All posts in “eCommerce”

Former Stitch Fix COO Julie Bornstein is rewriting the e-commerce playbook

More than two years after Julie Bornstein–Stitch Fix’s former chief operating officer–mysteriously left the subscription-based personal styling service only months before its initial public offering, she’s taking the wraps off her first independent venture.

Shortly after departing Stitch Fix, Bornstein began building The Yes, an AI-powered shopping platform expected to launch in the first half of 2020. She’s teamed up with The Yes co-founder and chief technology officer Amit Aggarwal, who’s held high-level engineering roles at BloomReach and Groupon, and most recently, served as an entrepreneur-in-residence at Bain Capital Ventures, to “rewrite the architecture of e-commerce.”

“This is an idea I’ve been thinking about since I was 10 and spending my weekends at the mall,” Bornstein, whose resume includes chief marketing officer & chief digital officer at Sephora, vice president of e-commerce at Urban Outfitters, VP of e-commerce at Nordstrom and director of business development at Starbucks, tells TechCrunch. “All the companies I have worked at were very much leading in this direction.”

Coming out of stealth today, the team at The Yes is readying a beta mode to better understand and refine their product. Bornstein and Aggarwal have raised $30 million in venture capital funding to date across two financings. The first, a seed round, was co-led by Forerunner Ventures’ Kirsten Green and NEA’s Tony Florence. The Series A was led by True Ventures’ Jon Callaghan with participation from existing investors. Bornstein declined to disclose the company’s valuation.

“AI and machine learning already dominate in many verticals, but e-commerce is still open for a player to have a meaningful impact,” Callaghan said in a statement. “Amit is leading a team to build deep neural networks that legacy systems cannot achieve.”

Bornstein and Aggarwal withheld many details about the business during our conversation. Rather, the pair said the product will speak for itself when it launches next year. In addition to being an AI-powered shopping platform, Bornstein did say The Yes is working directly with brands and “creating a new consumer shopping experience that helps address the issue of overwhelm in shopping today.”

As for why she decided to leave Stitch Fix just ahead of its $120 million IPO, Bornstein said she had an epiphany.

“I realized that technology had changed so much, meanwhile … the whole framework underlying e-commerce had remained the same since the late 90s’ when I helped build Nordstrom.com,” she said. “If you could rebuild the underlying architecture and use today’s technology, you could actually bring to life an entirely new consumer experience for shopping.”

The Yes, headquartered in Silicon Valley and New York City, has also brought on Lisa Green, the former head of industry, fashion and luxury at Google, as its senior vice president of partnerships, and Taylor Tomasi Hill, whose had stints at Moda Operandi and FortyFiveTen, as its creative director. Other investors in the business include Comcast Ventures and Bain Capital Ventures

Commercetools raises $145M from Insight for Shopify-style e-commerce APIs for large enterprises

Global retail e-commerce is expected to be a $25 trillion business this year, and today one of the companies that has built a set of tools to help larger enterprises sell to consumers online has raised a large growth round to meet that demand. Commercetools, a German startup that provides a set of APIs that power e-commerce sales and related functions for large businesses, has raised $145 million (€130 million) in a growth round of funding led by Insight Partners, at a valuation that we understand from a close source is around $300 million.

The funding comes at the same time that commercetools is getting spun out by REWE, a German retail and tourist services giant that acquired the startup in 2015 for an undisclosed amount.

The route the company took after that is a not totally uncommon one for tech startups acquired by non-tech companies: commercetools had been acquired by REWE as part of a strategy to take some of its own e-commerce tech in-house, but commercetools had always continued to work with outside clients and has been growing at about 110% annually, CEO and co-founder Dirk Hoerig said in an interview.

Current companies include Audi, Bang & Olufsen, Carhartt, Yamaha and some very big names in retail products and services (including major telco/media brands in the USA that you will definitely know). Ultimately, the decision was taken to bring in outside funding and spin out the businesses as an independent startup once again to supercharge that growth. REWE will remain a significant shareholder with this deal.

Hoerig said that commercetools had raised only around $30 million in outside funding when it was a startup ahead of getting acquired.

Although e-commerce has grown over the last couple of years with slightly less momentum than in previous years, given wider economic uncertainty, it continues to expand, and in that growth, we’ve seen a swing back to individual retail brands looking for ways of connecting more directly with customers outside of the third-party marketplaces (like Amazon) that have come to dominate how people are spending money online.

That is giving a boost to those providing essentially non-tech businesses the tools to build e-commerce activity by offering “headless” tools that are attached to front-end systems designed by others.

Shopify — coincidentally, also backed by Insight when it was still a private company — focuses more on providing e-commerce tools by way of APIs to medium and smaller customers, and it has ballooned to some 800,000 customers. Commercetools, in contrast, focuses more on companies that typically generate revenues in excess of $100 million annually, Hoerig said.

Commercetools has no plans to expand to smaller companies — “We have no plan to compete against Shopify,” Hoerig said. Nor is there any strategy in place to extend into logistics, another important component of e-commerce services.

That’s not to say that commercetools doesn’t have a crowded field when it comes to competition, though. Hoerig noted that companies like SAP, Oracle and IBM are typical competitors and are more often already the incumbent provider to large enterprises. Then, there are others like Microsoft, in hot competition with Amazon for cloud customers, also expanding their commerce services for business. Companies typically make the change to replace them with something like commercetools, he said, when they decide they need a “more modern” approach.

In all (if that list alone wasn’t a strong enough hint), the wider market for e-commerce tools is very fragmented.

“Even SAP has only something like a 2% share,” he added.

Today, commercetools offers a range of services, starting at APIs to power the basics of webshops and mobile sites, along with IoT services (“machines buying from machines,” Hoerig noted), powering chatbots, the architecture for running marketplaces, social commerce services (for example, powering selling through Instagram) and augmented reality. It currently integrates with Adobe, Frontastic, Bloomreach and Magnolia.

Commercetools plans to use the funding to continue expanding its business in North America and other parts of the world, as well as to continue building up its B2B2B offering — that is, tools for businesses to sell to other businesses. This is an area that companies like Alibaba are very strong in (and Amazon has been also growing its business), and the idea is to provide tools to let companies sell on their own sites either as a complement to, or to replace, third-party marketplaces.

Another area where it will continue to figure where it can play better is in the development of better online-to-offline technology.

Richard Wells and Matt Gatto of Insight are both joining the board with this deal.

“With a strong track record of investing in retail software leaders, we are excited to have the opportunity to invest in commercetools and help them scale up internationally,” said Wells in a statement. “In our opinion commercetools represents the next wave of enterprise commerce software and has the potential to unlock powerful innovation and growth within the e-commerce sector.”

YellowHeart allows musicians and concert organizers to take more control of resold tickets

YellowHeart is trying to solve a problem that should be familiar to anyone who’s ever tried to buy a ticket to a popular concert: Those tickets will often get snatched up by scalpers, who then resell them at a much higher price.

In fact, the startup’s CEO Josh Katz said he founded the company because he’s a music “megafan” himself, and  he was “just tired of getting ripped off by scalpers.” At the same time, he said this isn’t just a problem for concertgoers. Instead, he painted it as a “lose-lose for the fan and the artist,” because the musicians aren’t sharing in the profits from the marked-up tickets either.

So YellowHeart can allow a musician, concert venue or other “event initiator” to set up rules for how their tickets are resold. Katz said he’s hoping that some brave artists will simply say that tickets can’t be sold at a marked-up price, but he predicted that many more will set price ceilings and dictate that any resale profits are then split between the seller, the artist and/or a charity of the artist’s choosing.

“No matter where the tickets are sold, they have to abide by those rules,” Katz added. That’s because the ticket sales run a public blockchain, and “all transactions go through YellowHeart, all the revenue flows through YellowHeart.”

The plan is to launch the ticketing platform in the second quarter of next year. Katz said users should be able to sell their tickets on any marketplace that works with YellowHeart’s smart contracts — but he also acknowledged that it will take some time to bring partners on-board and for those integrations to go live.

Katz argued that the blockchain approach has other benefits, like the fact that each ticket will have “a unique key that is tied to a user’s identity and sits in their virtual wallet,” which should eliminate forgery. (The ticketing process, by the way, will be “fully digital end-to-end,” except that venues will have the option to print tickets at the box office.)

Katz has a background in the music industry, having previously founded El Media Group, which creates custom playlists for hotels, restaurants and other clients. He founded YellowHeart with The Chainsmokers, along with their manager Adam Alpert, who’s also CEO of Disruptor Records.

“With The Chainsmokers, we’ve been outspoken about the issue of scalpers for years, and are excited to partner with YellowHeart to provide a smart and effective solution that gives control back to artists and fans,” Alpert said in a statement.

And Katz suggested that YellowHeart’s platform could eventually be used in any other kind of event ticketing.

“I am anticipating this being a great platform for sports and theater as well,” he said. “Myself and Adam and Drew [Taggart] and Alex [Pall of The Chainsmokers] come out of music, so that’s where we’re starting.”

Snapchat goes after retailers and DTC brands with new Dynamic Ads

Snap today is announcing a new kind of advertising product, Dynamic Ads, that will help it to better attract ad dollars from retail, e-commerce, and other direct-to-consumer brands — a group that today thrives on Instagram. With Dynamic Ads, advertisers can now automatically create ads in real-time based on extensive product catalogs that may contain hundreds of thousands of products. These ads are then served to Snapchat users based on their interests using a variety of templates provided by Snap.

These templates have been designed for mobile, Snap says, and will help the advertiser save time as they won’t have to manually create their ads. Instead, they just sync their product catalog and allow Snap’s system to build the ad in real-time. As product availability or prices change, the ads will also adjust.

The move to better serve advertisers in the retail and direct-to-consumer (DTC) space comes at a time when many DTC brands have been increasingly turning to Snapchat as Instagram has grown too crowded. Advertisers have complained about saturation and higher ad prices there. Snap, meanwhile, targeted this category of advertisers with a growing number of tools. The result, according to some DTC brands were ads that were 8 times cheaper than Instagram.

ShadyRays DPA 2

The Dynamic Ads are the latest in a long line of new ad products and tools. Since Snap launched its Ads Manager two years ago, it has rolled out new ad types, integrations, buying types, and more, including Snap Pixel, Product Ads, advanced optimization, reach & frequency buying, quick Instant Create ads, Shopify integrations, and others aimed at video marketers. like the premium Snap Select program, the non-skip, six-second video Commercials.

More recently, it’s been focused on making ad creation easier. In July, Snap launched an “instant” tool called Instant Create that would help advertisers who were not used to creating ads for the smartphone-friendly vertical format. This ad tool would generate an ad from a brand’s existing assets, like an e-commerce storefront, in just three steps.

Vitaly DPA 2

The new Dynamic Ads will be even simpler, in a way, as advertisers will be able to build “always-on” campaigns that don’t need constant updating.

That being said, the ads risk being a little more generic. Once these templated ads spread across Snapchat, it may be harder for the products being sold to stand out from others. After all, Instagram DTC ads often succeed because of the creative ad collateral involved, or the storytelling, which goes beyond just showcasing product photos. Instagram also allows brands to connect with a wide variety of influencers to promote the products.

Snapchat, however, believes it can do well in this space, because it can better deliver the millennial audience. The company claims that 38% of Snapchat users 16 and up can’t be reached on Instagram daily, followed by 49% on Facebook. Snapchat, meanwhile, reaches over 90% of 13 to 24-year olds in the U.S. And its user base is highly engaged with the app, which gives advertisers more opportunity to reach them.

DPA Template example

“Snapchat has become a go-to destination to reach the largest and most economically influential generations in history, Millennials and Gen Z. Snapchat Dynamic Ads now allow brands to create real-time optimized mobile ads quickly and at scale, with products showcased in visually-appealing templates that feel native to the app,” said Snap’s Kathleen Gambarelli, Group Product Marketing Manager, Direct Response, in a statement.

“More than 75% of the 13-34-year-old U.S. population is active on Snapchat, and daily Snapchat users open the app over 20 times each day, offering brands major opportunities to reach the right person with the right message at the right time,” she added.

Interested advertisers will be able to start setting up their campaigns today in an open beta test, and these will begin running in one or two weeks’ time. Dynamic Ads will be available worldwide for all Snapchat advertisers, but campaigns will only reach U.S. users to start. Snap says global markets will begin in the coming months.

This app waits on hold for you

DoNotPay helps you get out of parking tickets, cancel forgotten subscriptions, and now it can call you when it’s your turn in a customer service phone queue. The app today is launching “Skip Waiting On Hold”. Just type in the company you need to talk to, and DoNotPay calls for you using tricks to get a human on the line quick. Then it calls you back and connects you to the agent so you never have to listen to that annoying hold music.

And in case the company tries to jerk you around or screw you over, the DoNotPay app lets you instantly share a legal recording of the call to social media to shame them.

How To Get Off hold

Skip Waiting On Hold comes as part of the $3 per month DoNotPay suite of services designed to save people time and money by battling bureaucracy on their behalf. It can handle DMV paperwork for you, write legal letters to scare businesses out of overcharging you, and it provides a credit card that automatically cancels subscriptions when your free trial ends.

“I think the world would be a lot fairer place if people had someone fighting for them” says DoNotPay’s 22-year-old founder Joshua Browder. $3 per month gets the iOS app‘s 10,000 customers unlimited access to all the features with no extra fees or commissions on money saved. “If DoNotPay takes a commission then we have an incentive to perpetuate the problems we are fighting against.”

Browder comes from a family of activists. His father Bill Browder got the Magnitsky Act passed, which lets the US government freeze the foreign assets and visas of human rights abusers. It’s named after Bill’s Russian lawyer who was murdered in Moscow after uncovering a $230 million government curruption scheme linked to President Putin’s underlings.

DoNotPay app

“These big companies [and governments] are getting away with a lot” Browder tells me. He hit a breaking point when frustrated with the process of appealing parking tickets. He built DoNotPay to cut through hassles designed to separate us from our money. In April it raised a $3.5 million seed round led by Felicis to develop an Android version after picking up early funding from Andreessen Horowitz. Surprisingly, the startup has never been sued.

For Skip Waiting On Hold, DoNotPay built out a database of priority and VIP customer service numbers for tons of companies. For legality, if you opt in to recording the exchanges, the app automatically plays a message informing both parties they’ll be recorded. A human voice detection system hears when a real agent picks up the phone, and then rings your phone. It’s like having customer service call you.

Not only can DoNotPay help you get in touch about cancelling subscriptions, scoring refunds, or retreiving information. It’s like “a body camera for customer service calls” Browder says. “Before they make a decision that rips off the customer, they’ll think ‘this could be made public and go viral and hurt our business.’” For example, an airline that jacks up prices for rescheduled flights surrounding hurricanes could be shamed for profiting off of natural disasters.

Record and share customer service calls

The full list of DoNotPay services includes:

  1. Customer service disputes where it contacts companies about refunds for Comcast bills, delayed flights, etc
  2. The free trial credit card that auto-cancels subscriptions before you’re actually charged
  3. Traffic and parking appeals where it generates a letter for you based on answers to questions like if signs were too hard to read or there was a mistake on the ticket
  4. Hidden money discovery that finds refunds in your bank fees, identifies forgotten subscriptions, gets you free stuff on your birthday, and more
  5. Government paperwork assistance that can help you get DMV appointments and fill out forms
  6. Skip Waiting On Hold

Browder hopes that with time, companies and governments will make all these chores easier for everyone. To avoid putting itself out of a job, DoNotPay is constantly looking for new annoyances to eliminate. “I’m from the UK. America seems to be a pay-to-play society. The more money you have to more rights you have” Browder concludes. But those rights could be restored for all by building a robot lawyer that’s affordable to everyone.