Lessons learned on the road to retail disruption

Enter the 2017 competition

Learn more about the Shop.org Digital Commerce Startup of the Year competition.

“Disruption” is a word that seems to pop up in every conversation about ecommerce, but when it comes to dramatically changing the way retailers do business, it isn’t always easy.

The Shop.org Digital Commerce Startup of the Year competition, now in its fourth round, recognizes startups with the potential to significantly improve or radically alter how retailing is done. As the application deadline for this year’s competition approaches, we caught up with Nicky Jackson, founder and CEO of RangeMe, the 2016 winner of the Shop.org Digital Commerce Startup of the Year competition.

How has your startup changed since receiving the Startup of the Year award last year?
RangeMe was in growth stage when we were named a SOTY finalist, only a few months into raising our first round of U.S. capital and growing really quickly. The recognition from the competition came at a perfect time to validate the market shift we were making in the retail industry in terms of product discovery — a key part of the value chain.

The time after Shop.org and just a few months after we started to speak to investors to raise a further round of Series A capital here in the United States was a real turning point for us. Less than four months after we were named the SOTY winner, we were at NRF’s annual convention in New York and spoke to a software company about an acquisition. On that same trip, we met with Snow Phipps, a private equity firm. Six months prior they had purchased our largest competitor, ECRM. The conversations with Snow Phipps ended up in RangeMe formalizing an acquisition just over four months later. That was a life-changing result for the founders and a great return to all shareholders.

What are the biggest challenges you’ve overcome, and what are the biggest challenges you currently face?
Very early on we had to establish ourselves as a disruptor in the U.S. market. RangeMe was a new concept to both retailers and suppliers. We overcame that challenge through an effective launch partnership with Target and soon enough started working with leading retailers like Whole Foods Market and adopting a ‘freemium’ model, which enabled us to grow very quickly.

The biggest challenge we currently face is keeping up with our growth, now that we have the power of ECRM and Snow Phipps behind us. We have aggressive goals and ambitions that require us to scale the team quickly enough to service our community of growing suppliers and buyers. It’s a good problem to have — don't get me wrong — but it comes with challenges in terms of how to scale, how quickly to scale and how to do so most effectively and efficiently.

There are still some areas of retail that haven’t been “disrupted” yet. If you were launching a new startup today, what problems would you be looking to solve? What are the biggest opportunities for innovation in digital commerce?
Technology and digital disruption are happening 24/7 in today’s world. In terms of retail, technology disruption is just starting to take off. There is so much opportunity to simplify and streamline the end-to-end of retail; I would focus on that, since it’s just getting started. If I told you specifics, I would be giving away too much!

Have you learned anything from your startup’s journey that you didn’t expect? Are there key lessons or pieces of advice you would share with other founders?
I think as a founder it’s easy to get really bogged down, and I will admit I’ve fallen victim to this over the past two years. But when you manage to take a breath of air, you realize how awesome the ride can be, from the people you meet to the real opportunities that present themselves. I think the key here is to realize it’s a journey and it’s a privilege, so enjoy the ride and take advantage of the opportunities and embrace lifelong relationships that form with the amazing people you meet.

I also know all too well that this is NOT an easy road — if it was, more people would do it and more startups would succeed. The highs are the greatest highs and the lows are the lowest you could ever experience. It’s important to somehow gain perspective and balance, and surround yourself with people who can cheer you on the sidelines and who want to pump you up, not bring you down.

“Gain perspective and balance, and surround yourself with people who can cheer you on.”

Nicky Jackson

What’s one thing traditional retailers should know about partnering with a startup or developing their own internal innovation labs/startups?
I think more retailers today are open to partnering with startups. Take Instacart, for example, in its infancy, or Target for partnering with RangeMe two years ago when we first launched in the United States. Traditional retailers need to realize that they have to look outside their own walls for emerging technologies that drive efficiency — they cannot build it all themselves and be experts at everything. They need to open their eyes to new ideas and partner with startups that can help them accelerate in today's ever-changing world.

I’ve come across some big retailers who are happy with their current process or tried to build their own versions of RangeMe. But what they’ve built is suboptimal, taken years and extensive resources to build, or are just not there in terms of the user experience. It feels like such a waste of resources when they have access to RangeMe at their fingertips.

Did participating in Shop.org’s SOTY competition impact your business? If so, how?
Absolutely! The PR and recognition was a real boost to our business, of course, but also the connections and contacts that came with that were really priceless. NRF has a wonderful community of industry experts, and on a personal level, I connected with and have had multiple post-competition interactions with some of the competition judges. We still keep in touch — some of them have come to my office in San Francisco for coffee, or we’ve met up at subsequent NRF events. They have been sounding boards to me along this journey whether it was to get investment advice, acquisition advice or just general advice about a situation I was experiencing. They were always willing to lend their time and expertise and it feels like we’ve been connected for years, rather than mere months!

We’ve also loved working with the NRF team, a passionate group of people who really care about their community and the impact they are having on the industry. I’ve really enjoyed the way they have embraced RangeMe and startups in general, and I am thrilled to have been asked to joined the NRF Digital Council