July 26, 2012, 4:07 PM

A venture capital firm that funds startup e-retailers raises $40 million

Forerunner Ventures projects investing in 25 additional companies.

Don Davis

Editor in Chief

Lead Photo

Kirsten Green

Forerunner Ventures, a venture capital firm that has made early investments in such online retailers as Bonobos Inc. and Birchbox Inc., has put together a new $40 million fund, its first that’s attracted cash from institutional investors.

Forerunner initially projects making additional early-stage investments in as many as 25 companies, investing $250,000 to $500,000 in each, the company says. The fund will also enable it to make follow-on investments in companies in its portfolio, a spokeswoman says.

Since raising its first fund in 2010, Forerunner has invested in 21 companies, including apparel retailer Bonobos, No. 505 in the Internet Retailer the Second 500 Guide, No. 709 Birchbox, mobile hotel booking firm Hotels Tonight and StellaService, which ranks the customer service performance of online retailers.

Forerunner says it is focused on providing startup capital for retailers engaged in e-commerce, mobile commerce and social commerce, and on companies that provide them with enabling technologies. While not naming the institutional investors that provided the new funds, founder and managing partner Kirsten Green says they include university endowments, financial institutions and retail insiders.

Bonobos provides a good example of how the web allows a fledgling retailer to build a business without a lot of capital, Green says. “They had a clear value proposition: We are experts in pants,” Green says. “Once they understood a little more about who their customer was, how they were interacting with their product and finding them on the web, they had more confidence in what else they could sell that customer, and over time built out their line.” One sign of its success: Bonobos attracted $16 million in new capital in April, with lead investor Nordstrom Inc. announcing it would sell Bonobos apparel in its upscale department stores.

Green says it took much more capital for a retailer to get started back in the 1990s when she gained experience in retail as a securities analyst and money manager. “Back then, you couldn’t have started a store in a mall with just pants,” she says. And bricks-and-mortar retailers lacked the information web retailers have today about customer behavior apart from their purchases, she adds.

Green says she’s looking for companies aiming to build a brand online, and is intrigued by the possibility that those brands may eventually sell offline as well. “That’s an interesting way to launch a business that hasn’t been done before,” she says.

What’s not likely to succeed, she says, are companies selling unbranded, commodity products online. “We view every deal through the lens that product is king and the consumer is savvy,” she says. “Consumers are comparison shopping. Having a differentiated product that someone can't Google and find in five other spots is really an advantage.”

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