The cue for this post was Harry Stebbing’s 20MinuteVC interview with David Pakman, the partner at Venrock who led the Series A and Series B rounds at Dollar Shave Club and recently had his faith justified with a $1bn exit to Unilever.
He said that when he made those investments in 2012 and 2013 eCommerce wasn’t a hot sector with VCs and that remains the case now, but here at Forward Partners we’ve made a number of ecommerce investments and, like David and his partners at Venrock, think there will be more Dollar Shave Club scale exits going forward. We are happy investing in sectors where we see opportunity, even if others don’t.
If you poll investors for reasons not to invest in eCommerce you will generally hear three things: low margins, low multiples on exit and high working capital. Some will also throw in the threat of competition from Amazon for good measure.
These are all great points. There are plenty of eCommerce companies where these characteristics are risks and realities. Great care is advisable before investing in them. Without some extra bit of magic they will be unlikely to achieve huge exits.
But there are also eCommerce companies that escape some or all of these issues and many of them are good investment prospects. Here are three reasons why:
- Consumers are hungry for direct relationships with the brands they buy. That’s part of the story behind Dollar Shave Club, Nike, Apple and many other iconic brands today. However, most traditional brands (think P&G, Unilever, much of traditional fashion) have never dealt directly with their customers and don’t know how. Meanwhile sales through their traditional retail channels are falling fast: creating the opportunity for upstart brands to steal significant market share. These direct-to-consumer eCommerce brands are often able to leverage their relationships and data to win on the basis of superior product. Example companies: Dollar Shave Club, Bonobos, Warby Parker and amongst our partners Spoke and Lost My Name.
- Few traditional retailers are nailing it online. Their skills of supply chain management, curating a catalogue of product to fill their shops and in store merchandising are less important in the current online and omnichannel era. Today, inventory can be an order of magnitude larger and there are huge opportunities for curation and re-imagining supply chains. All the while, declining High Street revenues and high fixed cost bases are starving them of cash to invest in innovation. In their place what you might call eCommerce 2.0 businesses are offering consumers compelling personalised selections from massive inventories with marketplace, no-stock or stock-light models. They are able to scale rapidly and go global quickly. Amazon is the proto-typical example in this category, others include Jet.com, ASOS and amongst our partners Thread.com, Live Better With, Hubbub and Patch.
- Consumers have a range of preferences, styles and budgets and it’s hard to picture a future in which we don’t buy from a range of online retailers. Shoreditch locals don’t want to shop in the same places as investment bankers a mile south of here. As you might have read on this blog I have a ton of respect for Amazon but they aren’t going to take the whole market. In particular they aren’t good at the product categories where people don’t know what they want and traditionally look to retailers to help them make choices.
Online penetration of retail is now pushing 20% in the UK, so there is still a long way to go in this market. In his interview David said that after little interest in Series A and Series B rounds at Dollar Shave Club the Series C and Series D rounds were hotly contested. I think we will see a similar turnaround in investor appetite for eCommerce more generally.
In November 2013 I saw the headline Five cognitive distortions of people who get stuff done, and thought “wow – all the cognitive biases I know get in the way of rational thought and are unhelpful”. My surprise at finding that irrational thought could be useful prompted this post at the time.
Since then I’ve been on a (slow) journey to understand the interplay between intuition and rational thought, particularly helped by Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow and Richard Haidt’s The Righteous Mind. I wrote a number of other blog posts too, most notably Thinking fast and slow at a VC fund, Debating with intuition as well as logic, and How our rational brains justify our intuitive decisions.
The more recent posts are mostly about recognising the role intuition plays in our decision making and how to counter it when appropriate. My understanding of the importance of intuitive thinking was limited to the fact that it helps when decisions need to be faster.
Then this morning I read How Our Delusions Keep Us Sane: The Psychology of Our Essential Self-Enhancement Bias on brainpickings. It took me right back to the November 2013 ‘aha moment’ that in the right places and right doses irrational thought makes us happier and more successful. The article opens with the following paragraph:
“Optimism is the faith that leads to achievement; nothing can be done without hope,” Helen Keller wrote in her 1903 treatise on optimism. But a positive outlook, it turns out, isn’t merely an intellectual disposition we don — it’s a deep-seated component of our evolutionary wiring and the product of powerful, necessary delusions our mind is working around-the-clock to maintain. At the root of that mental machinery lies what psychologists have termed the self-enhancement bias — our systematic tendency to forgo rational evaluation of our own merits and abilities in favor of unrealistic attitudes that keep our ego properly inflated as to avoid sinking into the depths of despair [and keep us motivated when times are good].
There are two points of interest here. Firstly we are wired to be irrationally optimistic about our own abilities. Early primates who kept believing when times were hard survived and mated more often than their more pessimistic brethren. Hence being rational is hard. Secondly, being irrationally optimistic is useful – at least sometimes. Puncturing the bubble with rational analysis might result in a loss of motivation with no discernible gain.
When I think about this in the context of business activities it seems to me we need a switch. The vast majority of our opinions and hence decision making should be rational, but allowing a dose of unconscious irrational optimism helps us motivate ourselves and others. It’s how we achieve the seemingly impossible. However, we need the switch when that irrational optimism stops serving us well. When I was at Reuters Venture Capital, for example, we worked like crazy to raise our second fund in the tech nuclear winter of 2001-2003 and kept believing, but there came a point when we flipped the switch and gave up. That was painful, but it was the right thing to do. To keep trying would have been like banging our heads against a brick wall.
The challenging thing for teams is that different people have different levels of optimism, and it gets really hard when one person wants to flip the switch and others want to keep believing. That’s where the leader needs to carry her organisation (and make sure her switch is in the right place). The example I gave above was literally life and death for us, but the same dynamic plays out all the time at much smaller levels. In VC firms it often relates to whether investments will get made, in startups it often relates to whether partnerships will deliver, sales will be made, and key metrics will move. Establishing clear parameters in advance that will lead to the switch being flipped takes discipline, but is one useful trick.
If you have a few minutes I heartily recommend you read the full brainpickings article.
I’m sure you’ve heard about how unless we’re careful we very often make our minds up about things in just a few seconds – decisions on candidates in job interviews is a well known example. Here’s how that happens.
- We make an intuitive, largely subconscious, decision based on what we’ve seen and learned over the years, a decision that will often display all of our prejudices and biases.
- The rational side of our brain seeks justifications for our decision
- As soon as it finds a justification the search stops. The case is closed and we move on to thinking about the next thing.
- We become resistant to opening up the debate again.
You might have spotted the flaw in this process already. The rational side of our brain doesn’t make a balanced assessment of the evidence it only looks for one piece of evidence to prove the case. There are pros and cons in every complex decision so we are always able to find something to justify our position, even if the weight of the evidence is wholly in the other direction.
If more rational decision making is the goal, and in a business context it generally should be, then the first step is to be aware that we all have this tendency. If you are hit by a wave of irritation when someone presents you with data that suggests you should change your mind try to take that as a signal that your rational brain might be losing out to a faulty piece of intuition.
None of us can get over this problem entirely, and rapid intuitive thinking is often appropriate.
We see a lot of startups that fail, it’s the nature of the beast in an environment that is so incredibly fast moving and competitive. These are some of the more common and avoidable mistakes that we work hard alongside our partner companies to help them avoid.
This post was inspired by John Zeratsky’s post Eight common dysfunctions of design teams. Design is at the heart of a lot of the early important work at a startup, hence the overlap.
- Starting with solutions – founders start by having an idea and then most check it’s feasibility by visualising a solution. That’s the right thing to do. However, having established that there’s one potential good solution the best next step is to go back to building a deeper understanding of the problem space and customer to check if there’s a better solution. This applies to everything – product features, visual identity, copy, UX, tech stack and go to market strategy. To avoid this mistake spend time with customers and establish goals and metrics before creating solutions.
- Groupthink – these days companies and their products and brands need to be remarkable to win. In Zeratsky’s words: “—at least not the way we normally do it. We want everyone to be happy, so we talk and talk until we’ve reached consensus on a decision. And we let social dynamics get in the way: power relationships, seniority, loud mouths, etc. This all leads to decisions that nobody is excited about—decisions that don’t reflect a unique, opinionated perspective.Solution: Use voting to capture everyone’s opinions, then lean on the decider to make the call.”
- Polishing a brick – as Zeratsky says, we spend far to long polishing and perfecting unproven solutions. These days a minimum level of quality and design is required before people will take notice of a new solution, but understand what that is and ship as soon as you’ve reached it. If you find yourself believing that your product will only work if it’s fully featured and highly polished you should go back and double check whether your core proposition is strong enough. To avoid this mistake give yourself deadlines that you can’t get out of. Being clear on what you have to achieve by when to get your next round of funding and breaking that down into monthly targets is a great discipline.
- Shaky foundation – every startup is built on a foundation of assumptions about the customer, the product, and the world. Too often founders let those assumptions go untested, even unstated. In The Path Forward we advocate first making sure that the company’s idea is valid – and that requires listing out the assumptions and testing them to know that the fundamentals of the business are strong, that there is a need for the product and that the company has the right skills to prosecute the opportunity. Many companies move too quickly to focus on the product or even on scaling the business, but if the foundations aren’t strong growth will always be more challenging and will eventually falter. Solution: Follow The Path Forward to validate your idea and lay strong foundations that will allow you to build a valuable business.
I just read the following quote in a post about platform failures:
Because platforms depend on the value created by participants, it’s critical to carefully manage the platform’s “openness” – the degree of access that consumers, producers, and others have to a platform, and what they’re allowed to do there. If platforms are too closed, keeping potentially desirable participants out, network effects stall; if they’re too open there can be other value-destroying effects, such as poor quality contributions or misbehavior of some participants that causes others to defect.
Marketplaces are a type of platform in which Forward Partners routinely makes investments. They make up around one third of our portfolio. We love these companies because (done right) they are better for the supply side and the demand side and because at scale they exhibit significant network effects which make them very valuable.
The early marketplaces were modelled on stock markets and were very open. Companies like ebay offered full visibility over supply and demand, few restrictions on who could use the platform and let the marketplace determine pricing. More recently marketplaces have started operating more curated models with much less transparency and more control over pricing. Uber is one of the more extreme examples – as I imagine you know passengers have to accept the car they are given and Uber decides on the pricing.
Amongst our more recent marketplace investments Lexoo is a good example of a highly curated marketplace. They connect companies with legal services but rather than have an open marketplace where customers browse through lawyer profiles they’ve built a sophisticated matching engine which identifies the best lawyers for a particular job and gets four of them to quote within twenty four hours. Similarly ClickMechanic, another of our partner companies, fixes the price of jobs that mechanics do through the platform and finds the mechanics rather than asking the customer to do the work.
In the Uber, ClickMechanic the Lexoo examples the marketplace is doing much more work than a more traditional model. Companies like ebay find the supply and demand, optimise the browsing and search process, build trust systems, and then process payment, whereas marketplaces like Lexoo, ClickMechanic and Uber are doing that, but also assisting much more with selection and making sure the transaction runs smoothly.
Getting the right level of ‘openness’ is critical to marketplaces’ success. In our experience finding the optimum level starts with the founders’ vision and then evolves following customer research and how the supply and demand side respond to early versions of the product. There’s no generic right answer but rather individual marketplaces need to find the solution that works best for their supply and their demand, as measured by conversion. The less work a marketplace does the cheaper it is to build, of course, so there is a trade-off between cost and time to market on the one side and conversion and customer satisfaction on the other. As marketplace models are moving to new industries with more complicated transactions the trend is definitely towards more cost.