story and photo by Kim Souza
What do you get when cross an advanced degreed physicist/computer scientist with a serial entrepreneur who spent time in sales at Dell and Oracle? A committed team with insightful ideas and dogged determination.
Suffice it to say there is no shortage of talent or ideas with the team of Mark Brandon and Sloan Ahrens of StackSearch Inc. This start-up is based in Fayetteville and is one of the 15 teams selected from 86 entries in the Ark Challenge competition, a 14-week period where entrepreneurial teams work to bring their ideas and tech products to a scalable phase.
Brandon said StackSearch is an enterprise software company that has invented a product search server that is scalable and powered by the Cloud. It helps e-commerce merchants create a better search experience for their products onsite, which has a demonstrable effect on conversions – turning browsers into buyers.
Time spent and number of visitors online are precious commodities for e-commerce sites but even the most successful online retailers have only a 5% conversion rate, according to Brandon. That means 95% of the visitors abandon the site without making a purchase.
StackSearch hopes to improve those metrics for small to medium-size retailers who need help achieving better conversion rates through more user-friendly and better filtered searchable sites.
Brandon and Ahrens are beta testing their product with a number of small retailers ahead of the Nov. 8 Ark Challenge Demo Day. They are also consulting with other companies who have expressed a need for more optimal online sites.
“It’s a well-known phenomenon that consumers faced with too many options will often give up and walk away. That is true in a brick and mortar store but even more so online. Our software interfaces with a retailer’s database and we help them better display a catalog of products online through filtered searches,” Brandon said.
The target market for StackSearch are e-commerce retailers with sales under $50 million annually because they would most often have to rely on boxed products from Microsoft, Google or Oracle.
Brandon said those products start somewhere in the mid 5-figures which can be cost prohibitive for small retailers wanting to tap into more online sales.
“We are subscription-based and affordable with quantifiable results,” Brandon said. “The subscription rate starts at $149 and goes to $1,000 per month depending on the number of products and querries.”
Ahrens built the system software for StackSearch and Brandon’s selling it.
In just two minutes, Brandon took take two lines of code, created an application and launched a demo store on Facebook with the team’s software. He used a product database from Best Buy, which is made available to software developers.
Ahrens earned a master’s degree in physics at the University of Arkansas with a minor in computer science. He spent around 10 years as software engineer contracting with various companies before teaming up with Brandon last year.
Brandon has a master's degree from University of Texas and he spent a number of years in Austin working that tech scene in sales and software development. He relocated to Fayetteville two years ago when his wife took a job in the Wal-Mart vendor community.
At heart Brandon says he’s a serial entrepreneur and StackSearch is his third venture. His first start-up was a financial clearing platform that he developed and sold in December 1999. He said the second venture failed in 2007 and StackSearch morphed out of another idea last year.
Jeff Amerine, technology licensing officer and adjunct professor for entrepreneurship at the University of Arkansas, said StackSearch is a veteran team with a timely product that could help companies raise the bar on their online sales.
E-commerce is the next frontier for retailers of all sizes, it will define the way future generations shop for everything from pet food to consumables and hard lines in the years to come, according to analysts like Carol Spiekerman of NewMarketBuilders in Bentonville.
Spiekerman said retailers creating the best search experiences will reap the greatest rewards.
Just up the road from Fayetteville, the world’s largest retailer is flexing its online muscles with a new search engine built inhouse by @WalmartLabs. The intuitive search engine dubbed “Polaris” has already boosted sales among 10% to 15% of the e-commerce shoppers who have used it, the company said Sept. 3.
Brandon says companies don’t have to be the size of Wal-Mart to enjoy better online sales if they have the right system in place to simplify and create an efficient searchable experience for the customers browsing their site.