Sorfeo's story by CEO Hal Widlansky
Sorfeo started because Mark and I have had a years-long friendship. We actually met during the first internet boom, back in the late 90s. I had been recruited right out of grad school to join a start-up called CitySearch, and coincidently Mark actually happened to start the same week. He had been a technology journalist for a number of years, writing for BusinessWeek and US News. He was recruited to “go native” and join what was, at the time, an early stage start-up and lead the content team. We worked together for a couple of years there, and it was a kind of Cinderalla story. CitySearch was successful, merged with TicketMaster Online, and went public, all in a few short years. Soon after that, we kind of went our separate ways. Mark moved back to the east coast and I stayed out West. I went up to San Francisco, and kind of bounced around for a while doing different technology companies, and Mark went to the east coast and did the same thing.
We stayed in touch on and off for over two decades. Fast forward to 2020, and Mark had been playing in the Amazon ecosystem for 5 years. In 2015 he had wanted to do a start-up where he wouldn’t have to raise investor capital, and decided to try to sell things on Amazon. The third-party marketplace was still a new thing, and he jumped into the deep end of the pool. He picked a market, sourced a product and launched it, and it sold really well. He thought “maybe I should do this again.” So he did the ‘wash, rinse, repeat’ strategy, and he ended up launching 6 different products over about 5 years on the Amazon platform. During that time, I was busy running travel technology companies, focusing on marketing and merchandising vacation rental properties on all the big search platforms, Expedia, Booking.com, and AirBnB. In a way, I was having a similar experience in terms of using performance marketplaces, but for very different products. We were just playing in different pools.
When 2020 hit and travel basically stopped, I suddenly had a lot of free time. Out of the blue, and almost on cue, Mark sent me an email with a press release from a company called Thrasio. They had just raised 20 or 50 million dollars, and he called me and he said “have you heard anything about this?” I said “no”, and he kind of gave me the CliffsNotes of this roll up that was starting in the Amazon third party seller space. He thought it might be “really interesting” (he says that a lot) and, after explaining the idea, he said “we should go do this.” I said “what exactly do you mean? What is this?” He said “we should go raise a round of capital and we should go buy some of these companies.” He had looked into opportunities to sell his company, and he’d decided that he’d rather buy than be bought. He pitched me on the idea of combining my marketing and M&A experience with his experience in running Amazon brands, and basically sold me on the idea that we could do it as well or better than anyone. We decided to dig in.
We spent the next 3 weeks researching the market, and then building the financial model and the business plan. I really needed to prove to myself that it could be done, that we could go out and raise capital to do this, and that we could do it in a way that was unique. It had to be cheaper, faster or better than how other folks were doing it, because we weren’t the first people to have the idea.
It quickly became clear that it made a lot of sense, and that we had a unique approach. We started talking to some really smart people in our networks, folks from tech, folks from industry, folks from banking. We approached them, many of whom been mentors to us, and we said “look, here’s what we are thinking about doing, tell us why this is really stupid and we shouldn’t do it.” Every single one said, “this is really great, how can I help?” And after about a dozen responses like that we thought “well, we might have something here.”
In my experience, if you ask people for money you get advice and if you ask for advice you get money. That in mind, we went to people we had already asked for advice and said “so... we’re looking to raise a round of capital.” It took us a little longer than we planned, the pandemic made it difficult to travel or have in-person meetings. We actually did all but one of these investor pitch meetings over Zoom. In the end, we had circled a bigger round of capital than we’d planned, and we were ready to pull the trigger. On January 4th, the first Monday after the New Year, we raised our first round of funding. The wires hit the bank and we started shopping for businesses. That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.