At Copious, The Love Button Drives Social Commerce

1/3/13Follow @wroush

Here’s the simple premise behind Copious, the San Francisco-based social marketplace: despite all the buzz about “social commerce,” the social networking revolution hasn’t really come to online buying and selling between consumers. The two biggest exchanges, eBay and Craigslist, are products of the first Internet boom, circa 1995, and the experience of discovering products on those sites is still structured mainly around search, rather than social cues. That just doesn’t click with many consumers today, who often don’t even realize they want something until they see a recommendation from someone in their network.

There’s a huge, winner-take-all prize waiting for the company that figures out how to capitalize on this new style of envy, says Copious co-founder and chief operating officer Jonathan Ehrlich. Trillions of dollars’ worth of usable but unwanted merchandise is sitting in consumers’ closets, attics, and garages, just waiting to be sold to someone who values it more—and Copious is “hell-bent on being the company that captures the lion’s share of that demand,” along with the fees that good middlemen can extract, he says.

Jonathan Ehrlich, co-founder and chief operating officer at Copious

Jonathan Ehrlich, co-founder and chief operating officer at Copious

Ehrlich admits that he and Copious co-founders Jim Rose and Rob Zuber don’t know much about women’s clothing, which has always been the biggest product category on the site. But they do know a thing or two about social marketplaces. The Canadian natives founded Mobshop, a group buying startup, back in 1998, and grew it to 180 employees in nine countries before the dot-com crash put a halt to the nascent, pre-social-networking effort.

Ehrlich says the return of social buying à la Groupon—and much more importantly, the rise of Facebook, where Ehrlich was director of brand and consumer marketing from 2009 to 2011—convinced them it was time to try again.

“The whole nature of commerce is changing,” he says. “Up until about two years ago, if you wanted something you would go to a search box on Google or Amazon or eBay, and it would be a blood sport [among the competing marketplaces] to get that click. Now the demand is being created and reinforced through social connections with friends, on platforms like Facebook, Pinterest, and Lookbook. The challenge for brands now is ‘How do I affix myself to this massive conversation that’s going on, and make sure that when the demand is ready to be filled, it’s filled with me?’”

In a visit with Ehrlich late last year at Copious’s crammed SoMa headquarters, I got the lowdown on how the startup taps social conversations, and why Ehrlich thinks it’s positioned to surpass its far larger rivals. The refreshingly blunt COO say it all comes down to “the opportunity to create a crap ton of e-mail”—meaning the marketing messages that are generated automatically every time someone on Copious lists, likes, or sells a product. Why this actually works out as a benefit for members, rather than a spammy mess, is part of Copious’s intriguing formula, which may be unique among the social-commerce businesses I’ve encountered.

To get a bead on Copious, you have to start by understanding the power of social sharing. In other words, you have to ask yourself why the content sharing site Pinterest is so much bigger than the crafts marketplace Etsy.

According to Web traffic stats compiler Compete.com, Pinterest had 27.3 million unique visitors in November 2012, compared to just 10.3 million for Etsy. That’s surprising at first blush, given that both sites amount to curated visual catalogs of quirky products, projects, and housewares, and that Etsy had a five year headstart in building  a following (it was founded in 2005; Pinterest didn’t come along until 2010). The two services even feature many of the same tools: on both sites, you can follow other members and “like” the products they post.

The big difference, in Ehrlich’s view, is that sharing was an afterthought at Etsy, whereas at Pinterest, it’s the whole point. “With Etsy you come in and you still see a catalog,” he says. “Pinterest came along and said, ‘We are going to turn this beautiful Etsy idea on its head, and instead of organizing around products, we are going to organize around people and what they pin.’ In effect, they sucked the discovery layer off of Etsy.”

Copious, which introduced its service to a select group of beta users in April 2011 and opened up to the public in January 2012, takes a big cue from Pinterest. Under the hood, it’s a simple online store where … Next Page »

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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  • http://www.dailygrommet.com Jules Pieri

    I have to admit, being in a business that uses email heavily too, that I always wonder who those people are that have time for a “crap-ton of email”, as Jon hilariously puts it. (We think so hard–too hard?–about being useful and not producing spam when we craft our emails.) It certainly softens the email bludgeon effect if it is person-to-person as Copious understands, and their competitor Yardsellr really makes hay with social sharing tools very well too.

    Jon is very astute in recognizing that Pinterest “sucked the discovery layer off of Etsy.” I would go further in saying that Pinterest recognized that their users probably perceive Etsy as mostly about shopping, with the exception of people who do avid crafting. Pinterest is much more about dreaming up a better future for yourself, which makes it feel less like a time-waster and more like therapy. I’m not sure that Copious can really draw on that oxytocin effect with a marketplace, but they sure have the cred to give it a college try.

    • http://www.xconomy.com/san-francisco Wade Roush

      Thanks as always for the comment Jules! I think you’re right that Pinterest has found a special formula. At some level it’s all about stuff, but the materialism isn’t front and center. The site is more about aspiration and constructing a self-image by curating the things you like. I don’t know if Copious can afford to go that far — it’s always going to be more about selling and buying.

  • Bette

    Too bad copious doesn’t pay their sellers or respond to their emails.

    • http://www.xconomy.com/san-francisco Wade Roush

      Bette, if you have a specific problem with Copious that you don’t feel is being addressed, I can probably help put you in touch with some people there. Write to me at wroush at xconomy dot com.