The most interesting piece of news last week was that Buzzfeed is formally launching a commerce lab. Named Buzzfeed Product Lab, and led by Ben Kaufman, the former founder of Quirky, the goal is to bring the Buzzfeed mentality—and its massive reach—to consumer products. From the Fortune article about the initiative:
Kaufman met with BuzzFeed CEO Jonah Peretti to discuss the ways the e-commerce industry might evolve. “Ben was trying to create this idea of products that inspire people, that they want to share, that gives them a way to connect with their friends, and it was a BuzzFeed-y way of thinking about commerce,” Peretti tells Fortune.... “My hope for BuzzFeed Product Lab is Ben, who has learned more through all of the ups and downs of Quirky [his previous startup that tanked] … can take all that knowledge and combine it with the reach and distribution of BuzzFeed and invent the way product development, distribution and marketing should work in the future,” he says.
So far, there are a handful of products in the wild. First is Homesick Candles, which are $30 candles that smell like one's home state, meant to quell homesickness as the name implies. Next is the Fondoodler, a $25 "hot glue gun" for cheese, allowing the proud owner to easily make cheese malleable for an endless number of applications. Then, there's the Tasty Cookbook, which takes the top recipes from Tasty, Buzzfeed's wildly popular silent cooking videos, and allows the buyer to personalize the book and get a free apron along the way. Next, the team is opening up a retail shop called Homesick for the Holidays to test out candles and other retail concepts for the holiday season. And finally, there is a website launching in December called FuckShitShop.com that will feature products that are “all fuck-and shit-related.”
All of these products are toys, and that is likely the point. Many good products and ventures started off as silly toys. This might evolve, but I would also bet many of these products will remain toys, which fits into the Buzzfeed world. The branding on the websites is vibrant and bold, arguably the best-designed graphics I've ever seen from Buzzfeed. Brand matters with consumer products, and the team seems to be spot on.
These products are a testament to the modern commerce stack that allows anyone, including Buzzfeed, to easily spin up brands and products. For the commerce part, Shopify powers three of the websites listed above (Homesick, Tasty, FuckShitShop.com) while Tilt powers the Fondoodler, allowing it to take pre-orders with no inventory risk. Buzzfeed will likely use a modern logistics and fulfillment stack, along the lines of Fulfilled by Amazon or another third-party logistics company. For the Tasty Cookbook, the company holds no inventory since each one is made to order, further de-risking the product. This means that Buzzfeed can effortlessly spin up and wind down products as needed. This allows the company to focus on making the best products since many of the burdensome aspects of commerce and supply chain are abstracted away.
But this is only the beginning of Products Labs' toolkit. Most importantly, it has access to Buzzfeed's entire audience and distribution engine. Simply put, this means hundreds of millions of people a year. But even more than that, it has the tools that allowed Buzzfeed to build this audience, such as headline optimization and virality equations which gives Product Labs the gasoline it needs turn what are would be good products into a commerce-driven contagion. This viral toolkit is the not-so-secret weapon that will likely be the key to Product Labs' success.
This approach is reminiscent of Amazon's own retail play, where it uses its unparalleled data backbone to put the right products in front of the right people. Commerce is always a supply and demand problem, and anything to put these two factors closer to equilibrium is crucial. Buzzfeed's content toolkit is basically the same thing. It gives the company the ability to drill down on what people like and share, and then put it in front of as many people as possible. This certainly applies to commerce, and is arguably what the industry is most in need of in an age still plagued by endless markdowns. The Netflix-like approach is slowly coming to commerce.
This all gives Product Labs the runway to focus on building the best products and spend less time on back office details. Focus is the benefit of abstraction. With this leeway, the team can keep learning about what works, since making products is very learnable. It often just takes time, but Buzzfeed's toolkit and reach significantly speed up this process.
Product Labs' early moves should put a dent in the debate about selling things online versus offline. Golden Rules are a waste. It's much better to build the right channels for the desired experience. Homesick Candles launched online but there's now a popup shop. This makes perfect sense, since people likely buy more candles if they can smell them. There's also no limit on selling direct versus wholesale, or finding a different deal structure. The Fondoodler, for example, is a license, and I would fully expect Buzzfeed to pursue different channels according to the product's needs. This continues to prove that customer-centric manifestations always beat channel-centric ones.
Finally, the mere existence of Product Labs is evidence that the lines continue to blur between industries. Media, commerce, and technology are all blending together, unlocking possibilities that couldn't have existed in a channel-obsessed world. Buzzfeed already started promoting its products in articles and listicles on its namesake site, alongside the popup and whatever else is to come. It's increasingly clear that media, commerce and technology are almost entirely additive, and there's no better company than Buzzfeed to thrive at this intersection.