No. 298: Retention is the new currency

Contributor. The much mused about sharing economy jump started by disruptors like AirBnB, Rent The Runway, Netflix and Uber is running past its adolescence. In 2019, both Uber and its rival Lyft expect to go public.

According to Fortune, Uber alone could be valued at as much as $120 billion, higher than the valuations of Ford, General Motors and Fiat Chrysler combined.

It’s also close to double Uber’s valuation at a fundraising round two months ago and would be the biggest debut since Alibaba went public in 2014.

AirBnB, too, is expected to file as early as 2019, bringing some of the biggest disruptors of the last decade to Wall Street. But their impact has already been felt beyond their Silicon Valley offices.

The sharing economy has given rise to the subscription economy:

  • An economy preferred by investors for it’s stability.
  • An economy loved by consumers for its accessibility.
  • An economy coveted by entrepreneurs for it’s long-term customer relationships.
2PM, Inc. contributor: Tracey Wallace

The rise is thanks to the ubiquity of internet access and smartphones in the U.S. across nearly all segments. “Customers, the ultimate endpoint of any business, are today just as connected as the employees of any large enterprise,” writes Ben Thompson on The Stratchery.

This gives consumers and businesses alike endless access to on-going services that don’t function like gym-memberships of old. Instead, modern subscription models are gym-like in execution and participation.

  • They are based on service, not product: The product is the means not the ends.
  • They build convenient communities of like-minded individuals with end-goals in mind: Think Shopify users want to be seen as successful entrepreneurs. Spotify users want to be seen as having the best playlists and musical tastes.
  • They rinse and repeat the experience: The service begets the product, the product begets the goal, the goal begets the service.

Retention is the new currency

Costco – perhaps the longest standing subscription business around – has perfected the model. Amazon evolved it online with Amazon Prime. Giants like Apple and Google are touting their subscription services as differentiators for their products.

  • Google is offering six month free YouTube Premium subscription for all Google Home devices (and varying YouTube Premium subscription access for nearly all Google devices).
  • Apple is packaging their streaming music service and phone care services into single packages –– selling you a full suite of services that beget a product.

The success of the model is clear. You need only look at Dollar Shave Club on the consumer side to see the impact on the industry (or look at newer DNVBs like Quip following similar paths). Or, on the B2B side, look at the stock prices of Adobe (up 770% since 2012), Microsoft (up 320%) or Autodesk (up 360%), which have shifted to offer internet cloud-based software for a monthly or annual fee.

Indeed,  many DNVBs are putting their own spin on the subscription model business. In retail alone, there are more than 5,000 brands offering clothing, cosmetic or the like “subscription boxes” each month.

“It is totally faddish right now,” says Robbie Kellman Baxter, a consultant with Peninsula Strategies and author of The Membership Economy. “Most of them are going to fail. How many ties does dad need?”

But in technology, the rent-rather-than-own trend is holding stronger. In health care, too, it is growing in popularity with brands like SmileDirectClub and MDVIP, a direct primary care service, gaining more and more subscribers.

In media is where we will see the most pronounced shifts. After all, subscriptions are the easiest way around an unforgiving advertising world inhabited by Google and Facebook’s duopoly.

That duopoly began hitting media brands as early as 2015, when many considered the “gold standard” of online content to be free and commoditized. Many digital media brands have yet to recover from this mistake.

According to CNBC:

Vice Media has been the gold standard, earning a valuation of $5.7 billion in June 2017. Earlier this month, Disney wrote down some of its investment in Vice by 40 percent, suggesting a declining overall valuation.

Buzzfeed has built itself into a company that tops $1 billion in value. Still, Buzzfeed missed its 2017 revenue forecast by up to 20 percent, the Wall Street Journal reported last year, pushing back hopes of an initial public offering indefinitely. Vox Media, the owner of sites including SBNation, Eater and The Verge, also missed internal revenue forecasts and is not planning to go public any time soon, said people familiar with the matter, who asked not to be named because the company’s financials are private.

Separately, media companies including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, New York Magazine, Quartz, Bloomberg, Business Insider, Vanity Fair and Wired have all returned back to media’s subscription business model roots by completely paywalling, introduced paywalls or hardening their paywalls beginning in 2018.

We’re living in an environment where Facebook, Google, and Amazon are sucking up so much of the advertising revenue,” says Sterling Auty, software analyst at J.P. Morgan. “Subscriptions and ecommerce are an antidote to that.”

These media companies are looking to lower their reliance on Facebook and Google algorithms and return to their service roots through subscription payments –– adding yet another monthly subscription to consumers’ bank accounts.

On paid subscription tolerance

According to eMarketer, 71% of U.S. consumers with internet access subscribe to at least one streaming video service. However, the number for all other verticals drop dramatically beyond video.

This leaves ample room for other verticals to grow their subscription services, especially as consumers become more accustomed to the model and testing out various offerings. Paid subscriptions through Apple’s App Store reached over 330 million last quarter. That’s up 50% year over year and includes both Apple and third-party services like Netflix.

Consumers are downloading. They are trying. They are testing. And there will be winners. Some analysts like Eddie Yoon, a consultant and author of the book Superconsumers, see the subscription economy as a 20-year trend –– just now beginning to hit its growth stage.

But there are caveats:

“All brands will try to offer subscriptions, but only a few will take,” he added. “Consumers will push back if they feel overwhelmed with subscription services,” Yoon says. “People won’t tolerate a world where everything is subscriptionized,” he said. “For the things that you really care about, you’ll definitely subscribe.”

The experience economy edges in

This is where the experience economy matters most. Subscription business models create desirable P&Ls, forecasting models and enable brands to act in the best interest of their most dedicated subscribers (rather than advertisers), but fail to provide the experience and you’ll lose your list and your recurring revenue.

Ben Thompson from The Stratechery pulled out this quote from Bill McDermott, the CEO of SAP, on this challenge on an investor call:

There are millions of complaints every day about disappointing customer experiences. This is called the experience gap. Businesses used to have time to sort this out, but in today’s unforgiving world, the damage is immediate, disruption is imminent. This has shifted the challenge from a running a business to guaranteeing great experiences for every single person.

It’s best here to remember that subscription and membership are separate things. Membership provides experience and community. Subscription just gets you access to something behind a gate.

Take a look at Peloton, for example. The company has long argued that it’s bike ($2,000) and subscription program ($39 monthly) are a bargain compared to regularly attended SoulCycle classes. And SoulCycle is hard to beat. Similar to fitness organizations like CrossFit, Inc., it has a hardened fanbase and community.

But where Peloton succeeds is its content –– the ability to stream classes on your bike, forgoing a trip to a physical class. All for substantially lower costs than regular in-person classes anyway. Peloton reports its churn at less than 1%.

You have to do delightful things and leave money on the table,” says Peloton CEO and co-founder John Foley.The monthly service is what you really buy. That was the flaw with the old models. It was just hardware.

Of course, not every company can be a Peloton. The subscription model itself does not lower the cost of doing business. It cannot, on its own, generate demand.

As subscriptions proliferate, investors need to dig deeper into the dynamics of their models,” says Aswath Damodaran, a finance professor and valuation specialist at New York University’s Stern School of Business.Many venture capitalists and public investors are pricing user-based companies on user count, with only a few seriously trying to distinguish between good, indifferent, and bad user-based models.

What’s next in the subscription era is a dwindling down to those brands, media packages, and services which can offer the experience worth paying for –– the service that begets the product, and the product that begets the consumer’s goal. A subscription model, alone, won’t be enough. Consumers will seek membership and the benefits that come with it: experience, community, and camaraderie. For the product companies, the software companies, and media companies that figure it out – the prize is recurring revenue and stability until the next preferred model comes along.  

Read the rest of your No. 298 curation here.

Additional reading. Member Brief: The Subscription Economy

By Tracey Wallace | Edited by Web Smith | About 2PM

Editor’s Note: Tracey serves as the Editor-in-Chief at BigCommerce and a public speaker. She is launching a DtC pillow brand, this spring. She is a paid contributor of 2PM, Inc. 

Issue No. 273: Modern Luxe Doesn’t Bend

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Pictured: Outdoor Voices, from our Open Letter to DNVB CEOs

In November of 2016, Lean Luxe’s Paul Munford penned somewhat of a scripture to upstart modern luxury brands: promotion-heavy retailers will not last. There are few takeaways from “The Downward Spiral” that are worth mentioning as recent economic reports suggest that the retail apocalypse is coming to an end, a great sign for aspirational DNVBs that are looking to expand into physical retail.

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We are in a time of unprecedented retail brand launches, collaborations, acquisitions, and re-imaginations – much of which is online-first. This begs the question, what will separate the winners from the commodities? There are early and permanent decisions that determine a brand’s trajectory. For every Mizzen + Main or Ministry of Supply, there is a State and Liberty. For every Outdoor Voices, there is a Bandier. And for every Away, there is a Raden. Each decision matters. And no decision matters more than pricing and a brand’s promotional tendencies.

Here are the top ten takeaways from some of Munford’s best work:

  • No maneuver in retail appears to be as easy to roll out, yet no strategy is as detrimental to a retailer’s long term prospects as the heavy discount. It is a palliative pill: wonderful for the consumer in the short run, but ultimately bad for both business and shoppers over time. It commoditizes the brand, forcing companies to differentiate on price. 
  • The second problem, also related to scale, is systemic to the industry itself: The need to constantly add more and more products at regular intervals, flooding the marketplace with goods that are newer, but rarely better.
  • The lure of the discount, then, becomes too hard to resist. It provides a short term boost to the bottom line and the illusion of growth, but at the expense of brand reputation and sustainable profit — two vital arteries for a business’s overall health.
  • Modern luxury companies have figured out the formula, and it’s remarkably simple: create less merchandise than will sell (and predict, if possible, the sell-through rate, with pre-orders), keep demand high. Embrace the waiting list, as Everlane, Glossier, Caraa, and Alala, among others, often do. 
  • Never discount; preserve the standing of the brand. These tactics certainly do not work, however, or at least for very long, if product standards are below par.
  • Hermes, for instance, is notorious for never slashing prices. Its products carry a prestige because of that, and there is always a demand, no matter how frivolous the item. And they certainly are not above testing the limits of consumer devotion: It has even gone so far as to repackage its cutting floor leather scraps to sell them as high-priced gift boxes.
  • That opposition to discounting would come from founders within the emerging modern luxury industry is no coincidence. For one, it displays the trademark sense of calm confidence in the product that this group is quickly becoming known for. 
  • As for Mr. Preysman, the full price mantra feeds into his mission to constantly refine the product, to make it better, and push it ever closer to perfection according to the standards of the brand.
  • Surprisingly, rejecting the discount is also quite consumer-centric. The eternally-wise Ben Franklin said it best, of course, when he offered this observation: “The bitterness of poor quality remains long after the sweetness of low price is forgotten.”
  • It takes superb maturity and a great deal of resilience to fight the urge for the temporary discount boost at the expense of preserving a long term reputation. 

Maturity, patience, grit, and perhaps temporary poverty are keys to developing the types of brands that grow to compete with age old legends and fierce (but hopefully friendly) rivals. In 2013, Brooks Brothers commented on Mizzen + Main’s influence on the shirting industry for the New York Times:

While Brooks Brothers experimented with “performance” shirts akin to Mizzen & Main’s, [Brooks Brothers’ spokesman] Mr. Blee said that customers preferred the general wearability of conventional all-cotton. The stretch fibers felt synthetic to them. Although a range of Brooks Brothers oxford shirts have moisture-wicking properties, he said, “We are known as a natural-fiber house: 100 percent cotton, 100 percent cashmere.

Just five years later, Brooks Brothers is launching a competitor to compete in a menswear world that is being re-defined by technical fabrics and other innovations.

Mizzen+Main on Twitter

we’re old enough to remember when Brooks Brothers laughed at performance menswear: https://t.co/5hBzcUHAEx https://t.co/xCN29dVk81

I remember the joy of that article hitting the newsstands on December 18, 2013. Not because of the notoriety that it would provide but because it had been over a year and half and we really needed the sales. We stood firm on our price while we built allegiances and Kevin worked feverishly to improve the product. And the company lasted. What Lavelle and team has done today is nothing short of spectacular. And it has allowed the brand to stand, eye to eye, in the same clubs and on the same courses as the company that invented the polo shirt (sorry, Ralph).

To achieve growth and longevity, branding cannot be viewed as a soft skill. Price cannot be viewed as an arbitrary number to manipulate. The five forces must always be considered. And patience must be paramount because great brands start slowly. In the age of modern luxury DNVB’s this is as important as the products themselves.

Read more: An Open Letter to DNVB CEOs (Issue No. 254)

Read the rest of Issue No. 273 here.

By Web Smith and Meghan Terwilliger | About 2PM

Issue No. 271: A Modern Luxury Update

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There is a famous scene in The Social Network where Justin Timberlake’s portrayal of Sean Parker tells Jesse Eisenberg’s Zuckerberg contemporary the story of the Victoria’s Secret rebirth. In the script, it was Sean Parker that explained the genius of Les Wexner and his ability to change with the times after acquiring the $6 million / year business for a fraction of its real value, only to turn it into a $500 million dollar brand just four years later. The brand grew from four to nearly 100 stores in that short amount of time. It was a historic turnaround for a brand that was more niche than it was main street at the time.

The fundamentals of the brick and mortar lingerie business changed because Wexner emphasized the appeal of the brand to female consumers. He set aside the money-losing model of selling lingerie to men and replaced it with one that focused on female customers. But more importantly, he recognized that it should have been that way all along. It was an authentic move that evolved Victoria’s Secret (and its parent company: L Brands) into the $10 billion dollar company that it is today. But the brand is overdue for another shift. And it’s worth considering the recent hires and acquisitions by Wal-Mart to turn L Brands‘ most valuable ship around.

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Now led by CEO Jan Singer (former CEO of Spanx and Global VP at Nike), Victoria’s Secret cites the lingerie icon’s struggles on corporate restructuring, ending the famous catalog, and exiting the swimwear category. These are contributing factors, in addition to increasing pressure from eCommerce-first retailers.

The growing competition is promoting more variety in models and products. Now in its fifth year, online retailer ThirdLove has shoppers answer a series of intimate questions about their breasts — which of these nine illustrations matches your breast shape? — while reassuring consumers that every woman’s body is unique. The company has raised $13.6 million from investors and expects to double its sales this year. Companies like Adore Me, True&Co. and Everlane are taking a similar approach.

Business of Fashion

Their chief challenger, Adore Me (21) was founded in 2010 with the express intent to challenge Victoria’s Secret by giving consumers an online-first, inclusive alternative to the lingerie titan. The latest Inc. 5000 list has Adore Me’s growing 1,400% from 2014 and 2016 with revenues exceeding $100 million. Now, Adore Me is looking to expand offline and the timing couldn’t be worse for the L Brands subsidiary.

Niche players may only have a small share compared to Victoria’s Secret, but their innovative approaches mean they are nibbling away at its market share.

GlobalData Retail Managing Director Neil Saunders 

In addition to intimates brands expanding into VS’ territory, there are adjacent pressures from the athleisure market, an evolving beauty market, and the rejection of lingerie by consumers looking for comfort, function, and individuality. Rather than continue competing against the likes of Adore Me (21), THINX, Inc. (31), and Third Love (51), or Savage x Fenty, Victoria’s Secret could re-invest in the brand, messaging, and end-to-end processes by following Wal-Mart’s lead.

Making a strategic acquisition to evolve Victoria’s Secret’s prized retail real estate could be just what the forty-year old retail property needs. The brand has a history of retail innovation. In addition to Wexner’s early decision to rebrand the shopping experience, Victoria’s Secret was one of the first brand’s to invest in early eCommerce (1999). In a recent retail roundtable, it was proposed that L Brands execute a Lore-like acquisition to oversee the brand’s eCommerce and omni-channel experience.

In addition, an interesting pivot was discussed. Victoria’s Secret could house brands and content across beauty, women’s athleisure, and intimates. The express goal would be to rebuild Victoria’s Secret as the premiere women’s-only destination – a house of brands, with their VS namesake positioned as the most premium offering within the store.

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Lean Luxe Founder, Paul Munford

In a conference call with Lean Luxe’s Paul Munford, he added, “Not every brand deserves to exist forever.” He also added that L Brands‘ recent track record has been less than favorable, making the idea of a pivot like this highly unlikely. Specifically, he cited the $710 million dollar La Senza acquisition (2006) that did not achieve the intended effect. According to Munford, there was no indication that the retail group could operate with the same speed and precision that Wal-Mart has since Marc Lore became their eCommerce CEO. Munford added, “With Lore coming in at Wal-Mart, there wasn’t a negative track record of Walmart acquiring brands and dropping the ball. Walmart just started from scratch. So comparatively, Victoria’s Secret’s task seems harder.” 

Though Munford and I disagreed on the approach that the vaunted L Brands subsidiary should take, we did agree that VS is a brand that is long overdue for a modern luxury update. One of the first names that arose when discussing who’d be a great number two to Jan Singer was Emily Weiss, founder of Glossier.

Read more of the issue here.

By Web Smith and Meghan Terwilliger | About 2PM