Here’s an ominous reality: Technology implies belligerence (Blindsight, by Peter Watts. If you love Hard Sci-Fi you must read this book). New technology will strive to control that which was chaotic before its arrival. Some of these near household names have something interesting in common:
Stripe - Payments
Shopify - Shopping
Etsy - niche eCommerce
Google/Facebook - Digital ID
Khan Academy - Education
Substack - News/blog publishing
These companies either took on century old industry practices, or they disrupted an industry to an extent that the effects are incalculable. The funny thing about disruption is that most people want it to seem like the business strategy equivalent of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. It’s laughably not. In fact, it’s been (for these companies at least) a theme that ran contrary to the gargantuan incumbents - don’t look for a big piece of a piece, just increase the size of the pie. If we apply this to industries that serve end consumers, this is the necessary block to reduce effort on the part of sellers/service providers to go D2C. Let’s look at them again:
Stripe - Payments are tough. Coders are in short supply compared to producers. So why not make a platform that does payments for any producer looking to integrate a payments solution. Anyone who has spent time online has come across at least one D2C purchase page made by Stripe. They’re everywhere, providing seamless experience to consumers and the brands for frictionless payments.
Shopify - Marking a shopping experience is a difficult exercise, especially when brands want to operate it independently. This requires building the website, integrating with various logistics and warehousing modules, live inventory capture. Why build everything from the ground up when you can integrate Shopify and get access to solutions such as marketing, shipping, and customer engagement tools, all for about $30-$2000 a month. It’s a service that brought small business to your digital doorstep.
Etsy - If you own a warehouse or studio where you make custom handicrafts, it can be really difficult to find your niche audience, especially on Amazon-like platforms. So why not sell on Etsy, a platform exclusively for such individuals, where the experience for the consumer is crafted for the niche customer. You also get access to your consumer to build deeper interactions and thereby a sustainable reputation (I bought a clock recently on Etsy, and as usual I immediately changed my mind about the color combination. I sent an urgent request to the seller via direct message on Etsy’s platform and the seller was more than happy to make the change. 10/10 would buy again).
Google/Facebook - When people see the “sign up” button on a website, I wonder whether they remember the early internet and its many long forms for signing up. Today, I almost expect a subsequent “sign up with Google” or a “sign up with Facebook” and wonder how many people still use the long forms. Authentication and tracking orders via email is so much simpler now. (BTW, if you are one of those people who fill sign up forms on websites, use the website’s name as your middle name. If you ever get spam mail addressed to John Website Smith, you know who sold your information. h/t r/lifeProTips)
Khan Academy - Salman Khan’s website is now among the leading platforms for educating people for Maths and Science. And while we’re on the subject there’s a popular saying today “for every technical subject, there’s an Indian guy on YouTube who has a video explainer for it”. There’s truth to this. YouTube is chock-full of engaging and comprehensive content to explain difficult concepts in technology.
Most D2C startups began as a rebellion against or through a negation of existing systems. They took to social media to drive their brand narrative. They used plug and play solutions to simplify their admin, logistics, and data capture. These brands resonated deeply with people. Dollar Shave Club broke Gillette’s long held market domination from 70% in 2010 to 54% in 2018. While doing so, DSC also got into the business of subscription revenue (more on that in some other newsletter)
Kickstarter has enabled sellers, individuals, and fund-seekers to raise $6.1 billion for creative work across 222k projects. Warby Parker took on the behemoth Luxotica to provide good quality, low cost glasses to people. WP went from being founded in 2010 to commanding a 7% share of the market dominated by Luxottica’s 40%. Today, the brand is struggling against another low cost competitor - Zenni.
What they have in common is strong brand narrative and tight control over quality/efficiency of service delivered. And if their customers did not like the service, these brands actually gave a damn. Customers began to become people again (Next election mandate: Make customers people again?)
Many brands followed suit. People attached their identity to those brand narratives and experiences. They cared about the environment and loved that their brands did so too. They cared about the farmer, and loved that their brands did so too. They cared about transparency, and loved that their brands did so too.
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