Andreessen Horowitz is Betting on Digital Commerce

You might know Andreessen Horowitz as … oh, just one of the most successful investors in the history of tech. They have invested in 231 companies,  and managed to exit their investments through 36 acquisitions and 4 IPOs according to Crunchbase. The venture capital company has no less than $2.7 billion under management.

Founders Marc Andreessen and Ben Horowitz
Founders Marc Andreessen and Ben Horowitz

Basically when a16z goes after something – you know the market will soon follow. And guess what’s the latest news?

Why … if it isn’t ecommerce.

Their latest monthly newsletter is dedicated to ecommerce. The venture capital company has mashed together a list of brilliant posts and podcasts on what it considers to be the the future of commerce.

The topics range from holiday shopping to logistics to competing with Amazon. My personal favorite, however, is “The End of Ownership“, an eye opening piece on what happens when people stop wanting to own stuff:

[soundcloud url=”https://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/178024729″ params=”auto_play=false&hide_related=false&show_comments=true&show_user=true&show_reposts=false&visual=true” width=”100%” height=”450″ iframe=”true” /]

The sudden interest is actually not that sudden. In the past two years investors have increased investments in digital retail and connected areas. For example investments in logistics tech have increased by 1370% in 2014 compared to 2012. Andreessen Horowitz’s investments in ecommerce startups have also picked up. Some may still be working on reaching success (ex. Fab.com) and some may never find it (ex. Groupon). But others are growing by the day. Belly, Julep and Fanatics are doing just great.

4 Companies That are Disrupting Logistics

There is no shortage of logistics needs in the world. As the world gets smaller, more products have to be moved. Recent changes in consumer behavior helped increase the volume of moved goods. Almost $19 trillion worth of goods were imported and exported in 2013, 5 times as much as in 1990.

This 19 trillion market is stuck for the moment with two very big problems leading to ineffectiveness. The first one is technology infrastructure. As goods move to and from very different countries and cultures, there is no unified backbone for making shipments happen. As such, logistics are somewhat slow, compared to other areas in the commerce landscape.

The second big problem is the last-mile delivery. The likes of FedEx and UPS are great at moving goods from New York to Shanghai and the other way around. They’re not really that great at building local delivery networks, able to ship goods fast and cheap. As you might notice, this is a bit of a problem for ambitious retail companies such as Amazon, Walmart or Alibaba, aiming for global dominance.

But worry not.

Investors have picked up on the opportunity to disrupt the $19 trillion market and have turned their investments to logistics companies. According to Crunchbase, investments in logistics startups went from 0.1% of total investments in 2012, to 1.37% in 2014. The total amount invested in 2014 in logistics startups ($1.8 billions) means an increase of 1370%. That is a sure sign that something big is really just around the corner.

As the market is ripe for disruption and investors are generously tapping into logistics, a lot of companies will be showing up on the logistics radar.

Among all these, here are 5 companies that might be the model these investors are looking for:

No.4: Amazon is trying to ship goods with drones

Amazon Fresh, one of the companies logistics challenges.
Amazon Fresh, one of the companies logistics challenges.

After Jeff Bezos announced Amazon is building a drone-delivery service, a lot of people (me included) were questioning whether this could be real or just a PR stunt. It seems that not only is Amazon serious about the drones, but it is also very focused on building the model for the next generation of logistics operations. It has invested more than $14 billions since 2010 in its warehouses.

It has invested in robotic fulfillment operations, purchasing and integrating Kiva Systems. Becoming one of the most automated fulfillment and shipping company, it leads the way in large scale ecommerce logistics. As a result, the company is improved its operations vastly. In 2012 it managed to ship 10 million products per day, leading to 1.05 billion products shipped in the last quarter of 2012.

No. 3: Freightos takes a shot at a trillion dollar market: the cargo industry

The Freightos network
The Freightos network

It may come a shock to those reading this but the cargo industry is really in need of some technology updating. A lot of work in the freight (cargo) industry is done with the help of emails, spreadsheets and … fax machines.

Freightos aims to change all that with a SaaS product that connects those in need and those offering freight services. Unlike the previous way of managing shipping costs, Freightos provides a cloud application that can allow for real-time responses.

No.2: GoGoVan connects vans, delivers the last mile

gogovan

Remember the thing about the last mile the likes of FedEx just can’t handle? It turns out they really don’t want to handle that last mile. Large logistics companies in Hong Kong outsource 70% of their local operations, estimates Gabriel Fong, CEO of Hong Kong GoGoVan.

The company employs Uber’s taxi-hailing model to connect van drivers and those in need of moving goods. They basically replace the old and ineffective call center with a mobile app.

GoGoVan estimated that 35 000 of Hong Kong’s vans are owned by freelancers. These freelancers usually subscribe to a call center which can forward requests and lease radio communication equipment. It’s usually ineffective for both the van-driver and the customer so GoGoVan decided there is a market there.

Right now GoGoVan has 18 000 vans registered with their service so things are going great.

No.1: Uber has transformed the cab industry, it can go further

uber

Uber started as a car-sharing service but soon turned into a multi-billion company, available in 45 countries and 200 cities. It has done that by allowing those with an acceptable vehicle play cab-driver for anyone willing to pay.

The company so far successfully dodged cab regulations and managed to change the way people move in the urban environment.

Lately they have figured out that if they can move people from point A to point B they can also do that with merchandise. After experimenting with a fast delivery service called UberRUSH, trying on a Corner Store service and shipping Christmas Trees, Uber got it: It can do logistics.

Specifically – urban logistics. After all – it really is not that hard to adapt the model to minivans (see GoGoVan above).

I can’t wait to get my online orders delivered in a black luxury sedan. Hear that, Uber?

 

 

 

I, Robot, Will Take Your Job

robot

Isaac Asimov was among the first to ponder the implications of robotics. In his “I, Robot” collection of science fiction stories, he debates the theme of humans, robots and morality. Asimov wonders how humans would interact with robots, how robots would be treated and why using robots merely as tools could or could not be moral.

The term “robot” was first coined by czech author Karel Čapek, in one of his plays. His “robots” were merely simplified human beings, capable of work but not capable of thoughts or able to express emotions. They did not care for self-preservation and were used for only the most menial of jobs. The absolutely brilliant but rarely quoted play that coined the term “robots” is called “R.U.R.” (Rossum’s Universal Robots) and it’s a must read.

In this play, the robots eventually rebel against human beings, kill them all and eventually restart the cycle of evolution as replacements for humans.

As interesting as both works are, they miss an important part in the trans-humanist evolution – the point where machines and humans have to coexist in symbiosis. While you’re picturing these machines we will once have to coexist with, you should drop the anthropomorphic image. The robots don’t necessarily have to have two legs, two hands and do our simple jobs in the way we would do it.

Picture them as a combination of hardware and software that creates abstract versions of us. Picture screens and buttons. Picture programs and applications.

Picture the mechanical hands that wield automobiles together and the software that controls it.

Picture planes with all their mechanics and the software that manages most of the jobs the pilot doesn’t have to.

Picture automated trading systems that move trillions in capital across the globe each day.

Picture systems that handle most companies’ management.

The fact is that although we have (probably) not yet built Artificial Intelligence, we have built the machine to host it. Still, our lives are not those envisioned by Asimov or Capek. Not completely. Yes, we do manufacture more. Yes, we do work less to produce it. Our lives, however, are not easier. The robots don’t serve humanity. The robots serve a tiny fraction of us humans and technology has not made life far better.

Wealth disparity has increased and it will continue to do so. Technology is unaffordable for most.

Time seems to move faster but this is only because we are now competing against faster and faster machines. Each job is getting transformed. The jobs that were here yesterday are now programmed and sent to automated workers, software or hardware machines that request little pay and offer increased returns.

If you believe your job is safe, you are wrong. The great change the industrial revolution has brought to the world is the assembly line. This assembly line works just as good when building cars or selling banking services. Each uncreative job is but a small piece in a very large mechanism. Ultimately, everything gets abstracted, simplified and robotized.

Industry after industry has fallen victim to the automata. The media, construction, automotive, telecommunications, manufacturing and of course commerce. All have something in common. They need to get better, more productive, yield more results but humans, we are not scalable.

This will continue to go on. We have first built the steam engine, then the assembly line, then electrical and pneumatic robots, then computers, software and eventually the Internet to tie it all together. Each time a new technology comes – it is widely accepted. We live better for a few years and then we need something else as it is never enough.

Now it is time for the robots to take our jobs and mark my words – they will take them.

But…

Do we really need jobs? Is mankind’s purpose to place all its individuals in small cubicles or large factories? After all, these robots that are taking our jobs, they are here to solve problems. The are here for a life of drudgery and they do not care about that. The word “robot” comes from the czech term “robota” – hard work. And hard work they do.

Taking away our hard labor we are left with nothing but the choice to be what we were meant to be – creators, explorers and artists.

But to do this, humanity has to change its ways. It has to lay away the habit of humans enslaving other humans. The disparity in wealth and increased tension in the world stands as proof that some change is about to happen. This change can mean awful things and in our history it always has.

But it can also mean that we could now make free men of all of us, discover the skies and let our spirit roam throughout the stars. Meanwhile – let the robots have our jobs.

$9.3 billion in Sales in Just One Day – Alibaba’s Singles’ Day

Each year on Nov. 11th, China celebrates an event called Singles’ Day. The date (11/11) is a symbol for those unwed and stands as an anti-Valentine’s Day celebration. Chinese retailers have turned it into a sales mega event and this year it has turned global, with a lot of help from Alibaba’s marketplaces.

A live counter showing sales going through the roof.
A live counter showing sales going through the roof.

Inspired by US sales shopping events Black Friday and Cyber Monday, Alibaba decided to take the event global. The campaign was a huge success and overcame any expectations. It was so big that it accounted for more sales than Black Friday and Cyber Monday in the US. Combined.

But let’s have a look at the hard facts post-sales bonanza:

  • Alibaba registered a total of $9.3 billion in sales in just one day;
  • The company registered a peak sales of $2 billion in just one hour;
  • Consumers from 217 countries bought merchandise from AliExpress, Tmall and Taobao;
  • 1.2 million household appliances and 50.000 cars were purchased;
  • The campaign was aimed at attracting China’s 360 million online shoppers (yup, that’s more than the entire US population), as well as shoppers all over the world.

Pretty good for a singles’ holiday.

 

 

 

 

Macy’s Strategy for Omnichannel Success

Think about this – is there actually such a thing as an online customer? Or an offline customer? Or even a mobile customer? Definitely not. Consumers like to skip sales channels and fulfill their goals in the best way possible. Your customer can research for products online, ask friends for references on social media, test them in the brick and mortar shop and finally purchase in the web store. So it makes no sense treating customers as stuck in a sales channel. The Omnichannel experience, where every consumer can use given sales outlets as she sees fit, is now pretty close to utopia for many retailers.

macysBut others are dedicated to making omnichannel a reality for their customers.

Meet Macy’s.

“Our goal remains to help our customers shop whenever, wherever and however they prefer, and to use the entire inventory of the company to satisfy demand,” Terry Lundgren, Macy’s CEO

As other retailers are facing declining sales and decrease in customer loyalty, Macy’s seems to be thriving. The company has seen recent increase in sales overall and a sharp increase in online sales (48% in 2013).

How did they do it?

Improve customer experience with technology

Macy’s has lots of experience in customer service but the digital revolution took most retailers by surprise. Macy’s has dedicated a large portion of its yearly budget to improving customer experience through technology.

Macy's Flagship store in New York
Macy’s Flagship store in New York

The company’s cost of sales rose to $139 million in 2014 second quarter. This increase was caused by “omnichannel business and the resultant impact of free shipping” which means Macy’s is betting big on its customers’ experience.

The results are great. Just short after Apple Pay was announced, Macy’s announced it will implement the technology in all stores. The company already allowed customers to store their coupons on the Mobile Wallet, that could be accessed anywhere – online, on mobile devices or in store.

Macy's mobile wallet
Macy’s mobile wallet
Using shopBeacon in-store
Using shopBeacon in-store

Macy’s also partnered with Shopkick to increase brick and mortar traffic in its New York and San Francisco stores and now the company is rolling out the shopBeacon technology. The beacons give retailers the ability to push information directly to the consumer’s mobile device. It can welcome shoppers as they walk inside Macy’s stores, send out specific deals and recommendations and can be used as a way to redeem loyalty rewards.

Macy's Beauty Spot kiosk
Macy’s Beauty Spot kiosk

Interactive kiosks were used to improve customer experience throughout brick and mortar stores. The kiosks vary in size and complexity, ranging from simple browse and order applications to more complex features. The “Beauty spot” kiosk, for example, improves Macy’s cosmetics section with an electronic make-up consultant. The system advises potential buyers on makeup and skin products that are best fitted for their needs.

Even store associates are empowered when answering customer needs. The company is now testing mobile and tablet POS that can connect to real-time inventory and offer quick responses to customer needs.

And if we’re talking about real-time inventory, you should know that Macy’s has been working hard at improving cross-channel operations:

Improve fulfillment and inventory management

In 2010 Macy’s piloted a store-fulfillment program in 10 stores. The idea was that if the company can connect inventory from individual stores, it can manage inventory better. As merchandise was sold sold online, stores would be able to ship orders directly, depending on their inventory levels or allow for in-store pick-up.

The program was a success and the company increased the number of stores that could ship orders. 13 more stores were added to the program in 2011. In 2012, 292 stores were shipping orders. In 2013 – roughly 500. The process will be finally completed in 2014 when all 800 stores will be able to fulfill customer orders.

In-store fulfillment increased rapidly since 2012.
In-store fulfillment increased rapidly since 2012.

As these stores began fulfilling orders two things happened. First – orders could be shipped faster, with the ultimate goal of same day delivery, thus improving customer experience. The second big change in Macy’s fulfillment was that using stores meant inventory turnover greatly improved.

With store associates empowered with real-time inventory data, orders began to increase. The store associates could locate items in other stores, and ship that item from that point, directly to the consumer’s requested address.

Macy’s discovered that the nearest store may not always be the best choice to ship the product. Sometimes a product sold in point A could have a really slow turnover so it should be shipped whenever possible. On the other hand, the same product could be in high demand at point B, closer to the customer.

The company didn’t stop here. With stores able to fulfill orders, the Order Online / Pick Up in Store program began in 2013. It was first tested in 10 stores during fall 2013 and began rolling out to all stores in 2014.

It’s not just the stores that improved their fulfillment functions. Macy’s is now expanding its direct-to-consumer fulfillment center in Goodyear to a mega-facility of 960 000 square feet which will be soon followed by an even bigger fulfillment center in Tulsa, in 2015.

So Macy’s is quick to implement omnichannel policies but is it worth it?

Macy’s is winning the retail game

It’s worth it, all right. As you can see in the chart below, Macy’s revenue has been steadily rising, as opposed to some of its main competitors. It seems that 2010 was a real turning point for the company. And what year is that? Right, the year the company began to implementing omnichannel retail.

Macy's growth versus JC Penney and Sears. Source.
Macy’s growth versus JC Penney and Sears. Source.

 

 

 

 

Why is Apple Pay such a Big Deal?

Apple Pay is Apple’s take on mobile payments. It works by storing credit card data and then charging consumers with a simple tap to NFC payment devices. Most important: it’s a huge game changer in payments.

apple-pay-cook
Tim Cook presents Apple Pay

With this product, Apple unveiled its grand vision of a simple, secure payment process. It can store multiple credit cards, it’s linked to the biggest card processors AND big banks such as JP Morgan & Chase or Citigroup. For now, not all Apple devices support Apple Pay but just give Apple a little time. The iPhone 6 and the iPhone 6 Plus come equipped with NFC technology. So will future products.

The big news: Apple is betting big on this product and you know what this means…

The retail industry hates it.

That’s right, even though Apple Pay registered 1 million credit cards in the first week and users love it, some retailers decided they know better.

Retail chains such as Walmart, Rite Aid, Target and many more chose to bet on a different technology, called MCX. The acronym stands for Merchant Customer Exchange and it is a network of retailers offering mobile checkout options through a product called CurrentC.

Seems a bit complicated? Well the short story is that even before Apple Pay was nothing but a rumor, some retailers thought – “hey, why let Apple have so much influence on our sales? Let’s build our very own mobile payment system!” (not an actual quote)

Pictured here: Not Apple Pay
Pictured here: Not Apple Pay

So the MCX people built CurrentC. And by built I mean they have been struggling for years to come up with something that says Mobile Payments. When Apple Pay was announced, they went on and announced their own product.

The product is sliiightlty different from Apple Pay: it works only in the MCX network and works with QR codes. Plus it stores consumer personal info and connects DIRECTLY to the consumer’s bank account. No way that storing consumer data in the cloud and accessing consumer bank accounts could ever go wrong. Just ask Target (among those in the MCX) and Home Depot.

As the public decided they are not going to wait for CurrentC to show up, retailers such as Walmart and Rite Aid went on and blocked the technology that made using Apple Pay possible.

Now why would they do that? Why is Apple Pay such a big thing and why are these retailers so afraid of it?

1. Apple Pay links online and offline shopping

Amazon vs Walmart - 17 years revenue comparison
Amazon vs Walmart – 17 years revenue comparison

Ever thought of buying online and picking up in store? Or searching for an item in a physical store and asking store associates if it is available at another store? If you have you’ve probably noticed that service is lousy when it comes to connecting channels. Omnichannel retail is still in its infancy. To make things work companies have to rewire their IT infrastructure and get ready for a future where it doesn’t matter if orders are placed online, offline, in the mobile app or on the phone.

And that’s hard.

Big retailers have a problem adapting to this new landscape where the consumer is at the center of every transaction and operation. Everything is moving faster and the giants are not really that agile. For example have a look at how much faster Amazon is growing when compared to Walmart.

A large part of this change has to do with payments. Consumers now have to pay one way in the Brick-and-Mortar store. Another way in the online shop. Mobile shopping has yet another payment process. It’s frustrating and the challenge to connect all payment systems is a really rewarding area.

The mobile payments market is estimated at $90 billion and expected to grow. That’s why Google, Apple, Amazon, PayPal and even AliBaba want a piece of it.

So far Apple has managed to connect online and offline channels best. Apple Pay’s ease of use, integrated payment in Safari through the Keychain and many others make it a reasonable bet for the future.

2. Mobile Payments are happening, whether you like it or not

29% of Millennials would be willing to bank with Apple.
29% of Millennials would be willing to bank with Apple. Source

Mobile Payments may seem like a no-go right now. After all PayPal is available for quite some time on the mobile and Google has already launched and failed once with its Google Wallet. What change the future holds as to make Mobile Payments such a big thing?

The answer is Millennials.

The up and coming generation is now just beginning to earn and spend their cash but soon they will be a driving force in the economy. Unlike elder consumers, they have no problem bridging the gap between sales channels and they definitely don’t have a problem paying with their smartphones. IF it’s easy and secure.

In a recent Accenture study millennials were found to be ready to accept mobile payments. They were, in fact, driving the adoption in mobile payments. Among those surveyed, 60% did NOT use their mobile phones to pay. Their main worries: privacy (45%) and security issues (57%). Apple Pay solves both.

3. Everyone expects a revolution

The player that revolutionized the music industry.
The player that revolutionized the music industry.

Remember the iPod, the iPhone and iTunes? They are just three of the most disrupting technologies from the past decade. And they were all introduced by Apple.

The scenario is always the same: a large market in need of change. Market leaders were stuck in exploiting existing technologies. Everyone from label records to Nokia and RIM learned a hard lesson. When Apple goes after a large market, it will revolutionize it.

Apple Pay is a revolution and the MCX retailers know it. Right now they are negotiating their place in the future of retail.

4. It’s not just about the payments, it’s about the consumer

APPLE-PAY-COMIC
Apple, Pay!

Omnichannel payments is all about the consumer. Everything happens around his or her habits. The retailer doesn’t get to dictate what the consumer wants, when it wants it and how the product should be bought.

If you look at Amazon you’ll find that it’s just a very very large store. But is it? In fact, Amazon is a marketplace. An instrument for the consumer to choose from lots and lots of products (240 million in Amazon US), sold by lots of merchants.

At the core you’ll find the consumer account. The preferences, the brand loyalty to Amazon, the saved shipping addresses and others. For each Amazon user, Amazon is a PERSONAL deal.

But for now, those products can only by accessed through Amazon’s infrastructure. The big thing that Apple Pay does is putting your personal account for millions of products and hundreds of merchants where it should be: in your pocket.

By doing this Apple will take out Amazon’s and the likes most precious asset and liberalize it: The personal account. Walmart and the likes have misinterpreted Apple’s message. Their product is not an enemy: it’s the best tool they have right now against Amazon.

5. It actually works

Consumers love the fact that Apple Pay feels easy to use and most important – secure. It works online, offline, on the iPhone and on the Apple Watch.

Unlike Apple Pay, previous products were introduced as standalone products, not as part of an ecosystem and seemingly without any clear strategy and vision for the future.

Google failed and now it’s trying again with a new Google Wallet.

PayPal has maybe missed its opportunity to become what Apple Pay will probably be. Internal company battles and unclear strategy made the company lose sight of how the market is shifting.

Amazon too launched Amazon Payments but its focus on online payments makes it a NOW product. It really isn’t future proof.

Apple Pay works great and it works great for a large audience. Apple has a huge user base and this user base trusts Apple. They use the company products and are willing to allow the company to store their credit cards. In turn, Apple has not let them down: Apple Pay just works.

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?

Tesco profits drop 92% yet online sales increase

Tesco-LogoIn what is probably the biggest financial error in commerce this year, Tesco announced that it overstated its profits. By a lot. The problem was caused by the company booking payments from suppliers as income. In fact, payments were used by the company to run promotions on the suppliers’ behalf.

Tesco is now under fire as forensic accounting investigators from Deloitte reported the company overstated profits expectations by £263m in the first half of 2014.

Not only that but profits overall are 92% down after a previous write down of £527m caused by the above mentioned error in registering income in previous years.

Nevertheless, Tesco is still the largest supermarket in the UK, leading the pack with a large market share:

tesco

Although its market shares have taken a hit, it seems that online sales are growing at 11% and I believe this is just the beginning. Following the unfortunate news eight executives were forced to leave the company, including chairman Sir Richard Broadbent.

Now the company is ready for a fresh start. Ok, scratch that “fresh”. It’s more like it’s forced to improve its omnichannel approach as customers demand better service and improved shopping experience. The company had previously employed several experienced directors to help it become a competitor to Amazon in global retailing. How well this would fare is hard to tell but they should get some award for trying. After all Tesco was the first to ship an online order.

 

 

The Fascinating World of Amazon Logistics

Jeff Bezos
Jeff Bezos

Word’s out that Amazon is planning on opening its first brick and mortar shop. With such news the retail world is now buzzing with questions:

Is Amazon really going head to head with mainly brick-and-mortar retailers? Should the likes of Walmart be paying attention to such tactics? Could this mean a new way of doing business for Amazon?

The answer is no.

First of all Amazon is not opening actual stores. It’s opening pop-up stores. The big difference is pop-up stores are available for just a limited amount of time. They pop-up and then they pop-off. For example the two stores Amazon is now opening will be in San Francisco and Sacramento and will be open just for the holidays.

Amazon will use these stores to showcase its proprietary mobile devices (tablets, ebook readers, the smartphone). Once the holidays are over – puff – they disappear.

There is, however, one report from the Wall Street Journal, not yet confirmed by Amazon, saying the company would actually be looking for more. This report points to a New York location in Midtown Manhattan that would serve as a permanent physical presence. Again, this won’t be your typical store but rather a location designed to respond to specific Amazon needs.

Such needs would include testing Amazon products, order pick-up, returns and local delivery. Maybe even a drone helipad. Who knows?

Seriously now – with the store working as a mini-warehouse, the company could easily offer same-day delivery to near-by customers. That’s a great way to compete with Google’s same day delivery. These type of operations (pop-up shops and drop-shops) could become mainstream in the future as retailers need to bridge the gap in omnichannel retail AND provide faster shipping.

However, Amazon’s offline presence should be scanned from a different perspective:

Amazon is not moving offline. It is already there.

There are no Amazon stores just yet. Except for a few Amazon lockers and the occasional pop-up stores, the largest online retailer remains a pretty digital presence.

Except for its logistics.

Beneath the magic of Amazon’s online retail presence lays an well-oiled logistics machine. Amazon combines advanced IT systems, human operations, robots, huge warehouses and a complex shipping operation to fulfill its daily orders. And some underpaid workers but that’s another thing.

Inside one of Amazon's Warehouses. Source: Wired
Inside one of Amazon’s Warehouses. Source: Wired

How many products does Amazon ship? Billions.

In 2012 Amazon sold and shipped more than 10 million products each day. The total number of products shipped in the last quarter of 2012 was 1.05 billion. Yes, that is a Billion with a B and it is reportedly the first time in the company’s history when it sold more than 1 billion products in just one quarter.

The number of listed products is also huge. Its top 5 markets all list more than 100 million products, with the US totaling a whooping 253 millions, as reported by Export-X:

The total number of products listed on Amazon's top markets. See more here.
The total number of products listed on Amazon’s top markets. See more here.

Amazon Fulfillment: 83 million square feet of storage and fulfillment centers

You’ve probably guessed that shipping 1 billion products per quarter to more than 200 million customers worldwide requires a bit of work. What you probably don’t know is that such a large-scale operation uses 50 million square feet of storage in the US and 33 million square feet of storage outside US (source).

There is no other ecommerce competitor with such storage and fulfillment potential. Its dominant position allowed for two interesting business models to evolve: The Amazon Marketplace and Fulfillment by Amazon.

To reach sales as those shown above, Amazon lists and sells both its own products and those from 3P (Third Party) merchants. Merchants can join its Fulfillment By Amazon program, ship the product to Amazon’s Fulfillment centers and than leverage Amazon’s Logistics.

This means the company can count on its sales AND influence to shape the future of retail. Its logistics are probably the most useful and under rated tool in expanding globally. While everyone wonders if Amazon will set foot in the offline world, the company has already laid the foundations to what will probably be the future of retail.

Of course, the numbers listed above can only show a small bit of what is required to keep Amazon moving and growing. The operational tools Amazon employs and the processes behind this amazing machine will be uncovered in an upcoming ebook. Until then – check out “Understanding Omnichannel Retail” – a comprehensive report on how online and offline sales are now connecting.

Ebay and PayPal Splitting. Why is This a Good Thing?

Ebay and PayPal have been together since 2002, when Ebay decided to acquire PayPal for $1.5 billion. At that moment both companies were heavy weights in their respective fields and growth was booming. Ebay struggled with a previous solution, called Billpoint, until deciding to give in and purchase PayPal.

eBay-and-PayPalSince then, both gained a lot from the other. Ebay benefited from PayPal’s ease of use and helped its customers send money to one another. This helped streamline and secure the purchase process, thus increasing transactions. PayPal, one the other hand, piggy backed on Ebay’s massive user base and international exposure. Its revenue increased by the year and in the second quarter of 2014, it amounted to 45% of Ebay Inc’s total revenue.

The fast growth of PayPal, as well the whole “payments revolution” potential lead Carl Icahn to propose a split between Ebay and PayPal this year. Icahn’s proposal / attack was then fended off by Ebay CEO John Donahoe and PayPal ex-leader David Marcus. Since february 2014, a lot of things happened. David Marcus left the company to join Facebook and biggest of the biggest, tech mammoth Apple launched the Apple Pay. What seemed like a closed case soon turned into a huge split between the companies.

Now – John Donahoe will still run Ebay Inc until the split is official. As of that moment he will step down as CEO and Ebay will be lead by Devin Wenig, now president of eBay Marketplaces. PayPal will split into a new company, directed by Dan Schulman, now president at American Express, Enterprise Growth Group.

PayPal benefits from Ebay Inc. spliting. The split means that PayPal will be able to roam free, grow and develop independently. On the other hand Ebay will be able to … well … do everything it was doing before. The marketplace division is not gaining much from the split. It loses a revenue stream, its shares will drop and it will have to find a new way to keep up with its growth in the future.

However PayPal needs independence to keep up with increasing competition in the omnichannel payments landscape. It needs to innovate, it has to connect online and offline and it has to do a bit better on mobile devices. The split will help the company evolve and here are three reasons why:

1. PayPal can mean more than just payments

Banking as we know is shifting from an old, rigid system to a new way of doing business. That means more than wiring money. It means deposits, it means financing, it means Peer 2 Peer Lending and more. Under Ebay, PayPal was bound to stick to payments and money transfers. Now that Ebay is no longer the umbrella that fosters PayPal innovation, we may soon see more financial goodies from PayPal.

2. PayPal should be more than an accessory to Ebay

Elon Musk explained best why Ebay should not hold PayPal back: “It doesn’t make sense that a global payment system is a subsidiary of an auction website… It’s as if Target owned Visa or something”.

The fact is PayPal outgrows Ebay. It can and should be a global financial company, a field that’s obviously larger than Ebay’s marketplaces can ever be.

3. PayPal could grow even faster as a separately traded company

It’s no secret that Ebay has already done what it could to help PayPal. Now it’s just living off PayPal’s growth. As a separately traded company PayPal can become a larger company, more attractive to investors, which in turn can help the company finance its expansion, growth and fight against Apple, Google, Amazon and even AliBaba.

But …

Carl Icahn is known as a corporate raider and maybe there’s more to this story than meets the eye. There is a possibility that he and others are just splitting the company to later organize a take over from companies such as Visa, MasterCard or one of the larger banks. What could be a profitable short-term strategy could hurt PayPal in the long run and kill one of the most promising financial companies in the world.