• With $150 Million in Fresh Funding, Can the Amazon of Russia Deliver?

    maelle-gavetDipping into a flourless cake at a French bistro in San Francisco, Maelle Gavet has reason to be in a celebratory mood. The French-born CEO of Ozon, considered the Amazon of Russia, has in the last few weeks sealed up $150 million in fresh backing from investors — money that helped Ozon secure a minority stake last week in LitRes, the leader in Russia’s small but fast-growing e-book market.

    The achievements aren’t minor for the company, which Gavet has been leading for the last three years, after a Boston Consulting Group job led her to it. Founded in 1998 as an online bookstore, Ozon had barely issued a press release about its first $3 million round, from the Moscow-based PE firm Baring Vostock, when the dot.com industry imploded. Over the next decade, the company churned through employees, including CEOs, managing to survive but barely until Index Ventures stepped in to lead an $18 million round in the company in 2007. It gave Ozon a needed lifeline. But Ozon has really begun to click on Gavet’s watch.

    Gavet’s biggest, and likely smartest, gamble to date has been to invest heavily in Ozon’s own private shipping company, O-Courier, which is making it possible not only for Ozon to fulfill its orders but also to serve as a back-end provider for a growing number of third parties that now rely on its increasingly sophisticated logistics network to deliver their own goods.

    She has also been pouring resources into other subsidiaries, including a travel business, Ozon.travel; a shoe business à la Zappos called Sapato.ru; and Ozon Solutions, which offers turnkey solutions to brands that want to sell online but don’t want to pull together retail storefronts themselves.

    Ozon, which employs 2,300, is far from profitable because of how much it’s investing in growth. But with roughly half of Russia’s 140 million inhabitants now online, and 20 percent of those 70 million shopping online, the company’s efforts are beginning to pay off. Last year, revenue hit $750 million, up from roughly $500 million in 2012 (which was itself up from $165 million in 2010).

    Of course, Ozon still has its share of obstacles, some of which must seem insurmountable to American investors, who passed on Ozon’s newest round of funding. Ozon’s newest backers instead are Sistema and Mobile TeleSystems, two of Russia’s largest publicly traded holding companies, which invested in Ozon last month at a $700 million valuation. (They now own a 20 percent stake in the business.)

    Not only are there the obvious geographic, cultural, and economic challenges to navigate (enormous country, terrible roads, cash culture, fewer people than Nigeria and a relatively tiny urban elite with money to spend), but business is utterly entangled with politics, too.

    There’s the Ukranian crisis, for one thing, a situation that Gavet says has impacted Ozon indirectly but meaningfully. First, the Russian ruble devalued fairly quickly, making its import contracts far more expensive. Worried banks proceeded to cut customers’ credit lines, and “with retailers everywhere,” notes Gavet, “a lot of your working capital is through credit lines with the banks.” Soon, some European and American investors who Ozon had been talking with about its fundraising “stopped returning our calls,” Gavet tells me with a shrug.

    There’s also the little problem of Pavel Durov, the country’s most visible Internet founder, who just fled the country because of the Kremlin’s steady inroads into the ownership of his company, VKontakte, Russia’s leading social network. How could investors not worry that some oligarch will steal her company, too, I ask her over lunch.

    “If you look at Yandex [the Russia-based search engine that went public in 2011 on Nasdaq], it’s doing fine,” she says. The Russian Internet company Mail.ru., which went public on the London Stock Exchange in 2010, “is also doing fine. You have a lot of American investors in both of these companies,” she adds, noting that Ozon’s earlier shareholders include some U.S. investors, as well, including Cisco and Intel. (Ozon has raised $271 million altogether, including a $100 million round led by Japan’s Rakuten in 2011.)

    “You can always [hypothesize] over whether the government is going to be interested at some point. But if you look at the facts, there is no issue,” she says. “I do think there are industries that are considered to be strategic by any government; I’m not sure that online retail has ever been one of them,” she adds with a laugh.

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