Pop culture quiz. What does “let your fingers do the walking” refer to?
Of course, most people think of the tag line of the Yellow Pages – that essential hard copy directory of businesses that landed with a thud on the doorsteps of every household in America back in the day. That business is all but defunct as the Internet is now the “go-to” resource to find local businesses. Fingers may still do the walking, but their destination of choice is more likely a mouse that does the clicking.
This switch is undeniably to the benefit of businesses of all sizes. But to say the Internet offers merchants a souped-up version of the Yellow Pages is sort of like saying the car offers a faster version of a horse-drawn carriage. More than a static directory of business listings, the Internet is an evolving real-time network that offers an infinite combination of channels by which business of all shapes and sizes can reach consumers.
“It’s not just about going to one platform, it is about finding ways to distribute and customize the business across many touch points,” Holonis CEO Richard Hollis told MPD CEO Karen Webster during a recent interview. “This is the new age, this is how business is going to be done.”
Hollis is the founder, owner and CEO of Holonis – a next generation eCommerce marketplace that is also an e-marketing, e-publishing and analytics engine all rolled into one. In some ways, what Holonis has been building over the last six years is the digital update for the Yellow Pages, though its modern instantiation from its paper-based counterpart of old.
“[Small businesses] have to understand that customers are looking for them on the Internet and it makes sense for them to be found by having content relevant to a consumer’s search help find them,” Hollis noted.
But the challenge runs deeper than that, he noted. Businesses have to create a Web presence while fighting against an infinitude of background noise to be found. And, searchers never find businesses that are on the second or third pages of a Google search – which unfortunately is where many small businesses find themselves. Their sites are not optimized for search, if in fact they have a site at all.
“When you think of eCommerce today, you think of the platform such as Amazon or eBay or Alibaba or Etsy. What we’re talking about is a smarter marketplace. We’ve created a publishing platform that is inbound marketing driver and SEO optimized.”
Also baked into the Holonis marketplace ecosystem is consumer engagement platform with a databasing email system and a complete analytics piece that Hollis told Webster seeks to capture “anything that happens between buyer and seller and distills it into data.”
Moreover – it allows merchants to pursue various channels at once, but as a single concerted effort versus managing a plethora of digital ecosystems to drive business.
“We are really trying to offer one complete system and one user interface so that as a consumer enters our system, it is easy to navigate because everything is standardized,” Hollis noted. “Consumers like it because they get to work with the merchant all in one place. Merchants like how they can see how well they are interacting all with consumer and with an easy dashboard. They also like having all these platforms into one thing instead of having to take it on as several different things.”
Hollis comes to entrepreneurship a seasoned vet – he spent over 30 years in the biopharma space and has built and sold six businesses. When the financial crisis forced a pivot to his last biopharma business in 2009, he decided to refocus his efforts on eCommerce; the problem that needed to be solved seemed pretty obvious.
“It became crystal clear to me that the fragmentation of the system makes it really hard for small businesses to be successful. I saw the opportunity to create the digital genome – that will help sequence the array of businesses across the Internet.”
Further study led Hollis to something else – by defragmenting the system and creating a sort of directory and content clearing house, a virtuous circle could be created for merchants where their efforts reinforce each other.
“Most consumers don’t go past the first page. … If Holonis has more signals and more strengths to bring focus to a small business and can better optimize and distribute that content, companies can find ways to get better ranked. If they are using the technology, they are going to be found.”
Holonis enters a crowded market for marketplaces – with massive players such as Amazon and Alibaba just covering the “A’s” and their combined market caps totaling approximately $375 billion. Not only are their Holonis’ rivals huge, they are also going after the product search market, and to some extent exceeding as Amazon squeaked past Google last year for product search originations.
But Hollis is confident, because he noted that consumers don’t always start conducting commerce the day they start searching for a product. He feels that consumers may be intent on buying, but that they use the Internet to both research products and services for some time leading up to the purchase – and that they conduct that research across multiple channels. By helping merchants more effectively place themselves across those channels and within that search stream, Holonis has the potential to help small businesses be more easily discovered.
It is not an unambitious goal, but one with a potentially big payoff. It seems that the second phase of eCommerce expansion is not about competing with the real world retailer, but instead being a complement or even extension of traditional retail. For businesses that currently can’t navigate on the Web effectively, or at all, Holonis could offer a big chance for a variety of small businesses to jump in.
Hollis is using technology to build his uber directory of businesses and applying his technology to search optimize them, hoping that doing so will create awareness of Holonis’ capabilities and value to the business. He expects to have 20 million by the end of 2015 and 3 million alone by the end of April. That’s phase one. Once businesses get visibility into the value that can be created by Holonis, it’s Hollis’ hope that they’ll sign on to a subscription service that helps those businesses create the content and assimilate the consumer touch points that makes their Internet presence more useful to the consumer, more searchable and more easily discovered.
But Holonis is also in beta and still developing its database of businesses. As of right now, searching for “shoes” on the platform will yield lots of businesses that fix them, but none that sell them. Time will tell if the platform will become as expansive as the vision of its founder.