Mobile commerce is where it’s at, and rising investment in so-called conversational commerce startups underscores the opportunity.
Via, a two-year-old, Bay Area-based startup, is among those riding the wave, having identified some trends that are becoming clearer by the month. First, more e-commerce sales will be on mobile phones this year than desktops (as much as 70% by some estimates), people tend to read text messages almost immediately and consumers spend upwards of 30 minutes a day engaging with mobile messaging apps.
Via also insists that unlike an expanding pool of startups that are focused on helping retailers and others broadcast their marketing messages in SMS, there’s room for a player to better address the many other pieces that add up to a happy consumer experience, from delivering coupon codes to starting the returns process.
Indeed, according to co-founder and CEO Tejas Konduru — a Brigham Young grad whose parents immigrated to the U.S. from India and who have themselves worked at tech startups — one insight his now 50-person company had early on was that despite that so many of their customers now use the mobile browser to visit and shop from their stores, many retailers use website builders like Shopify or BigCommerce to “cram everything everything into mobile, leaving only enough space for, like, one picture and a Buy button.” Konduru figured there must be a way to take the shopping experience that all these customers have with brands on their website and make them happen in a quick, mobile-native way.
Via’s solution, he says, is to help those businesses interact with customers on the devices and apps they use most often. “When someone uses Shopify or BigCommerce or any of those platforms,” says Konduru, “we also connect it to Via, and it basically takes the entire shopping experience and allows [customers] to quickly swipe right through a menu or like through a catalog on, for example, Facebook Messenger. Via will also create like a native iOS Android app by taking a website, cloning it into a native iOS Android app, then sell the push notification in-app chat layer. Essentially,” he adds, “anytime someone shops on the phone and they’re not using the browser is what Via is handling.”
The “message” seems to be getting through to the right people. Via, which launched last year, says it now employs 54 people on a full-time basis, has 190 brands as customers and just secured $15 million in Series A funding led by Footwork, the new venture firm co-founded by former Stitch Fix COO Mike Smith and former Shasta Ventures investor Nikhil Basu Trivedi.
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Other participants in the round include Peterson Ventures, where Konduru once interned; famed founder Josh James of Domo, where Konduru also once interned; and a long list of other notable individual investors, including Ryan Smith of Qualtrics and Lattice co-founder and CEO Jack Altman.
As for how the company charges, it doesn’t ask for a monthly or yearly fee, as per traditional SaaS companies, but instead charges per interaction, whether that’s an SMS or a voice minute or video or a GIF.
It’s starting to add up, according to Konduru, who says that Via’s average customer is seeing 15 times return on its investment and that from May of 2020 — when the company’s service went live — through December, the company generated $51 million in sales. Konduru declined to say exactly how much Via saw from those transactions, but says the company is on track to reach $10 million in annual recurring revenue this year.
As for how brands get started with Via, it’s pretty simple, by the company’s telling. As long as a company is using a commerce platform — from Shopfiy to WooCommerce to Salesforce — it takes just five minutes or so to produce a mobile app with a menu featuring the types of interactions the brand can enable via Via’s platform, says Konduru.
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Konduru, who dabbled in investment banking before deciding to launch Via, says he isn’t surprised by the startup’s fast traction, though he says he has been taken aback by the breadth of conversations the company sees. While he imagined Via would be a strong marketing channel for brands that use the platform to push out notifications about abandoned shopping carts and upcoming deliveries, it’s more of a two-way street than he’d imagined.
“Every month, there are maybe 15,000 people who start the returns process through Via and will get a notification from a channel that Via supports. But suddenly — let’s say the customer gets the wrong T-shirt size — people start communicating with the brand. You see everything from fan appreciation to address changes to messaging about bad discount codes to where’s-my-order type exchanges. That’s something I didn’t expect,” says Konduru, who says that before raising its Series A round, Via raised $4.2 million in seed funding led by Peterson Ventures.
“I thought that people would just look at the notification and, like, move it into the abyss somewhere. Instead, people start interacting with the brand.”
Is the e-commerce shift going to last?