Perch is a billion-dollar Boston company that you’ve likely never heard of. And that’s OK with them. Because Perch isn’t selling itself, not yet anyway. It’s way too busy buying.
Perch is an e-commerce aggregator, a technology company that purchases online brands that sell things such as silicone straws, leggings, baby sleepsuits, and disposable champagne flutes. What do these brands have in common? Huge sales on Amazon, with the reviews and rankings to prove it. Perch buys them up — about two a week lately, sometimes paying more than $100 million — and promises its software can put their sales on hyperdrive.
The COVID-19 pandemic has sparked a boom for Amazon, and by extension the third-party sellers that now account for 56 percent of all sales on the site. A top-selling Amazon item can make millions, and now investors want a piece of that action.
Perch is aiming to push its way to the head of that pack, and its trajectory is head-spinning.
The company launched in 2019 and last December had 20 employees. In May, global finance firm SoftBank led a $775 million investment round, and the headcount has grown to 170. On Wednesday, Perch unveiled a new, 20,000- square-foot office at 222 Berkeley in the Back Bay, and plans to nearly double its workforce by year-end. By then, chief executive Chris Bell — a Wayfair alum who oversaw the brand’s supply chain logistics — expects Perch will have acquired more than 100 brands.
Spark Capital’s Alex Finkelstein, who was the first to place a bet on Wayfair, was also Perch’s first investor. When he met Bell, he said, he offered a term sheet in just a week.
“This is the fastest-growing company in the history of Spark Capital. And we backed Wayfair, we backed Slack, and we backed Twitter,” Finkelstein said. “This does feel like the next Wayfair. And then, you know, one of the next big foundational flagship companies in Boston.”
Parallels between Wayfair and Perch are easy. At Wayfair, Bell worked closely with founders Niraj Shah and Steve Conine to compress delivery times; under his watch, couches that once took 27 days to ship arrived in two. Its new Back Bay office shares a building with the housewares giant. And Perch’s emergence, Bell says, signals the arrival of another new era in e-commerce — not to mention a payday for brands that have thrived in Amazon’s model but hit a ceiling on their growth.
“These folks have created amazing products. They deserve to be everywhere consumers want to buy them,” Bell said. “But it’s hard to fund and manage that kind of growth.”
But Perch’s own growth is no isolated event. Perch isn’t even the biggest aggregator in Greater Boston. That’s Thrasio in Walpole, which has been snapping up brands since 2018 and now owns more than 140, from pet odor removers to cold brew coffee carafes. Thrasio made a profit of $100 million on $500 million in revenues last year, and now has 1,055 employees in Boston, Houston, Salt Lake City, New York, the UK, Germany, China, and Japan. It raised $850 million this year alone and is now valued at between $3 billion and $4 billion.
“What is going on here is very real,” said Carlos Cashman, co-CEO and cofounder of Thrasio.
And it’s giving rise to a torrid aggregator race. There are now dozens of well-funded roll-up operations looking to snag e-commerce brands and juice their sales. According to CB Insights, the industry — which barely existed in 2018 — has done more than $2 billion in deals in the first six months of 2021 alone.
It’s gotten so hot so quickly that at a recent Amazon sellers conference in Las Vegas, the year-old Amazon aggregator Acquco was offering Teslas to attendees who could provide referrals to brands looking to sell. They got over 1,000 referrals.
“They’re sort of multiplying,” said Chris McCabe, a former Amazon employee whose local consultancy works with third-party sellers — and increasingly with the aggregators — to navigate Amazon’s more mercurial tendencies. “It’s a scramble to acquire. That’s the phase we’re in.”
So how did we get here? Straws and champagne flutes, after all, are the type of things that customers type into Amazon’s search bar without much thought. From there, buyers get a list of best-selling items, and check out photos, prices, and reviews. Then click and hope for the best.
But being at the top of that list is incredibly lucrative — and cutthroat. Amazon’s third-party sellers now create more revenue for the company than its Web Services division; the business intelligence firm MarketPulse estimates that in 2020, they accounted for $300 billion in sales. And those businesses, in turn, are also incredibly lucrative for Amazon: The company made $48.79 billion in revenue last quarter from the commission and fulfillment service fees it charges sellers, up 49.3 percent from the same time last year.
Yet McCabe, who has worked with third-party sellers for more than a decade, says most sellers stay awake at night worried their account might be suspended or elbowed out by a competing brand. Things have only gotten increasingly volatile on the site over the past few years, he said, and that’s leading many sellers to seek a big payout while the getting is good.
The likes of Perch and Thrasio are happy to oblige, and then use insights drawn from reviews, ratings, and returns to drive sales even higher. That’s what Perch did at Prestee, a brand it bought for seven figures in February that makes disposable party supplies.
“We dug into customer data and what we realized was that a lot of millennials, mostly female, were using them for events like bridal showers, and we redesigned the merch with that in mind,” said Claire Lefevre, Perch’s vice president of customer operations.
Using that customer feedback, Perch overhauled Prestee’s marketing photos and made the disposable champagne flutes a bit more sturdy. Those tweaks, Lefevre said, have led to a 340 percent increase in sales in July over the same time last year.
“We can really turbocharge companies with much more sophisticated supply chain logistics, pricing, all those types of areas,” said Spark Capital’s Finkelstein. “You may see niche products but they can actually be massive, massive, massive companies. We view this as we’re building the next Procter & Gamble.”
Some, like McCabe, approach this gold rush with far more skepticism. He’s gotten to know Thrasio, but hasn’t interacted much with Perch, and McCabe reasons while their software might be great, too many aggregators don’t fully understand the dynamics of the Amazon landscape.
“Some of the aggregators, once they buy the business, they don’t know the Amazon piece and how they’re going to grow it,” McCabe said. They’re often surprised to learn about account suspensions, or to learn that listings are taken down. Then there’s also things like competitor abuse and brands attacking each other.
“The unspoken piece is it’s dangerous to sell on Amazon,” McCabe said. “Some of these brands could be suspended tomorrow, or you can lose your account tomorrow.”
Companies like Perch and Thrasio say that while Amazon is their bread and butter, they’re looking to expand these brands onto other platforms, such as Walmart and Target’s online marketplaces, even brick and mortar stores. And fear of Amazon upending their business model doesn’t seem to be keeping them up at night. If anything, they say, Amazon is happy that they’re there.
“They’re a fierce competitor yes, but when you’re aligned to what they want” it makes Amazon happy, said Cashman of Thrasio. “We come in and clean up the space.”
And for sellers such as Maureen Howard, who invented Baby Merlin’s Magic Sleepsuit, all this aggregation has been a boon.
Two decades ago, Howard created the padded sleepsuit — a cult favorite among weary parents that keeps infants snoozing soundly after they’re too big for a swaddle — and has steadily grown sales through specialty stores and then Amazon, which now accounts for about 80 percent of its business. But when Target and other big box stores approached Howard about bringing the sleepsuit into its stores, she knew the manufacturing logistics would be bigger than she and her husband could handle. She was courted by nearly a dozen aggregators, she said, and in June sold her company to Perch for an undisclosed sum.
“We’d always said there’s so much more that we can be doing with this brand,” Howard said, calling Baby Merlin her “fifth child.” Selling a company is like sending a kid off to college, she continued: “You know it’s time and your heart is just aching to let them go and you know you’ve done as much as you can. They need to go and soar.”
Soar from a Perch, you might even say.
Janelle Nanos can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @janellenanos.