spare parts and technical information available for phones and tablet computers as well as kitchen appliances.

In the UK, where we dispose of 2m tonnes of electronic waste every year, right to repair legislation was introduced in 2021. However, it only covers a handful of items including large kitchen appliances and TVs.

Hug de Larauze wants legislation to go further: “If you really want to transition people to circularity and/or repair, making devices last longer, you need to involve everything. It takes a village and it takes, especially, manufacturers. It could include designing the products [with repair or longevity in mind], starting to sell the spare parts, or enabling people to fix stuff more easily.”

Further legislation, under which electronics producers and retailers are being asked to pay more towards the collection and recycling of the items they sell, is also welcomed. However, the Back Market boss says the UK’s system needs tweaking so that repair is considered as the first option before recycling.

“People would love to be able to purchase those products,” he says. “It should be a right for everyone to be able to fix the product that they have and to use it longer.”

CV

Age 36
Family Married with three daughters.
Education French high school in Canada, then the school of management at the IÉSEG grande école in France. He travelled between France, Toronto, Mexico, Spain, and India during his studies before taking a break to rebuild schools in Haiti following the 2010 earthquake.
Pay Not disclosed.
Last holiday In Brittany, in the Gulf of Morbihan near Vannes.
Biggest regret “I have no regrets. Except maybe for the fact that I didn’t become a pro tennis player.”
Best advice he’s been given “You must be ambitious and cautious, and listen to the subtle signals.”
Words or phrase he overuses “Super, super – but how do we move it to the next level?”
How he relaxes Sailing; tennis; being close to the ocean; and playing with his daughters on the beach.

The Guardian

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