End-to-end operators are the next generation of consumer business

At Battery, a central part of our consumer investing practice involves tracking the evolution of where and how consumers find and purchase goods and services. From our annual Battery Marketplace Index, we’ve seen seismic shifts in how consumer purchasing behavior has changed over the years, starting with the move to the web and, more recently, to mobile and on-demand via smartphones.

The evolution looks like this in a nutshell: In the early days, listing sites like Craigslist, Angie’s List* and Yelp effectively put the Yellow Pages online — you could find a new restaurant or plumber on the web, but the process of contacting them was largely still offline. As consumers grew more comfortable with the web, marketplaces like eBay, Etsy, Expedia and Wayfair* emerged, enabling historically offline transactions to occur online.

More recently, and spurred in large part by mobile, on-demand use cases, managed marketplaces like Uber, DoorDash, Instacart and StockX* have taken online consumer purchasing a step further. They play a greater role in the operations of the marketplace, from automatically matching demand with supply, to verifying the supply side for quality, to dynamic pricing.

The key purpose of being end-to-end is to deliver an even better value proposition to consumers relative to incumbent alternatives.

Each stage of this evolution unlocked billions of dollars in value, and many of the names listed above remain the largest consumer internet companies today.

At their core, these companies are facilitators, matching consumer demand with existing supply of a product or service. While there is no doubt these companies play a hugely valuable role in our lives, we increasingly believe that simply facilitating a transaction or service isn’t enough. Particularly in industries where supply is scarce, or in old-guard industries where innovation in the underlying product or service is slow, a digitized marketplace — even when managed — can produce underwhelming experiences for consumers.

In these instances, starting from the ground up is what is really required to deliver an optimal consumer experience. Back in 2014, Chris Dixon wrote a bit about this phenomenon in his post on “Full stack startups.” Fast forward several years, and more startups than ever are “full stack” or as we call it, “end-to-end operators.”

These businesses are fundamentally reimagining their product experience by owning the entire value chain, from end to end, thereby creating a step-functionally better experience for consumers. Owning more in the stack of operations gives these companies better control over quality, customer service, delivery, pricing and more — which gives consumers a better, faster and cheaper experience.

It’s worth noting that these end-to-end models typically require more capital to reach scale, as greater upfront investment is necessary to get them off the ground than other, more narrowly focused marketplacesBut in our experience, the additional capital required is often outweighed by the value captured from owning the entire experience.

End-to-end operators span many verticals

Many of these businesses have reached meaningful scale across industries:

All of these companies have recognized they can deliver more value to consumers by “owning” every aspect of the underlying product or service — from the bike to the workout content in Peloton’s case, or the bank account to the credit card in Chime’s case. They have reinvented and reimagined the entire consumer experience, from end to end.

What does success for end-to-end operator businesses look like?

As investors, we’ve had the privilege of meeting with many of these next-generation end-to-end operators over the years and found that those with the greatest success tend to exhibit the five key elements below:

1. Going after very large markets

The end-to-end approach makes the most sense when disrupting very large markets. In the graphic above, notice that most of these companies play in the largest, but notoriously archaic industries like banking, insurance, real estate, healthcare, etc. Incumbents in these industries are very large and entrenched, but they are legacy players, making them slow to adopt new technology. For the most part, they have failed to meet the needs of our digital-native, mobile-savvy generation and their experiences lag behind consumer expectations of today (evidenced by low, or sometimes even negative, NPS scores). Rebuilding the experience from the ground up is sometimes the only way to satisfy today’s consumers in these massive markets.

2. Step-functionally better consumer experience versus the status quo

Soci raises $80M for its localized marketing platform

Soci, a startup focused on what it calls “localized marketing,” is announcing that it has raised $80 million in Series D funding.

National and global companies like Ace Hardware, Anytime Fitness, The Hertz Corporation and Nekter Juice Bar use Soci (pronounced soh-shee) to coordinate individual stores as they promote themselves through search, social media, review platforms and ad campaigns. Soci said that in 2020, it brought on more than 100 new customers, representing nearly 30,000 new locations.

Co-founder and CEO Afif Khoury told me that the pandemic was a crucial moment for the platform, with so many businesses “scrambling to find a real solution to connect with local audiences.”

One of the key advantages to Soci’s approach, Khoury said, is to allow the national marketing team to share content and assets so that each location stays true to the “national corporate personality,” while also allowing each location to express  a “local personality.” During the pandemic, businesses could share basic information about “who’s open, who’s not” while also “commiserating and expressing the humanity that’s often missing element from marketing nationally.”

“The result there was businesses that had to close, when they had their grand reopenings, people wanted to support that business,” he said. “It created a sort of bond that hopefully lasts forever.”

Khoury also emphasized that Soci has built a comprehensive platform that businesses can use to manage all their localized marketing, because “nobody wants to have seven different logins to seven different systems, especially at the local level.”

The new funding, he said, will allow Soci to make the platform even more comprehensive, both through acquisitions and integrations: “We want to connect into the CRM, the point-of-sale, the rewards program and take all that data and marry that to our search, social, reviews data to start to build a profile on a customer.”

Soci has now raised a total of $110 million. The Series D was led by JMI Equity, with participation from Ankona Capital, Seismic CEO Doug Winter and Khoury himself.

“All signs point to an equally difficult first few months of this year for restaurants and other businesses dependent on their communities,” said JMI’s Suken Vakil in a statement. “This means there will be a continued need for localized marketing campaigns that align with national brand values but also provide for community-specific messaging. SOCi’s multi-location functionality positions it as a market leader that currently stands far beyond its competitors as the must-have platform solution for multi-location franchises/brands.”

How and when to build marketing teams at deep tech companies

Deep tech startups develop cutting-edge innovations with the power to truly revolutionize society. The founding team members at these companies often come from deeply technical backgrounds, which powers rapid product progress but can create bottlenecks on the go-to-market side.

In this post, I outline the answers to four key questions around marketing at early-stage deep tech companies that are post-revenue:

  • What marketing teams at deep tech companies do.
  • When to hire the marketing team.
  • Whether the marketing team needs industry experience.
  • How to source and evaluate talent for the marketing team.

From this post, deep tech startups can formulate their marketing hiring strategy and attract and cultivate top talent to drive their go-to-market plan. Without business execution, even the most groundbreaking innovations do not achieve their intended impact.

What do marketing teams at deep tech companies do?

To set the context, I share below the typical projects of deep tech marketing teams, which look different from marketing in other industries given the greater product focus and complexity, regulatory oversight and longer time to market.

Go-to-market

Marketers leverage the strength of the IP to establish collaborations with large companies, such as pharma companies and institutions, such as the government, universities or hospitals. To this end, marketers develop creative ways to gather lists of, and information on, key contacts at these potential partners. They also build sales collateral, such as demo videos, pitch decks and one-pagers, to more effectively reach and build long-term relationships with these prospects.

More broadly, marketers also develop the go-to-market strategy beyond partnerships. To this end, marketers conduct in-depth market research on business models, monetization strategies and reimbursement channels.

Communications

Marketers create original content to establish the company as a thought leader, build the company’s brand credibility through social media and apply for awards and honors to validate the potential of the company’s solution.

Forecasting

Marketers work with finance and product teams to formulate projections as the company moves into the clinical phase.

When should deep tech companies hire marketers?

The CEO and other members of the founding team take on marketing work in the formation stage to better understand and empathize with the needs, capabilities and opportunities in the department before bringing someone on full time.

Once the product shows signs of repeatable revenue, a marketing lead is needed. Specifically, this is ahead of a large Series A round, after a small Series A round or when a commercial partner has expressed interest in larger, long-term contracts. Instead of the typical chief marketing officer or chief revenue officer title, deep tech startups call this person a chief commercial officer or chief partnerships officer.

For additional support in the formation stage, companies bring on MBA interns and work with their investors. Prior to the Series A, platform teams at deep tech venture-capital funds are hands-on in helping with marketing through actually doing marketing projects for their portfolio companies, ideating on long-term marketing strategy with the founders through regular feedback sessions and connecting founders with vetted marketing contractors or agencies.

For companies that require FDA approval, commercial advisors, consultants and board members fully take on the partnership strategy work (which represents the bulk of the marketing needs) prior to the Series A round. Similarly, external consultants, such as marketing agencies, can take over major projects like launch strategy. External consultants can then join the team should their performance be strong.

For drug-development companies, the marketing leader is most crucial when the company enters the clinical phase and prepares for trials, regardless of funding stage.

Do marketing hires need industry experience?

Of course, it is ideal to hire someone with experience selling into the space and someone who is comfortable with the complex supply chains and long sales cycles. However, if the choice is between someone with functional expertise but no industry expertise and someone with industry experience but limited or no functional expertise, it is better to hire the former candidate and leverage the rest of the team for domain expertise. Deep tech is a niche area, so the other team members can support the marketer in developing industry expertise.

UK on-demand supermarket Weezy raises $20M Series A led by NYC’s Left Lane Capital

Weezy — an on-demand supermarket that delivers groceries in fast times such as 15 minutes — has raised $20 million in a Series A funding led by New York-based venture capital fund Left Lane Capital. Also participating were UK-based fund DN Capital, earlier investors Heartcore Capital and angel investors, notably Chris Muhr, the Groupon founder.

Although the company hasn’t made mention of a later US launch, the presence of US investors would tend to suggest that. Weezy is reminiscent of Kozmo, the on-demand groceries business from the dotcom boom of the late ’90s. However, it differs from Postmates in that it doesn’t do pickups.

The cash injection will be used to expand its grocery delivery service across London and the broader UK, and open two fulfillment centers across London. Some 40 more UK sites are planned by the end of 2021 and it plans to add 50 new employees in the next 4 months.

Launched in July 2020, Weezy uses its own delivery people on pedal cycles or electric mopeds to deliver goods in less than 15 minutes on average. As well as working with wholesalers, it also sources groceries from independent bakers, butchers and markets.

It has pushed at an open door during the pandemic. In Q2 2020 half a million new shoppers joined the grocery delivery sector, which is now worth £14.3bn in the UK, according to research.

Kristof Van Beveren, Co-founder and CEO of Weezy, said in a statement: “People are no longer happy to wait around for deliveries, and there is strong demand for a more efficient service.”

Weezy’s co-founders are Kristof Van Beveren and Alec Dent. Van Beveren is formerly from the consumer goods world at Procter & Gamble and McKinsey & Company, while Dent headed up operations at UK startup Drover and business development at BlaBlaCar.

Harley Miller, managing partner, Left Lane Capital, commented: “Weezy’s founding team have the right balance of drive, experience and temperament to lead in e-commerce innovation
and convenience within the UK grocery market and beyond.”

Nenad Marovac, founder and managing partner, DN Capital, said: “Even before the pandemic, interest in online grocery shopping was on the rise. The first time I ordered from Weezy, my delivery arrived in seven minutes and I was hooked.”

E-commerce infrastructure startup Nacelle closes $18M Series A

Consumer online shopping habits have led to a windfall of revenues for these web storefronts, but COVID-era trends have also breathed new life into the market for developer tools that help e-commerce sites operate more smoothly for shoppers.

LA-based Nacelle is one of many e-commerce infrastructure startups to earn attention from investors amid COVID.

The web services company helps streamline the backends of e-commerce websites with a so-called “headless” platform that shifts how the front end of websites interact with content in the back end. The startup claims its tech can boost performance, promote better scalability, cut down on hosting costs and offer developers a more streamlined experience.

Nacelle has closed an $18 million Series A led by Inovia with participation from Accomplice, Index Ventures, High Alpha, Silas Capital and Lerer Hippeau. The company just closed a $4.8 million seed round in mid-2020, the speedy pace of their Series A’s close seems to speak to the investor enthusiasm that has deepened around companies operating in the e-commerce world.

“It’s not secret that commerce has done well during COVID,” CEO Brian Anderson tells TechCrunch. “Not only did we get this subtle structural change with COVID that I believe is long-lasting, but merchants have been focusing more on performance.”

One of the startup’s central points of focus has been ensuring that they can bring customers onboard its platform without causing undue headaches. It can be “very painful to migrate data” with other services, Anderson says. The company’s service is “anti-rip-and-replace,” meaning potential customers can integrate “without having to be rebuild their stores.”

The firm’s customer base is largely made up of small- to medium-sized e-commerce sites. Nacelle works closely with agencies for customer referrals, also tapping on Anderson’s past contacts from his days running a Shopify Plus agency.

This past August, data from IBM’s U.S. Retail Index suggested that pandemic trends had accelerated the consumer shift from primarily visiting to physical stores to shopping on e-commerce storefronts by roughly five years.

How to convert customers with subscription pricing

The lure of subscription pricing is the guarantee of recurring revenue for your business. Once a customer flips the switch to turn on your subscription, it’s easy money:

  • Easy to recognize your revenue.
  • Easy to determine your margins and profits.
  • Easy to enhance your product and extend that revenue out for months, even years.

While that’s true, converting a subscription customer isn’t as simple as flipping a switch. You can build a platform, launch with fanfare, offer all sorts of incentives and trials to attract potential customers — and watch as they disengage and lapse into limbo.

Contrary to popular belief, subscription pricing doesn’t work because of the lower price point that a monthly installment allows.

That’s the actual guarantee that comes with subscription pricing, which will happen unless you cultivate a funnel that catches potential subscribers as soon as they learn about your product and follows them until their very last sign-in.

I built my first subscription-model product in 1999. I’m currently in early-access on my latest, and I’ve launched a bunch more along the way.

While the customer dynamic has changed over the last 20 years, the conversion process has not. In fact, it’s actually gotten easier to convert and retain customers through the subscription funnel.

Here’s what I’ve learned.

Why subscription pricing works

Subscription pricing is a hot trend in just about every business in every industry. Pay-as-you-go is the new normal from software to retail to service.

In my mind, the major shift occurred when mobile phones started pricing unlimited usage per period instead of fixed or cost per minute. Once usage limits were removed, use cases exploded and the promise of a truly mobile computer was finally realized.

Makers of all stripes learned that lesson: From razors to video streaming to accounting software, pricing models have emerged that focus on time periods instead of units.

But contrary to popular belief, subscription pricing doesn’t work because of the lower price point that a monthly installment allows. It’s effective because a subscription reorients each customer’s mind from product function to value proposition.

I don’t care what kind of German engineering went into my razor blades, as long as I have working blades when I need them.

As an entrepreneur, you probably use at least one digital subscription service to build your own product and company, if not several. In fact, just to get to the MVP of my new project, I subscribed to AWS, MailChimp, Zapier and Bubble. I’m still on the free tier of a few more services for some lower-priority features. There’s a few more I quit or never tried.

Thus, you know that value prop plays a big part of whether the customer will pay and stay. So reinforcing your value proposition should play a big part in every level of your customer funnel.

You must catch and track customers to be effective

A subscription-pricing model without an ability to track the steps in the conversion funnel will result in all the headaches of subscription pricing without any of the benefits.

Despite limitations, 3D and AR are creating new realities in retail

In North America, shoppers are increasingly turning to online orders to buy their products.

National postal services have seen a significant uptick in parcel volumes; so many that the number matches those sent during the Christmas surge — minus the wrapping paper. But although the pandemic has acted as a catalyst for online shopping, it’s part of a continuing trend.

The online sector has slowly been eating up the percentage of sales from retail stores. Virtual shopping’s total share of the global market has doubled between 2015 and 2019, with the U.S. Department of Commerce reporting that online retail sales overtook general merchandise stores in the country for the first time in February 2019.

As customers have turned to their web browsers, shop vacancies are on the rise around the world, with big brands deserting even New York’s Fifth Avenue.

“Within the next five years, I think we’re going to see that having AR and 3D on your dot-com and beyond will be mandatory.”

The high street has been forced into a period of transformation. Now, forward-thinking companies are finding ways to adapt.

New realities in retail

In 2019, Charles Bergh, the CEO of Levi’s, proclaimed that stock sizes for clothes would be gone within a decade. Body scanning and made-to-order items would replace the letters and numbers found on the labels of clothes, and products would no longer be found by scrolling through images or browsing shop floors. Instead, customers would select their products — a pair of shoes, a new coffee table, a snapback hat — and customize it to their own specifications. These clothes or items would be tried on or placed within a virtual scan of their room, all without leaving the couch.

Using 3D modeling and augmented reality (AR) — a technology that places computer-generated images onto the real world — Bergh’s vision is already possible.

One of the first sectors to take advantage of the nascent technology was the furniture industry. Leading retailers like Wayfair and IKEA invested early into 3D and AR, allowing customers to physically visualize their products inside their spaces. For Shrenik Sadalgi, the director of Research and Development at Wayfair Next — the arm of the furniture giant that uses technology to make shopping more seamless — adding the two technologies to its sales arsenal was an obvious choice for the company.

Wayfair’s customers can take advantage of two AR experiences. The first, View in Room 3D, lets users place an accurately sized piece of furniture into their room, twist and move it in the space, and even walk around it in real time. Room Planner 3D goes further, allowing customers to visualize the piece of furniture in their home even when they’re on the go.

“We’re letting customers capture the space first,” Sadalgi says of Room Planner 3D. “So you take a photo, and that photo is a very piece of rich information about your room. At a later point in time — maybe you’re on the subway, or maybe you’re at a friend’s house or whatever — you can pull up your room, and then you can add furniture as if you were there. So you don’t have to actually be in the space to plan your space.”

It’s not just homeware companies that have embraced the digital option. Augmented reality has found a natural fit in the beauty industry, and like major furniture retailers, bigger brands have been using the tech for several years. The experiences they offer continue to be refined as the technology improves. Leading players like L’Oréal, Sephora, Procter & Gamble, and more have been honing their version of the AR over time, offering customers a more interactive shopping experience.

For Lynda Pak, senior vice president at beauty powerhouse Estée Lauder, AR lets shoppers gain a familiarity with many of the products within its portfolio of 29 brands.

“AR is becoming a way for a consumer to be able to engage with a beauty advisor or makeup artist,” she says. “It may be tied in with, let’s say, a digital consultation. But if the consumer wants no live consultation whatsoever, [they] can just try the various shades on their own as well.

“The AR experiences that we have right now are really around virtual try-on for makeup,” she continues. “That encompasses eye, it encompasses foundation, it encompasses lip, and we also have skin diagnostic capabilities. The calibration that we’ve done is able to note if you’ve got some dry patches or red flares, or if you’re looking a little tired — it will highlight some of those skin concerns. When we go into haircare, we’re able to view the scalp and the condition of the hair close to the scalp, as well as further down to the ends. You’re able to see what you look like as a blonde, of what you may look like with an ombre. It’s a great way to get a sense of what the shade will look like.”

In both of these industries, as well as a number of others that rely on customization or fit, consumers are beginning to shop differently. Companies like Facebook have invested heavily in online transactions, encouraging more purchases in the digital realm.

Instagram now boasts its Shopping and Checkout options to allow businesses to advertise and complete transactions through the app, offering an alternative to website- or brand app-based shopping platforms — all with a potential customer base of over a billion. As buyers continue to explore new ways to make their shopping decisions, brands are increasingly focusing on how they present their products digitally.

Making the digital feel physical

Changes in retail have always been tied to developments in technology. The advent of the postal service inspired mail-order catalogs. Televisions created shopping channels. The internet ushered in the possibility of online shopping, and mobile phones — with their cameras — have been the launchpad for AR and 3D. Each leap creates more opportunity for shoppers to see the product how it really is — as if it was already on their body or in their homes.

Chicago’s ShoppingGives gets served a seed round from Serena Williams’ VC firm, Serena Ventures

ShoppingGives, a Chicago-based startup pitching retailers a service that can integrate non-profit donations into their sales and shopping platforms, has raised an undisclosed amount from Serena Williams’ venture capital firm, Serena Ventures, the company said. 

ShoppingGives allows retailers to offer a donation on behalf of a shopper to any of over 1.5 million nonprofits that are on its list — all without leaving the retailer’s website.

The company said that retailers can use the donation data to create a more authentic and personalized engagement with customers based on the causes they support.

“ShoppingGives aligned with my values of investing in businesses and entrepreneurs who are making a difference. By creating opportunities to grow social impact with a seamless approach for retailers and brands, ShoppingGives is charting the course for all businesses to stand forth as agents of change in our society,”said Williams in a statement. 

The company’s technology helps retailers manage and report donations and is already recommended by Shopify as one of a collection of apps for merchants setting up their online stores. Its service integrates with ecommerce content management systems and is already a partner for the PayPal giving fund.

ShoppingGives has already donated to over 6,000 non-profit organizations selected by customers, according to the company. Brands like Kenneth Cole, Natori, White + Warren, Margaux, Solstice Sunglasses, Tomboyx, Fresh Clean Tees, Blind Barber, Huron, and Neighborhood Goods use the service already. 

Image Credit: ShoppingGives

Boost ROI with intent data and personalized multichannel marketing campaigns

Coronavirus is causing large and small businesses to drastically cut marketing budgets. In Forrester’s self-described “most optimistic scenario,” the analysts project a 28% drop in U.S. marketing spend by the end of 2021. Even Google is cutting its marketing budget in half. As marketers move forward, Forrester predicts marketing automation platforms will grow despite an overall decline in marketing technology investment.

Automation platforms help marketers scale their communications. However, scaling communications is not a substitute for intimacy, which all humans crave. Because of the pandemic, it is harder than ever to get attention, let alone make a connection. More mass email blasts from your marketing automation platform are not going to get you the connections with prospects you crave. So how should marketers proceed? Direct mail captures 100% of your audience’s attention. It provides a sensory experience for your prospects and customers, and that helps establish an emotional connection.

Winning marketers are strategically merging automation and digital data with the more intimate channel of direct mail. We call this tactile marketing automation (TMA).

TMA is the integration of direct mail or personalized swag with a marketing automation platform. With TMA, a marketer doesn’t have to think about creating direct mail campaigns outside of digital campaigns. Rather, direct mail experiences are already fully integrated into the pre-built customer journey.

TMA uses intent data to inform content, messaging and the timing of direct mail touchpoints that maximize relevancy and scalability. Multichannel campaigns including direct mail report an ROI 18 percentage points higher than those without direct mail. Plus, 84% of marketers state direct mail improves multichannel campaign performance.

Read on to see how you can merge digital communications and direct mail to deliver remarkable experiences that spark a connection.

Incorporate intent data

Personalization is a key ingredient of a remarkable experience. Many marketers automate processes by introducing marketing software and then call it personalization. But, oftentimes it’s just quicker batching and blasting. Brands can’t just change the first name on a piece of content and call it “personalized.” Real personalization is necessary and vital for real results. Our consumers expect more. The best way to introduce real personalization within a marketing mix is to use intent data and trigger-driven campaigns.

Boost ROI with intent data and personalized multichannel marketing campaigns

Coronavirus is causing large and small businesses to drastically cut marketing budgets. In Forrester’s self-described “most optimistic scenario,” the analysts project a 28% drop in U.S. marketing spend by the end of 2021. Even Google is cutting its marketing budget in half. As marketers move forward, Forrester predicts marketing automation platforms will grow despite an overall decline in marketing technology investment.

Automation platforms help marketers scale their communications. However, scaling communications is not a substitute for intimacy, which all humans crave. Because of the pandemic, it is harder than ever to get attention, let alone make a connection. More mass email blasts from your marketing automation platform are not going to get you the connections with prospects you crave. So how should marketers proceed? Direct mail captures 100% of your audience’s attention. It provides a sensory experience for your prospects and customers, and that helps establish an emotional connection.

Winning marketers are strategically merging automation and digital data with the more intimate channel of direct mail. We call this tactile marketing automation (TMA).

TMA is the integration of direct mail or personalized swag with a marketing automation platform. With TMA, a marketer doesn’t have to think about creating direct mail campaigns outside of digital campaigns. Rather, direct mail experiences are already fully integrated into the pre-built customer journey.

TMA uses intent data to inform content, messaging and the timing of direct mail touchpoints that maximize relevancy and scalability. Multichannel campaigns including direct mail report an ROI 18 percentage points higher than those without direct mail. Plus, 84% of marketers state direct mail improves multichannel campaign performance.

Read on to see how you can merge digital communications and direct mail to deliver remarkable experiences that spark a connection.

Incorporate intent data

Personalization is a key ingredient of a remarkable experience. Many marketers automate processes by introducing marketing software and then call it personalization. But, oftentimes it’s just quicker batching and blasting. Brands can’t just change the first name on a piece of content and call it “personalized.” Real personalization is necessary and vital for real results. Our consumers expect more. The best way to introduce real personalization within a marketing mix is to use intent data and trigger-driven campaigns.