Like many FinTech companies, Indian eCommerce platform ShopX was once a high flyer.
The company, backed by Infosys Co-founder Nandan Nilekani and Fung Investment, has raised over $54 million and was valued at over $100 million during the last round. Nilekani alone invested $18 million.
But the Indian eCommerce enabler hadn’t been able to raise equity funding since April 2020. That coincides with the chilling impact of the pandemic on fundraising by unprofitable companies relying on the promise of growth to lure equity investors.
Now, it has shut down and filed for bankruptcy, according to Indian officials. And it offers a cautionary tale for other B2B marketplaces.
A look at regulatory filings reveals a series failings that typically move in lockstep: low margins that torpedoed the original business model, a failed pivot to consumer, and finally inability to service debt the company was forced to take on to continue operations.
ShopX sought to be instrumental in co-creating the e-B2B industry. Over time, it became unviable to operate at scale given the low margin profile of the industry, leaving the firm with no alternative but to shut down operations, according to a company spokesperson.
The B2B marketplace business model, while popular, is challenging. Every platform needs enough buyers and suppliers and a value proposition for each. The platforms must add sufficient value to both buyers and sellers to gain volume on both sides of the transaction. Like any market, the number of traders determines the level of liquidity. Only then can the network effect kick in that creates self-sustaining organic growth.
Low margins suggest that ShopX may have subsidized one side too much, and/or drove a race to the bottom for buyers so suppliers bailed.
The company pivoted from its core model — an assisted eCommerce solution which including sourcing, supply chain and credit line for five years — to an eCommerce enablement platform in mid-2021.
ShopX tested the crowded consumer internet space with the launch of a cash-back app.
For a company with financial problems, high burn rate, and limited visibility, this was a challenging route to pursue. Marketing costs are notoriously high in the B2C space, while entrenched competitors such as Amazon and Flipkart have well-entrenched and formidable moats.
Lacking cash flow from operations or fresh investments, ShopX took out multiple loans from its Singapore-based investor Fung Investment and was unable to meet its payment obligations.
Implications for the Industry
The failure of ShopX shows that the promise of B2B marketplaces can fall prey to the pitfalls of attempting to offer a compelling value proposition to both buyers and sellers, all the while maintaining margins at scale that can generate sustainable cash flow. As capital markets have lost interest in unprofitable companies in the current investment climate, such startups are forced to use debt. Rising rates make maintenance of such funding challenging.
Thus, as firms rush into the space, they need to be aware of the headwinds. Under the circumstances, only the strong will survive, and a shakeout is probably in the cards.
One survival strategy is specializing in a narrow niche, which in and of itself provides differentiation.
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