Memo: Bolt’s Gutsy Strategy

It may not work but it’s a gutsy strategy. Bolt is trying to out-rebel the armory of the rebels. The call to action is clear: “Switch to Bolt.” In another fiery thread by Bolt founder Ryan Breslow, he began: Shopify is eating their ecosystem.

Ryan Breslow 🕺 on Twitter: “Shopify is Eating their Ecosystem (thread): / Twitter”

Shopify is Eating their Ecosystem (thread):

Just two days after, in a sponsored article published in Retail Dive on Monday, Bolt challenged Shopify directly. The headline “Has your online shop outgrown Shopify?” insinuates a new direction taken by Breslow and team. It’s now a rivalry stoked by a chairman of the checkout platform now valued at over $11 billion by investors. A click-through link titled “Tired of Shopify holding you back?” drove the message home.

  • top of funnel: viral thread
  • mid-funnel: topical sponsored article
  • bottom funnel: custom landing page to capture interest

Bolt wants to take on Shopify, transitioning from a one-click checkout tool to a full-fledged eCommerce platform. The landing page that Retail Dive sends readers to leaves no question unanswered:

Take back control of your store with Bolt CheckoutOS, the checkout partner that scales with you. Switch from Shopify for a flexible commerce solution and get up to $2M in incentives and marketing funds.

The thread, sponsored article, and the landing pages are all part of the new approach to growth that Bolt is relying on to reach its goals. The $11 billion valuation is hefty, especially given that Shopify competitor BigCommerce is trading at below a $2 billion market capitalization. According to filings, Bolt’s total revenue for 2021 was expected to be between $216.2 million and $216.6 million with a Non-GAAP operating loss of $19-20 million.

The thread headlines a repositioning strategy that may be designed to help Bolt stretch its total addressable market (TAM).

In the viral thread, Breslow says that Shopify copied Bolt when it launched Shop Pay. He also says that Shopify uses its positioning in the market and app store to bring in developers to build solutions for its clients, uses the app landscape as its own R&D and then manipulates app store restrictions to cut off the most popular apps at their knees and recreate the product themselves.

Breslow has become known for fiery tweet storms targeting powerful industry players. His last, which challenged YCombinator, came shortly before he stepped down as Bolt’s CEO (a choice he said was his own). In that thread, Breslow said his Twitter threads were not a marketing strategy. At least in the Shopify case, the tweets accompanied by the sponsored article seem coordinated. Bolt wants to become a Shopify competitor, and this narrative shift around Bolt’s own positioning (while pointing out the weaknesses of Shopify) were clearly planned.

This move to take on Shopify could boost Bolt’s business from one-trick tech company. Bolt’s current valuation underscores just how valuable checkout solutions have become. But to earn its valuation (and eventually grow beyond it) its next chapter has to be bigger. This is the impetus behind its growing value proposition. It now bills itself as a “CheckoutOS.” Bolt isn’t the only company that started in one corner of eCommerce tech and is looking at what other areas it can conquer in order to raise its own ceiling. But becoming the next Shopify is a tall order. Can Bolt achieve it without eventually using the same tactics as Shopify to grow users?

Right now, Bolt is suggesting it can be a home for both growing businesses as well as app developers who may have been burned by Shopify. The bottom line of Breslow’s argument is that eCommerce should be open-source. Bolt sees itself as a leading candidate in the version of eCommerce that is now inhabited by companies like BigCommerce, Magento, and Commerce Cloud – where commerce scale is decentralized because of open platform access. It wants to not only compete with Shopify, but replace it with a new model. However, Wall Street is still catching up to Shopify.

Shopify is down 57 percent over the trailing three months. Unlike Amazon, who found ways to calm the Street while reinvesting in future growth, Shopify has not been able to weave the same “we’re just beginning” narrative. Shopify needs quarterly growth to justify its market cap and to achieve that, it will have to own more and more of the ecosystem until the eCommerce industry matures beyond its currently nascent stage. Wall Street sees online retail as an industry in post-COVID retraction, further agitated by Apple’s privacy policies impacting the Facebook advertising that many retailers relied upon. Look at how reliant Shopify is on Facebook’s marketing prowess:

Speaking anonymously (with permission to share his thoughts), a Shopify executive contested my view that product decisions are made with the public market in mind. No one in Shopify’s leadership “optimizes for Wall Street,” he said. Rather, the Shopify executive explained that simplicity is prioritized. Products are concluded because they are not good for merchants, consumers, or the ecosystem as a whole.

A product manager also reached out to explain the unique role of checkout within the Shopify ecosystem. End to end control is critical, it’s “the most important piece of commerce.” And as Shopify continues to scale, the company wants control over the most critical point of the consumer workflow.

So while Shopify isn’t publicly weaving the narrative that its Amazonian rival did in its first 15 years, the management team is still playing by the same book: ruthlessly thinking for the long-term even throughout global and societal changes.

The ultimate irony of Bolt’s new strategy of antagonizing Shopify (like Shopify antagonizes Amazon) is simple. Shopify is slowly becoming more like Amazon to capture more share of eCommerce growth. If Bolt wants to compete against Shopify in other platforms, they will eventually adapt the same practices: picking and choosing between who gets to work within its ecosystem. When Bolt went after YCombinator, I wondered if the leadership team sanctioned the controversial statements made by Ryan Breslow. By taking aim at Shopify and backing it up with sponsored articles and thematic landing pages, it’s clear that the new marketing and public relations strategy has been sanctioned by the company. It has elevated Bolt in the eCommerce discussion. It’s set the stage for merchants and developers to see Bolt through the lens of larger aspirations.

Breslow sees Bolt as the third-generation of commerce enablers, a position shared by a number of headless competitors including its rival Fast.

But while the marketing strategy seems effective thus far, scale is a risky proposition. As Breslow correctly notes, there is a “success ceiling.” To break through the glass, you may end up making as many enemies as you do partners. If Bolt succeeds, it will have its own viral threads from younger, ambitious entrepreneurs to contend with. They’ll talk of the next generation and the right way to do things. And if they’re lucky, they’ll see the success ceiling too and adjust their strategies accordingly. It may lead to a bit of compromise. It may not work but it’s a gutsy strategy.

By Web Smith | Edited by Hilary Milnes with art by Alex Remy and Christina Williams 

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