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

Joining Australia Post’s “National Conversation”

In a previous blog, I offered some thoughts on the possible digital future for AusPost. In response, I have been contacted by one of their social media consultants, drawing my attention to the “National Conversation“.

First, I acknowledge that AusPost is attempting to have an “open” conversation with customers, but I don’t see how this is really helping, other than generating a range of (conflicting) opinions, with little cohesion around the key issues. Participation rates in the Topics to date has been very erratic (in terms of numbers, and geographic distribution).

Second, I have read CEO Ahmed Fahour’s latest address, and frankly it did not inspire me. Basically, it was a whinge about the decline in letter volume, and the “challenges” of the Internet (which, as he says, has been with us for 25 years…. hardly a new event!) I also think there are some factual inaccuracies in Mr Fahour’s assumptions: I don’t believe that Australians are any less digital citizens than their OECD counterparts – they have always been reasonably early adopters of new technology (as evidenced by the number of smart phones and tablets). Where they have been slow is in moving to online services, but this is in large part due to poor Internet services (notoriously slow connection speeds and restricted bandwidth, and exorbitant access fees), coupled with a paucity of reliable online platforms – which is ironic given the push towards eGovernment, eCommerce and the digital economy around 1999-2001.

Third, and staying on the topic of eCommerce, the one recurring theme that does emerge from the National Conversation so far is the high cost of sending small parcels. I agree with some of the feedback that it is often cheaper (and quicker!) to order consumer items from overseas online retailers. Shouldn’t Australian consumers expect to benefit from the economies of scale to be achieved from a growing parcel business?

Finally, my previous blog suggested that digital transactions are the future for AusPost (while acknowledging the need to maintain its statutory obligations for letter delivery) – but apart from e-mail and bill payments, Mr Fahour’s address was rather silent on this point. That scares me, as it suggests a lack of vision for an integrated digital strategy. After almost 5 years in the job, you’d think a few more ideas would have emerged by now.

(Afterthought: maybe AusPost should check out what Shomi is doing – a local start-up with some smarts in linking the physical and digital worlds.)