Deals

The race for the next eBay: Will Accel and Kleiner beat Benchmark?

Shopping!Accel Partners, the venture capitalists behind Facebook, have a lot in their shopping bag. The latest bauble they’ve picked up: part of a $47 million investment in Showroomprive.com, a European members-only sales site.

The members-only sales phenomenon, popularized by Showroomprive rivals like Gilt Groupe and HauteLook, is part of what I’m calling E-commerce 2.0, a wide-ranging rethinking of retailing that’s being enabled by mass adoption of broadband, the buildings of social graph, and the incorporation of the Internet into everyday life. The categories that this includes range from private sales (Gilt) to social deals (Groupon) to location-based shopping (Shopkick) to flash sales (One Kings Lane) and beyond. And public-market investors may soon start taking notice.

I talked about this phenomenon with One Kings Lane CEO Doug Mack yesterday. He’s a dotcom survivor who saw firsthand so much of the first wave of e-commerce crash and burn. The few successful companies in the first wave, like Amazon.com, mostly took the conventional retailing model and moved it online. Now, he says, e-commerce is poised for a rebirth.

“We’re at a renaissance,” said Mack. “What’s happening right now with Shopkick and Groupon and One Kings Lane is that we’re throwing out all the rules.” (Shopkick, like One Kings Lane, is backed by Kleiner Perkins.)

Accel has assembled an impressive portfolio of bets, from Showroomprive and KupiVIP, a similar Russian site, to Groupon, the über-hot social deals site, to Modcloth, a curated, vintage-inspired fashion retailer, as well as Etsy, the handicrafts marketplace, and Quidsi, the parent of Diapers.com and Soap.com.

It can’t hurt that Accel is riding high right now, boosted by its prescient backing of Facebook. But the organized strategy emerging here reminds me of another venture-capital firm: Benchmark Capital in the ’90s.

Benchmark made an early bet on eBay, where partner Bob Kagle correctly saw that the auction format promised something genuinely new. Auctions were exciting in a way that conventional retailing — in the real world or online — wasn’t.

Along the way, eBay stumbled, developing a case of Amazon envy. eBay’s Buy It Now auctions worked like a conventional store, offering the simplicity and efficiency of fixed prices. The tradeoff, however, was that much of the urgency and fun of auctions got lost.

Flash-sales operators like Mack’s One Kings Lane, which started as a home-furnishings site, are bringing that fun back. With limited stock, shoppers need to act fast if they see something they like. Sometimes One Kings Lane only has a single piece for sale, Mack says, to add “texture” to the site. It recently added gourmet food sales, suggesting the model has room to run across more categories.

Groupon has a similar fun element in its social aspect: You have to sign up friends to make a deal effective, whether it’s a discount on brunch or unlimited yoga.

ModCloth and One Kings Lane share another common element: The idea of a curated selection of merchandise. One Kings Lane relies on old-school professional buyers, while ModCloth involves its community more. But the result is similar: an eclectic, surprising collection of goods that offers a reason to return to a site.

eBay was a huge success for its investors, of course. But there’s the inevitable sense that Benchmark might be resting on its laurels. If I were to pick the venture-capital firms leading the charge into E-Commerce 2.0, I’d say Accel and Kleiner have it in the bag.

[Photo: bchai]