Factrees’s tagline is “sourcing simplified.” Founder Keith Williams believes that Factrees, a searchable B2B channel partner networking platform, will change the way that manufacturers, manufacturers’ reps and distributors find one another, interact and grow.
Factrees wants to change channel dynamics for the better. I recently spoke with Williams, who has deep experience in B2B and B2C ecommerce, about his inspiration for the solution, and why the industry needs it right now.
Ian Heller: Tell us a bit about your background. How did it inspire the idea for Factrees?
Keith Williams: I’ve been in digital transformation for very large distributors and retailers for the last 20 years. I started with Home Depot and HD Supply, running ecommerce for them. I also ran the website for Petco.com for a couple of years. More recently, I was with Sonepar Group, which is the world’s largest electrical distributor, and ran ecommerce for them in the U.S. I left about two years ago to try to do something on my own.
I was doing research for another startup, and we were trying to find manufacturers to participate in a pilot for the restaurant foodservice industry. I reached out to some former colleagues and asked how I could get in front of certain manufacturers. They recommended going through manufacturer reps. I’d heard of these guys, but it’s kind of a behind-the-scenes world. So, I started researching foodservice manufacturer reps on Google and LinkedIn, and it was the most painful process. It seemed like all I could find were people and agencies who represented three lines, worked with three local distributors – and that was it.
If you take that situation and multiply it by all the different things you can rep, all the geographies, all the distributors, you end up with millions of permutations. On top of all that, they didn’t call themselves the same thing. The few websites I could find had limited information. I thought there had to be an index somewhere because it’s how the whole supply chain works. But there wasn’t, and that’s when the idea for Factrees began.
Heller: What are the challenges facing each of these groups: manufacturers, manufacturers’ reps and distributors?
Williams: Distributors need a more efficient way to find product lines. It’s a supply chain play. They need to find a new line, get a new product, expand their lines or find a replacement if they lose a vendor. This happens all the time. Typically speaking, all big manufacturers have direct relationships with distributors, but it’s not the same with small- to medium-sized manufacturers. A lot of times, if a distributor needs something and they can’t find it with a big manufacturer, they consult their networks and start calling people for referrals. When I heard that, I knew we were on to something with Factrees.
For manufacturers, it’s a sales issue. Finding reps to get them into these distributors is the currency in this business, and it’s painful. Reps want to grow, but it’s a reputation and word-of-mouth business. Manufacturers and reps typically use trade shows for their businesses, but the pandemic crippled them. Some rely on one or two trade shows to drive half their business for an entire year. It’s brutal.
Heller: How does Factrees helping these groups solve their challenges?
Williams: The supply chain crisis has been a major challenge for these groups. Distributors have products tied up at ports, and costs are going through the roof, so they’re scrambling to find nearshore alternatives to their critical items. We’ve shifted a lot of our messaging to help show the advantages of building this network, especially right now.
I’m taking a model that works and has changed the world – just look at Facebook and Twitter – and I’m pointing it at an underserved area. The problem we’re solving in these channel relationships is giving them access to one another. Even though they know they exist, finding each other is extremely difficult.
Evaluating each other is also impossible today without picking up the phone. You have to make calls and get referrals or opinions from others. Our platform is digitizing all of those relationships and making it very easy for them to search and do research within minutes – rather than days or weeks.
Heller: How does the platform work?
Williams: Factrees is a multi-sided marketplace model — a B2B networking platform — that allows manufacturers, the independent reps that represent them, and distributors and wholesalers to connect. LinkedIn is useful for growing your professional network, but if you’re trying to find somebody to rep your widget in South Carolina who also knows somebody at Grainger, you’ll never find them. We’re trying to bring all that information to one spot.
Factrees is based on company profiles. We wanted companies to find each other. Our profiles include the kind of information you gather from the traditional way of picking up the phone and having a conversation. This includes basic contact information and an interactive map that depicts the territory the rep covers. We also have a custom-built 10,000-category hierarchy of products. If it’s made or distributed, it’s represented. We built that category system over the last year. You can sort at a high level like hardware or go all the way down to nuts and bolts. Everything you click, we index so that you can refine your search. The goal is that if you check a box, and there’s a manufacturer that makes that specific product, and they’re looking for reps, you can connect.
We’re initially focusing on the construction industry. Several of our investors, as well as myself, have relationships and experience in the construction industry, but it also gets us into a lot of categories. It allows us to analyze where we’re getting traction with those categories so we can pivot to those that saturate searches – similar to what Amazon did. They started with books, then CDs, electronics and now everything. You can’t start with everything. We need to get a lot in a few categories to gain depth. But the platform works for anything, so if medical, which is rep-heavy, gravitates towards Factrees, then we’ll pivot and focus on that industry, too.
Heller: How does the business partner feature work?
Williams: Our concept of business partners is pretty revolutionary. If you’re a rep, when you’re building your profile, you can digitize both the lines you represent and the distributors you have relationships with. You do this by linking to other profiles on the platform.
Let’s say you’re a manufacturer’s rep for Company A. You find them and add them as a business partner, then you can add details about that relationship, like “I’ve been a rep for Company A for 19 years, and I do everything for them in California. I rep 25 of their lines.” You can do that on the distributor side, too, and identify the distributors you work with and give some generic details about those relationships. Anybody who comes to a rep’s profile can see the “resume” they’re sharing with the entire network.
Heller: What’s the difference between your free and paid memberships?
Williams: Creating a profile, searching the network to view basic profile information, and inviting other users are all free features. But if you subscribe to a premium membership, you can chat through the platform. You can even do a video chat – inside Factrees. Ultimately, you can find others, engage with them, evaluate them, and meet with them in a single session if you want to.
The paradigm is shifting. Some people get nervous talking to people or feel like it’s a sales call. But nobody’s worried about sending a text. It’s low friction. We see ourselves as the mall. Our job is to build the mall, fill it with stores and make it attractive for people to visit. What you do once you get inside is up to you. I’m sure people will use Factrees in ways we haven’t envisioned, and we’ll pivot if we need to.
Heller: What role does artificial intelligence (AI) play in your platform?
Williams: AI is used in the search engine technology. I come from building search engines for very large distributors who had millions of products. Building search technology that can deal with the product catalogs and data that you have is an extremely complex process. We’ve worked with Algolia to build our search engine, and it’s powered by machine learning. It can handle natural speech and translate that into data. For example, if you search for something, you usually have to ask for it in a way that will match the product data. On Factrees, you can search for “manufacturing reps in Kentucky,” and the AI will understand how to look at the map, find Kentucky and search for reps.
With our search engine, you can type how you think. In my opinion, there’s nothing more frustrating than typing in a search engine that can’t find what you’re looking for or it says, “Try asking for it the way I want you to ask for it.” We wanted to get away from that. We want people to tell the search what they’re looking for in their own words, and we’ll turn that into a structured search query.
And this technology gets smarter. The more searches we get, the smarter it gets. So, the next time somebody searches for a term or phrase, they get the benefit of the guy that searched it before them. When you start getting hundreds and thousands of searches, your search results get better and better really quickly.
Heller: Part of Factrees’s core messaging is that the platform can help reduce costs and increase efficiency. Can you elaborate on those points? How does it reduce costs and/or increase efficiency for reps and manufacturers?
Williams: Think about a small- or medium-sized manufacturer; oftentimes, the way they grow their business is through trade shows. It’s the path of least resistance. When I was doing research for Factrees, I went to a big HVAC trade show and walked straight to the back of the room, to the smallest booths. I spoke with a few companies, and one of them said that trade show was 60%-70% of his company’s annual sales. I can’t even imagine what happened to him when COVID-19 hit. If he had a tool like Factrees, he could sit at his desk and build relationships for $20 per month rather than spending thousands of dollars on a trade show. That’s cost-effective and efficient.
From a rep standpoint, they are creating a sales pipeline for next to nothing. Let’s say they want more clients: Given their expertise in a specific territory, they can find those opportunities. Reps also can’t have conflicting accounts. Knowing what lines a rep already has saves everybody time.
The other thing reps can do on Factrees, because we have thousands of users in one platform, is search by categories. They might decide that another product is very close to what they already rep, and it wouldn’t be that difficult to pick up this new category or product. Or they could see that a lot of companies in an adjacent state are looking for reps; maybe they’ll choose to expand their territory. The efficiency point is that you can’t do any of this today without talking to somebody, and you don’t have the 50,000-foot view of it to even know you should be considering this option.
Heller: What are your thoughts on how companies in this channel are embracing digital transformation?
Williams: I think we’re going to see more consumer tech in the industry, like AI. Benji Cohen, from Proton, is a good colleague of mine, and we talk shop about this very topic: whether or not the industry is ready for this.
You have to turn it around and not focus on the technology. It has to be about the value and the benefit that it provides. For example, if you look at the homepage of Factrees, you’ll notice there’s not a whole lot to look at. There’s a lot of white space. We used big fonts and made sure to not have too much on one page. I knew that our user interface had to be easy and intuitive – not intimidating or too much to look at or too much to do. It had to be simple. When you talk about adoption, it can’t be about the technology. It has to be about value adoption. This industry has some of the most sophisticated businesses in the world. Distribution businesses are complex animals, and we need to make them more agile.
Visit factrees.com to learn more.