cdixon blog

E-commerce startups

Very few successful e-commerce companies were started in the 2000s. Since then, e-commerce startups have enjoyed a revival. Dozens of companies have gotten traction and venture dollars have followed. Phrases like flash sales, social commerce, and subscription commerce have entered the startup lexicon.

As Josh Kopelman points out, the list of the top 15 e-commerce companies has barely changed over the past decade, in sharp contrast to the list of overall top internet companies. This can be interpreted in one of two ways.

The bull case is that startups neglected e-commerce and are now waking up to the opportunity. The key equation driving e-commerce is: profit = lifetime customer value minus customer acquisition costs. New marketing strategies (“content plus commerce”, social commerce, etc) lower acquisition costs enough to make startups competitive with incumbents.

The bear case is that scale and brand effects make e-commerce incumbents nearly unbeatable. As one entrepreneur said, “If it has a UPC code, Amazon will beat you.” A lower price is just one search away. The only way to compete is to sell used stuff or make your own products (or provide a marketplace for those things). The fat head (large incumbents) and the long tail (artisanal shops) will thrive, but the middle of the distribution will suffer. (The public markets seem to agree with this assessment, e.g. Overstock trades at 0.2x revenues.)

What most people agree on is that e-commerce as a whole will continue to grow rapidly and eat into offline commerce. In the steady state, offline commerce will serve only two purposes: immediacy (stuff you need right away), and experiences (showroom, fun venues). All other commerce will happen online.