The Rise and Fall of Fab.com: A Cautionary Tale for Every Entrepreneur

Fab.com is dying.

fab-broken-heartThe ex-gay Yelp, ex-gay Social Network, ex-gay Amazon, ex-Design Flash Sales site struggles on its death bed. The company’s spectacular rise and fall is a lesson in how to go from rags to riches and back to rags again. It is a story on how growth can sometimes make investors, founders and management oblivious to threats.

I was never a big fan of the concept of flash sales. I covered it, I studied it but I didn’t like it. It is short-sighted way of running online retail operations. It is a great way to create market demand. It may even be a good way to develop customer base. But it will not handle growth forever.

Flash sales need three things to function: good-to-great products, relatively low prices and consumers willing to try overpriced merchandise at a discount. All of these factors come at the expense of two very “un-scalable” variables:

  1. a people based supply chain. To make products available at a discount, someone has to find great products, has to estimate demand for those products and then negotiate purchasing. This is a tricky bit because these guys have to take into account a price that is relatively small but helps the flash sale site turn a profit and and allows the manufacturer to actually ship the product. This is very, very hard work and can be done only by skilled individuals who can evaluate demand, find products, negotiate prices and make sure merchandise is delivered.
  2. a demand based on human wants, not needs. No one needs designer shoes or designer furniture. People need shoes and furniture. Sometimes they want designer shoes because we live in a shallow society that makes people feel that objects buy them happiness. And most business pray on these wants. Flash sales sites promise products that say “I am a successful individual”. They promise brands and designer items at a low(er) cost. As a novelty – it will work for a while (for Fab that meant about 2 years). But customers will eventually want new products, at lower costs.
Jason Goldberg on product curation.

Jason Goldberg on product curation.

None of these variables scale very well, because they are human-based. Fab and especially founder Jason Goldberg, the one taking most of the heat have learned this the hard way.

Of course, it easy for me and other bloggers to watch events unfold and point fingers at who done what and why the business model was wrong. It was a bit harder when Fab.com was getting millions and millions in financing and customers were anxious to find new products and buy on Fab in 2012. 

But this post is not about pointing fingers. It’s about looking beyond the failure, at what lies ahead for Fab.

Fab.com: the road so far

Fab started as a gay community service that reviewed local business. In 2011 it pivoted and went on to offer daily discounts to its users, later on connecting users in a form of social network. As the model didn’t really took off, founders Jason Goldberg and Bradford Shellhammer decided they need to pivot yet again and rethink their market.

As it seems, the duo thought the company was great at a very specific thing and decided to focus on that: design. Specifically: interior design. They re-positioned Fab.com as a source for inspiration and sales of design-related products.

The rise

One can of course notice the stereotypical positioning (being a former gay community) but it nevertheless worked. The response to this new pivot was great. The number of registered users went form 175 000 in June 2011 to 350 000 in just a month. In just 12 days the company sold more than $600k worth of merchandise.

The new Fab.com was available by invite only and when it opened more than 125 000 had already registered to receive offers. The reviews were awesome and in just a short month after the Fab relaunched, Menlo Ventures invested $8 million in the company.

Fab’s usage of social networking and social-shopping features further increased the number of users and sales for the company. In just 5 months since launch (nov. 2011) the company boasted over 1 million registered members. Then came the holiday shopping season and sales skyrocketed. As a result of fabulous sales and increasing media traction, Andreessen Horowitz invested … wait for it … $40 million.

In 2011-2012 Fab was just killing it. Sales reached $100 million

In 2011-2012 Fab was just killing it. Sales reached $100 million

After just 7 months since relaunch, on Dec. 7, legendary Andreessen Horowitz VC’s are chosen by Fab.com founders from 15 willing investors.

At the end of 2012 numbers are in and they show a spectacular growth fueled what went from a 4 people company to a 140 employee design force.

CEO Jason Goldberg then posted on its now gone blog “Betashop” a slideshow detailing the successful year his company had. It shows the brave startup growing from a small yet promising group of passionate people to a company selling in 26 countries, with 10 million members.

In 2012 Fab sold over 4.3 million products. During the holidays that meant a rate of 17 products sold per minute. While other companies still try to cope with the idea of mobile commerce, Fab’s sales in 2012 had 33% of all sales coming from mobile. During holidays, 56% of sales came from smartphones and tablets.

The customer lifetime was great and two out of three purchases came from repeat customers. In 2012 sales grew 600% over 2011 and Goldberg boasted that Fab’s 15.000 products were 33% more than IKEA’s. Fab was the largest design store.

Jason Goldberg's statement on Fab, 2012. Source.

Jason Goldberg’s statement on Fab, 2012. Source.

The fall

In hindsight, past the astonishing numbers, some statements showed something was not exactly right. There was a sense of too much pride: everything Fab was doing was absolutely great and everybody else was just the loser left behind. Jason felt like Fab was the only company with the right attitude and operations. Even Amazon and IKEA didn’t seem like a match for them.

The company was so incredibly self-assuring that it was doing everything internally. In 2012 it employed more than 600 people across the world, it built and operated its IT systems in-house, it even built its own warehouse. How ’bout renting, man?

The 2012 presentation goes on and on about the greatness of Fab, about superstar employees, about the huge vision ahead, about how Fab has to beat IKEA and Amazon at design and deliver more than $30 billion in sales. In the end Jason shows a 6 point plan on how they’ll achieve that:

  1. Have personality
  2. Sell stuff they don’t
  3. Lead on mobile
  4. Lead on social
  5. [Be] global
  6. Be the best company to work for

These 6 points up there - these are the reason Fab failed. What they leave untapped is just what matters. They are all great for rallying the troops but they lack substance. Amazon and IKEA’s steady growth happens from the ground up. The infrastructure these companies rely on to build, handle, ship and sell products – these are their secret weapons.

Marketing is just the illusory panacea startups reach for when hoping it would suffice in their struggle against the big guys. It doesn’t. That’s where they get their smaller competitors.

Retail, even if it happens online, is a logistics game. Walmart, IKEA and Amazon manage to stay on top with a lot of help from their supply chain. Everything moves smoothly behind the scenes and that’s what Fab failed to acknowledge. By spending too much time on social media, mobile and interviews, the management failed to see the large logistic wall that suddenly halted their growth.

In 2013 things got from great to bad and then to awful. The company did raise an additional $150 million in venture capital in July 2013 but as CEO Jason Goldberg these were definitely not great news:

“What a lot people don’t know is that we set out to raise $300 million. [...] And when you set out to raise $300 million, and you raise $150 million, you have to change your business plan. And that’s what we did.”

Jason Goldberg

The change of business plan meant a lot of things that hurt the company’s credibility. Layoffs throughout its offices left employees unhappy. The company had to reconsider its position. At the turning point it was burning through $14 million each month and still not reaching sales projections.

Fab.com traffic dropped abruptly. Source

Fab.com traffic dropped abruptly. Source

The job cuts took Fab from more than 750 employees to less than 380 at the end of 2013. It started in Europe and than spread through its offices. Every office was restructured to help the company reach a balance point. It didn’t. Even C-level executives had to take a hit. It’s unclear if they left willingly or have been laid off but Co-founder Bradford Shellhammer and COO Beth Ferreira left the company.

Meanwhile traffic came down abruptly and so did sales. The company was heavily relying on ad spending to reach customers. Its 2012 marketing costs were $40 million. In 2013, the figure dropped to $30 million. But as the chart on the right shows – that was not the only factor that lead to the drop in traffic and sales. People were just not interested in Fab’s products anymore. Buzzwords and social media didn’t cut it anymore.

Fab.com's traffic dropped both on the web and mobile. Source.

Fab.com’s traffic dropped both on the web and mobile. Source.

Hem.com – The rebirth?

hemAll these bad news took the company by storm. A lot of people took shots directly at Goldberg for shifting focus, delaying layoffs and generally the could-be death of Fab.com. It was not surprising: he was the one taking the spotlight when Fab was growing, he would be the one taking the heat for the fall.

The media took turns at hitting Fab.com whenever it could and it was obviously an easy task. There were plenty of laid-off employees out there to leak inside info about how bad the company was being ran. They were jobless, pissed-off and needed someone to take the blame.

How could a company with $336 million in funding fail so bad? Where did the company on everyone’s lips go? What happened with all that value investors just …  lost?

All these questions left out some seemingly uninteresting investments Fab was running in Europe. While dealing with layoffs, decreased sales, management layoffs and media hits, Fab acquired custom furniture companies MassivKonzept and One Nordic Furniture Co..

By doing so the company combined the MassivKonzept’s mass customization tools and One Nordic Furniture Co.’s talent and technology. The new company took over Fab’s sales in Europe and now leverages Fab’s customer base, experience and of course – cash.

jason-goldberg-techFab’s European venture received the name Hem (Swedish for “Home”) and now employs 150 employees in Berlin, Helsinki, Warsaw and Stockholm. Some of them are previous Fab employees, some are new hires.

Hem is a designer, manufacturer and retailer and it is an integrated company. It is the technology company that Jason Goldberg wanted to build for a long time.

But most importantly, Hem is something Fab never was: its own company. An unique organization that goes beyond comparing itself to others. It is not the Amazon of Europe or the IKEA of online. It is Hem. It allows its customers to build custom, beautiful furniture and products for the home and it can now deliver on this promise. It seems to be a company that may lack sales and the buzz Fab had but it has something more important: purpose and substance.

It seems that a more mature Jason Goldberg has finally decided to leave marketing and PR aside and focus on building a real company. An unique company that goes beyond buzzwords and solves real problems, in a real environment, where the team is not made of superstars but rather a group of passionate people that put the product ahead of their own egos. And it started with its leader.

I believe Hem has a bright future, unlike Fab. It is built to last, just like its products. I must say that when I set out to write this post, it was going to be yet another bashful take on Fab’s fall. But the more I read about it, the more I found about Jason and his company and the more personal it felt. And a lot of it resonated through this interview he gave at TC Disrupt. A sense of grit and humility echoed through this talk. As an entrepreneur I know what it feels to fail. I too made mistakes and I too delayed laying off people. I too mistook marketing for product and company development. I too believed sky was no limit and failed. So there is a lot of Jason’s actions that I get from being in a similar, yet smaller scale, place.

Yes, Fab is dying and it’s a great thing. Hem now takes its place and it has the potential to be a far better company. In the end this might be not a cautionary tale of entrepreneurship gone bad but a lesson in resilience and willingness to adapt.

Jason Goldberg took some courageous steps into transforming the company he’s built and it will probably pay off in the future. After all, he runs a company that is pretty close to break even, with $120 million in the bank and a large customer base. And now it has a real business model. How hard can it be?

Using the Mobile Revolution for Marketing

We’re reaching that point in the world where technology has evolved to a micro-level. Computers that used to be the size of large walls are now as sleek and light as a stack of papers, and what was once a brick-sized mobile phone has become the size of a small child’s palm. By now, computers are practically mobile phones.

US teens mobile usage. Source: Nielsen

US teens mobile usage. Source: Nielsen

More people in America use and own mobile phones than toothbrushes. Fifty-four percent of these phones are smartphones, and by 2017, there will be over 10 billion mobile devices. As mobile traffic rises, so too does the need for mobile apps. With 90% of Tweets and 40% of Google searches coming from mobile phones, the way to get and spread day is becoming handheld. While two years ago most of this traffic was coming from teens with cell phones (teens increased mobile consumption in 2012 by 256%, with the standard teen sending an average of 3339 texts per month), mobile usage has extended far beyond teens. Most recently, with the continual creation of mobile apps reaching out to various targeted consumers, many companies have begun a new form of marketing for the mobile online shopper.

In fact, four out of five consumers use their smartphones to shop, and the majority claim that shopping from their phones is more enjoyable than shopping in person. No more long lines, parking tickets, unnecessary purchases, or exhausting traffic jams – consumers can buy what they want, when they want, how they want. And it gets shipped straight to their homes. 56% of consumers use their smartphones to search for a store’s location and directions, 51% to look up product information, 59% to do price comparisons on products, 45% to write up product reviews, and 41% to search for coupons. Smartphones make shopping easy and reliable, even more so than shopping in person. With many stores creating apps or green “Buy Now” buttons, shopping no longer requires physical salesmen.

Not only do mobile apps make shopping easy, but it also allows for information about products to be spread more reliably. 78 – 84% of consumers rely on social networks when researching new products. By 2015, it’s predicted that the amount of goods and services consumers purchase through their mobile phones will total roughly $119 billion. Mobile coupon usage is expected to rise to 53.2 million, and retailers say that 67% see a greater value in having their customers use mobile apps to shop rather than shopping in person. Overall, mobile apps bring five times more engagement – both in the product being sold and in the dialogue between targeted consumers.

Ivan Serrano is a web journalist and infographic extraordinaire from Northwest California. He particularly likes to write about the technology world, social media and global business. 

What does Apple Pay mean for Retailers?

Apple announced its newest products and everybody focused on the much awaited iWatch or the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus. The real news, however, both business-wise and from a consumer point of view is the launch of Apple Pay, an NFC (Near Field Communications) ready payment system. Simply put, Apple’s payment system allows customers to store credit card data on their iPhones and when the time comes, just tap to pay.

apple-paymentThe product launch was not unexpected. With the previous operating system launch, Apple packed several features that would allow for better mobile commerce. The iCloud Keychain was introduced to Safari in order to allow both faster logins to known websites as well as, in the future, a faster checkout.

With Apple Pay, the Cupertino company joins the omnichannel payment war as was predicted in this previous post. Google, Amazon, Ebay (through PayPal), AliBaba and even Facebook are trying to get a piece of the $15 trillion payments market. As banks and established financial institutions have failed to meet customer expectations in mobile payments, the gap between needs and available options will probably be filled by one of the tech titans.

Google tried its luck with the Google Wallet, Ebay’s PayPal is now crossing the bridge into offline teritorry and Facebook recruited Paypal’s former CEO David Marcus.  Marcus is the man that helped Paypal grow from $750 million in 2010 to $27 billion in 2013, so one can only assume Facebook is also serious about payments.

To help the product take off, Apple signed 220 000 merchants onboard its Apple Pay project. Among them: Mc Donald’s, Babies R Us, Macy’s, Staples, Sephora and of course, all Apple retail stores. The 220 k merchants are just 2.4% of the total 7 to 9 million merchants in the US but it is a great start given the fact that Apple has a habit on pulling seemingly impossible feats, starting with close to nothing.

For example the iTunes Store launched with not more than 200 000 songs and only Mac Users could move the purchased songs to their iPods By September 2012, it was home to more than 37 million songs, 700,000 apps, 190,000 TV episodes and 45,000 films. By February 2013, the iTunes store had sold more than 25 billion songs worldwide.

So yes, there is a pattern here and there is probably a whole lot of room for improvement in the payments area.

Apple Pay’s security

Although recent iCloud security issues clouded the product launch, the security behind the payment technology looks great. First of all it allows customers to save credit card data on their phone without exposing sensible details to potential hackers. It also features the Touch ID identification technique where users sign payments with their biometric input (the fingerprint).

The credit card information is not beemed online but rather stored in a special chip, on the iPhone, a hardware – software combination that Apple named Secure Element. When a transaction is processed, credit card details are not sent to Apple’s servers and the retailer can’t see the data. Instead, a proxy account number is issued that the retailers charges. Each transaction is secured by an unique security code that authenticates it. Apple has laid more layers of security then we came to expect and that should work just great. But take it with a pinch of salt because everything is secure untill it is not anymore.

The company states that it does not store transaction data regarding location, products purchased or the amount the customer has spent. That certainly leaves room to question why exactly would Apple choose not to store these valuable data. The answer lies with data from Bloomberg sources. According to these anonymous sources, Apple has partnered with banks in the system to receive a percentage from each transaction.

The banks involved are JP Morgan Chase & Co, Bank of America and Citigroup Inc. They agreed to integrate their cards into the system and alongside came three of the biggest card networks – Visa Inc., Mastercard Inc. And American Express Co.

So we have a great lineup for Apply Pay and although NFC payments where slow to take off, it seems that Apple’s incredible effort to bring every important player on board will be the push mobile payments needs right now.

As the company promissed it won’t charge users, merchants or developers, one of the biggest issues (the cost issue) seems to be out of the way. With customers using their mobiles more and more, retailers will be forced to adopt some form of omnichannel payment system.

How does Apple Pay benefit retailers?

Retailers and merchants in general receive several incentives to adopt NFC payment compliant technology.

First of all, the Apple Pay system allows a greater connectivity between online and offline sales channels. Customers can order products on the web store, in the brick and mortar stores or within a mobile app. The security and speed allow for greater ease of use.

The second big advantage is payment speed. By just tapping the phone, customers can pay within a 10 second timeframe, improving sales speed. This allows merchants to move customers through almost instantly.

Third big advantage Apple brings is an improvement in mobile purchases and payments. Although customers are so far browsing for products, they rather pay on the web store or order and pick up in a physical store. The biggest bottleneck is the mobile payment experience, one that is just awful for most retailers.

Famously Amazon has solved this issue with its One-Click Payments, where registered customers can use previously stored credit card data to move as fast as possible through the checkout process. Amazon’s patent sits at the heart of Apple’s payment system within iTunes, an extraordinarely usable example of mobile payments.

Actually that’s one of Apple’s strong points when implementing Apple Pay. The company will leverage almost 800 million iTunes accounts, most of them having their cards linked to the account. The magic of paying with a tap will now probably become mainstream.

Interview: Thoughts on The Future of Retail

Jochen Wiechen, Intershop CTO

Jochen Wiechen, Intershop CTO

A very select group of companies lead the way when it comes to omnichannel retail solutions. Intershop is one of these companies. Having unveiled its first online shop in 1994, it’s also one of the most experienced and innovative. Now more than 500 mid-sized and large companies benefit from its solutions. Among these you can find Hewlett-Packard, BMW, Bosch, Otto, Deutsche Telekom, and Mexx.

We’ve reached out to mr. Jochen Wiechen, Intershop’s CTO, for a few thoughts on the future of retail. Previously a VP of ERP powerhouse SAP, mr. Wiechen holds a PhD in Physics and has a very interesting view on the future of retail.

 

Netonomy.NET: What are the biggest changes in retail you have noticed in the past 5 years?

Jochen Wiechen: Clearly online is the main disruptive technology that has fundamentally reshaped the entire industry, not only retail by the way. Ubiquitous bandwidth availability, multi-media developments and mobile technologies allow for completely new business models and customer experiences.

The customer journey nowadays starts in the Internet, around the clock and everywhere. Sophisticated online marketing activities trigger more and more personalized buying processes that start with extensive research and lead to process innovations such as click and reserve or collect.

Rising online stars such as Amazon, Zalando and Alibaba grow extremely fast and challenge classical retailers who simply cannot ignore these developments and start embracing those concepts by embodying online into their cross-channel concepts. The winners in this game will be the ones who understand the changing customer profiles and associated behaviors as well as the potential of integrating online into an optimized omni-channel system instead of shying away and sticking to the old offline world.

 

N.: Which retailers do you believe are leading the change in global retail?

J.W.: Out of the blue Amazon has developed to the leading global online pure play as well as a relevant player in the retail industry. By consequently embracing the online concept into their channel strategy Walmart is currently showing an even faster growth rate of their online channel than Amazon and is a perfect example of a winner in the overall online transformation. Other relevant players in this game are Nordstrom, John Lewis or House of Fraser, for example.

 

N.:Do you expect Chinese retailers to increase their market share globally? Do you believe Alibaba Group’s expected IPO in the US is a step in that direction?

J.W.: Alibaba is projected to pass by Walmart in overall sales this year, the latter being the largest retailer worldwide. In the US alone, Alibaba is expected to grow 30% this year and although its development in Europe is still in its infancy, also here surprises will have to be expected.

 

N.:How important is technology in addressing the consumer needs now and in the future?

J.W.:As stated above, nowadays most customers start their journeys in the Internet which is a profound change compared to classical retail. Already at this stage they are able to browse for any categories and products from anywhere at any time with any device, to compare prices, select within huge collections, take advantage of intelligent recommendations and potentially use fitting engines before they buy either online or in the store where they might collect the selected product.

In order to provide large target groups with these services a highly complex, highly scalable, and highly available IT-infrastructure is a prerequisite. Viewed from the other way around, technology is simply key in the paradigm shift that is currently taking place in the retail industry.

“[...]technology is simply key in the paradigm shift that is currently taking place in the retail industry.”

 

N.:Which technologies do you believe are shaping the future of retail?

J.W.:Based on the speed of the disruptiveness that the combination of high Internet bandwidth availability and the development of multi-media capabilities on a plethora of end-user devices has caused in the retail industry it is expected that the evolution of further technologies will continue to reshape the industry.

While Big Data has already gained substantial market share in order to analyze and predict consumer behavior we also see a rapidly growing demand for indoor proximity systems in order to support omni-channel transformations. In general, we agree with analysts that the Internet of Things is the next big thing in not only this industry. Devices, gadgets and sensors of all sorts interact amongst each other as well as with human beings in order to reach a new level of communications and interactions. The winners in the upcoming retail industry battle will be the ones who take advantage of this technology development that will lead to today possibly unimaginable customer journey innovations.

 

N.:How will mobile devices impact retailers and shape consumer behavior?

J.W.:On the one hand, mobile devices allow for ubiquitous browsing and shopping which removes any local stickiness of the consumer, who can even choose the best offer while walking through a mall. Recent search engine analytics reveal astonishing portions of regional references in search requests.

On the other hand, this is an opportunity for retailers thereby taking advantage of location-based services by sending ads or promotions to consumers walking by a store, in which a sales person might then use a mobile shop assistant app in order to lure the customer into a well-educated sales pitch that is not only consisting of more or less good guesses based on gut feelings or superficial conversations that help shying away the customer.

N.:Will 3D printing technologies be used in improving tomorrow’s supply chain?

Amazon's 3D Printing Store points to new developments in retailing.

Amazon’s 3D Printing Store points to new developments in retailing.

J.W.:While the usage of the technology on the consumer side is still in its infancy, Amazon just recently already opened a shop for products coming out of 3D printers and has again proven its leading role in the industry. It is hard to say how far the technology will be able to be pushed in terms of product complexity which then will determine the extent to which it will be used in supply chains.

N.:What are the next steps in Intershop’s evolution, in terms of innovation?

J.W.:Based on a research project we have been carrying out together with local Universities we are currently rolling out a commerce simulation engine (SIMCOMMERCE) that falls into the category Predictive Analytics and that allows for outstanding optimization capabilities for commerce operators.

Apart from that, we are closely working together with our customers and partners to explore various process innovations by integrating new technologies, devices and gadgets with our platform. With our SEED initiative, with which we scan the market for commerce-relevant leading edge technologies that we can incorporate into our offering we are looking for ways to help our customers to substantially improve their traffic, conversion rates as well as sales and delivery processes. We agree with leading analysts that the Internet of Things will play a dominant role in those developments.

Top Three Most Influential Persons in Online Retail

Online retail is a fast moving sector and there are lots of outstanding business leaders out there. Among the best of the best, some really stand out. The way they’ve founded their companies and directed their investments have placed them in the higher echelon of influence in online retail.

Let’s have a look at them and their stories:

No.3 Jack Ma

Net Worth: $9.6 billion
Company: AliBaba Group

Jack Ma - founder of Alibaba.com

Jack Ma – founder of Alibaba.com

Jack Ma, a former English teacher in China, got his first taste of internet entrepreneurship in 1995, when he founded China Pages, a directory of Chinese businesses. He previously worked as a lecturer in English and International trade in the Hangzhou Dianzi University.

After founding and running China pages he briefly worked for the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Trade and Economic Cooperation, between 1998 and 1999. In 1999 he founded Alibaba, a B2B marketplace connecting Chinese manufacturers to the world.

Alibaba’s spectacular growth pushed Ma and his associates to add new companies to the group. AliBaba Group now owns Alibaba.com, Taobao Marketplace, Tmall, eTao, Alibaba Cloud Computing, Juhuasuan, 1688.com, AliExpress.com and Alipay.

The company is now only outmatched by Walmart in terms of revenue. Recent developments and an increase in online retail spending have made the Chinese market the largest online retail market in the world. The big winner: Alibaba Group. Through its subsidiaries, the AliBaba Group now handles $248 billion in transactions, 84% of the total online retail market in China.

But Jack Ma is not to be stopped. He is preparing one of the largest IPO’s in American history, after failing to reach an agreement with the Hong Kong exchange. His ambition is fueled by a sense of mission to run his company as an army conquering the world:

“I had always wished that I was born in a period of war. I could have been a general, I thought about what I could have achieved in war.” – Jack Ma, AliBaba Group

All signs point to Jack Ma building the hyper company he dreamed of. He is an effective leader, running the monopoly on online retail, in the world’s future largest economy.

No.2 Larry Ellison

Net Worth: $51.7 billion
Company: Oracle, NetSuite, Salesforce, etc.

Larry Ellison

Larry Ellison

You wouldn’t think of the fifth wealthiest man in the world as one of the most influential persons in online retail. But he is. Through it’s flagship company and different personal investments, he is in control when it comes to online retail infrastructure and software.

For once, Larry Ellison is Oracle and Oracle means, first and foremost, databases. Ellison started his career working for the Ampex Corporation in 1970, on a relational database for the CIA. His designs were based on a paper written by Edgar F. Codd, called “A Relational Model of Data for Large Shared Data Banks”. The same design was implemented by IBM, but the company didn’t have time to solidify its dominance on the market. Challengers soon began to emerge.

Database deployement - Oracle leads the pack

Database deployment – Oracle leads the pack

One of those challengers was Larry Ellison’s Software Development Laboratories (SDL), founded with two partners and later renamed Oracle, based on the database Ellison developed when he was working for the CIA database.

After a long struggle against the largest competitor, IBM (which would push its DB2 and SQL/DS products) and other challengers (Informix, Sybase, Microsoft) – Oracle eventually took lead in the database war. In 2010 the European Union approved Oracle’s acquisition of Sun Microsystems. One of the most important assets Oracle got was the wide-spread, popular MySQL database.

So for one - Oracle now dominates the database market, the underlying infrastructure of connected systems and retailers worldwide.

And that’s just the begging – Oracle is currently on a purchase streak, aiming to build a strong multichannel retail presence. It is second only to Adobe Systems, with its customers registering over $200 billion in revenue in 2013.

It’s presence is split between Social marketing, ecommerce platform software, site search, customer service, personalized content and transportation management.

To give you a glimpse on how serious Oracle is about its investments in multichannel retail – they paid $1.5 billion in 2011 for Right Now Technologies, a company providing customer service software and services to the likes of Overstock.com.

Larry Ellison is also one of the major shareholders in Netsuite and Salesforce, two companies shaping the global B2B and B2C commerce future.

1. Jeff Bezos

Net Worth: $30.1 billion
Company: Amazon

Jeff Bezos

Jeff Bezos

Jeff Bezos is the one man we all picture when we think about ecommerce. He is a Princeton graduate with a degree in Computer Science. After graduating from college he pursued a career in investment banking in Wall Street, which he left to found Amazon, after noticing the fast growth in Internet usage.

He set up his company in the proverbial garage with few employees and in 1995 launched the beta version for 300 friends. Days after the launch the book selling eshop managed to ship books across US and 45 foreign countries. Yearly sales in the first year reached $510 000, much more than Bezos envisioned. The company grew and grew, survived the dot com and went on to register $74.5 billion in 2013 revenue.

By expanding the initial book selling operations into CD’s, videos and later clothing, toys, electronics, home & garden, jewelry and even art, Amazon essentially became the “everything store”. Amazon is now the biggest online retailer and a disrupting force in retail.

Everything from the ecommerce revolution to online payments, shipping and marketing has been heavily influenced by Amazon and guided by Jeff Bezos, both a star-gazing visionary and a focused micromanager.

kindle dx

The Kindle DX

In 2007 Amazon launched the Kindle which soon became a revolutionary device that changed the way we think of books and digital content. In 2013 the company hinted at the idea of using aerial drones to enable faster shipping and in 2014 it announced that it’s now testing its 7 and 8 generation aerial vehicles.

But beyond his influence in online retail and retail at large, Bezos is a special human being. A libertarian, he invested in projects most of us would consider unreal and unattainable. He was one of the first investors in Google, financed a clock that would run 10 000 years and a company that’s working on lowering space flight costs, to allow humanity to explore the great unknown.

This short list, headed by Jeff Bezos, is prone to change. The world around can change as well, partly due to these people’s and efforts. To get a deeper glimpse on how they did it and what motivates them, have a look at Jeff Bezos’ Princeton graduation address, “What matters more than your talents”:

Is Mass Customization the Future of Ecommerce?

Henry Ford said “People can have the Model T in any color – as long as it’s black”, in the early 20th century. That’s when Ford’s innovation, the assembly line, vastly improved productivity thus reducing production costs. Lower costs meant companies could manufacture cheaper products and still be profitable.

The assembly line made possible the mass production of goods. Things that were previously custom-made and unique soon became available to the now emerging middle class. Clothing, food, even cars and houses became accessible to the mass market.

More than 100 years after Ford launched the "one color" Model T, Ford buyers can customize their cars online

More than 100 years after Ford launched the “one color” Model T, Ford buyers can customize their cars online

Industries were built around product manufacturing. The customer was no longer the center of the universe. Companies focused on the product. Products were manufactured in large quantities, distributed and sold, with a lot of help from advertising companies. Even though advertising was around, it wasn’t the type of organized industry we now know until the television set became a part of consumers’ daily lives. By borrowing some concepts used in WWII propaganda, experimenting a lot and innovating, advertising quickly evolved in a mature tool to push mass – manufactured products to the market, globally.

Mass manufacturing becomes the standard

After 1970 two trends started to emerge. First one – the mass-manufactured product becomes the norm. Faster assembly lines, improved productivity with better management and companies going global – it all lead to bigger manufacturing facilities and more money poured into advertising. In the western world people were spending earned and borrowed money faster than ever before to buy mass-market products.

The second trend was improving production with help from computers and networks. It all started small and kept growing. Innovation in the IT industry allowed companies to improve manufacturing productivity further. Soon cars stopped being built by people and robots took over. They were faster, better, less prone to error and cheaper in the long run. They also learned new things a lot better. With automated assembly lines, the mass produced goods could be reprogrammed to build new products fast.

The product development cycle was shortened. The fact that now BMW or Mercedes are able to launch a new model every month is possible because of advancements in management and IT. These companies can now target customer groups. Ford’s Model T was a “One Size Fits All” product but now everything’s changed. The auto companies can split their customers and they can build products for increasingly smaller niches.

Mass customization becomes a reality

The internet changed everything. When Michael Dell decided he would create a special PC for anyone willing to pay for it, he probably had no idea what his actions meant. Now Dell is a global company and one of the largest online retailers. When the company decided it was going to offer mass market customization features, it seemed like a really risky move. At that time, computer manufacturers were already engaged in a price war to market accessible computers.  It didn’t seem like a good idea to turn a mass produced, mass marketed product in a customizable one.

Dell offered their customers what they wanted: the ability to choose between different options in terms of design, software and hardware. The order, assembly and shipment processes were streamlined using software designed to minimize human input and error. Today’s devices (be it desktop computers, laptops, tablets or smartphones) are available in many formats. Most of them are a hybrid between mass produced and customized products.

The future of mass customization is already here and the company that helped most with making it a reality is the largest online retailer in the world: Amazon.

Amazon lead the way in mass customization with Print-On-Demand

amazon logoFirst off, Amazon made possible a type of personalized experience for customers by providing personal recommendations and notifications based on purchase history. Its second biggest innovation was print on demand. With Amazon, books were no longer published en-masse for long-tail items. Rather, for a small amount of extra cost, they were made available as items printed on demand.

This innovation spawned a new breed of self-published authors, leveling the field for publishing. In turn, readers were now able to read books otherwise unavailable and writers could skip pitching to publishing houses. The effect was so dramatic that some large book retailers had to close their brick and mortar stores.

Top ecommerce companies selling mass customized merchandise

From shoes to t-shirts to art-prints it seems like anything is game when it comes to online-powered mass-customization. Many companies jumped the customization wagon, but few stand out. Have a look below at these companies:

zazzle

 

Zazzle.com

One of the most popular platforms in the world for Built-To-Order, customized products is Zazzle. Its mission: “To Enable Every Custom, On-Demand Product in the World On Our Platform.” It is a mix between self-curated product designs that can be customized by customers, and a wide variety of products submitted by designers and entrepreneurs in the marketplace.

The company partnered with large brands to provide customizable products for companies such as Disney, Hallmark, DC Comics or even Google. It is growing fast, outpacing its competitors and bringing mass customization for the wide market.

Zazzle’s success is based on two main factors. The first is its ability to customize products that are manufactured separately and customized at the end, with input from the end consumer. This allows for a minimum slowdown in manufacturing capabilities.

The second factor helping Zazzle tackle its competitors is a patented color print technology that allows it to manufacture multicolored items, without signifiant increase in costs and manufacturing time.

It does also help that Klein Perkins Caufield & Byers, a well known Silicon Valley VC firm, backed Zazzle with $48 million. The VC’s have also backed up a couple of companies you might have heard of, such as Google, Amazon, AOL or Electronic Arts.

chikoshoes

Chiko Shoes

Ladies – ever felt like you could be the world’s best shoe designer? Felt like you’ve hadn’t had the chance to show what you’ve capable of? It turns out you are not alone. Founders Rumbert Kolkman and Judy Chin believed they could make shoe design a mass-customizable market. In 1999 they’ve built a B2B company that would allow shoe retailers and designers to access a rich supply chain with ease.

In 2013 they’ve opened this option to the public, unleashing the power of mass-customization to end buyers world wide. Prices are ranging from $230 to $1200 and Chiko Shoes allows customers to chose between 1300 material swatches.

The shop goes against luxury heavyweights dealing with customization, such as Louis Vuitton Mon Monogram or Prada’s Lettering Project.

shapeways

Shapeways

We’ve previously listed 3D printing as one of the technologies that are disrupting online retail. Among many other companies providing 3D printing technology, Shapeways stands out as a potential market leader for 3D printed custom items.

The company was founded in 2007 in the Netherlands. It moved to NY, where it received a $5million founding from VC’s including Andressen Horowitz. It now runs a fully operational marketplace where designers can sell their 3D designs and customers can create their own.

As of June 2012 is sold over 1 million user-created objects. Production was provided by its Queens, NY 3D Printing factory that uses  50 industrial printers to manufacture millions of user designed custom projects.

threadless

Threadless

Threadless started as a marketplace for t-shirt designers and quickly evolved into providing other customized merchandise. Users can purchase clothing items (such as t-shirts, hoodies or tank tops), art prints or phone cases.

Although Threadless does not allow mass customization per se it does allow users to submit designs. These designs can be featured and sold to consumers afterwards. What makes Threadless different is the fact that not all designs are accepted and marketed yet those who do are chosen by the community.

ethreads

Ethreads

Ethreads allows customers to create their very own bags, starting with a blank model and adding options using the online design tool. The shop also offers options to see what others have designed and the ability to buy directly on Amazon.

fab.com

Fab.com

Fab started as a flash sales online store. Its approach proved very lucrative for a while. The company decided to take another path by providing customized design options for furniture and home deco buyers. Although the change affected only its european operations, it seems the company is heavily interested in developing its customization options. It completely stopped marketing its products and flash sales options in the EU and is fully engaged in providing customized furniture.

A preview of furniture designed on Fab.com

A preview of furniture designed on Fab.com

The furniture is made-to-measure according to users’ needs. It allows customers to design their own products in 5 main categories: shelving systems, tables, sofas, beds and wall shelves. A complex yet easy to use configuration system allows potential customers-turned-designers to create the perfect match for the home. Inputs allow customization of size, materials, colors, finishing and others. A 3D visualization engine allows customers to view their newly created product before ordering.

This new pivot in the company was made possible after Fab purchased Massivkonzept, a company founders declared was already profitable and growing. It seems Germany is a great place to look for companies focused on customized furniture design. Woonio, a german ecommerce startup, offers customized furniture like tables, beds, lounge stairs.

The future of retail is mass customization

Examples above show any industry can allow mass customization and is prone to change. Individuals need to feel empowered when purchasing and technology has made this possible. Whether is next year or 10 years from now, mass customization will become massively popular.

 

 

The Newspaper eShops – 4 Types of Online Stores for Online Publishers

For a very long time publishers have been struggling to face a new, harsh reality: their business models becoming obsolete. As traditional customers were switching to the internet, publishers found themselves in a very tough spot. Their product, the information – became a commodity. Anyone with an internet connection and a blog became a potential competitor. News and content became freeware. It wasn’t quality content but people were reading it. For free.

Publishers lost ad and subscription revenue

Soon advertising money started to flow another way. More and more ad revenue got directed to internet companies by media buyers and marketing VP’s. Subscriptions kept dropping. People were now subscribing to these new thingies – RSS feeds and email newsletters and a bunch of other stuff. But they were all free.

Some publishers moved with the trend. Although a little late to the party, they moved online. They’ve opened web outlets and although it was a harsh decision – most had to give away content. They’ve tried to charge readers for reading the content they would otherwise find free. It was a failure.

Then came the freemium model and some had a bit of success with it. These were mostly financial-related publishers that addressed a information-hungry public ready to pay for quality content. The Wall Street Journal, Financial Times, Bloomberg built sustainable not-for-free online business. Others had to find new ways to get paid.

Classifieds and job boards helped online publishers diversify revenue streams

The classified ad model and the job board came first. The solution was right there for anyone willing to see it. The classifieds were a model that worked great online, combining the need for C2C advertising and micro-payments. Jobs – everyone looks for one at some point. So why not charge people to post their openings. And guess who could target those willing to pay for these models. That’s right. The publishers.

Large newspapers and magazines alike were popular. By going online their readership increased. Using classifieds software they used the otherwise unprofitable traffic to increase revenue streams. It worked great. In 2013 UK publishers registered almost 30% increase in revenue with recruitment and classifieds.

A new revenue model for publishers – the online store

But there was still room. The publishing industry noticed that a lot of those ads shown to their readers were ran by online retailers. With online retail you didn’t have to have the whole retail logistics to be able to sell stuff. You needed media and a partner to provide the right services.

As publishers saw their revenue switching hands, they too got ready to switch to new models. Below you’ll find a list of 4 models that now help publishers to sell merchandise to their customers. Some more than others.

1. The brand-endorsed, curated store

atlantic

The Atlantic decided to try selling merchandise online but was unwilling to build a whole logistics chain to handle sales, customer support and fulfillment. They did partner with Zazzle, a platform allowing on demand ecommerce fulfillment. The Atlantic forwards the traffic and endorses the store. Zazzle provides merchandise sourcing and fulfilment.

Among the products available on the store you’ll find clothing items, cards and postage, office products and even electronics.

2. The “Post a Logo on it and Sell it” store

cnn

CNN decided to go “big” with this whole ecommerce thing everyone’s talking about. Although it’s clear they’ve put a lot of effort in manufacturing a lot of stuff with the CNN logo on it – it really doesn’t feel right. Maybe it’s the 90’s web design or the CNN Store 9 to 6 open hours for the *online* store. These things really don’t cut it.

While it might not seem like a lot right now I bet the store was the bomb when people used to access it via dial-up.

new-york-post

While the New York Post seems to try harder than CNN, it’s still not proper. Although I am sure people just love to walk around in a $24 “New York Post” T-shirt , I doubt this is the right formula.

The merchandise listing is targeted at really die-hard fans of the New York Post… which I figure is not much of a market.

3. The Online Store Built for the Audience

cracked

Cracked.com is one of the most popular humor websites in the world and provider of fun to american readers for over 50 years. Their store is built around the audience. It features witty copy t-shirts that appeal to readers.

The store is clearly a very important revenue driver (at least is expected to become) for cracked.com as the publisher promotes it heavily.

newyorker

The New Yorker knows what readers love about it. It is The New Yorker’s style, elegance and wittiness that make it so successful. The store features products that people would love, just like they love the brand: elegant diaries, printed comics, beautiful covers and … well … umbrellas (?!).

vanity

Just like The New Yorker, Vanity Fair is a part of Conde Nast media holding. Its store is packed with beautiful premium photographic prints, illustrations and covers, items fans would love to own.

4. The Multichannel All – Rounder

national

 

The National Geographic is in a league of its own. Not only has the brand built a strong online store but it also features its own collections, it sells merchandise that appeal to children as well as adults. Its gifts are wonderfully presented and really in tune with the brand identity.

Moreover NG  runs a network of retail brick and mortar stores in the UK and US. As a multichannel retailer The National Geographic shows it can build a great retail experience, as well as provide the world with astonishing information on wildlife.

And that’s not all. Customer purchases enable The National Geographic to walk on a noble path. Its mission – to inspire people to care about our planet. It does that by helping cultural preservation, exploration and research and others you can find out about here.

Talk about a great selling proposition – buy stuff and save the planet. The National Geographic shows you can be a great information outlet AND build a great business model. It also shows the online store is a viable option for publishers trying to improve their revenue streams. If they try a little harder.