Serena Williams is used to getting Grand Slams on the tennis court — her 23 major singles titles outrank every man or woman to ever play the sport, other than the legendary Margaret Court. But having dominated tennis for decades, Williams is turning to business, having just raised $100 million for her new venture capital fund, Serena Ventures.
Now she’s looking for her first grand slam investment, and she may have just found it in supply chain management company Calico. On Tuesday, the Toronto-based startup announced that it had secured $2.1 million from Serena Ventures to scale its supplier platform and factory network and expand its customer base.
“I have experienced the exact problem Calico is solving and have rarely come across a business as in tune with the industry’s challenges and limitations as Calico,” the tennis legend stated. “It’s a category-defining product that will have an outsized impact on retail, and there couldn’t be a more critical time to help them succeed.”
The funding comes on the heels of sharp growth for the fledgling company, which was founded in October 2020 at the height of the pandemic. The company has seen 300% growth since January, and its customers range from multimillion dollar retailers to SMB brands in the jewelry and apparel industry.
Other investors in the funding round include Maple VC, Inovia Capital, Hyphen Capital and a group of early Shopify employees.
“We offer an all-in-one system for you to manage your product development, your supplier management, your order management and your reporting analytics, as well as tack on a factory network for you to scale up any new product lines in a fraction of the time that you would normally,” Kathleen Chan, founder and CEO of Calico, told Modern Shipper.
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Chan and Calico work with many brands that have yet to establish themselves in the apparel space, helping them gain access to a network of factory partners. According to Chan, there are plenty of factories out there, but for companies that don’t already have a robust supplier network, finding a good fit isn’t easy.
“It’s not even just about finding factories. Finding great ones, ones that do fantastic, phenomenal work, those are really hard to find — they’re not on your Alibabas. They’re really hard to Google,” she explained.
At the same time, small businesses in particular have taken a hit to their buying power, with many factories beginning to feel uncomfortable offering net terms, which are payments to be completed by a set future date. For example, net 30 would mean that the buyer has 30 days to pay for the shipment.
“Maybe you had net 30 terms before and you could afford to have a larger production,” Chan said. “But now that you pay things a little bit more upfront, you can’t.”
What’s more, the companies Calico works with are predominantly in the jewelry and apparel space, which faces its own specific supply chain challenges.
“The sweater you’re wearing right now didn’t start off looking like that,” Chan explained. “It’s a very iterative process — you have multiple prototypes in multiple styles, multiple colors. And this process is done very manually.”
With all of the variables and obstacles facing small businesses and apparel companies, sticking with one supplier simply doesn’t cut it. Growing brands today need to leverage several suppliers to ensure that their product makes it to the customer — which is where Calico comes in.
Typically, the back end of a brand runs amok with emails, spreadsheets and fragmented manual communications, both internally and between the company and its partners. Calico is all about trimming that fat.
“It’s very, very opaque as a process. So what Calico does is we remove all of those fragmented tools and put in one dedicated workspace for you to work with your factories,” Chan told Modern Shipper. “We have an easy-to-use product database that is intelligent — it updates your SKUs and your product as it develops through time.”
With Calico’s automated platform, brands can more accurately forecast product arrivals and assess inventory levels. The platform also houses an order management portal accessible by both the brand and the supplier, allowing them to see every transaction that takes place on one screen, even across multiple different factories.
But one of the biggest ways Calico sets itself apart is through its proprietary factory network, which Chan built from the ground up. Having worked with procurement partners in past roles with other brands, she leveraged those relationships into the first inklings of a supplier network, using that nucleus as a starting point to create a massive web of facilities around the world.
Chan emphasized that the company is extremely selective when evaluating factory partners, grading them on a multipoint scorecard that takes into account certifications, product quality and workers’ rights, among other metrics.
“That’s a bit of our secret sauce,” she said. “It’s very, very much one of those things where it’s not a wide-open network. We vet very thoroughly. We have very deep conversations with our factories. We want to know them.”
The funding from Serena Ventures marks Calico’s first major investment from a venture capital firm. According to Chan, that money will be used to continue building out the company’s platform based on customer feedback, as well as to drive further customer acquisition.
“I only see this growing, especially with how ecommerce and retail are trending. It’s now easier than before for you to start a brand and grow it to something massive,” she asserted. “And therefore I think a solution like ours is very much needed as these brands become the next Allbirds, the next Glossiers of the world.”