What Ever Happened to the Promise of B2B Ecommerce?

By Erin Griffith , written on August 21, 2012

From The News Desk

I spent much of yesterday afternoon in a 50-page time capsule from 2000, published a month before the dotcom crash. And aside from references to fax machines, it's still basically valid today.

It's a Piper Jaffray analyst report predicting explosive growth in business-to-business ecommerce.

"The B2B market is widely predicted to be at least 10 times greater than the B2C market, and holds a much more defensible value proposition," the writers declare in a section enthusiastically titled "At The Edge of Tomorrow." Goldman Sachs was predicting $4.5 trillion in B2B ecommerce transactions by 2005; Gartner Group anticipated $7.3 trillion by 2004.

Like many bubblicious dotcom promises, this one hasn't quite come true. Witness the demise of early B2B ecommerce company Chemdex. The money-losing marketplace for chemicals and biotech products went public in 1999 and shot up to a $4 billion valuation. It was shut down by 2001. The company's collapse has been blamed for damage to the entire sector of "B2B marketplace" startups.

The sector of B2B marketplaces and other sellers of B2B goods has grown since, but not at the scale we predicted. Only around 25 percent of all B2B entities have an ecommerce presence that's up-to-date, according to a recent report from Oracle. B2B ecommerce added up to $300 billion worth of business last year.

That figure is nothing to sneeze at, but it's not exactly dwarfing the $200 million in retail ecommerce by 10 times, as once predicted. And it's and a far cry from the trillions anticipated by seven years ago.

The discreprancy is not because the bubble-era analysts were wrong about B2B ecommerce. They just whiffed on how long it might take. Plenty of late 90s ideas that became punchlines were merely ahead of their time. Witness the "money-wasting" bad ideas included in the board game Burn Rate, which mocks the dotcom bubble. They include Name-Your-Price Auctions, Internet Money, Online Ad Servers. Hello Priceline, Paypal/Square/Dwolla/Venmo, and Doubleclick. It's too easy to mock.

Fast forward to today, and the majority of businesses, particularly in the long tail, still conduct deals with sales reps, paper, catalogs, and fax machines (touche, analyst report). Part of it is awareness and part of it is the lack of tools. I've heard it in several conversations: There are countless software tools to help companies market, sell, and deliver products to consumers and far fewer to help them do the same to other businesses.

Perhaps a better question would be whether the market is finally ready for B2B ecommerce. What's different today and which tech companies are positioning themselves there?

From what I understand, the answer is yes, the market is ready. Today we have the cloud, which is helping businesses eliminate paper altogether. We have mobile, which means in-person sales calls can still lead to an on-the-spot digital transaction. Further, businesses are wising up to the shorter fulfillment times, increased accuracy and reduced data entry that going online delivers. The Oracle report shows the majority of B2B companies surveyed have invested in an ecommerce platform in the last 12 months. Next year they plan to invest heavily in SEO, mobile sites and apps. The B2B ecommerce flood we were promised in the late 90s may finally come into fruition.

The biggest player serving this area today is The Chinese B2B trading platform is the most prominent company providing ecommerce solutions to businesses, but it does force the buyer to do all the legwork on finding, researching, and buying. Alibaba's model also lacks branding for sellers and ignores the volume of face-to-face sales that just don't seem to be going away by not running on mobile.

Several young startups are targeting B2B ecommerce as well. Handshake is a New York-based startup focused on mobile. The company has been live for a year and has had more than $100 million worth of orders written on its platform. The company's tools serve a group of people who are accustomed to faxing purchase orders to each other, says founder Glen Coates. "I wish I was kidding about that, but I'm not," he adds.

German software company Hybris sells its B2B ecommerce tools to the likes of Nikon and W.W. Grainger, a logistics tools provider which is spending $40 million over the next four years to build up its ecommerce platform. W.W. Grainger's overall growth has been driven by 20 to 25 percent annual growth in ecommerce, a category which it anticipates will make up 40 percent of its overall business in the coming years.

Joor has tackled B2B ecommerce for the fashion industry with tools that are available on desktop and seek to build a strong network (both buyer and seller use it) by owning the apparel buyer vertical.

iOrder is another popular mobile B2B commerce company out of Italy. Panjiva helps companies conduct cross-border business online. Castlight Health is tackling the health insurance buying problem with $180 million in venture backing to do so.

It's not sexy (and I'm wildly generalizing here), but startups are beginning to see the opportunities in B2B ecommerce. You could argue that enterprise has been neglected lately, and that increasingly that's changing. Perhaps founders see the value of building a money-making business instead of amassing a billion users and hoping to back their way into something brilliant.

Google's discovery of an adjacent business as profitable as search -- or selling to Facebook for $1 billion with no revenue -- is the exception, not the standard. As excitement around this last wave of consumer Web hopefuls like Groupon, Zynga, and Facebook turns sour, enterprise suddenly looks less boring. The trillion-dollar promise of B2B commerce may finally be on its way.