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?

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.