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

University Challenge – #Startup Victoria’s Student #Pitch Night

There were around 500 people in the audience for last week’s #StartupVic University Startup Battle, which either says there was nothing better to do on a chilly Melbourne evening, or that this new Meetup format is working – or that the students of today are less interested in finding a job, and more interested in building their own career opportunities that connect with their purpose. (Our political leaders should take note….)

A sell out audience for the University Startup Battle (Image by Stefan Welack sourced from Twitter)

A sell out audience for the University Startup Battle (Image by Stefan Welack sourced from Twitter)

After a series of campus competitions, the finalists on the night were representing 6 of Victoria’s universities, and revealed a wealth of talent, ideas, innovation and inspiration. In order of appearance, the pitches were:

InternMe – (Victoria University)

With a tagline of “Experience the Experience”, this is a 2-sided market for graduate recruitment, that revealed some interesting stats about the student employment market.

Revenue is expected to come from fees for successful placements, and job advertisements. The business plans to cover work experience, internships, part-time and temporary work during study, as well as permanent and full-time roles.

Currently sourcing leads via LinkedIn and social media (notably Instagram), the founders say they may include psychometric profiling tools for better matching applicants with opportunities.

The pitch was to raise $100,000 for website development, but as the judges commented during the Q&A, the biggest challenge is engaging employers. As regular attendees to these pitch nights will recall, this mismatch or disconnect between students/graduates and employers continues to provide startup opportunities.

Printabox – (Swinburne University)

This website is designed to reduce the time, cost and complexity of ordering short-run branded boxes. Basically a self-serve model, the founders have spent $500,000 in development costs, primarily on a proprietary design tool. The resulting products come in 3 standard sizes – perhaps more customisation will become available?

The target clients are the 44,000 online stores in Australia who often need small numbers of branded boxes for sending out customer orders. But as the judges noted (based on a quick online search) there does appear to be a lot of competition. And although Printabox claims that their source code is protected, they have not applied (or are unable to apply) for a design patent.

Mech X Innovation – Project Ora – (Deakin University)

The founders have developed a hardware device that fits on standard tablet computers, and is designed to help children reduce and prevent eyesight damage caused by too much screen time, and by being too close to the device.

Essentially a Bluetooth-enabled accessory linked to an app, Ora monitors the amount of user screen time, proximity to the device and ambient lighting, and can be used in conjunction with “time outs”, scheduled messages and reminders to “go and do something else”. It can be semi-customised, so that parents can create a reward system, for example.

According to the designers, the competitor products (Appomate and samtime) are app-based only, and focus on time and distance – not lighting. Ora may also integrate with other devices, e.g. FitBit, but the target market is children and teenagers up to age 18, and their parents.

Asked about their path to market, they are planning a crowdfunding campaign. The key to adoption, though, will be via schools (who either provide or prescribe what devices pupils use) and schools suppliers (e.g., digital text books and e-learning tools).

ICallDibs – (Monash University)

This idea grew out of direct user experience, namely how can overseas students coming to Melbourne buy and sell furniture? The business is aiming to provide a market place for “Second Hand Furniture, First Class Deals”.

The biggest challenges faced by international students when buying/selling furniture are transportation, timing and finding buyers/sellers. The business will offer bundled services, including storage and removals/delivery, via partnerships.

The company aims to target international student agencies, and will ensure better matching between buyers and sellers (although they may want to consider changing the name unless they can trademark it….).

Rather than an “Ask”, the team offered a “Give” in the form of a customer discount for the evening’s attendees.

When asked about logistics and insurance, the founders clarified that the counterparts (buyer and seller) bear the direct risk. The business takes their commission upfront, then release the order details to the customers.

Assignment Hero – (Melbourne University)

It felt that this app, a collaboration tool for group work (sort of Slack for education?) was speaking to the converted, given the audience response. In short, having access to lots of different collaboration tools sounds great, but they each only do one or two things (albeit, really well). And if you use more than one app, you end up with too many tools and too many notifications.

While students may hate group assignments, they’re an important aspect of learning how to work with other people and acquiring other soft skills. They also seem to comprise a greater component of student assessments – possibly because they require less direct teacher-student face time?

Rather than build a whole new system, the founders have opted for native integration with Google Docs, plus some dashboard reporting tools (including the amount of individual input to a project).

The app is free to end users, but will generate revenue from education providers (enterprise sales) and on-demand services and commissions. When asked about existing tools like Moodle and Blackboard, the founders noted that these were designed for teaching, not collaboration.

It was also noted that existing productivity apps are not easily accessible by students (although no doubt, as with education content providers, enterprise app vendors will make student versions and pricing available). Plus, the “edtech” sector is of particular interest when linked to life-long learning, professional development and self-directed study.

Eat Up – (RMIT)

Finally, Eat Up is a social enterprise trying to address the number of school children who turn up at school without anything for lunch – estimated to be as many as 1 in 8 schoolchildren. Personally, I find this an indictment on our society – why should anyone in Australia need to go without basic food? – but the causes/reasons are far too complex to address here.

Essentially a partnership for sourcing, assembly and distribution, Eat Up has created a service model which they hope to roll out in more and more schools. They tap into the established Food Bank network for supplies, engage TAFEs to prepare the lunches, and use OzHarvest and SecondBite for logistics. There has also been support from Virgin Australia, ygap, Karma Canteen and Education Changemakers.

Eat Up aims to avoid passing on the costs to kids, parents or schools, and in part takes inspiration from another social enterprise, Thank You Water.

During a panel Q&A, the founders were asked about the apparent lack of technical skills or resources on their teams. In response, it was noted that there are many open source apps, available templates and market places for code and plugins. One founder commented that despite studying computer science, he used very little of what he learned to develop his app.

Revealing another apparent weakness in their pitches, the founders were quizzed on their respective sales models, costs of acquisition and pathway to revenue. The responses suggested that the startups risk being limited by their own inexperience, and that they each need to do more market analysis, assessment of customer willingness/ability to pay, and identify the best ways to scale their businesses.

There was also a lack of clarity around near-term goals and milestone planning.

In the end, the winner was Assignment Hero, no doubt reflecting the needs of the audience, plus the fact that the business has gained traction with some universities.

Next week: ASIC’s new regulatory sandbox for #FinTech #startups