blur – Conquering the Next Online Frontier with s-commerce

In today’s blog we turn to Rahul Sharma and Amita Gulati to describe the importance of s-commerce and why business services is the next online frontier.

 

Rahul has over seventeen years of investment experience in global roles at Citigroup, Alliance Bernstein, Neev Capital and Martin Currie. Amita has worked as a top-ranked senior research analyst with leading investment banks such as Morgan Stanley, Merrill Lynch, Banque Paribas and JP Morgan.  

Ebay and Amazon have become household names as our comfort with shopping online has increased. And the range of goods we are willing to buy over the web has constantly expanded from relative no-brainers like books to high value luxury goods and perishables like food. What is driving that? First and paramount, value. The web means price transparency across retailers allowing us to find where something is available at lowest cost by a relatively trusted supplier. And second, convenience – the ability to at the click of a button, have goods delivered home. This has meant explosive growth in e-commerce, which is now nearing 10% of total retail sales in many mature markets.

 

The e-commerce case is now very well understood. But there is another huge, fragmented marketplace with many of the same characteristics that could be revolutionized by the web – business services. Business services are a $2 trillion market where pricing is opaque and the process of obtaining and evaluating bids is labor intensive and cumbersome, particularly for small and medium sized enterprises.

 

The motivations of corporates are similar to consumers. Companies want to become leaner and more efficient, and this is resulting in steady growth in outsourcing. Clearly, any solution that provides companies with transparent, easily comparable pricing from vendors in a convenient manner has huge potential.

 

It is in this context that we believe the offering of a company called blur Group is potentially transformational – the Global Services Exchange. Put simply, this is a global forum for buyers of services like creative, marketing and accounting to interact with sellers. Buyers can place projects online at the Exchange and blur Group will match these with a group of service providers who can then pitch for this, competing with each other.

 

This means comparable, transparent pricing for buyers, which can yield a saving of on average 25% – a huge incentive. On top, streamlined placing of projects and matching them with a shortlist of providers can take out several layers of bureaucracy.

 

Businesses seem to like it – 20% of business is now coming from repeat clients. And the company’s client roster reflects some of this promise. Small businesses are signing on, but so are larger businesses. The firm is run by dynamic chief executive officer (CEO) Philip Letts and backed by business heavyweights such as Archie Norman (Chairman ITV), Kevin Lomax (ex-CEO Misys), who sit on blur’s Strategic Advisory Board.

 

An Exchange offering such as this can only succeed if sufficient numbers of quality service providers sign up to it, to make blur’s offering credible. The incentives to them are getting access to projects they wouldn’t necessarily get otherwise and also prompt payment. And they are clearly voting with their feet. From only 2,500 providers in 2009, blur now has over 25,000 on its Exchange.

 

This in turn is driving significant traction at the company. Revenues have more than tripled over each of the past three years (see below).  Versus two years ago, the number of projects the exchange is handling has gone up tenfold and the value of these projects has tripled.  We are still dealing with relatively small numbers – the company handled 359 projects in Q1 and is on track to process business worth $8 million this year according to consensus.

 

What makes these numbers exciting is the rapid growth rates achieved: in the latest quarter, the number of projects handled is up 178% on last year while projects completed posted growth of 258%. These growth rates are sensational and suggest blur is attracting many more customers – while existing ones like what they see.

 

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We are struck by the simplicity of this business but also the power of its offering. Given the fragmentation and sheer size of the business services market, blur’s first–mover advantage in the area means that growth could continue being explosive. A largely cloud-based platform means capital outlays will be low – its main cash outflows relate to people and software.

 

Last month’s (31 May) $11.5 million capital raising, means the company appears to be well-funded.  blur itself sees the potential for the Exchange to be transacting nearly $250 million of business by 2020 – with scope for even more upside.

 

For all that glowing talk, the risks are obvious. While the concept of streamlining how companies buy services appears to be very attractive, the business is still in its infancy, loss-making and progress is unlikely to be linear. A business like this lives and dies by its technology and the ability to attract and retain quality service providers that can encourage repeat custom. It is still early days on these counts.

 

And while we believe blur’s steady build in service providers will prove a decent entry barrier, it has so far had the luxury to have the space to itself. This is likely to change soon enough – the scope of this market and the economics are far too attractive for others to ignore. All in, however, we believe that blur Group is in a potentially very attractive position.

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