‘I’ve snapped up £200m sales,’ says MPB boss Matt Barker


Every day, at the back door of an ageing unit on an industrial estate in East Sussex, about a thousand parcels are wheeled into a small warehouse on a trolley. Inside most will be an old camera or photographic lens. The odd one might contain an unwanted tripod or a cast-off camera bag.

The pile of parcels might look like somewhere old cameras come to die, but it is in fact the cornerstone of one of the most interesting companies many people have never heard of. It is now trading internationally and is expected to rake in sales of more than £200 million this year.

MPB, which employs 450 staff in the UK, is jointly based in Brighton and in the equally hipster locations of Brooklyn and Berlin. Its founder and chief executive Matt Barker has taken the concept of the second-hand camera shops that used to be a feature of the British high street and moved the business online.

‘The power of the internet is quite amazing,’ he says. ‘It has opened up a niche for smaller industries to become large global ones.’

Despite the vast majority of people now reaching for their mobile phone to capture their memories, old-school cameras are still in big demand, with £20 billion worth produced and sold every year.

Zooming in on growth: Matt Barker has expanded MPB from Brighton to Brooklyn and Berlin

Zooming in on growth: Matt Barker has expanded MPB from Brighton to Brooklyn and Berlin

Barker, 39, is a passionate advocate for ‘circularity’ – the economic and environmental benefits of re-using second-hand goods, eliminating waste and maximising the use of all resources.

Cameras, he says, are ideal for second-hand trading, because they are built to last. ‘Manufacturers build in obsolescence in many products, like mobile phones, but not at all in cameras. ‘I find it very satisfying. Every day we have items come in and go out. Every day we are finding people who want to use them. It is about making more of what we have, relying less on producing new, and making people think a bit more about their own impact.’

His platform matches buyers and sellers and also pays out cash or offers part exchange when it accepts goods in-house.

Sellers get an online estimate of what their item is worth before they send it. On arrival, it is tested and authenticated, and the estimated value will be adjusted if the camera or lens is not as described. It is then photographed and posted on the website with details and a six-month warranty. Most people who send their camera equipment to MPB are given cash. The rest exchange their items for goods being advertised on MPB’s website.

That means there is a lot of value sitting in the warehouse stockroom – about £6 million worth in Brighton alone, which is only a third of the business. ‘We have 50,000 items in our warehouses globally at any one time,’ says Barker.

The trick is to sell it quickly. Staff working in another office, near the Brighton seafront, are constantly moving prices up and down to maximise revenue and shift stock.

It takes an average of 22 days to sell each item, and while prices range from less than £10 for a scuffed-looking camera case to £50,000 for a Hollywood-level movie camera, the average purchase is about £700.

Barker insists MPB never sends anything to the dump. ‘Nothing ever doesn’t sell,’ he says. ‘There is a price for everything.

‘The idea that we would throw something away is an absolute nightmare. It would destroy what we stand for. We have built technology that ensures everything finds a new home. We have never, ever thrown away a piece of kit.’

This philosophy applies to the whole business – and it is now essential, he says, to running a successful firm with the best staff. ‘We send zero to landfill, and we use zero plastic. You have to be impactful in business. People won’t work for you if you are not. People won’t choose to buy from you. Small things really do make a big difference.’

MPB’s customer base has been transformed in the 12 years since the business started. It used to be traditional photographers, says Barker. ‘But now we’ve got Instagram the customer base has massively changed.’

For a start they are no longer called photographers – they are ‘visual storytellers’ and ‘content creators’ because so much of their output goes online.

Potential sellers are everywhere. More than half of British adults own a camera, many untouched since the advent of the smartphone. But almost three quarters have never traded in an old gadget.

Like so many other internet-based businesses – including Google, Snapchat and Facebook – MPB started life in a university bedroom, as a ‘side hustle’ for Barker when he was a Warwick University economics student.

As an undergraduate, amateur photographer and a self-confessed nerd, he traded second-hand cameras on eBay to bring in extra cash. ‘I was buying on one eBay account, selling on another, and making some money,’ he says.

It turned into something bigger when his studies came to an end in 2005. ‘I was offered a place on the Bank of England graduate economist scheme,’ he recalls. ‘But I didn’t want to be in London. I wanted to be back in Brighton. So I carried on trading down here and that enabled me to get started in life.’

In 2011 he moved up a gear, hiring some help and founding MPB as a dedicated platform to trade second-hand cameras.

Barclays bank had witnessed his success on eBay and backed him with £1 million. The first five years were quite a slow burn. He says: ‘By 2016 we were still only 20 people and still just the UK, but we were becoming well known.’

Then came a sea change. Barker and his lieutenants decided they ‘had a lot of ambition’ and borrowed £2 million in venture capital funding to expand and go international. By November 2016 they had opened in New York.

‘We were really successful,’ he says. ‘We built as big a business in one year in the States as we had built in five years in the UK.’

So they went out and borrowed more. ‘We have gone from 20 employees to 450. We have grown the revenue by a factor of more than 20. This year we will be pushing towards £200 million. We have grown 30 to 40 per cent a year and we very much plan to continue doing that.’

With that in mind he has raised three more tranches of funding, totalling £64 million with £14 million from German sources, linked to the opening of the Berlin hub.

It was not a location Barker had expected or wanted to open and he remains exasperated by the need for it. They went to Germany, he says, because of Brexit.

MPB simply could not service EU customers from the UK any more, he says. ‘There is a lot of friction on the border, so unfortunately cross-border commerce from the UK into the EU is challenging.’

The funding has diluted Barker’s shareholding. He is coy about how much of the business he now owns, saying only that it is ‘a decent amount’. It is less than 50 per cent, but none of his investors have a majority either and he says he is ‘still very motivated’.

The world is changing rapidly. He says making money quickly and easily is ‘no longer appropriate for the world that we live in’. He adds: ‘I think people are aware of that now.’

Barker says: ‘Second-hand is now in massive growth mode.’ MPB is ready for far more cameras to arrive daily. He adds proudly: ‘We have built a global infrastructure now that can support about £1 billion in revenue.’

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