Checkout Startup Bolt Raises $65 Million to Help Smaller Retailers Take On Amazon

Bolt, an online checkout startup that publicly debuted in January of 2018, announced today that it has successfully raised $65 million in new funding, at an undisclosed valuation. The new round is co-led by Activant Capital (Boxed, Forter) and Tribe Capital, and includes personal investments from current and former leaders at retailers including Allbirds, Bombas, and Jet.com. The investments bring Bolt’s total funding to $90 million.

Bolt’s goals are about as grandiose as they get in the picks-and-shovels world of business services: the startup wants to provide a one-stop checkout software package for independent retailers, and in the process, give them a fighting chance against the behemoth known as Amazon.

According to Ryan Breslow, Bolt’s CEO and co-founder, Amazon has “spent hundreds of millions of dollars perfecting the flow” of the site’s buying experience. That faster checkout “flow” can encourage shoppers to spend more. In a 2017 study, for instance, the digital infrastructure firm Akamai found that websites that were just 1/10th of a second slower than competitors’ saw the conversion rate—the rate at which site visitors actually made a purchase—drop by 7%. Online retail is particularly brutal at the point of checkout, with as many as 80% of shoppers simply abandoning their carts before paying.

But it’s nearly impossible for smaller sites to achieve Amazon’s degree of refinement, and Bolt says it wants to change that equation by making speedy checkout accessible for smaller online sellers. Breslow says Bolt, which combines a checkout interface with fraud detection and payment services, has cut average checkout times on its customers’ sites nearly in half, from around a minute to just over 30 seconds.

According to Breslow, much of that time saving comes from Bolt’s integrated fraud detection, which uses behavioral cues like mouse movements to make sure a customer is who they say they are. Bolt’s system cuts time normally spent sending data to a third party, and also saves shoppers work filling in fields, such as their billing address, which are mostly there to help spot fraud but which Bolt omits.

Bolt has good enough anti-fraud results that it offers to cover the cost of any fraud that does get through (in exchange for a flat monthly fee), while also approving many transactions that other systems might have blocked. Many retailers using Bolt have reported big improvements in conversion rates, with more digital window-shoppers actually buying something, apparently thanks to Bolt’s greater convenience at checkout. Breslow describes Bolt as a “premium product,” as it’s more expensive on a per-transaction basis than some competitors’ products. But by reclaiming otherwise lost transactions, the company argues its customers often come out ahead.

A Tough Road Ahead

Bolt says it has now passed $1 billion in annualized payment processing volume, has conducted more than 1.5 million transactions, and has more than 100 customers, including boutique clothing retailers like skatewear brand Huf Worldwide and furniture-maker Polywood. Those numbers are still small compared to competitors like Shopify, which itself caters to smaller online retailers. Shopify claims $100 billion in sales since its 2004 founding.

But Bolt thinks it has found a unique niche with what Breslow calls its “checkout platform.” That’s in contrast, on the one hand, to Venmo or Stripe, which focus largely on moving money; and on the other, to full-service e-commerce platforms like BigCommerce or Shopify, whose kitchen-sink approach folds in everything from website design to online marketing tools. Bolt wants to be the Goldilocks of online retail: not too small to capture efficiencies, but not so big it locks users into a vast ecosystem. Breslow acknowledges there’s “minor feature overlap” with the big e-commerce platforms and payments providers, but says he sees them as potential partners. “We’re excited to work with them.”

Bolt has already integrated with many services, and will add PayPal as a payment option this year, but the idea that they’re not competitors might not be realistic. PayPal in particular parallels many of Bolt’s features, such as user accounts that hold shipping, billing, and bank information, enabling a one- or two-click checkout flow. That has an impressive impact on conversion rates, and shoppers choosing PayPal as their payment method complete a purchase 82% more often than the average for non-PayPal methods—in the same range as the improvements Bolt reports. Some stores using Bolt already place its payment button right next to PayPal’s.

E-commerce checkout and payments has become a fiercely competitive field, with Apple and Google now in the fray. Entering at this point is “a really, really difficult thing to do,” according to Mike Dudas, former head of mobile business development at Braintree/Venmo, and cofounder of mobile payments startup Button. Dudas is also skeptical of Bolt’s claim to have exceptional fraud detection, pointing out that training fraud-prevention systems depends mostly on data at a scale Bolt just doesn’t have yet. Breslow acknowledges that Bolt doesn’t have the same breadth of data as a giant like Visa, but says its more granular and behavior-based approach allows it to get similar or better fraud-detection results.

The difficulty of Bolt’s mission may be counterbalanced, in investors’ eyes, by a scenario where the payoff is even bigger than Bolt becoming the next PayPal. On top of faster checkout, Breslow says Bolt wants to offer independent sellers some elements of Amazon-like product discovery, driven by shopper data shared among what he refers to as a “user network.” Amazon is able to sell more to customers by making suggestions based on prior purchases, but it’s currently difficult for smaller retailers to replicate or leverage those insights. “Some of these merchants are seeing customers maybe once a year,” says Greg Greiner, Bolt’s Head of Product and the former head of Uber’s business travel product.

Making those smaller shops part of a network that mimicked Amazon’s discovery mechanism would in turn be a major incentive for more customers to come on board, potentially turning Bolt into a data aggregator for every non-Amazon retailer on the internet. Even in the incredibly crowded and challenging world of e-commerce services, that distant dream appears to be enough to get some big-money optimists on board.