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Why D2C holding companies are here to stay

By Walter Thompson
Alex Song Contributor
Alex is CEO and co-Founder of Innovation Department, a tech-empowered platform building the next generation of consumer brands. Previously, he worked at Goldman Sachs and Pershing Square Capital Management.

It wasn’t that long ago that digitally-native, vertically-integrated brands (DNVBs) were the talk of the startup world.

Venture capitalists and founders watched as Warby Parker, Casper, Glossier, Harry’s and Honest Company became the belles of the D2C ball, trotting their way towards unicorn valuations. Not long after, the “startup studio” was unmasked as the elusive unicorn breeding grounds (think Hims). Today, there’s yet another buzzword that’s all the rage and it goes by the name “D2C Holding Company.” And it’s not going away anytime soon.

What are DNVBs?

In 2017, DNVBs were a game-changer. Different than e-commerce, DNVBs sell products online directly to consumers and maintain control and transparency through each stage of the production and distribution process, all without the involvement of middlemen. This allows DNVBs to determine where and how their products are sold and to collect customer data that helps optimize their marketing strategies. 

DNVBs have exploded over the last decade, growing sales and venture capital funding at a rapid pace. These brands use digital engagement strategies to create stronger relationships with consumers, which — when implemented alongside captivating content — contribute heavily to brand success by increasing customer LTV and creating compounding unit economics.

The problem with DNVBs

In the last three years alone, more DNVBs have launched than in the entirety of the previous decade.

While this growth is encouraging, the problem is that these DNVBs are raising so much venture capital that in order to meet the return requirements of their investors, they need a significant purchase offer or IPO valuation. With more than 85 percent of acquisitions happening below $250 million in purchase price, strategic acquisitions offers that meet investor expectations are few and far between.

This ultimately creates a state of startup purgatory where DNVBs have no choice but to take a downround to find a lifeline — sorry, Honest Company — making it difficult to develop disciplined operational habits and achieve sustainable growth. With these challenges becoming more glaringly apparent in recent years, there came a need for a new approach to D2C at large. Enter the modern D2C holding company.

Make way for the D2C holding company model

Today’s version of the holding company model takes what companies like Procter & Gamble and Unilever did in the 1950s and modernizes it for the existing D2C market. Instead of taking a siloed approach, brands pool resources, operational costs and institutional knowledge to accelerate growth and achieve profitability at a faster rate. 

DNVB darlings Harry’s and Glossier are great examples of this. Harry’s diversification efforts have been centerstage as the company works to grow beyond men’s grooming to include personal care for men and women, household items and baby products. In May, Edgewell Personal Care, which owns brands like Schick, Banana Boat, and Wet Ones, acquired Harry’s for $1.37 billion. Glossier is also working to diversify its portfolio, with the launch of Glossier Play, a younger, more colorful sister brand to its original.

For DNVBs to successfully pivot to a holding company model, they will need to prioritize 1) diversification to satisfy customers’ short attention spans, 2) a data-first mindset to deliver the best possible customer experience, and 3) operational and capital efficiency to not only stay afloat, but thrive. 

An evolving landscape

The landscape for D2C holding companies is just starting to take shape, but here are some of the key players who have adopted this approach and are finding early success:

Former Stitch Fix COO Julie Bornstein is rewriting the e-commerce playbook

By Kate Clark

More than two years after Julie Bornstein–Stitch Fix’s former chief operating officer–mysteriously left the subscription-based personal styling service only months before its initial public offering, she’s taking the wraps off her first independent venture.

Shortly after departing Stitch Fix, Bornstein began building The Yes, an AI-powered shopping platform expected to launch in the first half of 2020. She’s teamed up with The Yes co-founder and chief technology officer Amit Aggarwal, who’s held high-level engineering roles at BloomReach and Groupon, and most recently, served as an entrepreneur-in-residence at Bain Capital Ventures, to “rewrite the architecture of e-commerce.”

“This is an idea I’ve been thinking about since I was 10 and spending my weekends at the mall,” Bornstein, whose resume includes chief marketing officer & chief digital officer at Sephora, vice president of e-commerce at Urban Outfitters, VP of e-commerce at Nordstrom and director of business development at Starbucks, tells TechCrunch. “All the companies I have worked at were very much leading in this direction.”

Coming out of stealth today, the team at The Yes is readying a beta mode to better understand and refine their product. Bornstein and Aggarwal have raised $30 million in venture capital funding to date across two financings. The first, a seed round, was co-led by Forerunner Ventures’ Kirsten Green and NEA’s Tony Florence. The Series A was led by True Ventures’ Jon Callaghan with participation from existing investors. Bornstein declined to disclose the company’s valuation.

“AI and machine learning already dominate in many verticals, but e-commerce is still open for a player to have a meaningful impact,” Callaghan said in a statement. “Amit is leading a team to build deep neural networks that legacy systems cannot achieve.”

Bornstein and Aggarwal withheld many details about the business during our conversation. Rather, the pair said the product will speak for itself when it launches next year. In addition to being an AI-powered shopping platform, Bornstein did say The Yes is working directly with brands and “creating a new consumer shopping experience that helps address the issue of overwhelm in shopping today.”

As for why she decided to leave Stitch Fix just ahead of its $120 million IPO, Bornstein said she had an epiphany.

“I realized that technology had changed so much, meanwhile … the whole framework underlying e-commerce had remained the same since the late 90s’ when I helped build Nordstrom.com,” she said. “If you could rebuild the underlying architecture and use today’s technology, you could actually bring to life an entirely new consumer experience for shopping.”

The Yes, headquartered in Silicon Valley and New York City, has also brought on Lisa Green, the former head of industry, fashion and luxury at Google, as its senior vice president of partnerships, and Taylor Tomasi Hill, whose had stints at Moda Operandi and FortyFiveTen, as its creative director. Other investors in the business include Comcast Ventures and Bain Capital Ventures

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