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Ecommerce Product Management – Getting the Product Page Right

Just few days back I exchanged some notes with Founder & CEO of a Ecommerce company on why I never shop online with them. This venture is among the best known Ecommerce brands in India, but its product experience never gave enough confidence to transact with them.This post is result of that interaction. All screenshots included in this post are not meant to single out any particular ecommerce website and this is meant to be a general post on best practices.

This post is also an extension to my previous post on the topic – Product Management and Ecommerce that was written about two years back. While that post was about general product management principles for Ecommerce, this one is a series of posts that are specific towards reducing cart abandonment and improving conversion rates in transaction businesses. Limiting the scope of this post only to Product Page -> Checkout, this post is first in this series and talks about building the right Product Page and best practices to be observed.

Getting the Right Product Page for Ecommerce – Best Practices

When users land up on product pages through some effort (search, discovery, social, email, adwords, etc), the intent of a users here is positively inclined towards ‘knowing more about the product’ or ‘making a transaction’ and not towards abandoning the page.

The positive reinforcements on a product page are –

  • Product (the product itself), Photos, Price
  • Shipping Information (and Payment Details)
  • Additional Information – If the product, photos & price do not help make a purchase decision, then the additional information that can assist in decision making process.
  • Alternatives & Suggestions

Building Product Pages is a science & art put together with lots of common sense. They should be built / designed as decision enablers and not with the focus that allows users to look at other options in an event the user is not interested in these products.

a. Focus on One Action – ‘Add to Cart’

Yes this is the obvious point. Why is it here, everyone knows this right?

It is here because everyone knows this and because they also know everything else other than this. Simply look at the product pages of the Ecommerce websites, the number of colors on the design elements of page, multiple call to actions – take away the focus from ‘Add to Cart’ button.

As a standard practice, don’t let more than 3-4 colors creep-in on to the product page. Having a color palette helps here and intelligent use of shades of gray to highlight important information if required. Also most critical aspect is knowing that all information cannot be considered as important.

Showcased below are screenshots from top ecommerce websites in India. Notice the excessive focus on highlighting every piece on information, use of ‘design’ and colors in every product element. Have specifically chosen products that have variables like Size, Color – since those are the most complex ones to get right.

Multiple Components asking for Attention, One of top Ecommerce Sites in India

Multiple Components asking for Attention, One of top Ecommerce Sites in India

Multiple Components asking for Attention, One of top Ecommerce Sites in India

Multiple Components asking for Attention, One of top Ecommerce Sites in India

Know how to make ‘Add to Cart’ stand out – look at a product page from NastyGal.com

NastyGal Product Page - Notice the focus on 'Add to Cart'

NastyGal Product Page – Notice the focus on ‘Add to Cart’

 

b. Getting all Decision Enablers next to ‘Add to Cart’ Button

The most important decision enablers (either features or information) should be as closed to the ‘Add to Cart’ button as possible, not miles away. The information should be presented in a top-down readable format – specially for categories and verticals like Clothes, Shoes and others where to process the order you need Size, Style, Color and other such information.

Factors making up the Purchase Decision

Factors making up the Purchase Decision

It is first essential to figure out what are the most crucial 2-3 factors / information that a user needs to know and also accepting that not all information is must.

Add to Cart on Bonobos

Add to Cart on Bonobos

Add to Cart on Zappos

Add to Cart on Zappos

c. Use Standardized Communication & Symbols

One of the key things to focus on your product page (or anywhere on the product) is user communication. From simple things like should it be ‘Add to Cart’ or ‘Buy Now’ or ‘Add to Bag’ to another simpler things – its a tough job.

Standardization? Its a mess out there.

Standardization? Its a mess out there.

Choose widely used terms for communication. I would always suggest using ‘Add to Cart’ because 90% of other websites use it. Remember user is moving on multiple websites, and he has got familiarized with the term. Do not re-invent things for the user. Even for symbols, Shopping Cart has a universal symbol across millions of website.

Same for terms like Cash on Delivery. Free Shipping.

Another issue with Ecommerce websites is the excessive focus on branding everything. It starts from ABC TrustPay, XYZ Assurance, LMN 100% Purchase Protection or PQRS Guarantee, etc to putting up details for Sellers (Marketplaces) – ratings, stars, % feedback, etc. While all that is great, why does a customer need to know this? If its for assurance – there is no need to copy paste such fancy terms across the website.

Thinking from a consumer point of view, if there is any goof-up on any transaction – user will hold the website liable for its service, whether or not it is a marketplace or a store. A simple message like one from ASOS – “Free Returns. Not quite right? Send it back for Free” or from Jabong – “30 Days Free Return / Exchange” does the trick.

One of the leading ecommerce venture says uses the term ‘Free Home Delivery’ which I relate more with restaurant food deliveries and less with ecommerce.

PS: For some reasons, Indian Ecommerce websites love coming up with their own Glossary of Terms!

d. Handling Exceptions on Product Pages

Some of the best user experience practices are seen on products that handle exceptions really well. Only following a simple principle – “Do not show user information that is not applicable’ goes a long way in removing information overload and simplifying user’s buyer experience.

Here are the few common ones that should be displayed only when applicable –

  1. EMI on Rs. 3000 – shown for all the products even those priced below that limit.
  2. Showing Cash on Delivery for products on which it is not applicable
  3. ‘Free Shipping’ when not applicable or Showing ‘Free Shipping on products above Rs. 500’ when the product is already above that amount.
  4. Ships from Chennai – Shown to user who is from Delhi. (Unnecessary second thoughts for the user – what matters is that product is shipped in time, not from where it is)
  5. In Stock. Of-course, why else would you display ‘Add to Cart’ button.
  6. Offers. Most offers kill Ecommerce profits (and the service too) – but since it is a trend now to show them, display only offers applicable to the product. Avoid blanket offers for a category.
  7. Twin Carts
  8. Asking ‘Are these reviews helpful?’ when there are no reviews.
  9. Private Listing of products shown to all.
  10. Free Returns or Exchange displayed on products that are not applicable like Lingerie, Cosmetics, etc
Showing EMI when not applicable

Showing EMI when not applicable

Dual Carts – Not applicable to > 95% users

Private Listing? Why show it to users then.

Private Listing? Why show it to users then.

Feedback on Reviews not written yet.

Feedback on Reviews not written yet.

Showing Offers when none available

Showing Offers when none available

Product  In Stock. Offer that is super-stretch for the user.

Product In Stock. Offer that is super-stretch for the user.

Ships From? Why a User needs to know as long as it reaches him on time.

Ships From? Why a User needs to know as long as it reaches him on time.

Handling Exceptions are really important for every product that is being sold on a Ecommerce site. Simply because every product is different, so are its attributes and not all of them apply all the time.

 

e. Staying away from Fancy Features

Get rid of fancy features on the product pages, some of them really make no sense.

Some of the top fancy features that are seen frequently on ecommerce websites are listed below. Though its debatable that few of them are required, the point to suggest here is not letting them interfere in the transaction process and keeping them passively available.

  1. Compare products on your site. There are different sites available for comparison and decision making.
  2. Ship to my pincode. While this feature has value, actively showing it to everyone does not. Good execution by Amazon India as a passive feature.
  3. Ask seller a question in Marketplaces. Is it scalable if the response is delayed by hours or days. Even users do not ask questions on top selling products.
  4. Login to Save in Wishlist. Almost everyone has feature – why. How many people come to wishlist on ecommerce sites again.
  5. Add to Favorites. This feature is great for social commerce or 100% design-only focus websites like Fab or Etsy, provided it adds value to user.
  6. SEO Fanciness – Many ecommerce services use without understanding how difficult it is for users to read.
  7. Vendor Information. Yes, we know you are marketplace, but there is a beautiful way to telling who the real seller is. (like Etsy).
  8. The filter for filters. Cool, but over period of time they all die and the data operations kill the user experience then.
  9. Comments on products. Again – engagement v/s commerce. Most services that have comments enabled, see user complaints and customer service related comments that further discourage buyers.
  10. Zillion Reviews that make no sense.
Fits SEO, but how helpful is this for user?

Fits SEO, but how helpful is this Product Descripion for user?

Fancy Filters

Fancy Filters – Helped me discover unknown Brands, Irrelevant Form ~ Touch is Qwerty or no. CDMA. Other OS > All known ones.

Reviews that make little sense

Reviews that make little sense

Facebook Comments - Why?

Facebook Comments – Why?

Favorite & Add to Compare

Favorite & Add to Compare

Definitely users don't want to enter in a relationship with the seller.

Definitely users don’t want to enter in a relationship with the seller.

How does this information matter?

How does this information matter?

Thanks for making this complicated. Users only care for price they will buy it for.

Thanks for making this complicated. Users only care for price they will buy it for.

There is a huge buzz around content + commerce, I believe that both of them should not mix. Content products (like Twitter, Quora, or even Wishberg for example) should focus on engagement and time-sink for its users, while Commerce products (like Amazon, Flipkart and others) should focus on transactions that are completed as quickly as possible.

 

f. Photos: Picture Perfect Product Pages

How important are photos on your product pages. If the answer is yes very important, make it a standard practice for product photos to be over 500 x 350 pixels. Optional images are great, zoom-in to see larger photos absolutely great – but those are optional features, the main product image makes a lot of difference.

Large Product Photos on Etsy. Also look at NastyGal's page shared above.

Large Product Photos on Etsy. Also look at NastyGal’s page shared above.

g. Recommendation that kill the Product Experience

Ecommerce sites should put a limit to the number of recommendations that are shown to the users. One of the best known Ecommerce site displays a stunning 9 set of recommendations on its product pages, that includes 35 products being recommended under pretext of ‘for you’.

Recommendations shown for a Mobile Phone

  1. More Mobile Phones from Samsung.
  2. Feature Phones from Samsung
  3. Recently Sold in Electronics & Gadgets
  4. Products Frequently purchased together
  5. More Android Mobile Phones
  6. People who viewed this item also viewed
  7. Top Selling Mobile Phones
  8. Products You Recently Viewed
  9. Recommendations based on your browsing history

Showing 35 recommendations does probably less for making up a buying decision and more for increasing dropouts or bounce rates of product pages. The ideal number of recommendations to be shown to user are 3-4 sets not more than that.

The ones that are most likely to help in conversion are:

  • Products Frequently Brought Together (provided the combined price is not greater than 3X of product price). This recommendation can be also displayed at Cart Level.
  • Customers who viewed this Product also Viewed. (Actual Recommendations)
  • Recently Viewed Products
  • Recommendations Based on Browsing History.

Flipkart & Amazon India does a great job with product recommendations.

—————————————————————————————————————–
Since I do not want this post to sound like a rant, I have attempted to re-create the first scroll product page (of the one mentioned in the first point here) by applying these best practices that I have mentioned here. This is how it looks. (Note: I am not a designer, this is recreated out of plain copy-paste tools.)

Product Page based on the best practices mentioned here.

Product Page created by me based on the best practices mentioned here. Redesigned the first image.

Concluding Notes:

Indian Ecommerce is coming out of age now, its off to a great start. While challenges like operations, logistics and customer experience are being tackled with great enthusiasm to delight users, it is time to also look at getting product management principles right and ensure users have a right user-experience.

Something I missed completely is that not a single ecommerce site reminded me of their mobile apps, isn’t mobile supposed to be the next big thing? A simple feature like ‘Send this to Mobile’ will do wonders – there is a chance that I will further share the product on WhatsApp and ask friends & family.

Remember, users that come to ecommerce websites are not here to build relationship, they are merely here to transact. Some features like Add to Wishlist, Write a Review, Rate this Product, Comment on this Product, Showing Auto-Pop to ask Email (and later spamming with newsletter), etc are not the ones really care about when they are here to transact. They are passive features, completely optional. Don’t irritate your users!

“I’m not here to enter into a relationship. I just want to buy something.” from the famous post – The $300 Million Button by Usability Expert Jared Spoon.

Ending this post with one of my favorite quotes on this topic – “Every feature has some maintenance cost, and having fewer features lets us focus on the ones we care about and make sure they work very well.” – David Karp, Tumblr.

—–

The next post in this series will be Best Practices for Shopping Cart & Checkout Process.

2014 – India Startup Landscape

Overview of India Startup Landscape – 2014

#GOSF – The Great Online Shopping Failure

GOSF – What is not right about it!

The Great Google Online Shopping Festival (GOSF) is all over my timeline. To be honest, I also had my share of fun.

 

What went wrong with GOSF: 

1. GOSF was down.
The Official Site was down – gosf.in. That is ok, but just that we didn’t (No one did) expect this from Google. .

2. Everyone Got Invited to the Party.
Over 225+ partners were listed on GOSF.in. It looked like a directory of ecommerce sites. It should have been exclusive, invite only and curated.

.

3. Selection of Partners

What were Automobile sites, Property sites doing on Online Shopping. Some ridiculous offers included Rs. 10,000 off on your Dream Home (Really?)

GOSF-Deals0
.

4. Quality of Deals
Everything can be excused but not the quality of deals.
– Many partners (if not all) ran their regular promotions under GOSF.
– Deep discounting on Chinese & Unbranded products continued. Up to 90% off on such products.

GOSF-Deals
.

5. Efforts by Partners
– The participating partners (many of them) are marketing it just like any other event (Rakhi, Diwali, etc).
– Existing products & offers that were run for centuries got labelled under GOSF.
– Few sites had bugs (I reported couple of them – down side of knowing too many people).
– Many partners have not made any efforts to even put up even the GOSF banner on their sites or even deals.
.

 

GOSF will be still reported as Great Success. Why?

Post end of event, many Ecommerce partners will claim impressive numbers. I am sceptical of any numbers around the same attributed to GOSF or their own internal marketing efforts.

Because – This is how my inbox looks today:

GOSF-MailBox

Because – This is how my SEO & SEM looks today:

GOSF-SEOnSEM

Because – This is how on-site Marketing looks today:

GOSF-OnSite

 

Concluding Notes:

I am not against GOSF or Google or its Partners (Personally and also because I know too many friends / acquaintances who are associated with the industry). Its a great concept and if it manages to get ‘New People To Shop Online’ (those who never did it before) its a great win for everyone (all professionals) who has anything to do online.

I don’t want to end this note on post as a critic, so here are some suggestions for the next #GOSF:

  • Limit Partners under every category – Max 10 to 15. Limit Categories to 10.
  • Curated by Partners, Approved by Google – Real offers, real deals.
  • Limit number of products / offers by every partner to 100. Again real deals; feature them on GOSF.in
  • Instead making partners spend online (SEM) – It should direct all that traffic to GOSF.in and lets users choose what they want to buy. (Google did the same for Gmail launch).

Signing off. I was just being practical. And, One more thing…

List of Startup / Tech Influencers in India

Many founders struggle in getting a word out for their products or startups – its crucial, something that makes or breaks your startup in its initial days. While tech press and coverage for startups is one thing, its important to have early adopters talk about your product and suggest them to potential users / customers.

India ranks among the top 5 countries by users for global products like Facebook, Twitter, Quora and so on. Clearly we have enough early adopters, question is who?

Below is list of people that I have compiled and consider tech influencers whom you might want to connect with to get a word out about your startup. Good luck!

Things to note –

  • List excludes VCs or people directly associated with Accelerator or Incubators. Their tweets reflect vested interests in portfolio companies. I don’t consider them influencers.
  • People mentioned here frequently tweet / talk about startups and new products.
  • I don’t know many of them personally or follow many of them myself; however they keep appearing on my timeline again and again.
  • I plan to keep this listed updated, if you have any recommendations – drop me a email on pj (at) beingpractical.com

Disclosure: This list is not compilation of users who tweet about Wishberg (my startup). In fact many of them don’t even have a account on Wishberg. But this includes my name somewhere in between :)

Dear Accelerators

2 years back I wrote that India has a premature incubation model. Things have changed now – Accelerators / Incubators is the new trend here. Simply too many and too much buzz around it, its all smoke without fire. I had a unfortunate encounter with one of organizers of an accelerator who claimed that its program is more beneficial for startups than YC or 500 Startups. That incident still makes me laugh, wrote about it last year.

This post are suggestions to Accelerators and is based on my personal interactions with many startup entrepreneurs, investors and enablers in ecosystem.

1. Stop looking for startups with traction. 

Accelerators start by looking for startups with traction. Its puzzling, because startups with traction are looking for investors, not accelerators. Wouldn’t it be simply awesome if accelerators start saying – ‘Join us and we will ‘help’ you gain / build traction!’.

Unfortunately, since there are too many startups, the competition and market dynamics will not make this real. But seriously, can some accelerator stand up and say – ‘Join us and we will ‘help’ you gain / build traction!’. Entrepreneurs will have more faith & trust in you.

2. Be a little transparent.

Your metric for success is simple – success of the startups that have graduated from accelerator. Tell us that story, maybe you could learn a bit from TechStars that lists detailed performance of its portfolio companies.

No matter how flashy personal brand you manage to build for yourself, all that any entrepreneur really cares about is his / her own startup. So let startups that are applying to your program judge you ‘only’ by performance of your earlier startups.

And if your startup performance report is bad, here is some ‘free’ advice for you – pivot!


3. Prove your worth before asking too much.

With exception of few top accelerators, most startups end up applying at other accelerators after they have failed to raise investment from angels or failed to get through the top accelerators (yup, I am being practical – this is the reality!).

The top accelerators take between 5% to 8% stake in a startup for $20K to $50K. You be the judge how much equity should a startup give you, in my opinion it should definitely not be more than 5%. Don’t act too pricey, you will have to prove your worth before you ask for anything more. There are also bootcamps and acceleration programs that offer similar benefits for startups at no investments / no equity.

Also from perspective of founders, 8% to 15% dilution at accelerator (some startups go through 2 accelerators), 15% to 25% dilution at seed / angel-round, 20% dilution at Series A. By this time with a 10% ESOP pool, entrepreneurs are just left with their skin-in-the-game.

PS: And if you are adding clauses like permanent non-dilution; offering your (little) cash in tranches or after several ‘gentle reminders’ from founders – there is a special place reserved for you in hell.

4. Startups are not one night stands.

No matter how much accelerators would like to think they can change the fate of startups in matter of few weeks – they are wrong. Startups take years to grow, they are not overnight successes as many people perceive them to be and most of the growth comes once they face the real world (which is after the demo day). It takes time to find the product-market fit and it comes with multiple iterations on product.

Your so called focus on batch after batch, this sounds like one-night stand with startups. Founders have trusted you, please get into a long term relationships with the startups. Be there when they need you (and even when they don’t).

5. Your partnerships with Investors means nothing to startups.

Many accelerators ‘flaunt’ their partnerships with venture capital firms to startups and also occasionally drop names of influential angel investors. First time entrepreneurs are often misled by such talks and tend to think it as an assurance that they might be funded on graduation day / demo day or their chance of getting funded is higher through a accelerator.

Honestly – these partnerships mean nothing. Venture Capital firms are always on a lookout for their deal-flow; the word ‘deal flow’ explains almost everything in this industry. Any partnership that any VC has with any accelerator is only for the purpose of deal flow, they do not want to miss out on any hot startup but this partnership is definitely not a investment commitment (unless it is on lines of YC – $80K on convertible notes).

6. Be more transparent on utilization of time (and funds).

Not many accelerators (and also many entrepreneurs) realize that the biggest resource startups should be worried about is not money, its time. Time runs out fast, for everyone.

While there are programs and activities that directly add value in building product, any time that is gone outside of that (relocation, attending events, visiting places and so on) means staying away from building product which decelerates the start-up. Make founders aware of that well in advance – so that they can make their plans accordingly or alternate plans like one of the founder stays back and manages day-to-day tasks.

Same with funds, if there are any programs, costs (legal, travel, etc) that will require startups to pay the accelerators – please be transparent about them and mention that to founders well before they join the program.

7. Mentoring the Startups

The kind of startups entrepreneurs are building today did not even exist few years back. The skills startups required today are – design, data, distribution, product and technology. Unfortunately, we do not have great talent for these verticals in India.

So accelerators are getting investors to mentor startups, this is where the model starts falling apart. 99% of time the investor will be advising / mentoring the startup without using their product or experiencing its service! I don’t mean to offend anyone here, but the fact is – Investors should be investing, not mentoring! (unless they have skin in the game).

Take a break, read this post – Great Entrepreneurs will listen to you but will follow their own instincts.

Read 2: In 30 Days My Startup Will be Dead

Be valuable to the startups in your accelerator and get mentors who can really help them grow. Get Entrepreneurs or Senior Executives (who are entrepreneurial or proven achievers) and have skill sets that startup needs to mentor them. Alternative suggestion – get founders or executives from known Silicon Valley startups to mentor!

Mark Suster said few days back at PreMoney conference – ‘Networks of entrepreneurs helping each other are significantly better than board meetings for learning.’

8. Your over-extensive focus on demo day kills few of your startups.

If I were a part of any accelerator, I would have opted out of the demo day. Simply too much focus on demo day! Of the 12 week acceleration program, 3-4 weeks (effectively 33% of time) goes in its preparation, that is not all since you get in to meetings, introductions and so on, the chances are you will spend next 4 weeks on those follow-up meetings.

Mark Suster says it best – Demo days are showcase of who is best at on-stage presentations ~ coached and polished. They produce too much hype and too little value. Also in another post (more from a VC perspective), Mark explains the importance of proprietary deal flow for investors.

If you are observing this space – you would realize that even the startups graduating out of top accelerators are struggling to raise investments. Not all of them are getting funded or are able to close their investments quickly. Probable reason – too many startups? too much hype? could be anything else.

Elad Gill wrote a brilliant post on VC Signaling last year. I believe similar sort of signaling happens with startups in any accelerator too. In a batch of 20 – 40 startups, investors are bound to choose the best – the top 20%, or the best 4-6 startups that stand out on demo day, rest 80% startups will not find it easy to raise investment.

Worst is negative signaling effect, if any of the startups from that batch are unable to close investment in next 4-12 weeks post the demo day, it will be bit tough for them to close it going forward unless they get some significant traction.

So instead of flashy demo days, accelerators should focus on getting one-on-one interaction between startups and investors. Although it is apparent that from every batch there will be few standout startups., as an accelerator you need to give a fair and equal chance to every startup in your batch. For raising funds demo day works for few startups, but makes it difficult for many startups and unknowingly kills few.

Treat demo days as a demo day – show what product you have built! Not just to investors, but also to influential early adopters and potential partners.

9. Help startups with distribution. Not pitches.

Because of these demo day pitches, there is a certain glorification of startups – even before they are worth glorifying. Companies need to be glorified by their traction, revenue, customers etc not because of a nice punchline and a great deck. Demo days are setting a wrong precedent in the very first place. Pitching has its own importance but most founders today believe that’s the only thing to do.

I have said this multiple times – the easiest thing a startup can do is to build a product or pitch to investors. Toughest thing is – finding product market fit & distribution. Unfortunately, most accelerators are trying to help startups with easier tasks, not the critical ones. Startups don’t fail because of lack of money, they fail because of lack of product adoption.

If it is a consumer startup – accelerator should help it achieve its first 25K-50K users. If it is a enterprise startup – accelerators should make introductions to potential clients and help them get their first 25-50 paying customers. When a startup succeeds on this – they will not require to pitch any investor at all!

Concluding Notes:

Most accelerators ask startups on what they are innovating on, while they are trying to replicate the success of YC. The intention of this post is not to criticize accelerators, but a feedback for them on how they can start being more valuable to their customers – the startups!

Credits: Thanks to Kulin Shah (Co-founder at Wishberg) & Avlesh Singh (Co-founder at WebEngage) for reading the draft and their suggestions on this post.

Why Ecommerce acquisitions make no sense in early / nascent stage

Few (Series B / Series C) funded ecommerce companies in India have started making/announcing acquisitions of smaller players. Recently when I posted about the 2012 Predictions & Trends, I made an comment that in an early ecommerce market, acquisitions of competition or startups really makes no sense. Trying to put few thoughts on that here.

A typical such small ecommerce startup that gets acquired by larger & known ecommerce player is structured as follows –

  • About 2-4 founding team members; 5 to 10 employees; up to 25 or so if the venture has received any institutional stage funding
  • Focused on one vertical – sports; electronics; kids; jewellery – Catalog of 1000 to 10000 product SKUs
  • Order Acquisition Channels – Direct Traffic, SEO, SEM, Social, Affiliates, Email Marketing, Display Advertising.
  • Team Structure: Founders, Product Development & Management Team, Online Marketing, Category Managers, Logistics & Operations Managers, Customer Support
  • Social Media presence – Fans on Facebook; Followers on Twitter
  • Business Partners – Vendors for Procurement, Logistics, Payment Gateway, Customer Support
  • Product, Platform & Technology
  • Warehouses & In-house logistics for Series A funded players
  • Gross Orders – between 50 to 100 per day; few Series A funded players may have from 200 to 500 per day.

What happens when a considerably large & deeply funded ecommerce player (say LargeEcom.com) acquires a small startup (SmallEcom.com) with assets as mentioned above –

  • Category Focus:
    SmallEcom.com will be either a horizontal player or vertical focused player. If horizontal, then most of the products will be already present in acquiring company. If vertical then it might be a small ecommerce startup with about 500 to 5000 SKUs, the acquisition further does not make any sense. The acquiring LargeEcom.com could have directly poached category managers or could have developed that category in-house just by hiring few more category managers!
  • Order Acquisition Channels:
    Any online ecommerce venture’s assets are how they are acquiring new customers. The biggest challenge is not acquiring SmallEcom.com, but making the most of these channels. Post acquisition, these channels are ‘unfortunately useless’ to the acquiring company – LargeEcom.com. Here is why –
    .
    • Direct Traffic >
      If website of SmallEcom.com needs to be shut, the direct traffic will be redirected to LargeEcom.com post acquisition, doing that quickly reduces the value to its existing users. If website is shut – value of all other channels die on its own, explained below.
    • Natural Search or SEO >
      SmallEcom.com’s URLs in Google Index no matter how well optimized will lose rankings when the traffic is diverted to another domain. All time and money invested in search optimization over months / years is diminished immediately.
      .
    • Paid Advertising: SEM & Display >
      Search Campaigns are optimized over a period of time to reach lower the cost per clicks. Though the same can copied from SmallEcom.com in to account of LargeEcom.com’s adwords account, the same CPCs will not be maintained. Well, otherwise the acquiring company LargeEcom.com’s has its own online marketing team, it will be a max one week job to create new campaigns for the catalog of SmallEcom.com.
      .
    • Social >
      Post acquisition, SmallEcom.com’s Facebook Fans & Twitter followers cannot be moved to LargeEcom.com’s brand page or twitter handle. Again – value of the time and money spend behind this channel is reduced to zero on day 1 itself.
      .
    • Affiliates >
      There are few affiliate marketing companies in India, they work with all ecommerce companies. Most likely LargeEcom.com would have better negotiated rates (cost of acquisition) with the same affiliate partners thats SmallEcom.com has partnered with.
      .
    • Email >
      There might be few duplicate email addresses, but is this a reason for LargeEcom.com to acquire a ecom startup with a small number of email addresses knowing that email marketing has diminishing returns over a period of time.
      .

The conclusion is – to retain the value of the startup’s order acquisition channels, the venture needs to be up and running. The big question for large acquiring company – should be it done at a cost of duplicating every resource available – two marketing teams, two product teams, two tech teams, two customer support teams or two operations teams?

The answer is No in both the cases – that is why acquiring a ecommerce startup is senseless; and most of them happening in India now can be termed as Acqui-hires, hired for talent.

  • Founding Team:
    The founders are retained, most likely to quit post the expiry of retention period. Once entrepreneur is always a entrepreneur by heart.
    .
  • Team Structure:
    Post acquisition, most roles will be dual and overlapping in both organizations. Unfortunately many cannot be accommodated since the larger entity cannot have – say two Online Marketing Heads or two Operations Head. Only in the case when the acquiring company has open positions, high chances that the team members are accommodated, else asked to quit.
    .
  • Business Partners:
    Vendors for Procurement – will be added to LargeEcom.com if it was acquiring a vertical ecommerce player and was not present in the same category. Most likely, this will not be more than 100 new vendors; again which could have been easily acquired just by hiring 2-3 new category managers (so why acquire?). If horizontal player was acquired – there would a overlap in vendors too.
    .
  • Logistics & Payment Gateway:
    LargeEcom.com would already enjoy better pricing for both with its partners, needless to say they both work with similar service providers for logistics. Acquiring a startup will not increase footprint in terms of pin-codes served.
    .
  • Customer Support:
    In a small startup, customer support is usually handled by a very small team; often by founders. If acquisition is across city – a Delhi based startup is acquired by Bangalore based one, clearly means that the team is either axed or goes on job hunting mode as they would not be open to relocation. This also holds true for other teams as well.
    .
  • Product, Platform & Technology: 
    The smaller startup that gets acquired will probably be running a ready-to-integrate ecommerce platform. Surprisingly, even the larger acquiring company might be as well running on some ready to use ecommerce platform and struggling to hold it up. There is absolutely no question of seamless integration here, ask your engineering folks! Either ways, since the acquisition is not for technology, the product and platform improvements on the smaller startup’s ecommerce platform will be lost as well.
    .
  • Warehouse & In-house Logistics:
    Few funded startups today have started with own warehouse & in-house logistics. Post acquisition, the lease on such warehouses expire (for two reasons – acquiring ecom startup already has own warehouse in that location with excess space + managing two warehouses in same city at a distance from each other means doubling operational costs). In-house logistics employees are either temps or contract workforce or on rolls of another company.
    .
  • Gross Orders:
    The SmallEcom.com site that was just acquired was doing about 50 to 200 daily gross orders; The LargeEcom.com site who acquired it will usually claim to do between 10,000 to 25,000 daily transactions. On order to order basis – acquiring an loss making ecommerce startup that will does 0.5% to 1% transactions will add any value to large entity? No.
    .

So why are these acquisitions happening?

  • New Vertical?
    No. It is not right to acquire a company for say $1 Mn or even 1 Crore to add new category to your product portfolio. Hire two category managers and have the new vertical rolling in 3 months.
    .
  • Acqui-hires?
    No. They happen if it was a case of known proven talent who build a super kewl product / technology platform but did not hit a right idea or execute it well. Examples – Oink (by Milk), or Gowalla and so on.
    .
  • Revenues?
    No. A large loss making ecommerce entity acquiring another loss making small ecommerce startup – two negatives don’t add up to positives.
  • Assets? No.
    Clearly no assets are doubled post the acquisition. Nothing on revenue, product, process or technology.

May be signs of desperation. May be lets try out something new. May be even VC / PE signaling – ‘Hey, we guys are growing inorganically, new category, new vertical and so on – we will require more investment capital in next rounds, care to participate?’. They may participate or may not – but is this a right strategy to present or package to existing investors where the net value of acquisition post 12 months (or even on day of acquisition) is zero.

However, some acquisitions do make sense – Homeshop18 acquiring Coinjoos or Flipkart acquiring Mime360. (Sorry – I don’t name bad acquisitions). Venturing into new vertical at times makes sense for acquisition – for verticals like huge catalog driven businesses – Books & Digital Music. It takes months together to build a team and build this massive catalog and then start business operations; acquisition makes more sense than building it grounds up; but not for any other category.
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So Amazon.com acquires? Why can’t we?
Amazon acquires cause it should acquire and own large ecommerce companies to maintain its undisputed lead. It is a listed company, needs to focus on growing is topline revenues and at the massive size that Amazon.com is – it has capacity to absorb losses and yet show some superb green numbers in balance sheet.

My guess is Amazon keeps all acquired ecommerce properties (Zappos, Woot, Diapers, Soap, Audible, etc, etc) live and independent post acquisition not alone for the culture of startups – but for reasons explained above. They need to maintain order acquisition channels for these acquired companies active and generate revenues.

While in India, a Series B / Series C funded ecommerce venture cannot run dual operations or two loss making entities.
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Concluding Notes:
I am not against acquisitions & exits, they are must for startup ecosystem. And they should be in plenty to keep the ecosystem building. But don’t agree with such acquisitions made by Series B / Series C funded ecommerce companies which end up adding no value to the company. They hurt in long run, when multiple investors get involved – burn their hands and then completely give up on the sector or market itself.

Otherwise I will stick to what I wrote earlier on predications for investments made in both horizontal & vertical ecommerce in India.

 

What has Product Management got to do with Ecommerce?

Everything! No, that will be a over statement. But it is definitely an integral part of value chain, which is completely ignored by many Ecommerce services in India. Few completely clueless about it, on what product/platform to develop and often mistake UX as product management (which is also an important function in itself).

Ecommerce is (still) hot. In a domain that has many funded companies today in this space; everyone is struggling for differentiation. With an exception of few; to say that we do more products in one category; we have strong vertical focus; our cost of acquisition is low; our seo is better; etc, etc – does not make any sense. These differentiating factors can be replicated overnight. If everyone is on-board same plane, its absurd to claim that someone will reach destination before others.

Rather than subjective opinions about Ecommerce which are in plenty already, this post is specifically targeted towards one aspect – Product. Internet businesses are all about building awesome products backed by a super technology team presented in an intuitive user-experience, nothing else. Its kinda unfortunate to see dollars spent on advertising by companies that have raised investments that continue to run on ready to use Ecommerce platforms installed over-night.

I’d be happy to see fellow entrepreneurs implementing / following basics of ecommerce product management and investors emphasizing focus on product before writing their next cheque for yet another ecommerce investment. On twitter (@beingpractical), I have tweeted number of times about lack of product focus by Ecommerce companies in India – here is why I keep saying that.

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1. On-Site Search:

The way Google is gateway for searching the web, same applies for on-site search for users to discover the 100,000+ products in catalog. On-site search as a discovery tool should contribute minimum 15% of all sales generated. A kick-ass search algorithm should contribute to 30%-35% of total sales.

On-site search is broken if –

  • Total search queries per day < Total unique visitors per day
  • 20% of all search queries generated show zero results
  • Even a single search query of Top 100 searched keywords shows incorrect result in position 1. For next 400 keywords, in first 5 results.
  • Contribution of transactions generated through on-site search is < 15%
  • Order Conversion Rate of onsite search is < 2X of site average.
  • Option to search on homepage is not prominently highlighted; Take clue from Amazon.com – as you always do 😉

What users search for on your website is the true-indicator of what consumer demand is. Rather than bidding for expensive keywords on paid search, analyze how effectively on-site search queries can be converted to actual sales.

To simply put, if X effort is put behind search engine optimization & Y effort is put behind paid search marketing, then effort spent on on-site search should be X + Y.

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2. Search Engine Optimization:

Why SEO is mentioned here? Because content experience should be delivered as a part of product. Many Ecommerce sites continue to believe that search-bots transact online and their product pages forcefully include content snippets. Design web pages and build user experience keeping real users in mind and not for search-bots.

SEO should be integral part of product, not random content/text written and inserted across product or category pages merely to increase keyword density of the page. Understand dynamics of content wrt to product in catalogue. There will always be two types distinct type of products – standardized (eg. Canon PowerShot 550D camera) and non-standardized products (eg. Diamond Ring for your Valentine). Focus on each type of products should be separate. (Have explained a bit of how it works in this post – Junglee and how it impacts Indian Ecommerce).

Search Engine Optimization is about playing with Google search index. Don’t overplay with multiple pages, unwanted content – in short don’t spam Google index with similar content. Maintain a healthy product to page index ratio of 3X-5X (indicates if there are 100,000 products in catalog – the search index should not exceed 500,000 in any case).

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3. Persistent Shopping Carts:

By now persistent shopping carts have should have became a standard, but there are few who are yet to enable this. For starters, there are tons of resources available on the web on benefits of it; for advanced product managers – there is simply much more to do –

  • Link shopping cart data persisted with a user session whenever is in a logged-in session.
  • Send email notification to users to remind of items still in shopping carts (please don’t spam – just a gentle reminder).
  • Over a period of time product prices decrease, once the same happens for a product that is lying in user’s shopping cart inform him via email.
  • Abandoned shopping cart is still an incomplete intent, convert that into a sale at a right opportunity.

Enable smart product marketing through a product versioning system. New Apple iPad is a successor to Apple iPad 1 & Apple iPad 2, inform users when next version of product is available. Similarly for Books or Music, when next book by an author is available or even a new sound track by Madonna. Remarket abandon carts when such event occurs.

 

4. Multiple Sites, User Communication and more.

In recent days, couple of ecommerce services have gone ahead and created specific domain for every vertical they are expanding in. Abc.com for electronics and xyz.com for fashion. These are most pathetic executions of product management since they tend to leverage existing platform for efficiency and end up being perfect playground for chaos.

Here are the most common mistakes that happen (all real experiences) –

  • Register at one website, receive welcome message from another.
  • Same Order ID sequencing is followed for multiple sites.
  • Same database used to store user information – imagine the chaos with operations, customer support, logistics, packing, and do so on – order from abc.com shipped with xyz.com packing. Its a product management mistake, and employees in operations are suffering.
  • Using same platform to collect any behavior information (if collected) for all sites. All algorithms will work incorrectly, expect Apple iPad recommendations to include a T-Shirt or even a Diamond Pendant. To patch up with a fix will lead to further complications, cause basic data collected itself is incorrect.
  • All email sender names, communication, notifications, marketing messages, are mixed up.

 

5. Deals to Product sales; expanding to new category. 

Many deals sites have pivoted to pure play ecommerce or with every passing month ecommerce services move to a new product category. To use same catalog or database structure is the simplest thing to do, but in order to really conquer every new category or verticals, some focused effort is required.

There is a huge difference between selling a travel coupon and selling a complete travel package. To win in every category some focused effort is required, which typically takes a backseat once launch target dates are set and to meet them the team ends up utilizing the same platform used to sell iPad, Spa coupon or travel package.

 

6. Controllable v/s Non-Controllable Factors.

Their is a weird assumption with few ecommerce companies that product management is limited only to consumer facing aspects – like website or mobile app. Its not, let me explain with an example.

Recently ordered an product from an site, its order id was 20579512UE82852111. First reaction – even morse codes are easy to decipher! Of all the calls received on customer care, 95% are order related queries. Just imagine the situation of consumers trying to communicate an 18 digit order id in variety of Indian accents. Complete chaos! There are bounds to be mistakes in communicating leaving room for multiple mistakes. A simple product management mistake leads to an exponentially higher average handling time per customer at its call center and increased hold time for customers wanting to connect.

Controllable factors like number of transactions, quality of search, payment gateway approvals, cart improvements, etc should be measured in improved efficiency of funnel & micro-funnels (explained further) conversion rates; while uncontrollable factors which are mostly about logistics, customer support, operations, COD operations, repayments/refunds, etc should be measured in amount of time saved.

 

7. Micro-Funnels: 

For every Ecommerce service, the only one determining factor to look at how efficient its transaction process is the conversion funnel ratio. Only few players have actually gone ahead and have started measuring performance of micro funnels in an matrix format per product vertical or category.

A conversion funnel cycle is typically Visitors > Product Pages > Added to Cart > Payment Page > Order Confirmation page.

Micro funnels typically mean building such funnels under each of the following 3-4 criteria –

  • By Traffic source: Natural Traffic, Natural Search, Emailers, Affiliate Marketing, Paid Search, Social Media, etc
  • By On-site properties: Search, Categories, On-site promotion banners, Product Recommendations, etc
  • By Product Categories: Fashion, Electronics, Health, Books, etc

Deep dive in data, 1% improvement at any stage of any funnel – will significantly improve volumes of transactions. Keep constructing micro funnels, they are fun and they are plenty more – by transaction size, payment types, and so on. In addition to dull excel sheet reports that have number of transactions / avg ticket size / gross merchandize value – look at such micro funnels data. If you have $100 to spend, it will tell you where exactly to get $200 returns.

Label your weekly friday reviews as Funnel Fridays!

 

8. Payment Gateways:

Payment Gateways or Logistic services are usually most blamed in this country as hindrances to growth of Ecommerce services. About two years back just before the ecom boom started, I wrote a note about – “How Reserve Bank of India can facilitate ecommerce and online transactions in India“. Not much has changed, and Cash on Delivery became the default payment mechanism.

Order rejection rates on transactions processed through payment gateways successfully are < 5%, in most of the cases only if incorrect product is shipped or there is a physical damage. If 100 orders are shipped, 50 are pre-paid transactions and other 50 are COD, on an average between 20-25 will be returned. The operational cost involved in managing COD orders will be close to 2X of pre-paid transactions, dissatisfied customers not accounted for.

Product Managers, make payment gateways work. There may be no science to this – but work with multiple payment gateways. Alternate the transaction flow between them and figure out the best time, best payment gateway from time to time. When payment gateway transaction fails, then offer Cash on Delivery or payments by Cheque.

Take clues – Number of transactions for online recharge services for prepaid mobile services are on increase; they allow users to only pay electronically through either credit cards or net-banking. Then why not for Ecommerce services? This is the same mobile subscriber base living in missed-call economy and maintaining average balance of less than INR 100.

 

9. Cash on Delivery and Logistics:

Since the last point discussed on Cash on Delivery, this comes next.

A strange equation about COD is, if an additional convenience charge between 25 to 30 INR if levied on all transactions below the avg ticket size of Ecom service, their entire cost of COD operations tends to break-even (Try this with historic order data, the number will be close). Maybe Cash on Delivery should be the last attempt to acquire a customer instead of first motivation to transact. But this does may not happen in real world, so COD is the biggest USP of this business now.

For any post-paid order (read COD) that is delivered within 48 hours of order, rejection rate is less than 10%. COD order delivered after 7 days of transaction, rejection rates might be as high as 70%. Product Managers need to find out smart ways to make this complete process efficient to ensure 90% of deliveries within 72 hours, this includes –

  • Maintaining dual address (work / residence) of users to ensure prompt delivery.
  • Call / SMS / Email notification before delivery to ensure user keeps the said amount ready.
  • Maintain performance of COD acceptance or rejection rates by users / pin codes / and logistic partner; shuffle logistic partners by performance for every delivery location. Some logistic partner will always deliver better than other for every pin-code. Find them and route more deliveries to them.
  • Extend this to pre-paid orders as well.
  • Work closely on technology with logistic partners that ensures quick reverse logistics, which is the biggest challenge in operations and also nightmare for customers.

 

10. Track Performance of every Property owned:

Heard of an website called – milliondollarhomepage.com? Have similar approach about every pixel on homepage.

Go insane about about deriving value of every homepage property (search, banners, browse, featured products, etc) similarly as retail outlets do about shelves – sale per shelf. Once every homepage property is labelled similarly, figure out its value based on transactions/revenue generated per day, get the average value of sale generated per property on homepage. More microfunnels to manage for homepage.

Shuffle between product categories, price range, images, product offer text, etc for every property. Understand distribution of transactions by every property, gather such information in logs, mine data and productize this marketing strategy – strive for efficiency.

 

11. Affiliate Marketing. Show Respect and build this Channel.

There are only few categories that have a lower acquisition costs, but with the amount of competition coming up in every horizontal / vertical segment – this is bound to increase with time. The average customer acquisition costs for any Ecommerce website in India today varies between 400 INR to 1200 INR, one company acquires customers at 2000 INR to sell them – pen drives worth 399 INR.

In between all this, there are few really effective business channels like affiliates, price comparison portals and so on who really work hard and acquire customers by sending qualified shoppers. Most of them have extremely poor affiliate commission structures which are typically between 100 to 250 INR, much lower than cost of acquisitions on paid search or display advertising. Show respect, they are acquiring customers at a cost that is usually less than half of the site average.

Nurture this channel and make them available with a series of affiliate tools similar to the Amazon Affiliate program. This channel is currently under-developed / un-explored, any ecommerce service providing better affiliates product and awesome commission structure can actually take a big leap ahead!

 

12. Email Marketing

I had once tweeted this – ‘Buying from you is not my consent to SMS/Email spam’ mentioning few brands I admire. Later Hursh (Cleartrip) wrote an interesting piece about it later on their blog – ‘Why we don’t spam our customers.

Email Marketing has a diminishing value proportionate to the rate of emails per user per month. Though an important channel for traffic/transactions; if abused, at a certain period of time the cost involved in sending a mail to million subscribers will be much larger than the revenue earned from the email campaign itself.

Product Managers need to put in rules in place to ensure that the marketing activity remains contextual to users interaction on the site and also user is sent the emailer at a certain time where buying intent by user still holds true. Ensure adequate gaps (of about 30 to 45 days) between two marketing emails if sent to same user. Consumers behave much like us, will they really buy watches or sunglasses on a daily basis? Find a context!

 

13. Product Recommendations

Unlike what many think, the amazing product recommendations of amazon cannot be build overnight with correct context. It requires tons of data which can be only generated post millions of transactions, product views, buying patterns and an platform that really enables up-selling of products.

There are different aspects of an Amazon Product page – which can be observed on any one of its product page. The experience is so delivered that it brings multiple benefits to Amazon – highly content rich pages that affects search engine traffic positively (as mentioned in point earlier, productize the SEO content), Promotions available at that time, Up-selling related products,  customer actions, product details, description, related purchases, customer reviews and related products.

Enough to satisfy consumer of all his questions, alternatives and options. All packaged beautifully with appropriate content on a page with multiple opportunities to up-sell or cross-sell. Ain’t that good? See how far it seems to go. Love data, insights and bring it to users, don’t be satisfied with plain jane product pages.

 

14. Behavioral Data Trends and creating Marketable Insights.

This completely comes from the stuff we build at my previous stint with Ohana Media – capabilities to track every user interaction, generate tons of data and segment that into trends and actionable data. (They call it bigdata these days).

A brief explanation of the same is on this presentation – Audience Clusters & Intent Analytics and also another deck that Shameek presented at Adtech 2012 on Online Marketing Success Strategies for Ecommerce companies.

While at Ohana, we had pitched this platform to one Founder & CEO of an funded Ecommerce company. Answer – “Not sure if this stuff works.” Result, we went ahead and signed an exclusive non-compete deal with their competitor and today their cost of acquisition has reduced by more than 50% in less than 12 months. Another Ecommerce founding team we proposed replied, “Cannot use this product. Data collected by this platform resides on the same server as our competitor.” That stumbled us, don’t 1000s of Ecommerce sites run on Amazon instances (every customer had his data stored in private cloud). Having a product person driven by data & analytics is essential in every founding team or should be one of the first people to hire in senior management.

Discover cross-channel marketing efficiency like –

  • Natural search keywords converting are automatically bid for on paid search.
  • Automatically decrease bids when competition stops bidding or lowers their bids.
  • Email intent data is used to remarket category banners on-site
  • Search to Display remarketing
  • Onsite customization based on users previous intents.
  • This list could be endless…

Respect data and figure out capabilities to increase its efficiency across medium. Same users reaches you through multiple doors – Search, Paid Search, Social Media, Display, Emails etc. Unless you are able to gather his intent-cycle over a period, it will be impossible to have efficiency in marketing. Every 1% increment on top of funnel conversion may lead to 2X at its bottom.

Full Disclosure: I led product & marketing for Ohana Media in my earlier role. Its founder Shameek Chakravarty is on Board of Advisor of my startup. Both presentations linked are in public domain.

 

15. Team Structure

Since last point touched based on the people aspect, want to extend it bit beyond the purview of direct product management. While one big mistake could be not having a product focused person in founding team or in the senior management team – other simply is how teams are structured within an organization.

Have noticed that in multiple organizations, the User Experience, Product Team, Technology and Online Marketing teams working in silos heading in different directions. It will be subjective to mention what is a right structure and there is no thumb rule to decide that – one common criteria should be love for data, numbers, & micro funnels. Stitch it all together and build an rocking platform.

This pointer is a filler, 15 is a round number. Nevertheless, message is important.

 

Concluding Notes – 

There are couple of posts I wrote earlier which might be also in line for Ecommerce services –

Signing off. Oh yes – a $75+ Mn valued company is still running a Facebook advt since its day of launch (about 2 years back) promising a Blackberry for INR 1999. Its CPC must be 8-12 INR and I have clicked on it innumerable times trying to find out that phone. Online marketing inefficiencies? – maybe will reserve that for another post. This one is already too long.

Going back, product / platform is the core differentiation for every Ecommerce service. Love data and believe in numbers. Every aspect of ecommerce business can be divided into two aspects – controllable (managed internally) and uncontrollable (managed externally like logistics, operations, etc); measure efficiency of everything that is online with improvements in micro funnel conversions and everything that is offline with improvements in time.

Want more inspirations – for online look west (at Amazon); for offline look east (at Taobao).

Junglee and how it impacts Indian Ecommerce

Junglee has once again got us to debate on our current favorite topic – Ecommerce. Many of us doubting that if current Ecommerce models did it right because Amazon chose an completely diagonal approach to enter Indian market with Junglee.com.

Facts first – Junglee.com has not invented product discovery and price comparison. Pricegrabber.com is one of the best products in this space for US. Shopping.com is owned by Ebay, and many other players in India as well.

There are already lot of posts talking about how Junglee has got it right and it will be the door or gateway to drive traffic and enable transactions on Indian Ecommerce sites. Well that may be true, but honestly I find this really weird, just because Junglee is backed by Amazon – does not mean it will be success or that it is the correct approach. Herd mentality thinking! I guess it is too early, driven by speculation without valid reasoning.

Google Buzz went wrong; Google+ is a disaster; Google Search plus your world is a messed up product. Facebook withdrew from daily deals, Twitter launched activity tab (silently withdrew that in new roll-out) or Netflix tried Qwikster. Point is – big companies make big mistakes.

On the other hand – Amazon has a thing of entering market at very early stage by introducing new products/verticals like AWS, eBooks, Kindle or making an very thoughtful late entry like Kindle Fire (Tablet) or by acquiring category creator or owners like Audible, Diapers or Zappos.

 

Here are some points I would want to specifically highlight about Junglee –

Competition –

  • Junglee is not competing against Flipkart or Letsbuy or any other Ecommerce player in this market at this stage. Product discovery & product transactions are distinctly different verticals., but what Junglee is attempt affects these players.
  • Junglee is not competing even against Google. With 1.2 crore products, it means Junglee will contribute more pages to Google’s search index than any other Ecommerce site in India. Most consumers will discover Junglee through Google.
  • Amazon.com has unmatched resources/experience in Search Engine (paid & natural) expertise; it clearly highlights it as one of the reasons for partners to list on Junglee. (Read point 3 here: http://services.amazon.in/services/product-ads/how-it-works/#/services/product-ads/faq/)

 

How Junglee might change the rules through discovery –

Ecommerce services have limited options of online marketing – Direct Traffic, SEO, SEM, Display Advts, Affiliate Marketing, Email & Social Media. (The funded ones get to do – TV, Radio & Outdoors). Compared to the cost associated with other formats of marketing – SEO guarantees long term and sustainable traffic acquisition mode. Overall high cost of acquisition in other formats of marketing is leveled down only through Direct traffic or SEO. Yes, Social is free but cost of acquisition is still a big proportion as users are acquired through discounting coupons.

Taking previous point ahead, SEO is pure content play and Amazon is master at that. With 1.2 crore products – Junglee will add approximately 3Mn+ pages to Google index, index size is typically 3X-4X for factors like review pages/ recommendations pages / category pages and so on. Due to this sheer size of index and high quality content placement, Junglee will quickly start rising in its natural search rankings. This will affect both – partners who has listed on Junglee and others like Flipkart who have chosen not to.

Here is why –

All products listed on Junglee (or any Ecommerce site) can be classified as two

  • Standardized catalog products (Books, Digital Cameras, Laptops, DVDs, etc)
  • Non standard products (Jewellery, Toys, Clothing, etc)
  • For standardized product like say this Canon Digital Camera – the content includes product description which is standard on every site; but will be enhanced on Junglee with recommendations, reviews and more.
  • For non-standard products like this Mayur Pendant Sapphire offered by CaratLane, despite content being exactly the same, even without reviews or recommendations – Junglee will quickly be listed above CaratLane for multiple factors, key being vastness of catalog for Pendants & Jewellery.

And this is one of the key reasons why natural search traffic on both websites listed or not listed with Junglee will be affected big time. Over time, a high proportion of natural search traffic will be taken by Junglee and will be distributed by it.

This also provides a very large opportunity for small players (including unfunded) or offline retailers (who are lost at times on online marketing) to acquire qualified users.

For those who have not listed, it makes some perfect sense to get their products listed on Junglee as they will witness a gradual decline in natural search traffic. And to get traffic & acquire those customers from Junglee – they will require to be competitive on pricing.

 

Product listings are Free.

Really? and you believed that.

Amazon is selling Kindle Fire below its cost, because it is confident that it will recover revenues of the device through content consumption. If you are thinking that Amazon will not make anything out of Junglee.com – you are wrong. When it comes to churning out online user behavior data and consumption patterns, no other Ecommerce service can do it better than Amazon.

Junglee has the entire product catalog required for Ecommerce. Soon Amazon will have all the insights it wants to know about Indian consumers – Products consumer are searching for, Product-Price ratios or even Demand / Supply for all products categories.

 

Challenges for Junglee –

A product discovery catalog with 1.2 Crore products is not easy thing and Amazon is doing this more efficiently than anyone else with its own core product – amazon.com. Challenges for updating inventory, prices, reviews or recommendations exist, but are not big for Amazon. Junglee can really force upon real-time price and inventory updates to its partners and get them to standardize it.

What would be more interesting is Amazon could localize the product – showcasing partners who can ship in least amount of time to say – Panaji or Kolhapur; deep integrate with offline retailers and help making purchase decisions – like a Apple iPad 2 is available now in Croma (2 Kms away from your location) at Rs.500 discount than buying at an online store.

From what I know – Croma maintains a list of products available for sale in every store on its central inventory management (I was once asked to visit another Croma store to pick up an mobile phone, the staff kept the last piece off shelf). Currently Junglee.com is a minimum viable product, but can Amazon get to this?

 

Where does this all lead to for Amazon – 

Two options ahead for Amazon –

  • Amazon Market Place
    If Amazon is keen – this can happen tomorrow. Junglee has the product catalog, simply enable an payment gateway and instead of redirecting traffic to partner sites, start sending customer transaction orders which its partners can fulfill.
  • Amazon Store
    Keep it slow, learn more about users / markets. And when the time is right launch a full fledge Ecommerce service.

And its very likely that Amazon will take the route two. Feel like investing in Amazon now? Ouch.

Lets Blame It on Rio (and not the Ecosystem!)

Having read so much on blogs, forums, one on one interactions with entrepreneurs, VCs – I conclude that “Blame It on Ecosystem” is the favorite game for people in Indian startup space (both included – entrepreneurs & the investors). And the blame game continues – Entrepreneur complaining that this VC just “does not get it” when their pitch does not make it; Investors complaining that they are “yet to find a Bn dollar company” from India.

There is a lot of rant already over this topic without much reasoning. Unlike my other posts on this blog – I will not try to express any personal opinion about a business domain here; but just highlight why the Indian Startup scene is about 10 years behind Silicon Valley.

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Indian VCs don’t take risks –
Entrepreneurs have higher appetite for risk than investors. Every investment in any investor portfolio is a risk. There is a calculated risk that every VC takes, be it Indian or US investor. Indian VCs don’t take risk is a incorrect statement, the right way to put this is – risk appetite of Indian VCs is more inclined towards proven business models of west. After all a entrepreneur takes a risk with belief in his idea, VC with his money in entrepreneur’s belief to execute.

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Only Validated Business Ideas get VC invested –
OTAs, Daily Coupon Sites, eCommerce, Finance Lead Generation & similar., these are proven business models with metrics that are well defined.
– X visits result on Y transactions at average value of Z
– X spends result in Y leads and Z conversions from it

This is a low risk appetite investment, where it is not a rocket science to determine how to scale up the business and predict profitability & revenue projections. Knowing these metrics and a good team – the VC is more comfortable & confident with such investments in India.

Compare the same for an Facebook, Foursquare, Quora, Twitter, Dropbox or Evernote. If such businesses are pitched at early stage to VCs here, most of them would have no clue on what metrics to use for basis of their investment. All such platforms raised a angel round or small VC round before the metrics were clear.

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Lack of 2nd/3rd Generation Entrepreneurs –
Now why did I mention initially in this post that India is ten years behind Silicon Valley? – because Silicon Valley today has entrepreneurs & investors who have done 2X/3X exits. Living up a 2X or 3X full company life cycle till exit gives an incomparable experience, the next company they build is ‘better product & platform’ than the earlier and so on.

In India, with notables of Naukri, MakeMyTrip and few others we have started seeing first generation exits now, both Sanjeev Bikhchandani & Deep Kalra are doing the right things with spotting new investments for the next mile. To have more entrepreneurs going 1X, 2X or 3X exits, is anywhere between a 5-10 year game plan.

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Pre-Revenue Investments –
There is a big misconception that in Silicon Valley companies get funded in pre-revenue stage. Yes, they do – but not all; not the ones without strong user engagement, not the ones without a solid team behind the product or platform. And for B2B products, not the ones who have initial set of customers who swear by the product!

This might not be false for India as well. If Sanjeev or Deep Kalra want to start their next entrepreneurial journey – who will not invest?

Pre-Revenue Startups like Facebook, Foursquare and many others did not raise large investments or achieve high valuations in their first round. These companies themselves raised either an angel investment or a very low value Series A investment to start, validate their product, get users/customers and then went for a big round of investment/valuation.

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There are no Early Adopters –
Unless an entrepreneur agrees that his product is bad or not a market-fit or has not tried enough, in my opinion this is the biggest excuse. How can one justify the same in a country of 1 Billion people. In a country which easily figures among the top 10 countries by users for any successful web product in valley – from Orkut, Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Foursquare, Quora and many others!

For B2C products – you have not tried enough!
For B2B or Enterprise SaaS products – did you guys not hear of Wingify or Fusion Charts or InMobi. This is digitally connected world – no one has bounded a company by geographical limits. These are proven models of product driven startups from India.

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Disconnect with Valley –
The kind of companies that are funded in India today are the ones that were funded in US about ten years back. I have no disrespect for the Indian companies – infact they are building the base for the next wave of Internet boom – exactly the same that happened with US.

With a whole lot of first generation entrepreneurs in India – we expect at least the VCs to bring an perspective on whats happening in US & other parts of the world, not the obvious answers that everyone knows. The learning from valley does not come or has not reached to many investors in India.

My point of disconnect with valley here is that many in investment community today are still unaware of Quora, Spotify, Dropbox, Evernote, Airbnb, Rovio, and so many others. In one of my meetings I had to tell a investment analyst about 500startups, Angellist and in another one that Ashton Kutcher is also a technology investor! And in one more, someone explained if a American company like Lenovo can be big in China, others too can (? – OK)! And that people in investor circles are still unaware of Yuri Milner & DST.

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No Product Focus –
There is a buzz within investor circles that the next Google, Facebook, Amazon of the world will come from India. With comfortable investment decisions in validated business models like eCommerce – post my above experiences I sincerely doubt if Indian investors will be able to spot such opportunities when it knocks your doors?

The current series of investments about eCommerce in India are a hunt to find the next Amazon. But, Amazon itself has ceased being an eCommerce company long time back, it is a product/ a platform and much more beyond all that – view Amazon’s Hidden Empire .

In US, investors invest in products & platforms; in India – they invest in companies. Huge Difference! When did you last hear of an eCommerce (leaving aside daily deals and private shopping, though a format of eCommerce itself) or Online Travel company getting funded in Silicon Valley?. If you are building a B2B or B2C product/platform company in India, all investors will be to help you with money & connections, but only handful of investors in India will be help you with product or platform – choose wisely!

Disclosure: Experience – I reached out to two venture capitalists at some point of time for role as investment analyst with experience in diverse products & platforms – was rejected outright for lack of ‘relevant experience’. No sour grapes, but I could have saved some millions for them :-)

I am of a strong opinion that there is a huge need of in-house product & platform management advisory in many Indian venture capitalists. All ecosystem changes are driven by improvement & innovations in products & platforms, not by revenues. Lastly, it is only the consumer products that will scale up and be a billion dollar company!

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Everyone wants to invest Early Stage / Series A
Everyone wants to invest at early stage, but no one wants to take risk. So investments will happen early – but validated business models only. Some good examples for early stage investments in India are redBus, InMobi – while some good early stage misses are Infibeam (which has grown significantly larger without any outside investment).

Angels and Seed stage funds are well positioned to spot early opportunities than institutional investors.

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Premature Incubation Model
Going for a incubation model – make sure you choose the right one among the ones you are joining. Reason to say this – incubation models in US have mentors who have great experience in building products & platforms at scale. Y Combinator – has Paul Buchheit (creator of Gmail & Google Adsense), 500startups has Dave McClure (PayPal, FBfund, Simply Hired and more) and mentors from hottest companies and startups in valley; and so many others.

I have simple belief – Internet & Mobile startups are as good or as bad as the products you build. If you are choosing a incubation model – make sure it compliments your actual requirements. Last reason an entrepreneur should choose a incubation mode is money!

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The Know-It-All Attitude
This goes to Entrepreneurs – if you have, please shed away this attitude and get in a mode to learn, to take advice and asking right questions. Relationship status between an Entrepreneur and Investor is complicated – you can’t live with them or you can’t live without them, so you might as well accept them the way they are.

While closing your meetings / pitch with prospective investors – take feedback on the product, business model and the pitch. They will advice you based on their best strengths and experience, but only if you ask! In my personal experience – I managed to get some key improvements & suggestions on the product I am building.

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Please learn to say No
Entrepreneurs learn to say no to investors who do not see and agree with the vision you hold for the product.
Investors learn to say no, and fast. Entrepreneur’s time is equally important as yours! If the product does not match your investment interest – communicate it as fast as possible. Saying no immediately may not so bad; but keep a hope alive may be frustrating for the entrepreneur.

PS: Please respond faster to emails! I exchanged few notes with some of ‘the investors’ in Silicon Valley – always found a reply within 12 hours in all cases, some of them in less than 30 minutes.

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Quality of Press Releases & Coverage
The state of ecosystem is also reflected by the type of news coverage & press releases one reads on Indian Blogs. People movements – in most cases of those names who we have never heard of before, New sales office in Middle East, Forward looking statements on revenues & projections, Surveys that say the obvious in press releases, Claims & unacceptable figures, and so much more! Damn – we would like to know more about your products & platforms, everything else is just crap!

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Concluding Remarks –

Startup ecosystem is built with entrepreneurs, their companies, their early customers and then the investors. You control 75% of the ecosystem already, investors will follow. In the same context I remember one of Sameer Guglani’s tweet – “Founders r creators / accelerators, angels, VCs r service providers. our business runs because founders start companies & not other way arnd.”

The point I am trying to convey here is that if you think or perceive that ecosystem is not evolved in Indian start up scenario, stop complaining and don’t be an entrepreneur. There is no point in waiting for a right time to build your startup, the time to start is now. Get started!

Ecosystem or no Ecosystem – it did not stop a redBus, Naukri, MakeMyTrip, Flipkart, InMobi or SlideShare* to be what they are from India. Why should it stop you!

The term ecosystem means lot of other components as well. Feel free to add more to the comments based on your experiences.

 

What problems are the Mobile Payment Services trying to solve?

When I heard of Twitter founder Jack Dorsey’s announcement of mobile payment startup – Square, I loved the simplicity of the service. Few months Jack Dorsey tweeted that Square is processing transactions worth $1Mn per day – that is a cool revenue run rate of $10Mn per year for a two year startup (Square charges 2.75% charge per transaction when paid through credit card)

With very little knowledge of how offline transactions work in US, but it is definitely a card driven economy. Coming to Indian scenario – unsure if any Mobile Payment Services company in India will declare the value of transactions it processes per day. For a country like India, although the opportunity for mobile commerce looks huge – unable to relate if existing mobile payment services are trying to solve any consumer problem.

Back in 2006, when penetration of mobile phones in India was growing at an exponential pace – with falling talk times, it was predicted that India will be one of the largest telecom markets in the world. Well, that has surely come true. In internet world – there was another wave of prediction. Analysts & Enthusiasts found another buzz world – mCommerce which was supposed to be a multi-billion dollar industry by 2010.

With time, the definition of Mobile Commerce is itself a cliche’d.

  • Is it mobile commerce when a consumer books a airline ticket online, gets a confirmation and PNR number on to his mobile number . Displays the PNR ar airport counter and gets ticket?
  • Is it mobile banking when consumer receives confirmation of debit/credit transaction on his mobile
  • Or is it when the discovery, intent & transaction for a product/service starts and ends on mobile phone?

The definition is now debatable – but with mobile communication included, online transactions and services have scored a big mile.

The proposition of Mobile Payment Systems is (or was) very simple:

  • Offline Merchants – Allow consumers to walk-in to any shop with his mobile phone, buy stuff and make payments
  • Online Merchants – Tie-Up with multiple online eCommerce/Travel portals – allow them to purchase products through their payment service
  • Own Marketplaces – Create own marketplace on mobile that combine eCommerce, travel, utility services etc and enable payments for such transactions through their own system

Honestly, this would have sounded amazing to everyone back then. Undoubtedly very huge potential – Offline retail transactions are worth billions of dollars everyday, Online Merchants wanting to reach out to very high percentage of consumers who have not come online due to lack of internet connectivity and mobile device seemed very logical, & of course with own marketplace strategy they too wanted to own a sizable chunk of users/revenue and be a destination for commerce.

The mobile boom did happen. It is very difficult to find someone these days without a mobile phone. But then why is it so rare that we don’t get to find people using mobile payment services as it was predicted earlier.

Trying to analyze why did this zillion dollar plan on paper did not translate to even millions of dollars in reality. Here are few thoughts, there may be many other reasons as well that contributed to this –

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Limited size of Market –
With 95% mobile subscription in country on prepaid, and average ARPU of less than 200 INR (& steadily declining with time) – mobile payments or transactions is definitely the last thing on such user’s mind. Addressable market for this service is considerably very small and will be a subset of eCommerce market.

Active Credit Cards in India are declining –
According to recent numbers published in this TOI report – number of active credit users in India has tumbled down from 20.7 Million (in March 2008) to 10.8 Million (in November 2010).

eCommerce Services discovered Cash on Delivery –
India is a cash driven economy and most eCommerce services have realized this by today. COD accounts for anywhere between 30% to 60% of transaction for players who have enabled it. IVR payment mechanism also has widespread acceptance for ordering directly through call center.

Banks play their own Game –
In fact they already have started playing their own game. Banks are launching their own mobile banking applications and promoting it aggressively. That leaves mobile payment services out of their own play-field.

The 3G Magic may not happen –
The 3G magic shall happen to other services, but in my opinion nothing dramatic will happen for mobile payment services companies. There is simply no connection between acceptance of 3G by consumers and why ‘new consumers’ will subscribe to credit cards or link up their bank accounts to a mobile payment service company. They will fight for existing consumers between competition and the banks.

Radical shift to app-economy –
Smart Mobiles & Tablets devices are making a huge difference to the way consumers are accessing services on handheld or portable computing devices. With advent of app-stores and in-app payment systems – the mobile ecosystem has grown more radically than any of these players would have thought about.

Money was always Mobile –
If the pain point that mobile payment systems were (or are) trying to solve was allowing consumers to do transactions wherever & whenever they want – then this consumer pain never existed. Money in whatever format – cash or card was always mobile.

 
I see and hear of Mobile Payment systems usage in India only in the context on prepaid recharges & utility bill payments. But that was not what they aimed for, correct?

To sum up the article –

  • Money was always mobile; the consumer pain point mobile service providers were trying to solve never existed!
  • These businesses were way ahead of time; and in most scenarios got investments before validation.
  • mCommerce model evolved differently and in a way that kept such players outside the ecosystem.
  • mCommerce will evolve along with eCommerce; will go hand in hand – but definitely not before.

In my opinion this vertical is classic case of ‘ahead of time’, ‘investment without validation’, and ‘dynamic changing ecosystem’. Lesson for entrepreneurs and investment managers – make sure your companies are a part of “validated ecosystem” and solves a “valid consumer pain.”