Category Archives: Think

How This Low-Tech Founder Got A High-Tech Startup To House $150M In Transactions

This post originally appeared on Forbes.com.

In a market like this where it’s relatively easy to raise capital at higher valuations, it can be tempting to spend big on customer acquisition. This environment has led to recent conversations around high burn rates and the relationship between “Capital and Success.” But some startups are realizing that overspending on customer acquisition may not lead to the return they are looking for and are instead finding different, more cost-effective growth strategies.

In just two years, Sweeten, a New York City-based virtual matchmaking service for homeowners and renovation experts, hit $150M in projects posted on their marketplace driven by one of the cheapest forms of customer acquisition: content marketing.

sweeten homepage

Under enormous pressure to post gains in the $12B NYC renovation space, Sweeten CEO and founder, Jean Brownhill Lauer, was initially tempted to spend on obvious advertising purchases. Surely, targeted advertising would bring homeowners looking for hand-selected general contractors and designers to the site. Instead, Lauer has bet big on a different approach: creating in-house content that gets serious traction with zero customer acquisition costs. Adhering to a strict no-paid-advertising model, Lauer’s team is using original content to drive social media activity and partnerships with widely-viewed shelter and design sites, drawing prospective customers to the site more organically.

In-house content over paid advertising

“We started with big ideas but severely limited capital,” Lauer said. “When we looked at our budget and tried to envision parting with funding to cover advertising costs, we knew we could get clicks and site visits but probably not much else. Instead, we’ve watched as our investment in high quality and highly visual in-house content has drawn those same clicks and site visits through collaborations with industry leaders, and at the same time, has been a particularly powerful tool in establishing relationships and trust with customers.”

For a company trying to bring trust and structure to an unwieldy market, this outcome is in many ways more important than page views.

Regular, reliable content

Sweeten’s blog features two key categories of regular content.

The first is fairly typical “before and after” photos that show how the site connects homeowners to contractors who are uniquely suited to a project’s budget, location, and style. The second is content that digs deeply into questions around the renovation process that most homeowners face.

This combination of content is attractive to both a design-savvy urban audience as well as actual homeowners who are desperately looking for reliable information before spending significant money on their own home renovations. In both cases, this content is relatively cheap to create and has a high return on prospective customers and users of the site.

Content partnerships and social conversations

In today’s world of Instagram, Pinterest and other ‘photo-first’ platforms, users continue to demonstrate an increasing demand for quality content. As Lauer said, “We’ve learned that quality writing and photos seem to be constantly in demand – there is this insatiable appetite for design gorgeousness and trustworthy information.”

And to prove it, Sweeten’s photography has generated a not-insignificant social presence with 160K followers on Instagram.

“The Instagram crowd loves our design perspective and actual homeowners are coming back to our site for guides to renovation pricing and regulatory insight that they need to feel ready to start a transformative renovation.”

Lauer is now focused on getting the most out of the content: tailoring it across social media platforms and building it into the site so that customers are getting personalized information as they use the marketplace.

Lauer is also seeing that investors are paying attention to the content cycle; “Our investors want to see site traffic and transaction growth, and they love the fact that we’re able to garner this kind of volume with zero acquisition costs. When you pay for a click, you might get that one click and then the interaction is over. When you create great content, you can get thousands of clicks and use that piece over and over again.”

More and more companies are beginning to realize the value of content over paid advertising.  Sweeten is just one example of a startup that is realizing this and for them, the result is over $150M in transactions.

The $2.3 Billion Business Model – How Content, Community and Commerce are fueling these companies.

This post originally appeared on Forbes.com.

A new breed of business model is emerging which combines content, community and commerce to dramatically improve the consumer discovery and shopping experience online. Sites like Houzz, Polyvore, and Motoroso are putting themselves at the center of their industries using this “Trifecta,” a moniker applied by Mary Meeker of KPCB in her 2014 Trend Report.

Why is this?

Consumers rely on three factors when making purchasing decisions: content, community, and commerce. Content for inspiration and information; Community for social validation and recommendations; and Commerce for making the purchase. Today the landscape of the web serves all of these needs from every imaginable angle and from millions of fragmented sources. This results in a lengthy and frustrating experience for the consumer. Amplified by the massive adoption of mobile, consumers are increasingly demanding seamlessly integrated experiences that combine these 3 C’s.

This concept seems to be working well. Five years into its life, Houzz recently made news by fetching a $2.3 Billon valuation and appears to have become the definitive online resource that combines design inspiration, products, and service providers in the $300B home remodeling industry. Polyvore has revolutionized fashion by enabling community contributors to curate and drive sales of fashion, propelling it into the limelight and attracting over $22 Million in venture capital.

It’s not unimaginable that companies like these will rise to become powerful forces at the center of many different industries. One such business focused on the automotive industry is Motoroso. Released in beta just 2 months ago, Motoroso features over 100 official brand profiles from leading auto and motorcycle brands, including Ducati North America, Porsche, and Volvo.  Ducati North America Online Marketing Manager Patrick Flynn says: “Motoroso is an excellent online platform for Ducati as it allows the distinctive designs of our products to speak for themselves. It’s a welcome addition to our online marketing strategy.” Volvo Cars of North America’s Head of Social Media, Rahul Mahtani states “Volvo is in the process of a major brand transformation and Motoroso provides a unique channel to showcase the evolution of our products visually, as well as demonstrate our commitment to innovation.”

Porsche 911 GT3RS
Porsche 911 GT3RS (Photo credit: Axion23)

I sat down with Motoroso CEO Alex Littlewood, he says “We live this lifestyle, so we know how painful it is to discover and shop. We’re here to create a better experience for everyone in this industry.” In regards to launching Motoroso he adds “We’re starting with enthusiast niches and lifestyles, because they’re the influencers that drive the larger industry trends.”

While Houzz, Polyvore, and Motoroso seem poised to become powerhouse companies in their respective industries, it will be exciting to see which other major verticals or lifestyles will see similar business models applied. Sports, travel, food, outdoor, education, and pets could all benefit from sites that serve their industry this way.

What if?

My brain is still rattling even a week later after hearing the story. Like all life or death stories, this one forces you to ask…

What if…?

What if she didn’t check Facebook at 4 in the morning?

What if the police didn’t arrive on time?

What if social media didn’t exist?

What is she was too afraid to reach out?

Like I said, the story is still reverberating in my head and it’s fitting that my sister, someone trained as a professional nurse, is playing the role of “healthcare provider” but only in a much different capacity than I would have anticipated.

So it begins..

It’s 4 am. My sister just got back from a night out in NYC. Like most nights out in the city, you can expect that there were a few drinks involved. Anyone that’s been out in the city until 4am can understand the way these nights work. By the time you get home, your brain and body are operating on fumes and you can only handle the important tasks. Ordering late night food and checking Facebook.

So you hit the couch, the phone comes out and Facebook opens.

The newsfeed scroll begins…

The first post in the feed is a group picture of some friends from their night out. Five girls, arms wrapped around each other, big smiles and camera poses (3 minutes ago).

The next is a status update. An update that makes you question why you’re on Facebook in the first place because it says something like, “just got home” or “lower east side.” The content of this post doesn’t really matter because it’s a completely useless post. On to the next update (4 minutes ago).

It’s from an old high school acquaintance. I say “acquaintance” because growing up my sister and this girl were “the other girls” to each other. They ran in different groups and said hi to one another on occasion.

The status update.. (I’m using a fake name here.)

“Remember the happy Jane, remember the good times we have shared. I cannot handle the pain any longer. Goodbye. I love you all. Pray for me please. Until we meet again.” (5 minutes ago)

(pause..)

“What the…”

In sheer disbelief and confusion, my sister ran over to her roommate and showed her the update.

“Is this a joke?”

Her roommate, “I don’t know but this is crazy.”

And in that moment my sister went through a series of questions that I think any reasonable person would ask in that situation.

Should I text her? Should I call her? What if something really is wrong? I haven’t seen this girl since high school. Am I overthinking this? It’s a Facebook post, it can’t be serious…can it?

“Fuck it, i’m texting her.”

“Hey Jane, this is Nicole. I just saw your Facebook update. Is everything ok?”

Within a minute, Jane shoots back a text: “Hi Nicole, I’m so glad you reached out to me but it’s too late..”

The events that followed were sudden and decisive…

Nicole and her roommate made one phone call each.

One to Jane and one to 911.

Jane had overdosed on pain killers and left a goodbye note to her friends and family. She also prepared a farewell video and left it on her computer. The police and paramedics made it to her apartment just as she faded out into darkness and became unconscious. When she made it to the ER she was hooked up to a ventilator because she could no longer breathe. Her organs stopped working and she was now fighting for her life.

Sunrise…

It’s hard to know what anyone would do in a situation unless they are faced head on with that choice. In this case, it might have been easy for Nicole and her roommate to go to sleep and brush off the update as a joke, but they made a choice. The text, the phone call, the will to act even at 4am despite having fear of over reacting and being too dramatic because of a little Facebook post.

But overreact they did…

And it helped the paramedics get there on time.

From today’s news:

Facebook Switches Default Setting to Private to Prevent Oversharing

What if…?

What if Facebook made this switch just one week ago and Jane didn’t “over share” her message?

What if Nicole didn’t see the update or take action, or “overreaction” when she saw the message?

According to the doctors and paramedics, Jane’s Facebook wall would have looked something like this upon sunrise.

“R.I.P. Jane”

Instead, Jane has a second chance at life and a newfound appreciation for the kindness and caring of human beings.

Her Facebook header now reads:

“You never know when one kind act or one word of encouragement will change a life forever.”

What if…?

Screen Shot 2014-05-22 at 4.43.58 PM

Do You Hate Your Job? 5 Tips To Change That

This post originally appeared on Forbes.com.

“I knew I had to quit when I couldn’t get out of bed in the morning to go to work.”

Those words stuck with me. I heard them from a successful entrepreneur and I think about them almost every day. It’s a quick gut check against the happiness and balance in your professional and personal life.

Over the past few weeks I’ve heard similar words from countless friends and colleagues.

The lawyer that started a legal career because it was a safe and steady job.

The financier that went to wall street because of the big bonuses.

The doctor that attended medical school because the parents said they should.

The consultant that joined a big named firm because of the prestige associated with it.

To the outside world these jobs are normal. In fact, they are celebrated. But to the individual they can sometimes feel like a cage with no escape. However the good news is that I’ve seen people successfully make the switch from a career they hate to a career they love. In all of these situations, there were at least five common themes that enabled these people to make the leap of faith and recalibrate their life for a happier, more successful career.

Hone in on your transferable skills. A friend recently described his job to me. He does “platform sales to financial institutions and hedge funds.” When I asked him what that meant he said, “I’m basically a waiter. My tables are my clients. My dishes are my financial products. My tips are my commission. And my job, is to basically keep my tables happy and answer any questions that the customers may have.” A waiter on wall street. Pretty simple. But a good waiter must have good people skills and good people skills are transferable to any industry. However, it’s not just people skills that are valuable. Organization, communication, and leadership are also very important. We sometimes take these intangibles for granted, but if you can hone in on your strongest transferable skills then you can figure out where else they might be applied in a setting that you enjoy.

Leverage your transferable knowledge.  Another friend of mine has been working in commercial real estate for the past few years. When he took a sales leadership position at a new technology startup, someone asked me, “what does a commercial real estate broker know about startups?” I said, “not much. But he knows more about real estate sales than anyone I know and for a technology startup that is focused on the real estate market, that’s a pretty big asset to have.” Sometimes a career change isn’t as big of a change as you think it is. If you have deep industry knowledge it’s likely that there are multiple opportunities and jobs that could benefit your experiences.

Try something new. I recently saw a Facebook status that said “Learning how to code. I’m a nerd and I love it.” In a million years I would have never guessed this person to learn to code or to even know what “ruby on rails” means. In school, you’re required to take classes in different disciplines. But just because school is over it doesn’t mean you should stop exploring new horizons. Take chances. Open new doors. Learn something new because you might actually enjoy it and it may very well lead to a new, professional path.

Ask for help. There is absolutely no shame in asking for help when help is needed. Sometimes it’s easy to let pride get in the way but as someone once told me, “ducks that quack get fed.” If you want to make some changes but don’t know how then simply pick up the phone, write an email and share your thoughts with someone. It’s human nature for people to help one another but no one can help you unless they know you are looking for it. So don’t be shy. Ask for help.

Recognize the difference between quitting and recalibrating. I wonder what Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerburg’s parents thought when they decided to drop out of school. Is that considered quitting? If it is then I plan to quit something as often as possible. There is a big difference between giving up and realigning your goals and objectives. Sometimes people are afraid to “quit their job” because it’s viewed as just that, quitting. But the thing is, it’s not. If you have a game plan and a strategy in place then you owe it to yourself to “quit” so that you can recalibrate your path to success and happiness.

Follow me on Twitter at @DanReich.

Startup CEO: Would You Max Out Three Credit Cards To Start A Business?

Image representing Alec Lynch as depicted in C...
Image by None via CrunchBase

This post originally appeared on Forbes.com.

Would you max out three credit cards, spend your life savings, and take on loans from family and friends all for some cool website idea? In January 2008 Alec Lynch did just that and started a freelance marketplace in his garage called DesignCrowd.

Today, Alec and his team announced a new round of financing putting the company’s total fundraising to date at $6.3 million. Back in March, I was able to spend some time with Alec to hear about how he took his small garage-based startup from Sydney Australia and $60,000 in debt, to multiple locations worldwide and $1 million per month in revenue.

Dan Reich: What were you doing before DesignCrowd?
Alec Lynch: I studied Bachelor of Information Technology at the University of Technology, Sydney (UTS).  I loved it and did well academically (I was awarded a $36,000 scholarship and the University Medal).  When I graduated from UTS I was 20 and started my first business with a friend from UTS (Adam Arbolino who studied a Bachelor of Science in IT).  Our business was online CRM software and, while it ultimately failed, we learned a lot of good lessons.  After this, I went to work in strategy consulting at Booz & Co where I worked for 2 years.  While I was there I had the idea for DesignCrowd.  In 2007, a few weeks after scoring a promotion, I quit my job at Booz and moved back home to live with my mum and start DesignCrowd.

Reich: What gave you the idea for DesignCrowd?
Lynch: While I was working in strategy consulting at Booz I was constantly looking at different industries.  I had a personal interest in the design industry, as I’d been building websites since I was 14 and I could see three key problems in the traditional design industry: for small businesses buying design it was 1) slow 2) expensive and 3) risky (you never knew what you were going to get back).  One example that highlighted these problems for me was the release of the London Olympics logo in 2007.  It cost £400,000, took one year to make and was absolutely panned by the public and the media.  I thought to myself  “wow, imagine if they had run a global design contest for £40,000 or even £10,000?”.  I knew they would’ve received thousands of designs and ideas from around the world and saved half a million dollars.  At the same time, I could also see a lot of friends graduating with degrees in creative disciplines but struggling to find work.  Essentially, I could see the dynamic for a marketplace that could disrupt the traditional design industry.

So is Alec and his team disrupting the traditional design industry? According to Techcrunch, “the company currently has over 250,000 registered users in 197 countries, including 100,000 designers and says it recently hit $12 million in design projects through its site, a figure that it expects to exceed $20 million in 2014.”

When I asked Alec back in March what his ultimate goals were, he said “our goal is to pioneer crowdsourcing around the world.”

And with the latest round of financing of another $3 million it looks he is one step closer to that goal. Not bad for someone that maxed out three credit cards and moved back home wit his mum to start some nifty website called DesignCrowd.

Startup CEO: How To Build A Double Sided Marketplace In the Fashion Industry

Textile Supplier with President George W. Bush

This post originally appeared on Forbes.com.

Websites like eBay and Amazon have transformed the way people buy and sell products. With a current market cap of $68B and $151B respectively, it’s clear that efficient and highly engaged marketplaces between buyers and sellers can provide real value to both parties.

A new NYC based startup realized the same marketplace dynamic could be applied to a different part of the retail value chain, and in a very specific but necessary category: textiles. Until recently, textile suppliers from around the world had no way to conveniently sell their products in a global marketplace.

I caught up with Benita Singh, the CEO of Source4Style, to learn more about how she is building an online marketplace for a very interesting but critical part of the fashion business.

Dan Reich: There are hundreds of online marketplaces in existence today. Alibaba.com is one example. When did you realize there was a need for a textile marketplace?

Benita Singh: Throughout my career, I spent a lot of time at trade shows, on expensive sourcing trips and even on sites like Alibaba. And it wasn’t unusual for a two-week sourcing trip to India to result in finding only one new supplier. So I learned early on that it was a highly-fragmented market.

At the same time, many of my “best finds” were suppliers that didn’t showcase at the biggest trade shows. And their online presence was limited to a three-page static content site.

We then started to do some research on the market opportunity. In one of our surveys with independent designers, we heard that they spend up to 85% of their time sourcing and navigating the complex textile supply chain. And among the larger fashion brands, we saw that since 2008 travel budgets on the production side of the business were dropping. Couple all these industry trends with the rise of B2B marketplaces and we saw a clear opportunity.

Reich: Any entrepreneur that has built a double-sided marketplace will tell you how hard it is. How are you building both the supply and demand for Source4Style?

Singh: At the beginning, we focused exclusively on building up the supply side of the marketplace. In our case, that was getting a critical mass of textile mills onto the platform. Within three months, we were working with suppliers in over 30 countries. We learned that we must have a baseline of supply before we could go to the demand and start the engine.

We’ve also learned that the two sides of your marketplace may very well have two very different reasons for wanting to be part of your platform. For our buyers, it’s about discovery and access. They want to be able to replicate the inspirational experience of walking a trade show floor 365 days a year, and that’s how we present Source4Style to them.

Our suppliers on the other hand want a more practical tool to help them streamline their leads, follow up with potential buyers and track conversions from sample requests to purchase orders.

It’s critical to learn the value proposition for each side of your market. For our buyers, we have to effectively merchandise and market. For our suppliers, we have to really focus on building a great SaaS platform for them to help manage their global business.

Finally, your influential first adopters can help you grow both sides of the marketplace. Some of our buyers bring their suppliers onto the platform because they want to use Source4Style to manage all of their sourcing. These buyers are also offering case studies that are inspiring others in the industry to give us a try.

Reich: You had to build a global business pretty quickly. What challenges did that entail and how did you overcome them?

Singh: Sourcing is inherently global, so yes, we had to become an international business pretty immediately. Operationally, we built a dynamic platform that allows buyers and sellers to confirm final pricing before proceeding with a purchase order. This accounts for currency fluctuations in the 36 countries where our suppliers are now based. We also brought on local agents in key markets like India and Italy who help us to both onboard new suppliers and ensure that their collections and data are kept up to date.

We have a global market on the buy side as well. And with a small team, we have to provide top-notch service around the globe. This isn’t easy and it means our phones are ringing around the clock. But I consider it the best incentive to grow quickly and intelligently!

Our next steps are to translate Source4Style.com and optimize our platform in key markets as well.

Benita’s work is paying off. In less than two years Source4Style has created a presence in over 76 countries. More recently, they partnered with The Council of Fashion Designers of America to provide their members with “concierge-level access to their comprehensive online sourcing marketplace.”