Start-ups are raising hundreds of millions of dollars to acquire the top independent sellers on the Amazon Marketplace, creating a gold rush to “roll up” these mostly small businesses into larger entities that have better resources and can pour money into growth.
Competition to acquire these Amazon sellers has gotten so fierce that one player, Acquco, is giving away a Tesla Model Y to anyone who refers a seller that the company ends up buying.
Acquco, founded last year by Raunak Nirmal, has representatives at the annual Prosper Show this week in Las Vegas, where Amazon sellers convene to network and share tips. The company is handing out t-shirts and flyers that say, “Refer a Seller, get a Tesla.”
Nirmal said in an interview that as of Thursday the company had received about 200 referrals in a little over 24 hours since starting the program and launching the promotional web page. He said the company is willing to give away up to $10 million worth of Model Ys, which retail for a starting price of around $50,000.
“There are two options for rewards,” the web page says. “You can either get a Tesla — you will have $49,990 to put towards a Tesla model of your choice. Alternatively, you can choose to take the cash directly!”
The reward should be received within 45 days of the closing of the acquisition, the site says, and the recipient will owe income tax on the car or the cash.
The red-hot market for Amazon resellers
Much of Amazon’s dominance in e-commerce has come from its third-party marketplace, which is filled with millions of independent sellers who use the company’s logistics services, shipping, fulfillment centers and mammoth customer base to reach buyers.
Growing a business on Amazon has become increasingly complex in recent years due to a surge in Chinese counterfeits and other bad actors who set out to manipulate reviews and get rivals shut down. Aggregators are using those challenges as an opportunity to buy up promising products and storefronts, while using their scale and operational experience to clean up the marketplace for consumers.
Acquco has raised over $165 million in equity and debt to buy Amazon marketplace retailers, building a business with close to $200 million in revenue from those entities. It’s one of the busiest corners of the start-up market, as companies like Thrasio, which ranked 22nd on the 2021 CNBC Disruptor 50 list, along with Perch, Heyday, Branded and Boosted Commerce have raked in billions of dollars combined to pull together businesses that have grown up on Amazon.
Nirmal said the top sellers are so inundated with pitches that it’s difficult to get meetings with them.
“As a seller, when you get a message from someone about acquiring your business, you think of it as spam and go about your day,” said Nirmal, who previously spent over a year in Amazon’s marketplace business and also started his own brands and consulting businesses. “This is a unique opportunity to connect with friends, family and people that surround the sellers.”
While Nirmal didn’t attend the Prosper show, he sent a few of his 60 full-time employees, including the head of sales, to network and meet sellers. Acquco also had some contractors distributing flyers and handing out merchandise.
Rivals Thrasio, Heyday and Perch had an even bigger presence at the show, as they were paid exhibitors with floor space and some speaking slots, according to Prosper’s website. It’s a big change from the last conference in 2019, when the rollup market was in its infancy. Thrasio was founded in 2018 and others followed over the next couple years.
Total attendance at Prosper appears to be up about 15% to 20% over the last in-person show in 2019, which attracted over 1,500 people, a conference representative said. The show began on Tuesday and wraps up on Thursday.
How to lure sellers
Casey Gauss, a vice president at Thrasio, attended the show as part of his company’s contingent. He told CNBC that he joined in April 2020 as employee number 26, and that the last time he checked last week, the company had a workforce of 930.
Thrasio has raised $1.75 billion, the most of any company in the space. While it’s not giving away Teslas, the company did host a pricey party Wednesday night at the Bellagio Hotel, called “Feast by the Fountains,” referring to the resort’s outdoor fountain show. Gauss said he expected about 180 people.
“Feast by The Fountains will offer 5-star American cuisine and an open bar of top shelf cocktails inspired by the top supper clubs around the world,” the website for the event said.
Gauss said that the topic of aggregators has been front and center at the show and that companies have to find clever ways to meet sellers.
“We tried to throw a nice event to allow high-end networking,” he said. “It’s a good opportunity, not only for us to hang out with prospective sellers that may want to sell to us and people that have sold to us. But also, we’re pretty intentional about just building good relationships in the community.”
For Acquco, this year’s Prosper is its first big event. The company said it’s trying to get its name out to more people — and the Tesla giveaway program is a way to make a splash.
David Lam, the company’s vice president of growth strategy, said he’s been working with Tesla’s enterprise sales team on the program. The start-up did not get reduced pricing on the Model Ys, but he expects that once the program reaches about 20 cars, a discount will kick in, and then perhaps a steeper discount at the 50th sale.
Tesla giveaways have become more commonplace among non-profits as a way to raise money and give people a chance to win through online raffles. The overall popularity of the cars is the main reason Tesla says it’s able to keep down marketing, promotional and advertising costs, which were “immaterial” over the past three years, according to its latest annual report.
Acquco says in the giveaway material that it accepts leads for businesses with at least $500,000 in revenue but Nirmal expects to generally buy sellers that have topped $1 million. Nirmal won’t say how many acquisitions he’s completed to date, but said that three deals have been signed this week that will bring in about $40 million in revenue. Those all came prior to the Tesla giveaway.
Nirmal said Acquco started marketing the program at Prosper and will continue this week with ads across social platforms and Google as well as through influencers.
“If there’s a business that looks good and fits into our partner profile, we want to give away these Teslas,” Nirmal said.
— CNBC’s Katie Schoolov and Lora Kolodny contributed to this report.