Can Bonsai Commerce Help Fuel a New Breed of Digital Platform?

By John Lustyan | 3 min read

By John Lustyan | @johnlustyan | 3 min read

Glossier started as a blog and is now valued at $1.2B. Food52 was founded by 2 food journalists from The New York Times, and is now making “most of their revenue” from commerce helping them to secured a $83M majority investment from The Chernin Group (investors in similar content x commerce peers Barstool Sports and MeatEater).

Of course, we could also take a much longer walk through the graveyard of defunct digital publishers with high potential, high valuations, and impressive investors. The point we want to illuminate today is that brands most suited to thrive in the modern retail economy synchronize media and commerce to own the entire consumer journey, from discovery to purchase. But understanding this, and even fully operationalizing that is not enough, and some may be too far gone. 

Enter Bonsai Commerce, the latest “leave no strategy untested” diversification dart throw for declining digital darlings Complex and BuzzFeed. While the young Canadian start-up Bonsai does bring an interesting and timely ecom toolkit to publishers (in short: turn key, white labeled ecom shops and widgets with an extensive affiliate-supported retailer / product catalog to choose from), these digital publishers deployment show a gap in commerce sophistication. 

As the former Head of Ecommerce for AwesomenessTV, DreamWorks and an exec, founder, advisor to many more I’ve succeeded and stumbled-forward through every facet of this space. A few observations of this emergent solution in practice.

  1. Unless You’re Amazon, Curation is King in Commerce. More can be less, and I believe Complex proves this with their relatively vast marketplace model @ Shop.Complex. Commerce in an admittedly overly simplified sense is breaking into 2 core shopper segments, (1) the saver and (2) the selectionist. Complex tries appealing to the both segments and in the end their value prop is muddled. If you have an incredible curatorial eye in-line with a distinct brand voice (Complex appears to/professes to), prove it consistently in every channel. Don’t just drop in the Amazon for Streetwear API
  2. Go to Market Positioning Matters. It’s a universal truth in retail that you can always start premium (where viable, sustained businesses with enduring brand elasticity live) and smartly cascade mass offerings down market. The opposite however is rarely, if ever true. Once you start mass (or worse in the muddled middle) very few can claim future marketshare upmarket, opting instead for an ultimate race to the bottom.
  3. Testing is Good. Good Testing is Better. I’ve always endorsed “ready, fire, aim” pilots, learning fast and iterating. But the test should be set up for success with hyper-focused theses centered around high-value audience segments in order to ensure that its products and services are relevant and valuable to its best customers. Complex does this well with Hot Ones. BuzzFeed has done it even better with Tasty. But in Bonsai, at least with Complex it appears to be spray and pray. While that will provide a vast range of data points that can be harnessed in alternative rev generation models – product development, branded content sales, etc – from the outside looking in, v1.0 looks to be the intended end state, and a missed opportunity.
  4. Editorial x Commerce Synchronization For the Win. BuzzFeed in many ways has pioneered this model with must-have recommendation listicles (“7 Must-Have Cucumber Masks That You Can Eat Afterward” – made this up, but honestly it could exist), that they quickly learned they could monetize via affiliate linking. For years now under the leadership of illum friend Nila Ali, Buzzfeed has tested and integrated increasingly successful editorial x commerce content strategies internally while also deepening external relationships direct with major retailers and via SMB platform gatekeepers like Shopify. Each step forward has helped them capture incremental share of the commerce value chain while minimizing the rising costs of traditional customer acquisition.

Miriam Webster’s Dictionary defines “bonzai attacks” from WW2 as  “an all-out usually desperate attack”. For many struggling digital publishers desperately fighting for their own lives, Bonsai Commerce seems to be the life raft of the moment. We’ll see numerous more publishers reach for it soon.