Q&A: VC Alex Ferrara Dishes on the Business of Shopping and Selling Online

With big-ticket e-commerce acquisitions, like Amazon’s $500 million purchase of Diapers.com and Soap.com, and now the failed attempt by Google to purchase Groupon, we decided to chat with Alex Ferrara, a partner at Bessemer Venture Partners, to get a sense of the current state of the market.

Bessemer has an impressive list of e-commerce bets: It was an investor in Quidsi, the parent company of Diapers.com and Soap.com, as well as in Yelp. And personally Ferrara is involved in other deals, such as Yodle, which helps local businesses market online, and OMGPOP, a social gaming company. Yesterday, it announced an investment in Shopify, which provides tools to help businesses sell products online quickly.

eMoney: So, you’re background is actually in computer programming? Does that help you evaluate deals?

Ferrara: I was a software engineer for many years, using Java and Microsoft languages, and I had the pleasure of authoring an O’Reilly book on Web services [O’Reilly & Associates’ "Programming .NET Web Services"]. I don’t know if it helps me, but it causes me to gravitate toward good technology and product teams.

Your most recent investment is Shopify?

Yes, we just closed last week. I just loved the team and was impressed by the product and the tech DNA that these guys had. It provides a commerce platform that can quickly serve small as well as larger businesses. They have about 10,000 to 11,000 customers as of today–and they’ve watched a lot of small businesses grow into larger enterprises.

My view of this whole small- and medium-sized business space is that they have a lot of the same pain points as large enterprises….Shopify delivers 80 percent of the functionality of larger, more expensive and cumbersome e-commerce software packages at a fraction of the cost. It offers a range of very sophisticated features around inventory management, marketing capabilities, as well as shipping and fulfillment–all of the capabilities you would get in an expensive package. They are democratizing the whole expensive enterprise software functionality.

E-commerce is a mature business that’s been around for a long time. Is there more innovation that’s happening in the space?

I think the market that Shopify is going after is less about taking share from existing players, and more about the next generation of businesses that are getting started today. A lot of those are mainstream local retailers.

Let’s say a trillion-plus has been spent in local retail, and it’s starting to move online, so that’s a big business. It won’t fully move online, but the local retailers need something besides their Main Street shop. Plus, the retailers want to tie in their physical locations, and use phones to manage their store, and take advantage of [Shopify's] technology to manage their business, whether its physical or online.

An Apple store was the first retail experience I had where I could swipe my credit card anywhere in the store–there was no waiting in line at the register.

Why can’t all retail experiences be like that? Shopify is going to do that, by moving everything to the cloud, whether you are going to a physical store, to the Web or on a mobile device. It should be one and the same.

What do you think of the local e-commerce market, especially given Google’s reported $6 billion offer for Groupon?

From what I’ve seen from afar, Groupon seems like a big business. If the rumors are true, it’s interesting to see Google having an interest. I look at them mostly as a self-serve ad company, which is mostly about technology and automation. Groupon has built a big local salesforce–it’s the inverse of Google’s approach.

I think it says a lot about how Google must be thinking about growth opportunities. To get to the local market, you do need the local salesforce. Self-serve works for a portion, but at the end of the day you need a sales channel.

So, you do think Google needs a local salesforce?

I’m guessing, but it strikes me as something that could be very compelling when [Groupon is] combined with [Google's] machinery. You could leverage each other’s data to do better at targeting for serving ads.

What about all the Groupon copycats?

Time will tell. It’s one of the questions I’ve thought about a fair amount. I don’t know. We have not invested, and clearly there’s a lot of smart people who think there are alternatives and a big enough opportunity to support competitors. I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s big enough. There’s a number of players doing quite well. It’s a good time to be No. 2 to 4.

The big question is, how valuable will it be for the end-business over time. There’s not a lot of historical information on that.

What’s the role of mobile in e-commerce going forward?

For a lot of the local businesses, [mobile] fits so perfectly, and it’s got to be a huge part of any local product offering. A lot of the local merchants are mobile, as well. They don’t have large staffs to rely on and are wearing lots of hats. They want to provide service to their customers on the go–the iPhone and Android really enable that. That’s why Shopify made an iPhone version that helps the merchants to do that.

On the consumer side, they’ve also seen an increase in willingness to make purchases on mobile. It’s expected to grow exponentially, and we have some pretty good data on Shopify. Purchases on mobile are starting to grow quickly.

What about virtual goods? You are an investor in OMGPOP, a social gaming company.

They monetize and generate a good portion of revenues from virtual goods….One of our former investments is Playdom and they did a fantastic job. [Yes, they did. In July, the Walt Disney Company acquired Playdom for $763 million.]

We are bullish on digital media and gaming. We are seeing more and more game mechanics being applied to other business models. For instance, companies in financial services or online education are having their products include game mechanics to drive behavior and make the product experience more intuitive.

Still opportunities for start-ups, with giants like Amazon around? What would be your advice?

There’s a tremendous opportunity internationally. I think it would be challenging to go head to head with Amazon in certain categories. You can’t differentiate on price, and you can’t differentiate on customer service because they are impressive. This isn’t my area of expertise, but as a firm, we see that there’s a space for international e-commerce companies. They understand the local market and the nuances of the local market, and can be in an area that has been overlooked. If they can get scale, they have a chance.

Or niche opportunities, like Diapers?:

That’s a team that did a fantastic job. They provided a great level of customer service. Whenever I told people we were investors, strangers or friends would say, “I love it.”


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