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Why Lightspeed invested in Bonobos December 16, 2010

Posted by jeremyliew in apparel, bonobos, Ecommerce.
12 comments

Today we’re announcing that Lightpseed and Accel are investing in Bonobos, a vertically-integrated men’s apparel etailer. Bonobos was founded in 2007 by a couple of Stanford Business school students, selling better fitting pants out of their dorm room. Initially their focus was on pants, cut for modern American men who had played sports growing up. Not the too skinny Euro cut that doesn’t work for men who had some muscle in their legs, but not the baggy and pleated looks that Brooks Brothers made the staple of American style. I am happy to say that I have a lot of their pants in my closet!

The company has since moved to the web and grown substantially, both adding product lines under their own brand (shirts, jackets, polos, shorts and sweaters), as well as carefully curating products from other brands that fit their style and aesthetic. Their growth was initially steady, but has really taken off in the last few quarters as they got a better handle on Customer Acquisition Cost versus Lifetime Value. As I’ve mentioned before, companies who understand these customer level economics can quickly reach millions in monthly revenue as they can confidently spend on marketing to grow their customer base. Our investment into Bonobos will enable them to ramp their growth rate in just this manner.

Earlier this year Lightspeed invested in Living Sociaand in Shoedazzle. Both investments were premised on the idea that making shopping fun is driving this current generation of ecommerce companies. Unsurprisingly, both companies have a primarily female customer base.

Bonobos is different. Andy Dunn, Bonobo’s CEO,  captures some of the differences between the way that men and women shop for clothes like this:

Basically, this says that for many women, style, trend and fun are the most important factors. Time and hassle is acceptable if the style, trend and fun are high enough. Shoedazzle certainly focuses on style, trend and fun.

For many men, the equation is different. They do not like to shop, but they do care about looking alright. They focus primarily on fit, but want time and hassle to be minimized. For an e-commerce website, this means that fast, free shipping and returns are important factors to drive men’s apparel sales.

Furthermore, men develop a certain loyalty to brands and retailers that have clothes that fit them. If they have confidence in a particular brand, they can make their annual shopping fast and easy, and they don’t have to cross shop from other places. Whereas the lifetime value for female clothes buyers comes from their frequent purchases driven by entertainment shopping, the lifetime value for male clothes buyers comes from the brand loyalty engendered by meeting their needs for clothes that fit, in a fast and easy buying process.

I’m very excited about our investment in Bonobos. We believe that they are the leading pureplay vertically-integrated men’s apparel etailer, and are well positioned, and well capitalized, to expand on their leadership position. In Shoedazzle, we are also investors in what we believe to be the leading pureplay vertically-integrated women’s apparel etailer as well. JCrew, Lands End and others have grown to be billion dollar businesses in the vertically-integrated catalogue led apparel space, and have transitioned well to the web, but the advantages of being a pureplay etailer will allow for very valuable new companies to emerge.

If you’d like to check them out,  grab something for work, the weekend, a party or the holidays. Use my discount code – SECRETHANDSHAKE, and get 20% off through the holidays!

2011 Consumer Internet Predictions December 3, 2010

Posted by jeremyliew in 2011, advertising, Consumer internet, Ecommerce, ltv, mobile, predictions, social games.
22 comments

Once again Lightspeed is going on the record with some prognostications for what the future holds. Before I try gazing into my crystal ball to see what 2011 will bring for the consumer internet industry, let me first see how I did on last years predictions:

1. Social games overflow out of Facebook

Grade: C+. While the amount of social gaming on other social networks, especially the Asian networks, has significantly increased over the course of the year, the vast majority of social gaming still takes place on Facebook. While Farmville.com now has 6M UU/month, this is still only 10% of the number playing Farmville on Facebook.

2. Brand advertising starts to move online, boosting premium display, video and social media

Grade: A. The recovering economy has really boosted brand ad budgets in 2010, with online ad spend back to setting records again. Automotive and CPG in particular are both seeing significantly increased online budgets. The online video networks are doing terrific business, and even Yahoo is benefiting from increased brand spend, seeing revenue growth for the first time in a while. Many brand advertisers are spending their experimental budgets widely in social media as they attempt to figure out how to promote themselves through Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare and other platforms. The key driver of this renewed confidence from brand advertisers is better measurement of brand metrics that can show the impact of online advertising beyond clickthrough.

3. Direct Response Advertising becomes ever more efficient

Grade: A. According to Adsafe, approximately half of display advertising inventory is now moving through exchanges, Demand Side Platforms (DSPs) and realtime bidding platforms, with another 23% moving through Facebook’s self service ads. These platforms are rapidly commodifying a lot of “low quality” ad inventory, enabling the use of data and targeting to find the best use of this inventory, and thereby creating a very efficient marketplace. Direct response advertisers have benefited the most from this transparency.

4. Finding money and saving money online

Grade: B-. Saving money online has been a real driver of ecommerce growth in 2010. The breakout categories of 2010 are Local Deals (Groupon, Living Social* etc), and Flash Sales (Gilt, RueLaLa, HauteLook, Ideeli etc), and both are squarely aimed at helping consumers save money. Finding money online (principally online lending) has not seen the same level of explosive growth in the US, although in Europe and India there has been real growth in microlending (including “pay day loans”) from companies ranging from Wonga to SKS Finance. I think we’ll see more from the online lending space in 2011, so I may just have been too early on that part of the prediction!

5. Real time web usage outpaces business models

Grade: B-. Twitter continues to grow in usage, overtaking Myspace to become the third largest social network in the world. Foursquare and Gowalla have grown too, but off of much lower bases, such that only 4% of internet users currently use a check-in service. Facebook also joined the Location Based Services (LBS) party this year, enabling Facebook places, which some speculate is getting 30M users already. Last year I speculated that monetization would be hard for these businesses since CPM models have traditionally been hostile to user generated content, and local ad sales is an expensive and difficult proposition. But these companies have innovated new monetization models. Twitter, through its Promoted Tweets, Promoted Trends and Promoted Accounts, is not selling media on a CPM basis, but rather selling attention, and the early returns suggest that brands are willing to pay for more attention. Similarly, the check-in services are attracting experimental budgets from national retailers as well as forward thinking small businesses who are eager to attract new customers into their stores, and reward regular customers. While the revenue numbers may not be huge in 2010, there is certainly promise to the business models that are developing on these platforms.

Overall for 2010, I figure a B average, a little worse than last year. But there is always grade inflation when you grade yourself, so let me know what you think. Now, on to my predictions for 2011:

___________________________________

1. Putting fun into ecommerce

In 1995, when Amazon was founded, e-commerce was like the proverbial talking dog. It wasn’t about how well the dog could talk, it was amazing that the dog could talk at all. The first generation of ecommerce sites were focused on functionality, getting the dog to talk better. We got everything from price comparison engines to aggregated user reviews to one-click checkout. These early innovations were focused on optimizing the “workflow” of shopping to get users into the checkout as quickly as possible.

This worked great for most internet users at that time because back then most internet users were men, and in general, men do not like to shop. They treat it like a chore, a necessary evil that would ideally be minimized and optimized to take the least amount of time possible. Then they could get back to doing something they enjoyed, perhaps playing video games, or watching football!

But a few years ago, that changed. There are now (a few) more women online than men. And in general, women tend to enjoy shopping more than men. Certainly more than playing video games, or watching football! If you enjoy shopping, you don’t want your “workflow optimized”. You don’t want to be rushed to the checkout as quickly as possible. Instead, you want to linger, to be delighted, to discover new things, to find great deals. You want shopping to be fun.

The Flash Sales sites and Local Deals sites both make shopping fun by offering deep discounts. This is the mechanism that they use to entice shoppers to buy something, even when they are not looking for anything specific. But discounts are not the only way to make shopping fun.

Sites like Modcloth make shopping fun through discovery. Modcloth highlights women’s clothes from modern, indie and retro designers. Because each item has limited supply, and selections are constantly changing, Modcloth builds an urgency that has users coming back frequently to see what’s new and to make sure that they don’t miss out.

Shoedazzle* makes shopping fun by democratizing the personal stylist experience. After users take a style quiz to assess their profile, they are shown a selection of shoes, bags and accessories that have been specifically chosen to match their taste. Each month they get a new selection of on-trend pieces that fit their profile. JustFab and JewelMint have subsequently launched with similar models.

More models keep popping up. Recently launched Birchbox focuses on sending cosmetic samples to its users to help them discover the perfect eyeliner or blush. Pennydrop is a Facebook app that lets users peek at discounted and constantly dropping prices on items and jump in to buy when the price is low enough.

All these sites play to the idea of making shopping fun. I expect to see more applications of these formats, as well as more new formats, all under this overarching theme. A little social shopping anyone?

2. Self-service ad platforms find their ceiling, and brand advertisers seek other avenues

As noted above, about half of display advertising inventory is now moving through exchanges, DSPs and realtime bidding platforms. Yet these platforms are only two to three years old. While perhaps only 10% of online ad revenue is currently flowing through these channels, the trend here is clear. Today, two thirds of online ad spending comes from direct response advertisers, and soon the bulk of these budgets will likely flow through bidded platforms such as these, including Facebook ads. Direct response advertisers move their budgets quickly to follow results, so this could happen within the next year or two.

Brand advertisers are also experimenting with bidded platforms. Each of the big ad agencies have their own trading desks. However, adoption on the brand side will likely be slower and far from complete. Many of the exchanges, DSPs and RTB platforms allow for bidding strategies that are easily optimized for click-through rates, but optimizing for brand metrics is much harder. Brands also care more about content adjacency and brand safe content, and these are harder to guarantee on an exchange type platform, where in some cases, ad impressions are traded several times before finding their final buyer.

In addition, exchanges by definition can only support standard ad units. Many brand campaigns incorporate custom elements, ranging from social media and other earned media components to custom microsites, site takeovers, roadblocks and other high impact units. These are often tied to specific publishers, and bundled into a broader media buy including standard ad units. Premium publishers depend on this sort of creative advertising to maintain the ad rates required to support the creation of high-quality content, and I think it is likely that this symbiosis between brands and premium publishers will continue to capture a large chunk of the brand ad budget. In fact, I expect to see a proliferation in custom ad units from the biggest and most premium publishers as they work to capture a greater share of brand budgets. Non-premium publishers that have reached the scale to become “must buys” are doing exactly the same thing. Twitter’s Promoted Tweets, Promoted Trends and Promoted Accounts, and Facebook’s Social Ads and Likes are all great examples of this trend.

3. Competition shifts from user acquisition to user retention

Today many e-commerce and subscription companies are growing very quickly through smart marketing. They are taking advantage of cheap media to cost effectively acquire new customers. As I’ve mentioned above, I think the exchanges will continue to make it easier for direct marketers to reach their customers. Facebook’s self service platform is still a relatively inefficient market, allowing savvy, analytical marketers to quickly and cheaply gain market share. However, in some categories (e.g. Local Deals) Facebook has quickly become efficient and there is already a “market price” for a new Local Deals subscriber. As more marketers take the plunge into Facebook’s platform, more categories will become efficient, just as Google became an efficient market over time for almost all keywords. Once this happens there will be a market clearing price for new customer acquisition across almost all categories, and smart marketing will no longer be as much of a differentiator.

On what basis then will winners pull away from the rest? Companies who are able to derive the highest lifetime value (LTV) from their users will squeeze out their competitors with a lower lifetime value. How can you improve LTV? There are three key factors:

  • average revenue per user
  • gross margin
  • average lifetime.

The e-commerce and subscription based companies that pull away from their competitors in 2011 will find a way to differentiate themselves from their competitors on one or more of these dimensions.

4. Social games chase hardcore gamers

Notwithstanding Disney buying Playdom* this year and EA buying Playfish last year, Zynga is still the market leader in social gaming. Their enormous installed user base gives them a real advantage in customer acquisition cost over their competitors; their ability to cross-sell installs to their new games at zero cost allows them to get a new game to scale with much lower marketing spend then smaller competitors.

To combat Zynga’s might, the other social game publishers have to focus on games with a very high LTV. High enough that the publisher can afford to rely on paid customer acquisition alone to build a user base, and still make money. Kabam (once know as Watercooler) pioneered this approach with Kingdoms of Camelot, a relatively hardcore social game that is reputed to be doing low to mid single digit millions in monthly revenue from  about 750k Daily Acitve Users (DAUs) – a monetization rate that is dramatically higher than the norm for social games. Other publishers have taken note, and I would expect more games aimed at the hardcore gamer market to emerge over 2011.

5. Year of the tablet

Smartphones transformed the mobile internet. Apps will drive $5bn in revenue in 2010. Mary Meeker presents some great insight into the future growth potential of mobile in her Web 2.0 Summit presentation, Ten Questions Internet Execs Should Ask and Answer.

The same thing will happen with tablets. While the iPad has the tablet market largely to itself this year, that will change dramatically in 2011 and beyond, just as Apple’s iPhone had the truly web-capable smartphone market to itself in 2008, but is now a minority as competition emerged from Android, WinMo7 and the modern Blackberry.

The key difference between these new platforms and the PC web isn’t mobility (although that is part of it), but rather that these devices are always on and always with you. However, use cases differ between the phone and the tablet.

Phones are with you all the time, in particular when you are out of the house and out of the office. The most popular genres of app fit well with this “on the go” usecase. Local information, “snacky” entertainment, music, games have all been killer apps on smartphones. Some web incumbents made the transition well, including Yelp, Flixster*and Pandora. Many new companies also gained ground on the phone through this disruption.

Tablets tend to live in the living room. They lend themselves more to leisure than PCs, and to more protracted content consumption than phones. Killer apps might include, video, music, games, and “reading”, broadly defined. Again, some web incumbents will make the transition well, but once again I expect to see new companies gain ground through this disruption.

What do you think will happen in 2011? This time next year ,I’ll look back to see how accurate I was. In the interim, stay tuned for more Lightspeed predictions in other tech sectors over the next few days.

_________________________

* A Lightspeed Portfolio company

How to estimate Lifetime Value; Sample cohort analysis July 19, 2010

Posted by jeremyliew in Ecommerce, ltv, subscription.
42 comments

In many businesses, repeat purchase behavior is a key driver of value. Many companies track % of repeat purchases as a key business metric. This is useful in steady state, but can sometimes be quite misleading if the company is showing substantial growth. By definition, growth implies many first time customers, and the mix of these new customers can distort the view into how much repeat purchase behavior is actually occuring.

I prefer to try to analyze repeat pruchase behavior, and hence, estimate lifetime value, by doing cohort analysis. This is approximate by definition, but it can give you some sense of lifetime value well before you actually see a full customer lifetime, which can help in accelerating decisions about marketing and customer acquisition.  I recently posted about how you can improve LTV and CAC for your subscription or repeat purchase business.  But how do you estimate Lifetime value?

I’ve uploaded a spreadsheet with a  sample cohort analysis, using representative but dummy data to illustrate how to do this.

In this particular example, I look at a hypothetical subscription business. Assume that the business has been in operation for one year. First, divide the users into cohorts depending on when they initially subscribed to the service.  I calculate retention at the end of month N by dividing the number of subscribers still subscribing after month N by the total number of subscribers that started in each cohort.  These are the numbers in blue. Obviously, for the subscribers that started in month 1, we have 12 months of retention data, for the subscribers that started in month 2 we have 11 months of retention data, and so on.

By averaging across the cohorts, you can get an average retention rate at the end of one month, two months and so on. As the cohorts age, there are fewer datapoints to average over, and hence the potential for error is greater. However, it is still a useful exercise to get an early indication of how the business looks.

A typical pattern found in subscription businesses is that after a steep drop off after an initial period, month-on-month attrition rates tend to level off. You can see a similar pattern in this example, where after the first month, month-on-month attrition rates are around -6% (ie month N subs ~ 94% of month [N-1] subs).

If you see a pattern like this, you can extrapolate forward using the same month-on-month attrition across several years. As you can see in the model, we extrapolate an average lifetime of 9.77 months by extrapolating forward over 5 years of data.

So if you were a subscription business charging $20/month with 90% gross margins (after accounting for customer service costs for example), then you would attribute a lifetime value for a new customer of 9.77 x $20 x 90% = $176. This sets an upper bound of what you would be willing to pay to acquire a customer (although in practice, you would prefer to see a ratio of CAC/LTV in the 25-35% range).

This example is for a subscription business where the key value driver is the number of active subscribers. However, you can conduct similar analysis on any type of repeat behavior business. In a social business the metric might be activity (e.g. how many users posted a photo this month), and in a social game the metric might be dollars spent in virtual goods that period. The measurement periods may vary according to the tempo of the business. Many social games do their cohort analysis on a daily or weekly basis,  whereas some ecommerce companies whose purchases are less frequent may do their cohort analysis on a quarterly basis.  This will dictate how long you have to collect data before you have enough data to project forward.

Different billing mechanisms can complicate this (e.g. an annual billing system will by nature skew average lifetime upwards) and while these can be important levers, it is usually helpful to hold billing constant and compare cohorts on a same-billing basis, at least initially. However, this cohort analysis is also useful tool to see what the impact of changes in billing, registration flow, product features etc can have on retention as you can often see an increase in early month retention from later cohorts.

The spreadsheet for the sample cohort analysis is read only but you can download it to play with it yourself.

I’d love to hear from others how they estimate lifetime value.

UPDATE: June 2012 – I have a new post describing how to estimate lifetime value for an ecommerce business using cohort analysis.

Why Lightspeed invested in Living Social April 29, 2010

Posted by jeremyliew in Ecommerce, growth, local.
Tags: , ,
17 comments

Well, I’ve been busy since the beginning of the year! Earlier this week Lightspeed’s investment in ShoeDazzle was announced, and today our investment in Living Social was announced.

Both companies reflect our belief in entertainment commerce, or push commerce.  The traditional model of ecommerce treated buying things like a chore, crossing things off of a list. Some of the newer commerce models, the ones that are quickly growing to millions in monthly revenue, help users discover great deals and great items that they were not explicitly looking for. By manufacturing serendipity, they help create demand, rather than just fulfilling demand. Living Social falls into this category.

Living Social sends a local deal each day via email (see some examples here) to residents in 18 cities across the US. The deals are usually 50-80% off on a local restaurant, spa, bakery or similar merchant. If the deal appeals to you, you buy it directly from Living Social. Living Social makes money by keeping a cut of the revenue, and sends the rest on to the merchant.

The leader in this category by far is Groupon. Groupon has seen tremendous growth, from $100k in revenue in January 2009 to $10M in revenue in January 2010. Living Social got started 6-9 months after Groupon, but is seeing similar growth. According to Hitwise, traffic in the group buying category is up 72x since last year, with Groupon and Living Social neck and neck for traffic at around 49% each (click through to see the full graph):

Sadly they are not neck and neck for revenue, at least not yet!

There are many entrants into the local deal space, with Techcrunch reporting earlier this month:

When Yipit launched a little over a month and a half ago (!), the startup could already identify 30 daily-deal Web services. Today, the company tracks deals from no less than 66 Groupon-like websites across the United States, more than double the number it counted less than two months ago.

As you can see from the chart above (click through to see the full graph), the 66 companies are delivering 176 daily deals. Since 50+ of these deals are from Groupon, the other companies are averaging 2 cities each. This is an easy category to enter, but I believe that it will be a difficult category in which to scale. Success will depend on building the email subscriber base, which is challenging on a single city basis. The more targeted you want to be, the harder it is, whether you are relying on viral growth or buying advertising. National growth is easier, but requires a national footprint of deals to take advantage of it. That is hard to do, and expensive to do. It is an execution game which will require great management and significant capital.

I suspect some of the other 64 companies will be able to reach viable scale to join Groupon and Living Social. Both companies are well funded, and with very impressive management teams. Anyone hoping to make it to scale will need to bring the same assets to the table.

We’re excited to help Living Social continue in its growth.

Why Lightspeed invested in ShoeDazzle April 28, 2010

Posted by jeremyliew in Ecommerce, growth, subscription.
Tags: , ,
12 comments

Lightspeed led a $13m investment in Shoedazzle, announced yesterday. We are very excited to help Shoedazzle grow.

Shoedazzle is one of the companies that I was thinking of when I wrote about startups that can quickly get to millions in monthly revenue:

… are all taking advantage of one of Lightspeeds consumer internet predictions for 2010,  that direct direct response advertising is getting more efficient. A bad time to sell ads is a good time to buy ads. All these companies are taking advantage of relatively low customer acquisition costs.

If you understand your customer lifetime value, and you can acquire customers for 20-30% of the lifetime value, you are going to make money. Understanding lifetime value is hard for media companies, but it’s easier for gaming companies, ecommerce companies and subscription businesses. They have predictable customer behavior cohorts that can be extrapolated from a few months of data from a representative sample.  Running an aggressive positive arbitrage while online media is cheap has allowed all of these companies to grow revenue very fast once they get the micro-economics right.

The company is based outside of Silicon Valley (LA) and is definitely built on the back of business model innovation, as are many of the current crop of fast growth companies.

Shoedazzle has a terrific user value proposition. A member first takes a style quiz to assess her taste. Then, on the first of each month, she receives an email with five pairs of shoes that have been specially selected for her. If she likes one of the pairs, she buys it. If none of them grab her, she can either skip that month, or request a re-selection and give specific guidance as to what she is looking for (e.g. boots, or higher heels, bolder colors). Women get personal stylist advice and recommendations brought directly to them, helping them to keep abreast of the latest fashion trends.

Thematically, I am very excited about the move towards entertainment shopping, and Shoedazzle falls squarely into this category:

One of the most exciting trends in e-commerce over the last couple of years has been the trend towards “shopping as entertainment”. Traditionally e-commerce has been a chore type activity. Customers know what they are looking for (a digital camera, a new laptop) and are looking for the best product and best price with a very “research” based mindset.

This is quite unlike the real world, where a customer might walk around a mall without any particular purchases in mind, and perhaps opportunistically buy something that caught their eye in their wanderings. There is no real “intent to buy” in a trip to the mall.  It is more like entertainment time which may, or may not, lead to a purchase.

SheoDazzle captures the wonderful serendipity of finding something great as you wander the mall, and brings it into your inbox.

Kim Kardashian is one of  the co-founders of Shoedazzle, and has been instrumental to the success of the company, both through her promotion of the site, and through her fashion input into the shoe selection. But this company is about much more than Kim alone. The company prides itself on delivering terrific experiences to its members, and this has resulted in an incredibly strong and positive community, as reflected by the vibrant wall on its facebook page, the constant tweeting on twitter, and even the unboxing videos on youtube.

Notwithstanding Kim and the community, Shoedazzle is about the shoes.  And that is what has let the company grow through word of mouth. This isn’t the manufactured virality that works so well for facebook apps and early social networks, riding the transports of notifications, invites, wall posts or email importation. This is the real thing, with one happy member telling another about where they got their great shoes.

On the flip side, online commerce is an operationally intensive business. With physical goods, you get lower gross margins then you see in online media. In shoes, return rates can be high (Zappos’s average return rate is 35%). If you care as much about member satisfaction as Shoedazzle does, client care needs a lot of resources. And breaking through the noise and clutter on the consumer web is always difficult. Building a business like shoedazzle is not as easy as simply hacking all night for a few days and standing up a website. It requires deep knowledge of merchandising, logistics, customer care, marketing and promotion.

Shoedazzle has a terrific team of experienced, passionate people (with great shoes!) who are tackling this challenge, and at the end of the day, that is why we invested in ShoeDazzle.

Average Zappos return rate: 35%. Best customer return rate: 50% April 12, 2010

Posted by jeremyliew in Ecommerce, returns.
7 comments

Interesting article about e-commerce return rates at Internet Retailer:

Customers on average return 35% of the items they order from Zappos.com Inc., a web-only retailer of footwear, apparel and other merchandise. But there’s a certain group that returns 50% of what they buy.

Zappos loves those customers.

That’s because those consumers tend to purchase from among Zappos’ most expensive lines of footwear, then happily take advantage of the e-retailer’s generous and well-publicized returns policy: Zappos not only will take back any item within 365 days of delivery, but also pays for the return shipping.

And since it costs the same to ship a $300 pair of pumps as it does to ship a $30 pair of sandals, the Zappos policy of winning over shoppers with its returns policy has helped to bring in high profit margins on many of its orders, says Craig Adkins, vice president of services and operations at Zappos, which was acquired last year by Amazon.com Inc.

“Our best customers have the highest return rates, but they are also the ones that spend the most money with us and are our most profitable customers,” Adkins says.

How can startups quickly get to millions in monthly revenue? April 8, 2010

Posted by jeremyliew in Ecommerce, gaming, local, subscription.
18 comments

The ’05/’06 vintage of web 2.0 startups took advantage of much lower development costs and faster iteration cycles to build compelling products and sizeable user bases without thinking too much about monetization right away. For companies like Youtube and Facebook, this approach worked incredibly well and led to very fast value creation, often in advance of revenue growth.

One of the hallmarks of some of the current generation of “hot companies” is an early focus on business model and revenue generation. This is a cross genre phenomona, including social gaming companies like Zynga, Playfish and Playdom (a Lightspeed portfolio company), flash sales companies like Gilt, Ruelala and HauteLook, local deals sites like Groupon and Living Social, and subscription businesses like LifeLock or Zoosk. All of these companies have seen revenues grow into the millions per month within 12-18 months of launch, which is a pace that has not been seen from previous generations of internet startups.

The success of Zynga, Playfish and Playdom has been well documented. Zynga is doing 10s of millions in monthly revenue, and Playfish and Playdom in the single digit millions per month, all within 24ish months of launch.

In the Flash Sales category, last July Business Insider said of Gilt:

Yesterday, we reported the impressive success of Gilt Groupe, a two-year old ecommerce company that expects to generate about $150 million in revenue this year…

First, growing from $0 to $150 million in revenue in two years is pretty fracking impressive, no matter how you look at it.  That’s way faster than Amazon grew in its first two years, for example.  (Yes, the Internet is much bigger now).

The fact that Gilt’s US business is reportedly cash-flow positive is also very impressive.  It’s one thing to generate a lot of revenue.  It’s another to generate a lot of revenue with enough margin to put the company in the black, which Gilt has reportedly done in the U.S.

Part of the company’s cash-flow generation is the magic of the online sales cash cycle: When you sell online, you often collect cash for your product sales long before you have to pay the vendor you bought the products from.  Amazon benefitted heavily from this dynamic in its early days, and was cash-flow positive long before it started to generate net income.  But part of the cash-flow success is also the power of the business model.

Gilt thinks it can get to $500 million in revenue next year, which seems plausible.  The company is expanding both horizontally into other product categories (it started with fashion, and is now moving into kids, travel, etc.) and other geographies (it already has 20 employees in Japan).

The Economist reported in September that RueLaLa wasn’t far behind:

Ben Fischman, the boss of Rue La La, which started in 2008 and expects to have revenues this year of around $130m, thinks the “theatrical environment” of his site keeps customers hooked. He says retailers became complacent during the boom years and failed to make the most of new technology.

Groupon is on a similar growth path. Since they put  the number of sales and price of each day’s groupon on their website, it is relatively simple to estimate their revenue by adding the implied daily revenue across each of their cities. They went from around $100K in revenue in January 2009 to around $10M in revenue in January 2010 – a 100X increase in just twelve months.

Atul Bagga, Internet Equity Analyst at ThinkEquity, recently published a report based on an interview with the CEO of Zoosk where he notes:

Zoosk is a multi-channel global online dating service with presence on major social networks, online, mobile Web, iPhone application, and desktop client with 50 million registered users/14 million monthly unique users, a $2.5 million monthly revenue run-rate (as of October 2009) and a 20% month/month revenue growth. The company expects its revenue to be more than $200 million by 2011.

Of course, not all the current “hot” companies have taken this approach. Some, like Twitter or FourSquare, have seen enormous growth in usage that has outpaced their revenue growth.

But the categories I outlined earlier are all taking advantage of one of Lightspeeds consumer internet predictions for 2010,  that direct direct response advertising is getting more efficient. A bad time to sell ads is a good time to buy ads. All these companies are taking advantage of relatively low customer acquisition costs.

If you understand your customer lifetime value, and you can acquired customers for 20-30% of the lifetime value, you are going to make money. Understanding lifetime value is hard for media companies, but it’s easier for gaming companies, ecommerce companies and subscription businesses. They have predictable customer behavior cohorts that can be extrapolated from a few months of data from a representative sample.  Running an aggressive positive arbitrage while online media is cheap has allowed all of these companies to grow revenue very fast once they get the micro-economics right.

I get really excited about these types of companies. If you’ve got microeconomics that work like this, email me!

Entertainment commerce January 12, 2010

Posted by jeremyliew in Ecommerce.
1 comment so far

I’m heading to New York (love Virgin America wifi) to speak at the National Retail Federation’s “Big Show” conference tomorrow. As I’ve said before, I’m really excited about the trend towards shopping as entertainment that we’ve been starting to see recently, epitomized by companies like Gilt and HauteLook. I think we’ll see more models of “push commerce” like this and am looking for them at the conference, and in general. If you’re doing things like this, contact me!

In this tough economy, the fastest growing e-commerce sector is … luxury apparel? September 9, 2009

Posted by jeremyliew in Ecommerce.
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One of the most exciting trends in e-commerce over the last couple of years has been the trend towards “shopping as entertainment”. Traditionally e-commerce has been a chore type activity. Customers know what they are looking for (a digital camera, a new laptop) and are looking for the best product and best price with a very “research” based mindset.

This is quite unlike the real world, where a customer might walk around a mall without any particular purchases in mind, and perhaps opportunistically buy something that caught their eye in their wanderings. There is no real “intent to buy” in a trip to the mall.  It is more like entertainment time which may, or may not, lead to a purchase.

We’re starting to see this sort of behavior online as well. Swoopo and Gilt are two companies that are enticing consumers to come and check out “deals” without any particular intent to buy. They are injecting the entertainment factor into e-commerce. The Economist discusses the success of Gilt, Rue-La-La and HauteLook in particular:

THE racks of expensive gowns and shoes sit, serene and mostly untouched, on the floors of Saks Fifth Avenue, Bergdorf Goodman, Bloomingdale’s and almost every fancy department store. In a sign of how consumers’ newfound thrift has hurt luxury retailers, Saks Incorporated, the parent company of Saks Fifth Avenue, recently announced losses of more than $50m in the three months to July. Sales are down more than 20%. The recession, it seems, has spelt an end to Americans’ appetite for luxury—at department-store prices, at any rate.

Yet luxury e-tailers, which sell designer goods online at discounted prices, are flourishing. The slowdown has actually helped them, simultaneously producing seemingly endless supplies of unsold inventory and forcing consumers to tighten their belts. That has let American e-tailers such as Gilt Groupe, HauteLook and Rue La La, and their French rival Vente-privee.com, sell last season’s designer apparel for as much as 80% off the original price.

But low prices are not the websites’ only allure. Their sites are open only to those who have received an e-mail inviting them to join from another member. This lends them an air of exclusivity and creates the sort of buzz marketers crave, says Adam Bernhard, the boss of HauteLook. The sites also put new items on sale at the same time every day for a limited period, usually no more than 24 hours. That makes shopping an urgent and competitive daily activity for many members. (Cleverly, the sites do not say how many items of each size and colour they have, so customers feel even more pressure to buy right away, lest they miss out on the last pair of size 37 hazel Jimmy Choo pumps.)

Designers, for their part, can use the sites to get rid of stock quickly and discreetly, sparing them the disgrace of seeing their heavily discounted products lingering on sale racks in full public view. Most consumers do not even know which designers are available through luxury e-tailers until they become members. The sites shield themselves from search engines, so they do not pop up in response to online searches for the brands they offer. That has encouraged grand firms like Cartier to sell their wares through them.

The Economist notes that RueLaLa started in 2008 and expects revenues this year of around $130m, and that Gilt started in 2007 and expects $400m in revenue next year. That is remarkable growth. Compare this to Zappos which was started in 1999 and took 6-7 years to reach those gross sales levels:

These companies are rapidly growing beyond the US and beyond women’s apparel. The Economist again notes:

Rue La La recently launched an iPhone application to make it easy for members to make purchases while on the move. It has also started selling wine, spa services and travel packages in addition to clothes. Vente-privee.com has even sold yachts and apartments…

E-tailers are also looking to expand geographically. Vente-privee.com has operations in Germany, Britain and Spain as well as France. Gilt recently launched a site in Japan that has over 200,000 members.

This opportunity is not lost on other companies in the value chain. Retailers like Neiman Marcus, financial institutions like American Express and even fashion magazines are all offering limited time deep discount sales to their members and customers now. Companies like Shopittome are re-aggregating sales for consumers.

I’m very interested in watching how this space develops. Do readers know of other interesting trends in entertainment shopping?

Launching new businesses from the ashes of failure August 31, 2009

Posted by jeremyliew in bankrucpcy, Ecommerce, Entrepreneur, turnaround.
2 comments

One of the great stories of Silicon Valley is how Josh Hannah and Jack Herrick bought eHow’s assets at a distressed price after the company went out of business, turned it around with a very low cost model and sold it to Demand Media two years later for a big profit. As Wikipedia notes:

eHow.com was founded in March 1999. The company raised close to $30 million.., hired 200 professional writers, and … employed a 25-person engineering team. By 2001, eHow had created thousands of articles. The professional writing, combined with a TV and radio advertising campaign, briefly made eHow one of the Internet’s top 10 news and information sites. Despite the popularity, eHow was not profitable and was forced to declare bankrupcy when funding ran out.

In 2001, IdeaExchange.com bought eHow out of bankruptcy with the hope of charging eHow’s readers to access how-to instructions. eHow remained unprofitable and in early 2004, IdeaExchange sold eHow to Jack Herrick and Josh Hannah.

Says Josh:

“When I told people what I was doing, they thought I was crazy. Conventional wisdom said content was dead, and there was no way to make money on it. We had a different view. In my experience, the foundation of a great business depends on having a different idea from conventional wisdom and pursuing it in spite of a skeptical market.” says Josh.

Josh and his partner restructured eHow by outsourcing content creation to the community and employing then-new advertising and search engine optimization techniques. In six weeks, they had earned enough from advertising to pay off the cost of the purchase. They increased revenue and traffic 30-fold before selling the company to Demand Media in 2006 for a 400X return.

The NY Times has an interesting article in this Sunday’s magazine which notes that much the same may be happening with Linen’s and Things:

In this instance, control of the Linens ’n Things brand, meaning its trademarks and the like, and its Web site, were acquired for a reported $1 million by a joint venture between Gordon Brothers Brands and Hilco Consumer Capital, divisions of firms with long histories in the bankruptcy business. This entity helped run the Linens ’n Things liquidation, spending four or five months immersed in its unwinding operations in the process. “We learned a lot about the brand and the consumer,” Carlyle Coutinho, vice president of Hilco Consumer Capital, says. “We knew we’d have a very strong e-mail list and a very strong customer base that was very loyal.”Time will tell how loyal shoppers turn out to be to what the Gordon Brothers-Hilco crew concocted: a Web-only version of Linens ’n Things. But a database of five million e-mail addresses isn’t a bad thing for a “new” business to have at its disposal, and certainly not something an online retailer starting from scratch would be likely to have. Nor would a start-up have a nationally recognized name the day it opened…

The proposition of this distinctly Great Recession model is snapping up a valuable asset on the cheap and using the low-labor tools of Web commerce — outsourcing, electronic ordering, etc. — to simulate a version of the original business.The new version of lnt.com that celebrated its “grand reopening” a few months ago may not strike the typical shopper as anything radical. The interesting stuff is in what’s behind the site, or maybe even what isn’t. For instance, the actual operation of lnt.com has been jobbed out to a third party: a San Diego firm called TorreyCommerce that bills itself as “a leading provider of outsourced e-commerce to the home-furnishings industry.”…

Linens ’n Things itself now has few direct employees, or even a full-time chief executive. And while the comeback announcement included a mention of plans to “reinvigorate” the brand, the marketing efforts so far revolve around Internet search ads and promotions sent to the e-mail list.

As companies both big and small go out of business during this great recession, I wonder which of them may yet be reborn by smart, thrifty, scrappy entrepreneurs who know how to keep costs low and, more importantly, variable. Anyone leveraging someone else’s invested capital out of a bankruptcy like this – please email me!

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