The most powerful and celebrated Aussie investor in Silicon Valley says fears of Amazon’s dominance in e-commerce are overblown.
Jeremy Liew, who was propelled into the top echelon of US startup investors earlier this year when his early bet on Snapchat paid off spectacularly, told Fairfax Media over coffee in San Francisco this week that Jeff Bezos’ $US500 billion ($628 billion) plus e-commerce giant should not be seen as invincible.
“The narrative of you can’t compete with Amazon, it just looks like it is wrong,” he said.
His comment comes as Amazon prepares to finally launch an online retail offering in Australia, as soon as this month. The Seattle-based internet conglomerate, which has had a presence in Australia via its web services business for years, is holding a seller summit in Sydney next Monday.
Despite Amazon’s perceived dominance of online retail, Liew points out that in recent years there have been a string of successful e-commerce companies in the US and Europe that have either listed on stockmarkets or been acquired for billion-dollar prices.
These include Chewy, a petfood delivery firm acquired by brick and mortar rival PetSmart for $US3.5 billion, subscription razor blade business DollarShave, which was acquired by Unilever for $US1 billion, and Zalando, a German online electronics retailer whose market cap has nearly doubled since listing.
” It turns out that most of them competed with Amazon,” says Liew. “If you look at the data, it looks like you can compete with Amazon and you can beat them.”
The companies that are able to survive and even do better than Amazon online tend to be “digitally native vertical brands” – brands that design, make and sell their own products (rather than other vendors’ products) and control the entire customer experience.
This will provide little comfort for big box retailers facing the Amazon threat, but it could be more encouraging for the array of promising, if yet ultimately unproven e-commerce startups emerging from Australia.
“Look, Amazon is an amazing company, [but] even the most amazing company can only do three of four things at the same time well,” he says.
Born in Singapore, Liew grew up in Perth, where his parents still reside, and attended Duncraig Senior High School in the west coast city.
He graduated from the Australian National University in Canberra with degrees in linguistics and pure mathematics and started his career at consulting firm McKinsey in Sydney. A dual citizen of Australia and the US, Liew retains a distinctly Australian accent and still considers himself an Aussie.
Liew has been on quite the winning streak lately. Another of his portfolio companies, Bonobos, a men’s retail clothing startup, was recently acquired by retail giant Walmart for $US310 million, and he has been a prominent bull for bitcoin, the crypto-currency which has been surging in value.
But he remains most famous for being the first investor in Snapchat, the millennial ephemeral messaging service which successfully went public in March, but has struggled since then.
After fortuitously tracking down founder Evan Spiegel on Facebook after a tip from a colleague, Liew invested $US485,000 of Lightspeed’s capital into Snapchat. By the time of its IPO , his firm’s stake in the business was worth about $US2 billion.
Shares in Snap, the parent of Snapchat, tumbled by more than 15 per cent on Wednesday in the US, wiping billions off its market value after the company reported weaker than expected quarterly revenue and user growth.
Spiegel, the company’s CEO (who happens to be married to Australian model Miranda Kerr) said Snapchat would be redesigned to make it less confusing to new users.
‘Earn it every day’
Lightspeed still holds some Snap shares and for his part, Liew says he is still confident in the company’s potential.
“I think really highly of the management team, I think they are terrific,” he said, describing the product as “extraordinary”.
Despite his recent stellar run, he says he won’t be taking his foot off the pedal any time soon.
“You have got to go out an earn it every day,” he said. “You can’t rest on your laurels. I’ve got to go out and meet a new bunch of entrepreneurs today because…hopefully five or eight years from now some of those companies will be worth something.”
”You’ve still got to go and do the work.”
The writer’s trip to California was funded by a ACS/National Press Club journalism award.
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