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Elevator pitch archaeology

So last year I read this story on VentureBeat about genius Tony Hsieh and how he's doubled his sales every year since 1999 for his online shoe store, Zappos. Mernit had mentioned Zappos before, and I don't usually think about shoes much, but got curious about how someone was succeeding in a retail vertical online. Two mentions of this guy, I gotta go read about it.

All the press about Tony talked about customer service and the 24/7 warehouse and having a fast website. That was great, operational excellence and all that. Sure.

But not being a big shoe shopper or shoe thinker, I was kind of flying blind in the space. I wanted to understand the original vision for the business, to glimpse the spark that lead someone to think they could make a successful startup out of selling shoes online. Retail is so hard, and I dunno, I would just expect that between existing bricks & mortar retailers with websites, and ordering direct from manufacturers over the web, shoes would be pretty much covered, and it would be hard to get a foothold to make a big business.

So I went to look at the site, but it didn't help. The tagline really left me stumped. "We are a service company that happens to sell ... Shoes Handbags Apparel Accessories". Huh.

I didn't get it. I mean, that's great and all. I expect that sort of thing on a poster in the warehouse over the drinking fountain. Like if you go to the restroom at Best Buy and see the wall with all of the reminders for the employees on how to upsell properly. Or the big "Check Your Appearance" over the mirror in the employee hallways in casinos just before the doors that lead back into the public areas. It's an internal motto, a way they think about themselves. McDonald's is "Quality, Service, Cleanliness, and Value", but that's not their advertising tagline. (It's currently "I'm lovin' it", unfortunately).

There was no way "We're a service company" was the original spark behind Zappos. Yeah, we're going to happen to sell shoes, and we're going to be great operationally. That elevator pitch didn't hook any VCs.

I know the kind of meeting that results in "We're a service company" ending up on the website, and it wasn't around a kitchen table. It happened later. After other people were hired.

I went over to the Internet Archive to see what Zappos had looked like when it first launched. Sure enough, Zappos circa 1999-2001:

World's largest shoe store. Of course! It's so blindingly obvious (in hindsight). They're the Amazon.com of shoes. That's the elevator pitch. "We're going to be the Amazon.com of shoes." They're going to have everything, be really comprehensive. And of course have a great website and handle returns and ship things fast and all that stuff you need to do well if you're going to have a hope in retail.

Now Amazon.com doesn't call themselves the "earth's biggest bookstore" anymore. They don't seem to have a tagline at all now, that I can see on their website. Books became limiting, and they wanted to become a superstore, and sell everything.

But then this Zappos thing came along. And although Amazon sold shoes on their website, I guess Zappos was getting all the shoe-buzz and eating away at the vertical. So Amazon has launched Endless.com, an online shoe store.

Now Endless.com has a tagline. Which is reminiscent of Amazon's original tagline, and Zappos.

"Endless Style, Endless Options." Earth's biggest... world's largest... endless... hmmm. So now Amazon has launched a site to be the Amazon.com of shoes. Ironic! :-)

Comments (1)


Think back to 1998 and all of *no* shoe stores online. At the time some vendors were selling on rinky dink sites - but no major retailers were. The idea came from the founder, Nick Swinmurn, not being able to find a pair of Airwalks in a mall in San Francisco that were in his size. He figured there must be a place online that carries *all* sizes and colors. There were none. Actually his VC hook was that footwear was a $40B US industry of which 6% was done via catalog. You do the math - he envisioned being better than a catalog by way of selection and faster in shipping/real time inventory (IE service). The world's largest shoe store was meant to imply that they had the best selection. Which again, provides a service.

They also wanted to compete with both Nordstrom's site as well as their brick and mortar, which if you know anything about that monster of a company is all about service - easy shopping, personal attention, no hassle returns, price matching and so on. I think it should be pointed out that although maybe initially "Powered By Service" was not the outward battle cry, it certainly has always been the focus and the only way they could have succeeded.

Simple questions from VC's:
Why would someone not go to a store for shoes?
Why would someone not order shoes from a catalog?
Why would someone order from Zappos.com (shoesite.com very early on)?

Simple answer:
Better selection and service

Where would you get that better selection and service?
At the "World's Largest" or "Web's Most Popular" (both old tag lines) shoe store.

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