No. 310: The Bonobos Curve

The history of digitally native vertical brands (DNVBs) goes back just 12 years. However, the framing of the industry has evolved and so has its terminology. Appointed by Bonobos’ founder and current Walmart executive Andy Dunn in 2016, the DNVB acronym has given way to a simpler version: “DTC” or direct-to-consumer. It rolls off of the tongue and it’s all-encompassing – reporters, analysts, and sources like 2PM and Lean Luxe can apply the terminology across the board. For Bonobos and Dunn, there is symbolism in the paths of the company and the executive. It’s emblematic of the curve that many companies and executives will follow.

By the end of this, you may see how short-sighted the DTC descriptor can be. I believe that the acronym should be viewed as a title of a sales channel or perhaps an emblem of a retailer’s core competency. It’s a misnomer when product manufacturers are appointed the title DTC, as if it’s main channel denotes the character of the entire company. To the mere observer, the consumer has evolved. To operators within digitally native retail, it’s a complicated conversation.

Platforms like Shopify democratized opportunity for early-stage product manufacturers. Led by Tobias Lütke, the CEO led the burgeoning commerce platform at the onset of the Great Recession of 2008 and remains there today. Under his leadership, the company is trading at a $22 billion market capitalization. The timing of Shopify’s ascension is significant. By 2009, the Wall Street Journal was publishing articles like “Recession turns malls into ghost towns.” And given the lack of eCommerce presence for many of the brands that lived and died by big box retail, the macroeconomic effects on the worst recession of this lifetime thwarted brand sustainability. In some cases, the product manufacturers had to seek bankruptcy protection as overall consumer demanded dwindled between 2007 and 2010. This era of web-first retail was fortuitous, it happened at the weakest point for traditional brands in the last 60 years.

The retail industry has changed, not the consumer.

Younger brands had few if any places to turn to effectively market their products. With their lean teams and inexpensive architecture, these brands were capable of surviving the treacherous waters of American consumerism. In 2013, this is what Kevin Lavelle and I wrote for the Wall Street Journal in 2013:

Startups like ours can focus our energy on developing our product, service and brand because of the platforms and tools available today. With the emergence of new web applications and plugins, the face of e-commerce is changing dramatically. A business can launch a product or service worldwide and reach millions without the massive infrastructure investment required just a few short years ago.


Platforms such as Shopify and Stitch Labs have enabled Mizzen+Main, along with myriad other companies, to focus on brand and product first — essentially democratizing e-commerce. That’s not revolutionary news, but with the robust, cloud-based add-ons available, we really can run an entire business with two partners in two states and nearly all systems run virtually. 

Most challenger brands focused on direct to consumer sales in 2007-2014 because distribution through the likes of department stores, Walmart, and Target were inside games navigated by industry veterans. Coupled with this historic economic downturn, there was little to no access to those channels. And when their were, ERP technology was difficult for newer brands to adopt. In short, those distribution deals were difficult to land.

In this way, direct to consumer sales efficacy was a sort of social proof for potential big box retail contracts. These contracts are much easier to land now; big box retailers invite breakout challenger brands to their shelves. This is enabling traditionally digitally native companies to expand their physical footprints by way of owned storefronts and wholesale agreements.

Bonobos Curve: the path of diffusion from a siloed direct to consumer (DTC) method to a holistic organization of online channels (native, marketplace), physical brand stores, and wholesale partnerships.

By the time that Andy Dunn wrote the heralded rise of digitally native vertical brands, his company successfully raised over $120 million with at least a dozen Bonobos Guide Shops and a nationwide partnership with Nordstrom. In his famed blog, he discussed this in detail:

While born digitally, the DNVB need not end up digital-only. This means the brand can extend offline. Usually its offline incarnation is through its own experiential physical retail, or pop-up strategy, or highly selective partnerships. In nearly all cases of partnerships with third parties, the brand controls its external distribution versus being controlled by it.

Assuming that the economy continues to hold steady and Tier A and B malls continue redeveloping real estate to attract this new wave of brands and their followers, we will see the curve continue and with rare exception. Even companies like Glossier, who are notably opposed to diverging from DTC marketing, have begun to invest in physical retail. And there will be more. In this way, the retail has boomeranged. The retail industry has changed, not the consumer.

Below, is the “Bonobos Curve.” This is the behavioral path toward sales maturity that the brand winners of this era will pursue. As such, many of the most successful brands have relationships with Nordstrom, Macy’s, Target, Walmart, or direct partnerships with progressive mall development companies.

A typical path followed by DTC brands | Souce: 2PM

Few brands will remain online-only. In a recent conversation with Betakit, Shopify discussed their plans to address the “Bonobos Curve”:

The pair see vast opportunity for Shopify to grow in the brick-and-mortar retail market. It’s Shopify’s goal, stated Black, to span the entire ecosystem to meet the needs of all its merchants. He emphasized that it doesn’t matter if merchants approach Shopify from a Shopify Plus standpoint or from Shopify Retail, the company hopes to create seamless solutions that span both markets.

Legacy product marketers, like P&G, have equipped their brand management teams to infuse their operations with many of the same tools and practices that their challenger brands counterparts made popular. It’s true that those challenger brands will mature with online retail operations as a core competency. Given the age of many of today’s founders, digital-first competency will be as natural as walking or eating.

But DTC was never the goal of these retailers and consumerism hasn’t evolved as much as we’d like to believe. Brand traction was the goal for many brands like Bonobos and platforms like Shopify, WooCommerce, and BigCommerce leveled the digital playing fields for a while. Time will tell who holds the advantage as brands compete on traditional grounds but Andy Dunn is now a Walmart executive. And Bonobos is a Walmart brand with flagship stores and Nordstrom distribution. This represents the end of the curve and the closing of the Book of DNVB.

Read the No. 310 curation here.

Report by Web Smith | About 2PM

No. 306: Platforms and Halo Effects

The commerce platform report. The term “halo effect” was first coined by a psychologist in 1920. Edward Thorndike used the moniker to describe the methods that military officers used to assess the performance of their soldiers. These assessments often revealed little variance across the categories of performance. Either the soldiers were good or bad; few performance evaluations noted “good” performance in one respect and “bad” performance in another. It is said that the halo effect is influenced most by a person’s first impression. If we see them as bad, they can do no good. If we see them as good, they can do no ill. Today, this phrase is most-often applied to brands and their equity.

The halo effect is a type of immediate judgment discrepancy. It is the tendency for an impression that is created in one category to influence the opinions of impressions created in another category.

Shopify is seemingly everywhere. In December, Digiday’s Hilary Milnes reported that Shopify’s ecosystem of 20,000 partner developers generated $800 million in agency business in 2017. It’s estimated that Shopify’s partners (several of whom are mentioned here) will earn north of $2 billion in revenue in 2019.

To build a Shopify-like eCommerce platform is not hard to do. What’s very hard to do is replicate the partnership ecosystem and the value they drive. It’s their moat. It’s not the software — their competitive advantage is the partnerships.

Jay Myers, VP of Growth at Bold Commerce

The halo effect of Shopify’s ecosystem will not be easily combated. With many of the partners becoming standout B2B brands themselves, Shopify’s group of independent eCommerce agencies serves many functions: recruiting, evangelizing, and perhaps a bit of espionage – often relaying word of advancements and initiatives proffered by competing platforms. This brand halo effect is amplified thanks to the era of the direct to consumer (DTC) brand.

2019: top commerce providers that DTC brands are looking to for partnership | Source: Cloudways

The brand appeal and staff architecture of this cohort of internet-first companies are keys to understanding why so many challenger brands instinctively select Shopify. Though not a Shopify Partner, Gin Lane’s “work” page notes the many digitally native brands that they’ve steered to the platform. These names include: Harry’s, hims, hers, Sunday Goods, Ayr, Stadium Goods, Rockets of Awesome, Cadre, Recess, alma, Smile Direct, Dia & Co, Warby Parker, Everlane, Quip, Shinola, Bonobos, and Shake Shack. Similarly, Red Antler’s “work” page boasts partnerships with Burrow, Casper, Allbirds, Brandless, Crooked Media, Snowe, and Boxed. These brands, which skew mightily towards Shopify and Shopify Plus, serve as media darlings and public relations fuel.

Tobi Lütke on Twitter

I usually don’t highlight financial milestones here, but this one is worth mentioning: As Shopify passes the $1 billion-dollar revenue mark it does so with the highest growth rate of any SAAS company ever. 🎉

In this way, Shopify’s halo effect extends beyond the agencies with whom they partner. The challenger brands, themselves, become recruiting vehicles for like-minded companies looking to build brands from zero to one. As such, newer companies like Great Jones follow the same branding methods and staff architecture guidelines

On DTC Brand Architecture

It’s common for digitally native brands (DNVBs) to go to market with over $3 million raised. This pre-revenue war chest affords companies an early branding and public relations prowess that almost guarantees seven figures of revenue in the first year.

Partnering with a Red Antler or a Gin Lane can cost a brand up to $400,000. There are often added developmental costs that these challenger brands will have to incur. In addition to the cost for the brand standards, messaging, and the essence of the brand, the right PR contact can cost a young company another $180,000 to $240,000 per year.

No. 297 The DTC Industrial Complex:

There is an entire eCommerce branding industry that fosters the ideation, launch, and early growth of direct to consumer (DtC) brands. When you notice a new digitally vertical native brand in 2018, there’s a platform aura around many of them. First you’ll notice the early PR sensationalism that they can only garner if they graduate from the right school or leave the right corporation. Then, the founders must live in the right city, have the right investors, and pay the right $25,000 per month public relations retainer.

The challenger brand CEO is very well-educated and, at this stage, CEOs tend to start the brands post-business school. Founding teams tend to begin with some combination of a product developer, finance lead, and a customer acquisition lead. Software engineering is an afterthought for many of these young product companies; this competency is often outsourced to a partnering agency. Universally, the priority for challenger brands is two-pronged: (1) making a great product (2) find an efficient way to sell said products. This often reduces the urgency to partner with technical founders or hire early, technical employees. Whereas F = founder, B = early branding, and P = early product development:

F(marketing) + F(finance) + B(outsourced) + P(outsourced) = DTC founding architecture

Shopify’s ecosystem appeals to this particular architecture. The Ottawa-based company’s continued growth depends on their management’s ability to increase the percentage of challenger brands that grow into enterprise clients. And from enterprise clients to Top 1000 online retailers. Shopify’s volume-driven style of business is a mark of its commitment to small business retailers. But it’s not the only method of accelerating enterprise growth. There are several commerce platforms with notable gross merchandise volume (GMV) across their enterprise level of clients.

The Platform Landscape

From BigCommerce to Oracle and Salesforce, the DTC era of retail extends beyond the brands that are the most talked about in design, tech media, and public relations circles. Here is the data on the top nine by gross GMV. While Shopify generates the most media buzz in small business circles: Adobe, Salesforce, and Oracle are quietly leading the enterprise+ business. BigCommerce is often viewed as Shopify’s younger sibling, however their enterprise clients now generate a gross GMV of 2.5x Shopify’s enterprise clients. The following data is derived from a recent Digital Commerce 360 report (2019):

PlatformLaunch YearParent CompanyNew Vendor PreferenceTransaction FeesTotal RetailersUS based clientsAverage Annual SalesAvg Implementation TimeTop ClientsTop 1000 ClientsTop 1000 Web Sales
Magento2007Adobe13.30%No4,10055%$12.5 million4.2 monthsShinola, Jomashop 167$51.89 billion
Oracle Commerce Cloud1977Oracle3.30%No70060%$788.4 million4-8 monthsApple, Best Buy89$78.55 billion
SalesForce (Demandware) Inc.10%YesN/AN/A$325.4 million6-9 monthsAdidas, Yeti67$21.08 billion
IBM Commerce Cloud1911IBMN/AYesN/AN/A$944.3 million4-8 monthsNet-A-Porter, 1-800 Flowers44$44.51 billion
Shopify2004Shopify20%Yes820,000N/A$64.7 million1-2 hoursUntuckit, Kylie Cosmetics33$02.14 billion
BigCommerce2009BigCommerce3.30%No58,00077%$110,00057 daysSkullcandy, Toyota15$05.63 billion
SAP Commerce Cloud1972SAP SE10%Yes80035%$569.9 million4-6 monthsNew Era, Tumi15$08.55 billion
Kibo Cloud Commerce2016Kibo Software Inc.N/AYes45080%$51.1 million4-8 monthsRue21, Mizuno9$894.4 million
Oracle Netsuite1998Oracle6.70%No3,20088%$37.8 million30 daysMaclaren, Topo Athletic8$299.11 million

The platform ecosystem is vast. Of the top 1000 retailers, the majority of brands are built in-house and on custom platforms. Nearly 450 retailers have outsourced their technical capabilities to these nine companies. Moving forward, we will likely see platforms like Adobe building tools and an improved halo effect to address Shopify’s key audience and vice versa. Shopify will build tools to address more of the needs of top enterprise plus clients, as well as continuing to support the needs of the DTC brands that are adopting physical retail channels.

Specializing for a particular segment of the SMB to enterprise to enterprise plus spectrum may have dire consequences for platforms in this increasingly competitive space. As Shopify has shown, there is value in building early loyalty. Shopify is counting on a number of their industry-leading number of DTC and SMB retailers moving through the funnel to enterprise services. Additionally, Shopify’s reach grows as brands transition to Shopify from Magento or custom builds. A trend that the Adobe acquisition of Magento has potentially impacted. This continued growth would begin to tip the enterprise / enterprise+ GMV scales in their favor.

Commerce platforms advertise new capabilities with the idea that the technical merits of a platform, alone, will attract new business. To this effect, many of these platforms have deprioritized brand marketing superiority and influential partnership development in favor of technical product development and traditional advertising. Whether or not the improvement of competitor platform capabilities will outlast Shopify’s hard-wired brand loyalty remains to be seen. Objectively speaking, the sheer volume and positive brand association plays in Shopify’s favor. As does their halo effect.

Read the No. 306 curation here.

Report by Web Smith | About 2PM

Member Brief: A Neighborhood of Goods

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If you asked anyone around the table at last night’s Executive Member Roundtable in Soho, one of the issues facing the maturing DtC industrial complex was an obvious one. There is a lagging effort in commercial real estate to attract these emerging brands – a growth trigger that could potentially revitalize stuttering malls by attracting a new cohort to Tier B malls. The irony of the conversations around physical retail weren’t lost upon any of the industry leaders at the table. We were in the heart of Soho, Manhattan. If you walked a tenth of the mile in any direction, you’d see the physical manifestation of nearly every top 30 DNVB in the market: Casper, Glossier, Warby Parker, Bonobos, M. Gemi, Rowing Blazers, Aesop, Aether, Birchbox, Harry’s, Theory, and the list goes on.

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