Zappos & Amazon – Happy News For All

I had been asked a few times over the last week about my thoughts on the Zappos transaction.  I think this is a great story for innovation and startups.  Zappos started in a space many believed you could not transact online: selling shoes without people trying them on… Of course, as the world has grown increasingly comfortable transacting on the Web, that changed pretty quickly and Zappos took off.   With their focus on customer service and company culture (can watch a video by Tony Hsieh on that here), they were able to build sustaining brand advantage.

Ultimately, I think Zappos could have gone public, but Amazon stepped in and paid over 20x+ reported EBITDA of Zappos.  That’s a serious multiple, healthier than the public markets now.  And of course, in an online business at this scale there are significant capex cost, so I’m sure if you looked at cash flow, you get an even bigger premium.  Zappos built a dominant brand in a category, and Amazon stepped up and paid a premium to get the company.  To me, that’s a textbook entrepreneurial story.  I think you will continue to find next generation e-retailing companies thrive, but with an innovative new spin.  Gilt just raised money at a reported $400MM valuation, and had multiple bidders competing to get in.  There are a whole generation of companies pushing the ‘mass customization’ or ‘personalization’ theme, and doing well.  It’s all about finding a novel approach, attacking it quickly, and building scale at a brand level before someone can catch up.

Marketing is the New Sales

Many have written about the rise of highly capital efficient companies, the growth of SaaS, the penetration of technology into the SMB community, and the new requirement to deliver value to customers at the time of purchase.   Each of these strategies has radically altered the sales process.  No longer are armies of sales people sitting in customers’ offices or spending endless hours over dinner trying to forge relationships they can lean on in the sales process.  Instead, customers are “pulling” solutions they are interested in, trying them out for free early on, and selecting products that meet their needs.  If the best way to do sales is to have customers “declare” their interest, then one needs an exceptionally broad funnel to ensure productive sales activity.

As a result, marketing in this new era is undergoing a rapid transformation.  Marketing is no longer about softer concepts like brand building and trade shows; no longer simply providing the appropriate message and collateral for the sales organization; no longer sitting with industry analysts, hoping for positive coverage.  Instead, it has become a much more active, tactical, and quantitative function.  Done right, it becomes a highly integrated and critical part of the overall funnel. 

The next generation of marketing leaders will be fluent in online acquisition channels and implementing a real time, transparent, measurable system.  The areas of spend are highly fragmented: SEO, SEM, Email Marketing, Affiliate, Social Media, Community, Video, and on and on, balanced with the traditional channels of PR, magazine and trade shows.  Quantifying cost per lead, customer acquisition costs, conversion rates, and value per customer across each of these channels requires significant discipline.  Architecting follow up in a highly automated manner and driving to increasing levels of qualification becomes key.  Webinars, emails, and free trials are scalable ways to move potential customers along and require minimal touch.  Site activity, logins, and usage inform how much deeper customers are getting. 

The challenge is that many of these channels have only been around for a few years at most.  At FirstMark Capital, we are trying to support our CMOs make the transition by sharing the nuggets of best practices across our portfolio.  Luckily, via companies like Clickable, Conductor, and others, we have some of the leaders in these areas within the portfolio.  We are also organizing an annual Online Marketing Bootcamp for our portfolio companies and friends of the firm to augment organic knowledge with leading experts in the field. 

If you are one of these types of CMOs, we’d love to hear from you.  We have lots of places you can be used!  :)