Millennial Media’s Paul Palmieri launches Tradeswell, a startup promising to fix e-commerce margins

A new startup called Tradeswell said it’s using artificial intelligence to help direct-to-consumer and e-commerce brands build healthier businesses.

The company is led by Paul Palmieri, who previously took mobile advertising company Millennial Media public and then sold it to TechCrunch’s corporate parent AOL (now Verizon Media). Afterwards, Palmieri founded Grit Capital Partners, but he told me he decided to join Tradeswell as a co-founder and CEO because he was so excited about the vision.

Palmieri said that just as Millennial helped independent app developers get smarter about advertising, Tradeswell gives upstart e-commerce companies the data they need to compete with “the big platform behemoths.”

It’s no secret that a number of direct-to-consumer companies have struggled to make a profit due to challenging unit economics. Palmieri suggested that one reason for this is the fragmentation of their tools and data.

“If you’re selling something like Campbell’s Soup, you want to figure out, how is your tomato soup business and your chicken soup business?” Palmieri said. “Today, brands are saying, ‘How’s my Amazon business? How’s my Shopify business? How’s my Shopify business on Instagram?’ ”

So rather than relying on those platforms for data, Palmieri suggested brands want an independent platform that they trust to bring everything together, “where it’s a combination of a Bloomberg terminal plus a trading platform.”

Tradeswell’s AI focuses in six key areas of an e-commerce business: marketing, retail, inventory, logistics, forecasting, lifetime value and financials. Palmieri suggested that in some cases (like ad-buying), Tradeswell will replace existing software, while in other cases it will integrate.

“Think of us as a neural AI layer, where [a brand] might have different platform relationships, which are the fingers, and we’re the AI brain,” he said. “We’re giving brands insights and forecasts: If you make this change, we anticipate XYZ will happen.”

In some cases, like the aforementioned advertising, Tradeswell can also support full automation, so that merchants don’t have to worry about “setting up and tearing down hundreds of campaigns.”

The key, Palmieri said, is that the platform has access to the business’ full financials, so it can optimize for net margins, rather than simply driving the most impressions or clicks or sales.

While Tradeswell is only coming out of stealth mode today, it’s already been working with more than 100 brands. For example, Steve Tracy of Red Monkey Foods and San Francisco Salt Company said in a statement that the startup’s “unique, comprehensive, algorithmic approach has helped us grow sales, identify commercialization opportunities and forecast far more accurately.”

Bear and bull cases for Unity’s IPO

In the first part of my outline on Unity ahead of its IPO, I explained the scope of the company’s multidimensional business, its R&D efforts and competitive positioning, and its grand vision for interactive 3D content across every industry.

In the conclusion, I’ll dig into Unity’s financials and how it is marketing its public listing before turning to discuss the bear and bull cases for its future.

Key data points from Unity’s S-1 filing

  • Revenue grew 42% year-over-year from $381 million in 2018 to $542 million in 2019 with operating losses of $130 million and $150 million respectively. It hit $351 million in revenue by June 30 this year. That pace suggests a 2020 total around $700-$750 million (+30% year-over-year).
  • The company has gross margins of about 79%, although costs are overwhelmingly centered in R&D and sales and marketing, which account for 47% and 32% of revenue, respectively.
  • The company has cumulatively lost $569 million up to this point, including a $163 million net loss in 2019.

The geographical source of Unity’s revenue in 2019 was:

  • 34% EMEA
  • 28% U.S.
  • 21% APAC — excluding China
  • 12% China
  • 5% Americas — excluding U.S.

Unlike many other Western tech companies, Unity operates freely in China.

In Part 1, I explained each of Unity’s seven main revenue streams. During the first half of 2020, revenue by segment broke down to:

  • $216.9 million (62%) from Operate Solutions (products for managing and monetizing content), the “substantial majority” of which is from the ads business.
  • $101.8 million (29%) from Create Solutions (products and consulting for content creation), two-thirds of which is from Unity Pro subscriptions.
  • $32.7 million (9%) from Strategic Partnerships and Other (Unity Asset Store and Verified Solutions Partners).

The S-1 discloses that less than 10% of overall revenue is from “newer products and services, such as Vivox and deltaDNA” (referencing key 2019 acquisitions for its Operate segment).

Some takeaways from this data:

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