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Growing profitable internet companies with Olivier Van Calster


Olivier Van Calster has forged an impressive career in the internet sector from the early days of the first dotcom bubble with and later through leadership roles at eBay, and StockX amongst others. We spoke with Olivier in detail to get his thoughts on the evolution of his career so far and how you build high growth and profitable internet companies.


When did you first start working in the internet sector?

In the mid-1990s I had started work as a strategy consultant for Arthur D. Little and got my first exposure to the internet when working on a “connected vehicles” project for the mobile operator BT Cellnet – which later would become O2.

Then after completing my MBA at INSEAD in 1998 I joined Pearson, a huge media group that owned the Financial Times amongst other titles. The internet was both a huge opportunity and a threat to the business. This was my first really strategic exposure to the internet sector, and I’d get operational experience in the internet sector later when I worked on Pearson had to figure out how they would maintain their existing revenue streams and create new ones as internet adoption grew.

The first internet bubble was a rollercoaster – with becoming the poster child for internet bubble excess.

The internet was becoming a big deal and we had to figure out – how do we respond? And I was part of the core team that figured out how do we charge for our content? How do we create the right UX? What are the systems we need? How do we market our products? How do we create packages that customers understand and are willing to pay for? These themes would recur later in my career as I continued to work in the internet sector.


You worked for eBay for a large period of your early career. This was during a time of rapid expansion for eBay as a business. What was it like working for eBay at the time and how did your responsibilities evolve?

It was a big change going from a traditional media business like Pearson to a digital disruptor like eBay. I joined eBay to initially lead their digital marketing in the UK and it was a transformative opportunity for me. If we cast our minds to back then in 2004, digital marketing was quite a new thing, and very few people had done it.

I was hired not because of my expertise in digital marketing, but rather because I had enough strategic ability, analytical skills, and experience of the internet sector from my time at to come in and figure out digital marketing best practice. I built what was at first a small digital marketing team, and eBay was growing very rapidly – by more than 100% a year.

It was “building the aeroplane mid-flight”. We had to figure out how to acquire, retain, convert and analyse customers. I was promoted to become CMO for the UK business – which was their third largest market after the US and Germany. Building and nurturing the eBay brand was important as we went through this change – so that gave me the opportunity to develop a well-rounded understanding of Marketing, across both quantitative and qualitative aspects.


After your time with eBay you joined and helped them to build their international business. What attracted you to And how much did the business grow during the time that you were there? 

I realized that although I love marketing, I was especially interested in a multi-faceted general management type role. And so that’s what I set out to look for. Ancestry gave me the opportunity to do this and I realised that there was a massive opportunity for the business in the digital sector. They were also keen to IPO the business – which was something I hadn’t experienced before.

I joined to run the UK business, which at the time was probably about $50 million in revenues and growing very respectably. We had to adapt the business at a product level to the nuances of the UK market. I also applied a lot of the growth marketing techniques I had learned at eBay  – and the UK business started to skyrocket.

I was promoted to become MD of the International Business, which we grew to about $300m in revenues.

We took the business public via an IPO, went through a take-private deal with Permira ; overall I loved my time with the business. Who knew I would spend six years in online family history?


Following your time with you became a CEO for the first time with Talmix. How did you find becoming a CEO? Were there any aspects of the role that were a surprise to you?

Very much so. Having worked for large US businesses such as eBay and, I was keen to join an earlier stage, European headquartered business.

Talmix is a marketplace for freelance consultants using technology and a deep database to match freelance consultants with companies looking for project support. So I thought, this is great. I know about marketplaces, and I know about consulting.

I joined as COO to support the founder and CEO, and then the board asked me to step up into the CEO role.

I loved the role but I also experienced how intense and of course, challenging a CEO role can be. The business was a loss making with a fairly short funding runway.

Not long after becoming CEO I had to cut costs and let some good people go from the business which was emotionally very difficult but necessary for the wellbeing of the company.

The ability to make decisions and move quickly in an entrepreneurial, early stage business is definitely one of the best aspects of this kind of environment.

Being a CEO can be a lonely experience as although you have a leadership team around you, you have to make the final call and the buck stops with you. It’s a good idea to say, “I’m the CEO, but I don’t have all the answers”. It’s important to be candid about that, to make decisions but have an inclusive style of management. These were very formative aspects of my experience at Talmix.


After Talmix you joined StockX to manage their business outside the US. For people who might not be familiar with StockX, what does the company do?

StockX is a genius idea of a business that I’d never heard of until I got a call saying, “do you know much about sneakers?” (I didn’t). StockX was founded in 2016, in Detroit, Michigan. The idea was, and still is, let’s take the fundamentals of how a financial stock market works and apply it to consumer goods in a marketplace.

By that I mean, if I want to sell a pair of sneakers, and you’re interested in buying them, I’m going to basically put that pair of sneakers on the marketplace. And I’m going to say my ask is £250, I’d like to be paid that. You’re going to come out and say, actually, I like that pair of sneakers, I like that size, I like that model, but I’m only prepared to pay £200 for them.

You put in a bid of £200 for the sneakers. Imagine this process multiplied across tens of thousands of SKUs and across millions of active users. Every time a bid and ask match, a trade is recorded.

At any point in time, everybody can see how items are traded, what is the trend of the price, what is the gap, what is the spread between bid and ask. And so that creates a transparency to price products that are otherwise really hard to price.

Why is that useful? Big sneaker brands like Nike and Adidas have scarcity as the core of their marketing strategy: by releasing limited quantities of products, which are designed to sell out and create hype, or buzz. These are often special editions and collaborations with other brands or celebrities.

As soon as a product sells out, there’s an imbalance between demand and supply. There is scope for a secondary marketplace where people who have been lucky enough to buy the product, can sell it on at a profit.

But then how do you price that? That’s the solution that StockX brought together with a verification process to make sure you’re not going to get scammed with fake products. When I joined, StockX was growing like crazy in the US but needed help to take off internationally. We launched in October 2018. And from then on, the business grew very quickly.


I’m a bit too old and out of touch to know much about sneaker culture. Is it as popular in Europe as in the US?

Very much so, but in a different way. There is very much a sneaker culture that is often tied to hip hop, which itself linked to American culture that exists not just in the UK, but in France, in Italy, in Germany, and right across Asia as well. And of course, in other parts of the world too.

Smart sellers noticed that some products were more popular in Europe than America and vice versa, creating arbitrage opportunities for them.

It’s not just sneakers – there are clothes and other collectibles that are very popular on the platform. Products appeal in a different way to different users, different products, different brands, different models, different colour schemes, colourways as they’re called in the trade. So which made an incredibly fascinating global business with all the cross-border trade challenges and opportunities that came with that.


How big did the international business for StockX become?

We ended up being about 30-35% of global revenues and about $500 million in GMV [Gross Merchandise Value].  So we were a pretty big chunk of the business.


You’ve worked for a few different marketplace businesses over the years. What do you like about marketplace business models?

Marketplace business models are some of the most fascinating and hard to grasp, but also some of the most powerful business models.

As with any internet business you have got all the classic challenges of designing the UX, demand acquisition, retention, getting the unit economics right, but you’ve got the added complexity of needing a product that works well for both buyers and sellers and matches them effectively.

Marketplaces are extremely intellectually challenging, but also very powerful because they come with network effects if you get them right. With network effects comes economies of scale. It’s very rarely a kind of “winner takes all”, but being able to have the first mover advantage, being able to get the recipe right, can create huge growth opportunities.


Do marketplaces tend to become natural monopolies over time?

Most marketplaces tend to have a lifecycle. For example, when eBay started, it was very successful across so many different categories, from the most popular to the most obscure. Over time, specialist competitors came into the market – like Depop and Vinted in the clothing sector who were very good at getting one category right. When the big marketplaces like eBay grow, they create consumer trust and opportunities for new marketplaces to emerge that specialize in certain categories.


As a general manager – what are the areas where you are most hands-on and where do you tend to delegate more?

I prefer not to be too hands on if I know that there is a really strong subject matter expert who has a lot of specialism in that area.

The areas that I’m most naturally drawn to, because of my background, are marketing, product management, consumer insights and user experience. I’ve learned that having a phenomenal finance partner and a phenomenal people partner are critical. Having the right financial analysis of business decisions and shaping a strong company culture is vital to the success of any company.


It’s been quite a challenging market over the last kind of year or two for a lot of B2C internet and mobile companies. It feels like there’s been an increased focus on profitability, which hasn’t always been the strong suit of entrepreneurial internet companies. How can you drive profitable growth as an entrepreneurial internet business?

It’s been a difficult market and I’ve seen companies pivot from “growth at all costs” approach, because capital was cheap, to a very different dynamic today.

Capital is scarce. Businesses are judged by the ability to deliver sustainable, profitable growth. So this path to profitability that you hear everywhere is the number one consideration for most entrepreneurial internet companies.

There’s very little appetite for highly speculative projects that are mildly additive at best. With limited capital available – choices are harder with more of an opportunity cost. If we do this, we can’t do these other things. Companies are naturally more risk averse.

Sometimes this means you have to prioritize quite ruthlessly and cancel projects which aren’t the main priority. This is why it’s so important to have a strong company culture so people don’t lose morale when difficult decisions like layoffs or cancelled projects have to be made. A strong culture is like a shock absorber – it helps the team to stick together despite the bumps in the road.