Long-term profitability is the only growth metric that matters

Your company’s one metric that matters (OMTM) shouldn’t be return on investment (ROI), return on ad spend (ROAS), net promoter score (NPS), brand affinity or one of the other sophisticated-sounding acronyms marketers use to gauge success.

Your company’s one metric that matters should be long-term profitability.

Put another way, your business should be singularly focused on how much money it can return to its owners, investors and shareholders. Sounds obvious, right?

You’d be surprised: A majority of Fortune 500 and Silicon Valley startup marketing budgets aren’t optimized for long-term profitability.

Instead, budgets are often optimized for secondary or upper-funnel metrics. Besides tracking ROI, ROAS, NPS and brand affinity, many marketers monitor key performance indicators (KPI) like net revenue, customer acquisition cost (CAC), cost per thousand (CPM) and brand recall — none of which directly correlate with long-term profitability.

In fact, many brands’ marketing departments frequently omit the word “profit” all together from the line items and KPIs in their monthly performance reports.

A good way to think about the futility of the KPI status quo is the following fictional scenario, which reflects the marketing and advertising playbooks of a shockingly large segment of American businesses: Main Street Shoes spends $100 on a Facebook ad campaign to promote a new line of sneakers to Jack and Andrew. As a result of the retailer’s Facebook ad campaign, Jack and Andrew each spend $100 to buy new sneakers.

In uncertain times, jump start your SEO

As a result of the current economic volatility many startups and even established companies are proceeding with caution on paid marketing that is typically lower in the purchase funnel. Sales and funnel and buying behavior has changed and it is hard to have confidence in advertising models that used to work at the beginning of the year.

Therefore, this is an ideal time to develop or ramp up organic search engine optimization efforts. If you have not yet invested in SEO, these are the seven steps you can take immediately to get started.

1. Get your search data house in order

Tools to help you organize your search data include Google Search Console. These tools are geared toward helping you get the best type of search data possible by search traffic and performance for your website, as well as identifying issues that you can fix to improve your Google Search results.

Although there are beneficial tools available that show visibility, which helps you see who ranks on what, those work primarily for tracking competitors. To understand your own visibility as well as the keywords and pages that drive organic traffic to your site, Google Search Console delivers that data.

2. Conduct a technical SEO audit

The goal of a technical SEO audit is to find specific SEO issues that keep your website from ranking. These SEO issues could include things like a missing no-index tag, too many H1 tags, low value pages, 404 errors and duplicate content.

There are many SEO audit tools available that can help you catch these issues. With Google’s ongoing algorithm updates, a technical SEO audit can help ensure your website is optimized for these changes.

A COVID-19 resilience test for B2B companies

COVID-19 has transformed the global business landscape.

So much so that in a matter of weeks after the onset of the pandemic in the United States, Congress provided more than $1.1 trillion in fiscal stimulus directly to businesses and distressed industries — four times more than was distributed during the 2008-09 financial crisis.

It came as no surprise when, at the start of COVID-19, venture capital investors largely went pencils-down for several weeks and shifted their focus to their existing portfolio companies. Extending company runways, preparing for longer funding cycles and managing operations in a novel business environment became the crux of company resilience. Now, moving into May, we can see this shift reflected in both the decline in number of early-stage companies funded and total capital invested.

As investors begin acclimating to this new normal, they have begun wading into new opportunities in time-proven, healthy industries and new emerging industries that are positioned to succeed during the pandemic. While we are seeing lower valuations, we believe certain B2B technology companies may be uniquely poised to thrive, and are pursuing investment opportunities in this space with a renewed focus.

Image Credits: Crunchbase Data via Tableau Public

*Excluding Biotech & Pharmaceuticals (Source: Crunchbase Data via Tableau Public)

Prior to COVID-19, early-stage B2B investors wanted to see strong growth and healthy unit economics; 3X year-over-year sales growth or 10% monthly growth was the gold standard. An LTV-to-CAC ratio over 3X signified a healthy payback cycle. There was less focus on capital efficiency; for every $1 million invested, investors were happy with $500,000 in generated revenues. Get to these numbers and your next funding round was guaranteed — but no longer.

During COVID, and likely beyond, company expectations and goalposts have been adjusted; 2X year-over-year growth may be the new 3X. While growth and unit economics are important, there are now new health indicators that will determine if a B2B company will thrive in a post-COVID world. With that in mind, we have put together a COVID reslience test that startups can use as a north star to grow their business in this new world.

This COVID-19 test is meant to be a gated checklist that will indicate where efforts should be focused, whether it be sales, product or finance. Before we leave you to your own devices, we wanted to walk through a couple of these new post-COVID questions that you should try to answer (and why they are relevant).

The best investment every digital brand can make during the COVID-19 pandemic

Intuitively, stores that sell online should be making a killing during the COVID-19 pandemic. After all, everyone is stuck at home — and understandably more willing to shop online instead of at a traditional retailer to avoid putting themselves and others at medical risk. But the truth is, most smaller online stores have seen better days.

The primary challenge is that smaller shops often don’t have the logistics networks that companies like Amazon do. Consequently, they’re seeing substantially delayed delivery timelines, especially if they ship internationally. Customers obviously aren’t thrilled about that reality. And in many cases, they’re requesting refunds at a staggering rate.

I saw this play out firsthand in April. At that point, my stores were down 20% or in some cases even 30% in revenue. Needless to say, my team was freaking out. But there’s one thing we did that helped us increase our revenue over 200% since the pandemic, decrease refund requests and even strengthen our existing customer relationships.

We implemented a 24-hour live chat in all of our stores. Here’s why it worked for us and why every digital brand should be doing it too.

Avoid the common ‘unreachability’ frustration

When I started my first online store in 2006, challenges that bogged my team down often meant that my team’s first priority became resolving those challenges so that we could serve our customers faster. But admittedly, when these challenges came up, it became more difficult to balance communicating with our customers and resolving the issues that prevented us from fulfilling their orders quickly.

DHL acquires stake in Link Commerce developed by MallforAfrica

DHL has acquired a minority stake in Link Commerce, a turn-key e-commerce company that grew out of MallforAfrica.com — a Nigerian digital-retail startup.

Link Commerce offers a white-label solution for doing digital-sales in emerging markets.

Retailers can plug into the company’s e-commerce platform to create a web-based storefront that manages payments and logistics.

With the investment one of the world’s largest delivery services looks to build a broader client-base globally using a business built in Africa.

DHL is trying to get their hands more into global e-commerce…across the world and they figured our platform was a good way to do it,” Link Commerce CEO Chris Folayan told TechCrunch.

Folayan originally founded MallforAfrica, which paved the way for Link Commerce. DHL’s investment in the company —  the amount of which is undisclosed — has roots in collaboration with Folayan’s original startup.

MallforAfrica began a partnership with DHL in 2015 and launched DHL Africa eShop in 2019. The sales platform is powered by Link Commerce and has brought more than 200 U.S. and U.K. sellers — from Neiman Marcus to Carters — online to African consumers in 34 countries.

DHL AFRICA ESHOP MAP

Image Credits: DHL

Similar to MallforAfrica’s model, Africa eShop allows users to purchase goods directly from the websites of any of the app’s partners.

For the global retailers selling on Africa eShop, the hurdles that held back distribution on the continent — payments, currency risk, logistics — are handled by the underlying Link Commerce operating platform.

“That’s what our service does. It takes care of that whole ecosystem to enable global e-commerce to exist, no matter what country you’re in,” Folayan told TechCrunch in 2019.

Link Commerce was built out of Folayan’s startup MallforAfrica.com, which he founded in 2011 after studying and working in the U.S.

A common practice among Africans — that of giving lists of goods to family members abroad to buy and bring home — highlighted a gap between supply and demand for the continent’s consumer markets.

With MallforAfrica Folayan aimed to close that gap by allowing people on the continent to purchase goods from global retailers directly online.

MallforAfrica and Link Commerce founder Chris Folayan, Image Credits: MallforAfrica

The e-commerce site went on to onboard over 250 global retailers and now employs 30 people at order processing facilities in Oregon and the UK.

MallforAfrica’s Africa eShop expansion put it on a footing to compete with Pan African e-commerce leader Jumia — which went public on the NYSE in 2019 — and China’s Alibaba, anticipated to enter online retail on the continent at some point.

The Link Commerce, DHL deal won’t change that, but Folayan has shifted the hirearchy of his businesses to make Link Commerce the lead operation and Africa one market of many.

Image Credits: Link Commerce

“We changed the structure. So now Link Commerce is above MallforAfrica and MallforAfrica is now powered by Link Commerce,” Folayan explained on a recent call.

“Right now the focus is on Africa…but we’re taking this global,” he added.

Folayan and DHL plan to extend the platform to emerging markets around the world, where other companies may look to grow by wrapping an online store, payments, and logistics solution around their core business.

That could include any large entity that wants to launch an international e-commerce site, according to Folayan.

“Link Commerce is focused on banks, mobile companies, shipping companies and partnering with them to expand globally,” he said.

That’s a big leap from Folayan’s original venture, MallforAfrica.com

What began as a startup to sell brand name jeans and sneakers online in Africa, has pivoted to a global e-commerce fulfillment business partially owned by logistics giant DHL.

Amazon calls on Congress to create anti-price gouging law

Amazon has received a fair amount of criticism for perceived inaction against seller price gouging during the COVID-19 pandemic. While the retail giant has made efforts to rein in the opportunist activity (pulling some half a million offending listings), critics have pointed to the company’s slow response, along with continued problems with a number of high-demand products sold through affiliates.

Today, however, the company’s VP of Public Policy, Brian Huseman, penned an open letter to Congress, asking lawmakers to make price gouging illegal during a national crisis. The executive notes that the policy has been an effective tool in states like Tennessee where such laws already exist.

“Our collaborative efforts to hold price gougers accountable have clarified one thing: to keep pace with bad actors and protect consumers, we need a strong federal anti-price gouging law,” Huseman writes. “As of now, price gouging is prohibited during times of crisis in about two-thirds of the United States. The disparate standards among states present a significant challenge for retailers working to assist law enforcement, protect consumers, and comply with the law.”

Jeff Bezos also addressed the issue in his annual shareholder letter last month, writing, “To accelerate our response to price-gouging incidents, we created a special communication channel for state attorneys general to quickly and easily escalate consumer complaints to us.”

The company has certainly taken some efforts to curb the act. As it notes, nearly 4,000 seller accounts have been suspended in the U.S. store for policy violations. But a cursory search for in-demand products yields plenty of prohibitively expensive listings for once-ubiquitous household products. Home cleaning supplies in particular have seen a massive spike in pricing.

We asked Thinknum to chart the price of Clorox-branded items from late last year through now and the graph speaks for itself:

As retail store shelves have gone bare, Amazon has become an essential lifeline for many — a fact that plenty of predatory sellers have been more than happy to capitalize on. Beyond essential supplies, prices have gone through the roof for a number of products currently in short demand, such as the Nintendo Switch, which has been squeezed through a combination of increased interest and supply chain issues.

The company rightfully notes that enforcing such policies as a matter of the law will be a kind of juggling act. “Put simply, we want to avoid the $400 bottle of Purell for sale right after an emergency goes into effect, while not punishing unavoidable price increases that emergencies can cause, especially as supply chains are disrupted,” Huseman writes. “Furthermore, any prohibitions should apply to all levels of the supply chain so that retailers and resellers are not forced to bear price gouging increases by manufacturers and suppliers.”

Replacing plastic with plant pulp for sustainable packaging attracts a billionaire backer

In a small suburb of Melbourne, two entrepreneurs are developing a technology that could mean big changes for the packaging industry.

Stuart Gordon and Mark Appleford are the co-founders of Varden, a company that has developed a process to take the waste material from sugarcane and convert it into a paper-like packaging product with the functional attributes of plastic. 

Their technology managed to grab the attention — and $2.2 million in funding — from Horizons Ventures, the venture capital fund managing the money of Li Ka-Shing one of the world’s wealthiest men.

It’s an opportune time to launch a novel packaging technology since the European Union has already instituted a ban on single use plastic items, which will go into effect in 2021. Taking their lead, companies like Nestle and Walmart have pledged to use only sustainable packaging for products beginning in 2025.

The environmental toll that packaging takes on the earth’s habitats is already a concern for most concerns and the urgency to find a solution is only mounting with consumers and businesses actually producing more waste in the rush to change consumer behavior and socially distance as a result of the COVID-19 global pandemic.

“I like technologies that focus on carbon reductions,” said Chris Liu, Horizons Ventures’ representative in Australia.

A longtime tech and product executive who had stints at Intel and Fjord, a digital design studio, Liu relocated to Australia recently and has actually taken himself off the grid.

Living in Western Australia, the climate emergency was brought directly to the top of Liu’s mind when the wildfires, which raged through the country, came within two kilometers of his new home. 

For Mark Appleford, it wasn’t so much the fires as it was the garbage that kept washing up on the shores of his beloved beaches.

Over beers at a barbecue he began talking to his eventual co-founder, Stuart Gordon, about the environmental problem they’d solve if they had the ability to change things. They settled on plastics.  

Working in Appleford’s laundry room they started developing the technology that would become Varden. That early laundry room-work in 2015 led to a small seed round and the company’s long slog to get an initial product in the hands of test customers.

Finagling some time with the New Zealand manufacturer Fisher and Paykel, the two co-founders put together an early prototype of their coffee pods made from sugarcane bagasse, a waste byproduct of the sugar feedstock.

“We worked backwards through customers to supply chain, which led us to material selection, which was something that would allow us to create a product that people understood,” said Gordon.

The production process has evolved to fit inside a 40 foot container that holds the firm’s machine which takes agricultural waste and converts that waste into packaging.

Instead of using rollers like a paper mill, Varden’s technology uses a thermoform to mold the plant waste into a product that has the same properties as plastic.

It removes a complicated step that’s been essential to the current crop of bioplastics which use bacteria to convert plant waste into plastic substitutes that are then sold to the industry.

“It looks like paper… you can tear it in half and it sounds like paper when you rip it, and you can throw it in the bin,” said Appleford. 

Gordon said that the company’s containers are outperforming commodity based plastics. And the first target for replacement, the founders said, is coffee capsules.

“We went for coffee because it’s the hardest,” said Appleford.

It’s also a huge market, according to the company. Varden estimates that there are over 20 billion coffee pods consumed every year.

With the new money, Varden will begin manufacturing at scale to meet initial demand from pilot customers and is hoping to expand its product line to include medical blister packs in addition to the coffee pods.

“A pilot plant on the products we’re looking at is a pilot plant that can generate 20 million units a year,” said Gordon.

Both men are hoping that their product — and others like it — can usher in a generation of new sustainable packaging materials that are better for the environment at every stage of their life cycle.

“The next generation of packaging will be better… there are plant-based flexibles for your salads for your potato chips… [But] the next generation of molded packaging is us… bioplastic will ultimately go.”

 

Coronavirus could push consumers away from influencers and toward streaming TV

As the nation struggles with a pandemic and economic uncertainty, fundamental shifts in consumer habits are leading marketers to rethink existing strategies and budgets allocated to influencers and streaming TV.

These significant shifts are nothing new; just as the dot-com bubble reduced landline penetration and boosted mobile phone adoption, the last recession pushed traditional ad spend to digital. It was an option before, but the recession accelerated the trend to targeting select audiences on social media platforms, giving rise to influencers.

Today, social media influencers are so ubiquitous, they risk becoming meaningless.

Prior to the onset of coronavirus, we saw the influencer trend diminishing while the streaming TV trend became more prominent. Today, streaming is still trending up and influencers have actually seen increased levels of engagement, but they face credibility issues, which could lead to a reduction in perceived value to brands.

Streaming has similar, if not more, targeting capabilities as social media, but now it has the eyeballs — the captive audience of quarantined Americans — up 20% this March, according to Nielsen. Marketers on a tight budget will be forced to reevaluate their relationships with influencers as they seek to increase ad spend on streaming TV services.

The evolving realms of influencers

How Adobe shifted a Las Vegas conference to executives’ living rooms in less than 30 days

Adobe was scheduled to hold its annual conference in Las Vegas two weeks ago, but the coronavirus pandemic forced the company to make alternate plans. In less than a month, its events team shifted venues for the massive conference, not once, but twice as the severity of the situation became clear.

This year didn’t just involve Adobe Summit itself. To make things more interesting, it was also hosting Magento Imagine as a separate conference within a conference at the same time. (Adobe bought Magento in 2018 for $1.6 billion.)

Originally, Adobe had more than 500 sessions planned across four venues on the Las Vegas Strip, with more than 23,000 attendees expected. Combining all of the sponsors, partners and Adobe personnel, it involved more than 40,000 hotel rooms.

Once it became clear that such a large event couldn’t happen, the company reimagined the conference as a fully digital experience.

Plan A

VP of Experience Marketing Alex Amado is in charge of planning Adobe Summit, a tall task under normal circumstances.

“Planning Summit is a year-round endeavor,” he said. “Literally within weeks of finishing one of those Las Vegas events we are starting on the next one, and some of the work actually is on an 18 or 24-month cycle because we have those long-term hotel contracts and all of that stuff.

“For the last 12 months, basically, we had people who were working on what we now call Plan A — and we didn’t know that we needed a Plan B and Plan C — and the original event was going to be our biggest yet.”

2019 Adobe Summit stage in Las Vegas. Photo: Ron Miller/TechCrunch

After the team began to wonder in January if the virus would force them to change how they deliver the conference, they started building contingency plans in earnest, Amado said. “As we got into February, things started looking a little scarier, and it very quickly escalated to the point where we were talking really seriously about Plan B.”

Groupon axes CEO and COO as company looks to mount a recovery during a crisis

While plenty of tech stocks have seen their market caps dive in the past month, Groupon has taken a harder hit than most. The company’s share price has dropped more than 70% in the past five weeks.

The reckoning came for Groupon’s leadership today with both CEO Rich Williams and COO Steve Krenzer ousted. In an announcement, Groupon shared that both execs would be pushed out of their roles and that Groupon’s President of North America Aaron Cooper would serve as interim CEO.

While the impact of COVID-19 on retail across the country will certainly further negatively affect Groupon moving forward, the company was in dire trouble weeks before the crisis fully took root stateside. Groupon took a beating on its Q4 earnings report, where it widely missed expectations and showcased seriously declining revenues.

The company’s board will be leading the search for a full-time chief executive. For the time being, Cooper will be tasked with the company through an undoubtedly rough period as many of its current and potential customers close up shop.

“The disruption created by the global pandemic, however, is significant, and our immediate goal is to help millions of Groupon merchants, customers and employees navigate the massive challenges they face,” interim CEO Aaron Cooper said in a statement.

Groupon’s stock was down a hair on the news, though it has seen some upward movement from its recent all-time low even as the rest of the market has tanked. One wonders whether investors believe that the entire market enduring a crisis could give the company an opportunity to take stock of its future or if they simply think they found the share price’s bottom.