Founder Stories

"Building the Microsoft for e-commerce”: Shop Circle’s founders on raising $65m for their e-commerce operator in stealth mode

Founder Stories

"Building the Microsoft for e-commerce”: Shop Circle’s founders on raising $65m for their e-commerce operator in stealth mode

October 24th 2022 / 8 min read

Words: Luca Cartechini & Gian Maria Gramondi

Successes of great businesses come at inflection points in history. As commerce has moved online, many businesses efficiently empowering this transition have reaped the rewards. 

In the last few years, Shopify has positioned itself as a central player in the e-commerce revolution, with more than 2 million stores using the proprietary ecommerce platform already. Last year they saw $4.6 billion in revenue—up 57% from the previous year. 

Tapping into this ecommerce wave was central to us launching Shop Circle. Earlier this year, we emerged from stealth mode, with a Microsoft equivalent for the ecommerce market. Empowering and supporting business owners with all the e-commerce software they need at their disposal.

We operate a suite of 26 products so far, we have 70,000 merchants using our tools, c. 100 people on our team, and $65 million raised so far from the likes of NFX, QED, firstminute capital, and 645 Ventures. 

Here’s some insight into what we’ve learned so far.

Lessons from operating in stealth mode

One of the earliest decisions we made as founders was to build Shop Circle in stealth mode. This means zero publicity, zero online presence, and no public announcements (except for close friends and family) about what we were working on. It turned out to be a good decision.

For one, it proved to be a huge asset to making early stage hires. We saw the excitement that we could generate around joining something that wasn’t public, and yet had a stellar team behind it, and was still raising a significant amount of capital. It also encouraged us to tell a really compelling story to new hires about our ambitions for the company, and where we saw it heading. Once people had joined, being in stealth mode really fostered a sense of belonging and camaraderie around what we were building. They were all aligned with our vision.

Secondly, it removed external distractions and allowed our team to focus on the things that really mattered. We weren’t worried about how decisions we made might be interpreted or reported in the press: we could remain totally focused on building the best organisation and the best suite of tools for our customers. Ultimately this has helped us find product-market fit and build a really solid set of foundations for us to scale. 

Finally, it enabled us to mentally stay away from the competition. We weren’t distracted by what our competitors were doing, or how they might react to our decisions, at least until we had reached a leading position in the space.   

Despite all its advantages, it’s not sustainable to stay in stealth mode forever.  We wanted our team to be able to shout about what we were doing, and what they had been working on all this time. There’s also a point where you reach a point of scale where not being in stealth mode is certainly more advantageous: particularly around customer acquisition, partnerships, and the acquisition of other apps. Given that we were working closely with merchants, it became important for us to build a brand, and the reputation and trust that comes with this. 

Having raised several rounds of funding, seeing significant traction across the business, and with a bleaker market than a year ago, we decided to emerge out of stealth mode in June 2021. 

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How we raised $65 million

Due to the nature of our business model, fundraising has been a key part of our journey. Luca’s experience in VC and e-commerce equity research stood us in good stead with the fundraising process: I had a good understanding of what investors looked for and which factors make the best companies stand out. Founders Factory gave us a strong platform to reach out to investors, beginning conversations, while providing very high level support during the fundraising process. There’s no doubt they helped start some of those conversations with top tier VCs who eventually invested—such as NFX and firstminute capital.

Some of the most valuable things we learned from fundraising:

  • In the early days, it’s all about the team—before you have any traction to show, especially if you are in stealth mode like us, then your team is of huge value. It’s not just saying, “There’s an opportunity we can make money from.” Going back to founder-market fit, investors want to put their money behind people that they know can build successful businesses

  • Build replicable processes—you need to be prepared to reach out to several investors during your journey. You can’t just try your luck: you need to have a process which can help you replicate and scale fundraising. This is valuable advice for scaling any part of a business really.

  • Know who are the right investors to approach—you can’t apply to every investor, so make sure you are applying to relevant investors for your business. Target funds who have invested in your space and can add value to your business. Be in the position to cherry pick the best investors for your business.

  • Ask for introductions where possible—always preferable than a cold outreach. Founders Factory helped significantly here.

  • Don’t take rejection personally—you’ve got to get used to the ‘no’s. Investors get hundreds of applications a month, so don’t be dismayed and prove them wrong over time.

Finding our founder-market fit

Since we met on the first day of our Master’s degree, we have always known we’d go into business together. For Shop Circle, we’ve built a strong competitive advantage for the business through our strong founder-market fit, which has no doubt contributed to our success so far. 

NFX’s James Currier lists four dimensions to founder-market fit:

1. Obsession

“Don’t start a company unless you can’t not do it… unless you can’t sleep at night and your brain is exploding with the idea.”

We’ve always known that we’ve got the determination to go the extra mile when it comes to running a business. This wasn’t something we’d do in our spare time, as a side hustle, but rather something that we wanted to commit ourselves to full time. We’ve always felt that we’ve had youth on our side too—we might not have the commitments and responsibilities that may restrict us from taking certain risks and wholeheartedly pursuing success. 

2. Founder story

“The Founder has to fit with the market, i.e. the customer, and vice versa. Customers have to identify with the Founder’s story and believe that there’s a compelling “why” inside the Founder”

For Gian—my experience in the e-commerce industry helped us build a product that was of genuine value to ecommerce merchants. My role at Amazon worked directly with brands across several categories in the marketplace, meaning I could closely identify the problems that merchants were facing, and how we could build a suite of tools that would support their businesses. 

For Luca—my perspective from the world of venture capital underlined that there was clear demand (and therefore an obvious market opportunity). I saw the growing trend in investment for e-commerce aggregators: companies who were buying up brands from platforms like Amazon. We saw an opportunity to build the first operator of tools for e-commerce brands,  presenting a suite of software to them to help them grow their business. 

3. Personality

Our complementary personalities have played a big part in our success. Luca’s personality leans towards the analytical and strategic: from my career in VC, I’ve always been quick to identify trends and see where long term opportunities are. Gian’s personality leans towards the practical: my consulting career showed me that the aspect of work I enjoyed the most was the execution side, the getting the job done. This is a key role as a founder: you’re the number one executor of decisions. 

4. Experience

While we’re relatively early in our careers compared to some founders, between us we’ve gained several years of experience across consulting, investing, and e-commerce. As earlier outlined, understanding the operator perspective in ecommerce, as well as the analytical approach to finding opportunities in the market, has brought Shop Circle to where it is today.  

Key milestones so far

  • March 2015: Luca and Gian meet during the first day of the Master’s program

  • January 2021: Idea arises to build the first operator of e-commerce software

  • April 2021: Shop Circle Ltd is incorporated

  • May 2021: first round of funding raised in 4 weeks

  • July 2021: first hire, CTO Stefano Nada directly from Shopify; Shop Circle joined Founders Factory Accelerator

  • September 2021: starts operating its first e-commerce product

  • December 2021: second round of funding raised

  • January-March 2022: Shop Circle adds 4 more products to its suite

  • May 2022: Gian & Luca named in Forbes 30 Under 30

  • June 2022: third round of funding raised & Shop Circle emerges from stealth mode

  • October 2022: Shop Circle operates 26 apps

Maintaining culture as you scale

Hiring is one of the most important things you have to do as a founder. Our team has been instrumental to our success. As founders, we only make up 2% of the team: the other 98% drive the day-to-day operations of the business and are responsible for what makes us great. So you have to invest time in hiring the best people for the job, people you can trust to make decisions on your behalf. 

We’ve scaled our team significantly in the past few years, now with 100 people across 22 different nationalities. One of our biggest lessons is bringing in a Head of HR/People earlier on. But we wanted to be the principal drivers and upholders of culture in our organisation.  Preserving culture as you scale is not easy, you have to have clearly defined values from the outset, if not, as early as possible. At Shop Circle, some of our values are:

  • Transparency—sharing the reality of things, both good and bad 

  • Being bold—brave in take decisions, especially if it's not the simplest path

  • Intrapreneurship—celebrating people taking initiative, appreciating that good ideas come from everywhere, and reflecting this in the career progression of stars

We’re confident in our current trajectory, that we’ll continue to scale over the next few years: into new geographies, growing our range of products, and putting our customers first, in everything we do. Holding these values at the core of the business will ensure that Shop Circle remains on track and grows into the business we envisioned from day one.

About Luca and Gian

Luca Cartechini is the CEO & co-founder of Shop Circle. He worked as an Equity Associate at Jefferies, and then in VC at Pretiosum Ventures, focusing on B2B companies Seed/Series A rounds. He’s also a professor at ESCP Business School, teaching various topics around entrepreneurship, digital transformation, and finance. 

Gian Maria Gramondi is the COO and co-founder at Shop Circle. He worked as a strategy consultant at Deloitte, before working at Amazon across several different roles in the marketing, advertising, and category management space.

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