by Elise Craig
Slice, the online purchase-tracking site backed by heavy hitters including Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt and Playdom founder Rick Thompson, started as a research project. While looking for a new business venture, company founders and Scott Brady, Harpinder Madan, and Eric Botto took a close look at the e-commerce industry and the massive amount of information that is sent back to consumers after they purchase goods online. In their research and in conversations with consumers, they found that there was a real need for a service that could organize information about purchases from many different companies in a smart, informative way.
“If you’re shopping and trying to remember, ‘What size did I buy my nephew last year?’ it’s just virtually impossible to find,” says Brady, the company’s CEO. “While e-mail is a great place to store and receive this info, it’s just not a good tool for accessing and actually acting on the data.”
The founders set out to build a tool that would organize the information, showing consumers not only where their packages are and when they’re expected to arrive, but also what’s in them, how much time they have to return the goods, and contact information for the retailer. The company partnered with Yahoo Mail to build a tool that Yahoo’s users could use to track the goods they bought online. “The goal was to bring together some of top semantic scientists and build series of algorithms that could extract information from e-mails and give it to users in a very useful format,” Brady says.
While it sounds like a simple service, building the algorithms that could pull important information from a confirmation e-mail from say, Amazon or the Gap, required some complicated engineering, and some time.
“We actually tapped into some of the latest the latest natural language processing and semantic algorithm technology to be able to do this,” Brady says. It took the company 12-13 months—and patient investors—”to create a scalable infrastructure that allowed us to do this in a scalable way.”
They also had to make sure they had “bank-level” security in place to ensure that consumers—and e-mail platforms—felt safe handing over personal data.
Initially, the founders funded Slice themselves, but in May, Slice completed a $9.4 million Series A funding round lead by Lightspeed Venture Partners and DCM. Michael Birch, Rick Thompson, Eric Schmidt’s Innovation Endeavors and Floodgate Fund also invested.
The next month, Slice and Yahoo Mail started rolling out an app called All My Purchases to the e-mail provider’s 93 million U.S. users. In October, the company launched a standalone product, making Slice available to Gmail customers, and by November the company had already released an app for iPhone, with an Android app to follow shortly (it’s currently in testing).
So far, the free service has already tracked more than 10 million purchases from nearly 2,000 different merchants, and its users have been very vocal about feedback. The company has edited design elements and added features based on the desires of its consumers, including a notification when the price of a product drops after purchase, so users can potentially get a price adjustment. They also add new merchants to the service in response to user requests, and now also track receipts e-mailed from in store purchases.
As more and more retailers—including The Gap, Nordstrom and Anthropologie—begin to give customers the option of electronic receipts instead of handing over the paper version, Slice will be able to track a greater percentage of American commerce. “What’s fascinating to us is that when we first looked at this problem we were anticipating 8-10 billion e-mails sent annually, but if you extrapolate this out based on growth of in-store receipts we can expect to see tens of billions of these electronic receipts,” Brady says. Even grocery stores are getting in on the game, which adds the potential for apps that can track the nutritional content of the groceries you buy or even help with household budgeting.
Slice has been quick to roll out new apps and features to get out in front of any potential competitors. TripIt, owned by Seattle-based concur, offers a similar service for tracking travel-related spending, but so far, there are only a handlful of companies doing it for general e-commerce, including OneReceipt and Lemon.com. Brady is unconcerned by new competition. “We clearly have a pretty significant first mover advantage,” he says. “We’ve raised the most capital, launched with the biggest partners and are available to the most users.”
As Slice increases its user base, it will also have a bigger pool of anonymous consumer data, which can give retailers a sense of which products are sold together, what times of year people are likely to purchase certain products, whether sales are actually working, or even what kinds of daily deals are selling across all sites. “We have the ability to pull together what we think is extraordinary valuable information,” Brady says. “There are sources for this today, but they’re doing it based on statistical analysis. We can do it based on actual data. The quality and the timeliness of the information matters.”
Brady also believes there are advantages for consumers. For example, the company could allow users to share their information with merchants so that they can target their offers directly to people who are interested. As Brady points out, daily deals sites sending mani-pedi offers to guys like him who are unlikely to buy them aren’t doing a great job targeting the right customers. It also might be worthwhile for a specialty retailer such as Nike to give consumers who have spent $500 on another brand of athletic goods a special offer to convince them to try their products. “It’s not like a daily deal to 10 million people,” Brady says. “It’s actually something uniquely designed from that merchant to that consumer in a one to one way that delivers a substantial value.”
For now though, Brady says, Slice’s main priority is to build relationships with as many e-mail services as possible, and address as many specific use cases as they can to make sure they’re serving customer needs.
“We’ll continue to explore where we go with this,” he says.