Childhood pals Jon Polin, left, and Richard Demb immigrated to Israel and put their marketing background to good use.
If you’re hankering for a gluten-free kosher granola bar that comes in recycled packaging, you’ll have a hard time finding such a specific product on a site like Amazon.com. Not so at Abe’s Market, which has just launched a new feature that lets you filter through 220 similar “qualities” to land just the natural or organic goods you’re looking for.
You can find peanut-free, pesticide-free and petroleum-free commodities with the click of a button. Or make sure you’re only buying stuff that’s high in fiber and “Full of Omega 6’s,” as one of the new options reads.
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Abe would have been proud.
Abe, in this case, is Abe’s Market president and co-founder Jon Polin’s grandfather, who ran a pharmacy in Chicago and prided himself on personal, local service while promoting health and wellness solutions for his customers. The younger Polin believes that the same experience can be replicated and broadened by using the latest technology.
He seems to be on to something. There are now 11,000 products from more than 1,000 vendors available on Abe’s Market, up from only 50 when the site launched three years ago. Moreover, the company last month closed a $5 million investment, ensuring that consumers for whom fair trade and “BPH-free” are important qualities will have many years of continued organic and natural shopping ahead.
Polin founded Abe’s Market in 2009 with fellow immigrant to Israel and childhood friend Richard Demb. Both have significant marketing backgrounds. Demb, a former investment banker, founded Dale and Thomas Popcorn, which now does some $90 million in sales a year. Polin built consumer marketing campaigns at Capital One and Clorox (the Glad trash bag with the odor shield – that was his).
Polin came to Israel in 1998 with a job at high-flying Israeli beverage manufacturer SodaStream. But, like many immigrants before him, he was bitten by the innovator’s itch.
Starting his own company was “something that always loomed in the back of my head,” he says. “But it was the culture in Israel that pushed me to do it. There’s a way that Israel embraces the entrepreneurial spirit, it feels very natural to do something like this here.” Indeed, rather than warning about risk, “here people say, ‘Yes, I’ve done that too.’”
Israeli brands, too
Abe’s Market, at first glance, doesn’t seem that much different than your standard e-commerce site – there are products, descriptions, reviews and a shopping cart. But the company places a special emphasis on the personal stories of its small- to medium-sized sellers, each of whom gets a page to tout its wares.
“We’re not building a commodity products business,” Polin explains. “We’re building a lifestyle business.”
Polin points to a few brands that he loves. There’s Little Duck Organics, created by a father who wanted to make healthy snacks his own kids would actually enjoy eating. And Montezuma’s Chocolates, one of Abe’s Market’s few non-US sellers, a hot organic chocolate company from the UK.
There are even a couple of Israeli organic firms on the site, such as Wisey, which makes natural and stylish diaper bags and other products for eco-conscious parents.
Not everyone who wants to gets to sell on Abe’s Market. “We have a pretty high bar of who we approve,” Polin says.
That includes everything from how Abe’s defines the terms “natural” and “organic” to the quality of the packaging. The true test? “We try every product to see if it’s good and if we’re comfortable.”
Buyers seem to love it. “I’ve never gotten so many emails with smiley face emoticons as I get since I started Abe’s Market,” Polin beams.
Abe’s Market is not just high-fives and pats on the back, though; this is a serious business, doing some $3 million in sales a year and growing over 100% annually. Whole Foods Market, the brick-and-mortar leader, does over $10 billion in sales in its 300 stores. But Whole Foods does not sell online, which has left the playing field open for upstarts like Abe’s to swoop in and grab market share. The natural and organic products industry as a whole (including dietary supplements) is worth nearly $91 billion, according to Natural Foods Merchandiser.
Passionate about Abe’s
Consumers are passionate about Abe’s Market. Polin describes them as “a tribe” who become company advocates. They also return to buy more. Polin estimates that once consumers (most are women 30-49) have bought from Abe’s at least twice, they become regular customers.
Abe’s Market’s new investment was led by Carmel Ventures and included participation by OurCrowd, the new crowd-funding site for Israeli startups. The company now includes a staff of 23 – including 13 in the United States, where Polin’s partner Demb has, in an awkward twist of the immigration story, relocated to head the company headquarters. R&D remains in Jerusalem.
The major heavy lifting for Abe’s Market is on the backend, Polin says. That includes all of the distribution, paying sellers electronically and creating a web interface that is enticing for both sellers and buyers. There’s no fee to sell on Abe’s Market; the company takes a cut on sales, which ranges from 15-40 percent, depending on whether Abe’s or the seller is doing the warehousing and shipping.
Polin never met the real Abe, but stories about his grandfather have circulated through his household – and now his company.
“He was a classic corner-store neighborhood business,” Polin says. “He knew every customer by name. We want to create that feeling of walking into a local store. We’re always available by phone, chat or email. Our question-and-answer feature allows shoppers to ask questions of sellers directly.”
And what would Abe say to his grandson if he met him online now? “He’d be schepping nachas,” Polin says, using a Yiddish term for parental pride.