Sean Bovell, the CEO and founder of Invidica, is no stranger to the challenges of starting an ecommerce business. When he first entered the ecommerce startup space, there was this feeling of venturing out into the unknown, with no one there to really show him the way.
That meant many trials and tribulations that hindered the startup. From being unable to find vendors willing to sell to a new business, to being sold illegitimate products that ultimately lead to a shut down of his first business, Bovell faced several hurdles in following his own path in the ecommerce world.
Bovell faced further difficulties as a Black startup founder who dropped out of college; but none of this stopped him from building and scaling up an e-commerce company, generating over $800,000 in revenue while working out of his basement, and ultimately developing his successful e-commerce enablement platform, Invidica.
Instead of leaving other e-commerce dreamers to their own devices, Bovell wanted to help others find their way through an exciting but often difficult and sometimes spammy industry, providing guidance that wasn’t available when he was learning the ropes.
Invidica looks to solve a major e-commerce weakness
E-commerce is a big business. On Amazon, the No. 1 marketplace in the U.S. and a top marketplace globally, revenue from third-party seller services in Q3 of 2022 alone totaled $28.67 billion, up 18% year-over-year. In total, the top global marketplaces, like Amazon, eBay, Walmart, and Alibaba, sold $3.23 trillion in goods in 2021. But many of the resellers that operate on these platforms can be untrustworthy or provide a poor experience for the consumer.
That can make it difficult for new e-commerce resellers to enter the market. For Bovell, the hurdle was finding vendors who could trust him and whom he could trust. This is an issue for many people who may want to become e-commerce startup founders but can’t break into the space because of this weakness in the industry.
Invidica can help alleviate that distrust, making it easy to connect reputable brands and products to new founders.
The company name itself comes from the poem “Invictus” by William Ernest Henley, a favorite poem of Nelson Mandela. Invictus evokes a meaning of being unconquerable and unbeatable, which resonated with Bovell and his journey in e-commerce and entrepreneurship and many others who may face uncertainty and fear in building a startup.
Taking e-commerce enablement to the next level
There are services on the market where startups can build out an e-commerce website, but that’s about as far as it goes. So it was important to Bovell to take things further. Entrepreneurs can turn to Invidica to build their e-commerce presence, find reputable vendors, get the best deals on wholesale products, and even access funding.
Invidica helps founders by building on the backend of marketplaces. That means entrepreneurs can get first-hand experience with online selling right away, even if it’s their first time in e-commerce. The system has helped over 100 retail customers to sell products without having to handle or ship the products directly (meaning no need to stock boxes upon boxes in one’s basement as they build and scale their e-commerce business). Invidica quickly went from three to ten employees and has brought in over $5 million in revenues for its retail customers.
But an idea this disruptive and industry-changing needed a venture capital firm to help get it off the ground. When it came to finding just the right team to could support Bovell in innovating and improving the tech and e-commerce space, one company in particular was the answer.
500 Global – the right venture capital firm
Bovell faced hurdles in finding a venture capital firm to back his company, since so much of the conversations centered on who you know and where you studied. He needed a company that would support his innovative way of doing things.
500 Global is a venture capital firm with over $2.7 billion in assets under management. The company is focused on fast-growing, tech-focused startups and has a mission to empower talented founders around the world. They know the power of a brilliant idea and diverse thinking.
500 Global head of portfolio value, Vijay Rajendran
Bovell first heard of 500 Global while in college working at a startup called College Labor, through which he took on various gigs from catering to handling parking data. He then started working for a 500 Global mentor before he even knew that 500 was a venture capital firm. This was at the same time that he was learning more about e-commerce.
If at first you don’t succeed, try again
Bovell initially approached 500 Global in 2019 for a different business idea outside of Invidica, but 500 wasn’t convinced. That didn’t stop him from improving his business and trying again. It all came together as Bovell landed another meeting with 500 Global to share his plans for Invidica.
Leonard Lee, now Head of Accelerator Ops at 500 Global, first met Bovell when they were in a cohort together as founders in 500 Global’s startup program. Lee was an alumnus that Bovell had contacted through the program. That was the connection Bovell needed.
500 Global Head of Accelerator Ops, Leonard Lee
When Lee came to run the accelerator program at 500 Global, he was able to work with Bovell more closely on the business. Their goal was to explore Invidica’s most important and unique aspects to present to potential investors.
The partners at 500 sensed Invidica was a disruptive idea and moved Bovell forward in the program. In 2020, Invidica received a pre-seed funding round.
Now, with Bovell’s experiences and knowledge and the support from 500 Global, Invidica is seeing impressive growth. The company is expanding to 15 employees this spring and is growing at a rate of 100% year-over-year. Bovell expects to bring in over $30 million gross merchandise value for 2023.
Focusing on diversity
At 500 Global, the mission is about uplifting people by supporting entrepreneurship. Since its founding over ten years ago, 500 Global has been dedicated to diversity and continues to work toward moving the needle forward through its accelerator programs and investments .
“What sets us apart is that we believe talent is located everywhere,” said Vijay Rajendran, Head of Portfolio Value at 500 Global. “We do the work that we do by backing founders who are often from under-appreciated backgrounds or places in the world.”
This made a world of a difference for Bovell, who not only found a venture capital firm that could support his plans, but also created a network that he could turn to. Now, he had a community of diverse startup founders and even other venture capital firms to help him hone his storytelling, develop strong products, and build a reliable team.
“I’m proud to be part of the 500 family,” Bovell said. “Wherever I go in the space, I always bring up that I’m part of 500.”
Invidica’s success was important to Lee and 500 Global. Not only did Bovell have a disruptive idea that could help others, but the research is clear: diversity is key to high performance for venture capital firms and startups.
“In fact, there was a study done by McKinsey where they had seen very specifically that companies that were diverse at the executive levels outperformed their peers by 36%,” Lee said. “That is meaningful for both us, for investors, and for LPs [Limited Partners]. So everyone can get behind diversity and its impact on the bottom line.”
The road to his success with 500 was a bumpy one for Bovell. The young entrepreneur started his first company with some friends and just $2,000. But buying illegitimate goods from a scammy vendor got his company into hot water, and it ultimately shut down. Not only did Bovell lose the business and a lot of money, but he also had some friendships that crumbled in the process.
Losing money and a company from a bad business deal would leave a bad taste in anyone’s mouth, but Bovell didn’t let this sour his experience in e-commerce and entrepreneurship. In fact, he turned this experience around, putting a positive spin to make what some would consider failure into a lesson learned for next time.
“Even though we got in trouble, buying bad products or whatever the deal was, I was extremely focused on pushing through it, because I knew that this would work,” Bovell said. “That attitude, despite all of the issues that I’ve had, even with doing Invidica, has really pushed me through a lot of the struggles.”
With another $3,000 and the knowledge and skills he picked up along the way, he started another e-commerce company. While he was able to scale up, he found it difficult to find others who wanted to work with him due to the small size of the company. Bovell analyzed data from his reselling business and then created another brand with a partner from UC Berkeley, and together they built a brand with a top 1% product on Amazon, bringing in around $800,000 on Amazon’s selling platform alone.
Even more impressive? Bovell was doing this all just from his basement.
Bovell sold the brand to his partner, and took what he had learned from each of his e-commerce trials to help other people build their own brands, for free, while still selling goods online.
Big trials lead to even bigger triumphs
Given Bovell’s past challenges breaking into the industry, he knew he would have to work hard to find the right partners to propel his ideas forward.
Feats that would feel impossible to many people only furthered Bovell’s drive, and he wanted to take everything he went through to help others bypass those intense challenges. Bovell’s trials turned into his ultimate triumph: Invidica.
“After all the experiences of failing and succeeding, I was able to craft together what is Invidica today,” Bovell explained.
Building skills…and brands
As a Black startup founder, Bovell has felt that he needs to work ten times harder than others in the e-commerce startup space. Ever the optimist, though, he knew that this meant he would learn the skills and knowledge needed to build and scale a successful business even faster than his competitors.
Through trial and error, Bovell’s social and business skills began to flourish, and he also learned how to be budget-conscious and boost revenues long before funding was available to him. Once he found his footing, he knew he could share what he learned and help others skip all the headache and loss of trying to start an e-commerce business.
Now, he expects Invidica’s revenue to triple thanks to the savvy financial skills he learned along the way with the support from 500 Global.
Paving a path for diversity in tech startups
Bovell had to work extremely hard to access the knowledge and opportunities available to others in the tech startup space, which felt lonely for Bovell as he was finding his way. As a Black founder who dropped out of school, he felt like he didn’t fit into any of the molds of startup founders.
“Being a Black founder in tech, it’s pretty tough. One of the big things is really just learning all the jargon that goes into VC and the startup world,” Bovell said. “When I first came in, I didn’t really have a network. I owned my own company for 3 or 4 years, and despite going to school for engineering and math, I dropped out, so I didn’t really have the network that I probably would’ve had when I first graduated college. So I had to learn everything myself.”
The process was painful as he tried to get recognition after pouring himself into his work. Many times he was even “ghosted,” left without any responses as he pitched his startups.
The messaging is still misleading to this day, especially for Black founders. Bovell said that while many places express an interest in funding first-time founders, there is still this expectation for the founder to be of a certain pedigree with a specific type of work experience or educational background to receive support.
The tech startup industry could shift, changing its messaging to be more welcoming of companies from different backgrounds, Bovell advised. And rather than leaving people in the dark after sending their pitch decks, offering more guidance and explanation could help make the industry more diverse and supportive of Black founders.
Bovell is committed to helping with these shifts with Invidica, which provides the tools for new founders to get started in e-commerce while also learning more about funding and even offering access to financing for e-commerce startups.
Inviting others to seats at the table
Bovell has had an e-commerce business that failed, and successful startups that thrived. He’s channeled his knowledge into free classes for his community in Oakland. And he poured his learnings and passion into Invidica to help others succeed in e-commerce.
His dedication doesn’t stop there. Bovell advises other people from diverse backgrounds who may want to disrupt the tech startup space and bring fresh ideas to the table.
Bovell sharing his knowledge with other founders of color.
For Black founders that are really trying to get into tech, Bovell recommends exploring social media platforms to make those networking connections that some people may not have as they are getting started. Instead of focusing on asking for funding, unorthodox founders that might not fit the typical Silicon Valley mold should put efforts into sharing what makes their ideas stand out and asking for feedback.
“You need to get yourself out there and you need people to know who you are, what you’re working on,” Bovell advised. “Get that early feedback, so if something’s wrong with your project or you need to fix or expand something, you can get that support earlier.”
He also recommends reaching out to accelerators, like 500 Global, to get help in turning an idea into reality. From there, founders can improve their offerings, make connections, and ultimately get funding to build and scale their products and services.
Determination and perseverance are also key to breaking into the industry. Whether founders get rejections, experience failures, lack connections, or come across opposition, keeping their head up and working through the obstacles can make a difference.
“In the startup world, you’re going to run into people who just don’t like you. It could be from racial reasons, it can be your personality, the type of startup you’re working on, it can be anything,” Bovell said. “I don’t take a lot of things personally anymore. It’s just a matter of circumstance. It helps me just not get emotionally dragged down by all these things.”
A future of opportunities
As for the future, Bovell expects to see more e-commerce enablement platforms like Invidica in the space as marketplaces rely on third-party sellers to sell and distribute billions of dollars in goods and services. Invidica and other e-commerce enablement platforms will bring more diversity into the startup world and empower Black founders in tech.
Bovell will continue exploring his passions in e-commerce and biotech. Bovell is also connecting with other Black founders and investors and hopes to start angel investing and even open up his own venture capital firm in the coming years. In this way, he is living up to the meaning behind his company name: unbeatable!