Building a Global/Local Platform with Etsy

In a recent and very informative fireside chat, Linda Kozlowski, COO of Etsy was in conversation with Sarah Moran, CEO of Girl Geek Academy. Key themes of the discussion included the challenges in building a “global/local” platform, making sure you are addressing the right audience needs, and in a two-sided market place, knowing how to balance the interests of sellers and buyers.

etsyOrganised by StartupVic and hosted by inspire9, it was yet another example of how fortunate Melbourne is to attract and host so many leading global figures in the startup world, willing to share their insights (as well as learn more about the local startup scene – which probably does not get as big a rap as it should, especially in mainstream media).

With previous operational roles at both Alibaba and Evernote, Linda brings a strong combination of experience in tech and market places, and describes her current position as covering “CX and revenue from end-to-end”. Her primary focus is on product development, global expansion and addressing sellers’ problems.

At Etsy, the aim is to develop a global product platform that is culturally diverse. There is a natural tension between fully localised customisation (which can be costly to maintain – translation, version control, managing updates), and a “best of breed” model that can serve most users (which can lead to too many compromises). So instead, Etsy pursues a strategy of locally originated products and features, combined with open APIs.

Etsy has also identified sellers as their core audience. This means that so much of the CX is actually determined by sellers’ needs, to whom Etsy then serves up customers to the platform via social media, content marketing and SOE. Etsy sees this as a point of differentiation when considering traditional retailers who often end up squeezing their suppliers on pricing and margins.

In balancing the needs of two-sided markets, again Etsy focuses on the seller first – because buyers want to see depth of inventory and a range of quality products, so get sellers on-board and the buyers will come.

Asked how Etsy avoids buyers going direct to suppliers, Ms Kozlowski commented that it all really depends on where transactions happen: make the CX is so sticky that sellers want to stay on the platform, offer great seller features, and bring in quality buyers. On the other hand, it’s a healthy market place, so there is no mandating or exclusivity – because of course, successful sellers will sell in multiple places.

Etsy believes in investing in the right technology and the right marketing at the same time. For example, although the business was started in 2004, Etsy only began brand marketing in 2016. The types of marketing deployed include storytelling, identifying key differentiators, understanding customer influences, extensive content strategy, plus performance marketing (site traffic, SEO) to see what else customers may be looking for. According to Ms Kozlowski, a retail site should spend about 20-30% of revenue on marketing, otherwise you are buying traffic and customers (red flag to investors!) Alternatively, establish some ROI goals for marketing costs, especially performance marketing, and during the startup phase (up to 1 year) begin with 15-20% of revenue.

At the heart of Etsy’s business model is an evolving technology and e-commerce platform that allows micro-businesses to run at scale. The USP is a community of network effects: 1.7m sellers, 27m buyers, 40m products, 12,000 “teams”, whose “captains” recruit other sellers. (Australia is actually in Etsy’s Top 5 markets.) In addition, Etsy aims to act with integrity in respect to dispute resolution and addressing fraud – they use machine learning to detect rogue sellers (although often, buyer disputes are a reflection of seller inexperience, rather than fraudulent behaviour). Etsy also offers training and support to resolve disputes, and the community is very good at policing itself.

What are some of the unexpected challenges of market places? When it comes to distinguishing between commodity items and unique creative products, technology will under-price and displace commodity goods that are easily made. It’s also important to build human-to-human connections, and to have a global perspective – for reasons of quality and diversity, and not self-limiting your business, especially when it comes to managing different market and economic cycles. Remember to “follow the data”, and anticipate demand and trends. Among some of the technology challenges, dealing with different devices in different countries can be an issue.

In conclusion, Ms Kozlowski offered some advice for anyone thinking of launching a market place:

First, consider why there are very few local e-commerce markets in Australia (from my personal perspective it’s a complex mix of retailers getting burned in the dotcom boom/bust, cosy market duopolies, and perpetual geo-blocking…). But let’s not forget that Alibaba has just opened its Australian & New Zealand HQ in Melbourne, likely to ruffle a few feathers in the retail sector.

Second, embrace a local/global mix (for the reasons mentioned above)

Third, don’t price too low (although Australia is notorious for being a “price-sensitive” market…).

Finally, the conversation ended with a tantalising glimpse of “the future consumer” (Gen Z) where makers connect directly with buyers.

Next week: Spaceship launches the future of superannuation

Update on the New #Conglomerates

My blog on the New Conglomerates has proven to be one of the most popular I have written. I’d been contemplating an update for a while, even before I heard this week’s announcement that Verizon is buying the bulk of Yahoo!. Talk about being prescient…. So, just over two years later, it feels very timely to return to the topic.

Image sourced from dc.wikia.com

Image sourced from dc.wikia.com

Of the so-called FANG tech stocks, when I was writing back in May 2014, Facebook had recently acquired WhatsApp and Oculus VR. However, apart from merging Beats Music into its own music service, Apple has not made any big name deals, but has made a number of strategic tech acquisitions. Meanwhile, Amazon has attempted to consolidate its investment in delivery company, Colis Privé, but got knocked back by the French competition regulators. Netflix finally launched in Australia in March 2015, and within 9 months had 2.7 million customers, a growth rate of 30% per month. Finally, Google has since renamed itself Alphabet, and purchased AI business Deep Mind.

Over the same period, Microsoft appears to have reinvigorated its strategy: back in May 2014, Microsoft had just completed its acquisition of Nokia. Since then, Microsoft has announced it is buying LinkedIn (following the latter’s purchase of Lynda.com in 2015), but has also shut down Yammer, which it had only bought in 2012. The acquisition of LinkedIn has been framed as a way to embed corporate, business and professional customers for its desktop and cloud-based productivity tools (and maybe give a boost to its hybrid tablet/laptop PCs). On the other hand, Microsoft has a terrible track record with content-based products and services, as evidenced by the Encarta fiasco, and the fact that Bing is an also-ran search engine. I think the jury is still out on what this transaction will really mean for LinkedIn’s paying customers.

So, what are the big tech themes, and where are the New Conglomerates competing with each other?

First, despite being the “next big thing”, VR/AR is still some way off being fully mainstream (although Pokémon GO may change that….). Apple and Google will continue to go head-to-head in this space.

Second, content streaming is not yet the new “rivers of gold” for publishing (and the sale of Yahoo! might confirm that there’s still gold in those advertising hills….). But music streaming (Apple, Spotify, Amazon and Google – plus niche services such as Bandcamp and Mixcloud) is gaining traction, and Amazon is building more content for SVOD (to compete with Netflix, Apple and Google). But quality public broadcasters such as BBC, ABC and NPR are making great strides into audio streaming (via native apps and platforms like TuneIn) and podcasting. One issue that remains is the fact that digital downloads and streaming still suffer from geo-blocking, and erratic pricing models.

Third, Amazon continues to build out its on-line retail empire, even launching private label groceries. Amazon will also put more of a squeeze on eBay, which does not offer fulfillment, distribution or logistics and is a less attractive platform for local used-goods sellers compared to say, Gumtree.

Fourth, Amazon is making a play for the Internet of Things (which, for this discussion, includes drones), but both Apple and Google, via their hardware devices, OS capabilities and cloud services, will doubtless give Amazon a run for its money. Also, watch for how Blockchain will impact this sector.

Finally, payments, AI, robotics, analytics and location-based services all continue to bubble along – driven by, for example, crypto-currencies, medtech, fintech, big data and sentiment-based predictive tools.

Next week: Another #pitch night in Melbourne…

 

 

 

 

Customer service revisited: Navigating The Last Mile

From time to time, I like to comment on the current state of customer service, because this is still one of the key areas where companies can differentiate themselves. So, based on recent experiences with a bank, an insurer, a telco and an e-commerce site, I’m sharing my thoughts on the Last Mile – where even great products and great companies can fall down due to their inability to truly understand the customer experience they create.

Image sourced from LinkedIn

Image sourced from LinkedIn

1. The Bank

After waiting over 30 minutes in a call-centre queue, I eventually spoke to someone who said she could help me with a query regarding the disparity in the amount and rate of interest earned on one of my savings accounts. But first, I was given a choice: either accept an instant $50 “goodwill” payment now, or wait for the outcome of her investigation. Because the amount I was querying was several times that offer, I requested she look into the matter further.

Leaving aside the fact that she failed to get back to me within her stated timeframe (I only managed to re-engage the bank when I queried the lack of response via their social media account…), it transpires that she gave me incorrect product information. This underscores one of my main complaints about customer service – inadequate product and process training. Her supervisor who picked up the query then offered me a $10 “goodwill” payment for my trouble (overlooking I had already been offered $50!).

It was only when I insisted that the amount I was potentially out-of-pocket was closer to $300, and following a protracted and somewhat terse negotiation did the supervisor choose to exercise her (undefined) discretion and settle for an amount in between $50 and $300. While the outcome was closer to what I had expected, the customer service process and experience were far from satisfactory.

2. The Insurer

My home and contents policy recently came up for renewal. I noticed that, even with a customer loyalty discount, the premium increase was far higher than current CPI. It seemed to me that a previous “special discount” I had been offered when I last updated my policy at a bricks and mortar branch, rather than by phone or online, was now being clawed back (and then some) with the latest premium increase.

So, I shopped around online and found a better deal. When I rang the original insurer to advise them I was cancelling and taking my business elsewhere, they said: “Is there anything we can do to keep your business?”. My response was, “Too late.”

I accept that premiums may have to increase. But rather than simply sending out a renewal notice asking for more money, I think the better strategy would be to provide an explanation for the increase, and demonstrate the additional value I would be getting for renewing my policy. I resent being taken for granted, because the insurer clearly assumed I would simply pay the increase on demand, and only attempted to offer a better deal when I rang up to cancel.

3. The Telco

Late last year, I switched telcos, because the service was increasingly reliable, and I had experienced poor customer service from the start of my contract. In the process of transferring my mobile, fixed line and internet accounts, I notified the telco that I was dissatisfied with their service, and was taking my business elsewhere. I also initiated the return of my telco-supplied modem, to avoid incurring any additional fees or expenses. 

However, the telco continued charging me for certain services, long after I had discontinued using them, and 2-3 months after they had been ported over to my new service provider.* I requested the refund of the overpayments. The telco refused, because they claimed they had not actually been formally notified that I wished to cancel the services. So I lodged a complaint via the TIO, but the telco still denied any liability, and refused to refund my money.

Eventually, a TIO Investigation Officer was assigned to my case, and he agreed that on any reasonable reading of my complaint, the telco should have concluded that I was cancelling the service. The telco continued to resist my request for a refund:

E-mail received May 31: “[We have] reviewed the complaint and have decided that we will not be changing our position on the matter.”

I believe that the Case Officer then suggested that the telco listen again to the calls I had made, and place them in the context of the other contemporaneous events and the full history of my contract. He also advised the telco that he was prepared to initiate a full and formal investigation of the complaint.

Only then (and in a remarkably speedy U-turn, worthy of a politician) did the telco respond:

E-mail received June 7: “Thank you for your time and patience throughout this case, it is really appreciated (sic). We apologise for the poor level of service you’ve received that led you to escalate to this point. This is not the kind of service we want our customers to experience and it’s very unfortunate that you have to go through this, especially after you cancelled as a result of the poor service.
 
We will be crediting the account with $XX for the period from the XXth December 2015 to the XXth February 2016 when the service was active after it should have been terminated.”

I’m clearly grateful to the TIO for their assistance, but frankly, it shouldn’t have to get to that point. For an organisation that prides itself on superior customer service, the telco in question clearly does not understand customer experience.

4. E-commerce

There are several reasons why I prefer to order online, rather than buy from local shops: convenience, choice, availability, service and often price as well. Speed of delivery is usually not a factor, especially when ordering from overseas (although in many cases, ordering from overseas can be quicker than buying from a local online store).

However, I’ve recently experienced some delays in overseas deliveries, and upon investigating the matter, discovered that, quite apart from a lack of knowledge on the part of some customer service reps (that old chestnut), the multiple links in the supply chain can result in mis-communication and mis-alignment of their respective operating systems.

For example, if the online retailer does not actually fulfill the order, or if they or their nominated carrier outsources customs clearance and/or the final delivery, there may be as many as 6 or 7 hand-off stages in the process. Unless all the back-end platforms talk to each other (and in the same language), the risk of stuff falling between the cracks is very high.  (The notion of same-day delivery by drone is probably some way off…)

What is particularly frustrating is when one part of the vendor’s website has the (overdue) ETA as one date, but another part of the same website shows a much later ETA – even within a single platform! Perhaps if retailers got their upstream systems in order, the Last Mile would be more likely to take care of itself?

*Footnote: My original provider is merely a re-seller, and therefore is subject to wholesale access provisions. According to some information I received from my new provider, it is illegal for a telco to charge for services over which they no longer have any control or access.

Next week: Field report from Melbourne #Startup Week