Protocol | Fintech

Fast has a plan to reinvent online shopping. And then kill the password.

First Fast wants to make checkout a one-click process anywhere on the web. But its real goal is to be the only login you ever need again.

Fast's interface

With Fast, users have to input all their information once. And then never again.

Image: Fast

Domm Holland is only just now launching his product, but he has his mythical founding story down pat. It goes like this: Holland was watching his wife's grandmother try to order groceries online during the pandemic, and he saw her struggling to figure out the checkout process. Entering credit cards, setting up accounts, typing your delivery address over and over and over again: It's all just way harder than it needs to be. Right then and there, Holland likes to say, he decided to fix it.

What "fixing it" looks like is Fast, a one-click checkout system for the entire internet that Holland, his co-founder Allison Barr Allen, and their team launched on Wednesday. With one button, Fast is hoping to change the way people buy online. "Fast is really uniformly available to the world," Holland said. "Every consumer, every seller, every platform, every device, every card." That, he believes, is how you make it easier for everyone to buy things online.

The first time a customer clicks on the Fast Checkout button (and suddenly it becomes obvious why Holland and Barr Allen picked that name), they'll be asked to type in basic buying-stuff details. Name, address, credit card information, that sort of thing. Checkout will feel fairly normal, that first time. But Fast uses cookies, IP addresses and other information to track users on a device, and their email to track them across devices. And so, every time after that, as long as the user is on the same device, checking out takes exactly one click. When they click or tap on Fast Checkout, it shares those previously stored details with the merchant, runs through the purchasing process, and finishes automatically.

Domm Holland Fast CEO Domm Holland.Photo: Fast

Fast's co-founders are the first to admit that they're not reinventing the checkout wheel. Amazon offers one-click purchasing, and in apps like WeChat it's a universal feature. But these are closed systems, offering simplicity and synergy only inside their own platforms and apps. Fast's plan is to make all of that convenience available to everyone everywhere.

As the Fast team sees it, they have only one apples-to-apples competitor: PayPal. But they're not worried about PayPal. "It's a bit slow and not the most intuitive user experience," Barr Allen said. Fast, she said, is what PayPal might look like if PayPal were invented in 2020 and not last century.

Beyond the outdated current state of things, "the problem is that your data is stored in a really siloed way with each company," Barr Allen said. "That's why autofill doesn't always work with your credit card, it's why you have to fill out forms over and over again." It's even worse on mobile, which is where online commerce increasingly happens, and where filling out long forms is even more arduous. That's why Zack Fleishman, the COO of Shark Wheel, said he signed up for Fast in the first place. "People get phone calls, they get appointment reminders — if they can't execute a transaction immediately, you're going to end up with a lot of abandoned carts."

Allison Barr Allen Fast COO Allison Barr AllenPhoto: Fast

At its most basic, Fast is just automating all the form-filling. It still shares all user data with merchants, other than the 16 digits of their credit card. "We don't act as the seller's customer database," Holland said. "We just inject the customer into their database faster and easier than they ever have." Their pitch to merchants is simple: We make it easy to buy stuff, and when it's easy to buy stuff, more people tend to do so.

The company has been making that pitch loudly and constantly over the last few months. Fast has been cold-contacting retailers, has been more or less ubiquitous in tech Twitter circles, and has attempted to build the kind of hype you wouldn't ordinarily associate with checkout software. On day one, it'll be in the BigCommerce app store and available to all Stripe merchants, along with a handful of launch partners.

From a merchant perspective, Fast is in the middle of two competing trends. More large retailers are building their own payment systems, hoping to own more of the sales process (and more of the customer data). On the other hand, though, there's now a long line of successful ways to offload the hassle of managing and processing payments. Stripe's the best example (and the largest investor in Fast), but from Affirm to Klarna to the Apple Pay and Google Pay and Everything Else Pay buttons showing up all over the web, retailers are happy to trade a bit of control and customer data for simplifying the sales process down to a single click.

Ultimately, Fast imagines a lot more happening within that one click. In the long run, Fast isn't really a checkout company: It's an identity company. It goes back to when Barr Allen was at Uber, thinking about how to manage and validate the identities of every driver and rider on the platform. "What I was looking for was basically an identity API," she said, and that just didn't exist. But it should. "If you're moving homes, why do you have to update your address in 500 places? You should just update it in one place, and then every business just pulls that information to have the most up-to-date information."

When buyers click on the Fast Checkout button, they're effectively also creating an account with that retailer, with no username or password necessary. Of course, here, too, Fast is not the only company thinking along these lines. Sign In With Google/Facebook/Twitter/Apple buttons are a staple of the internet now, as long lists of usernames and passwords give way to The One True Account that manages all the rest. Beyond even that, a running theory in tech circles holds that the internet would be better if it had been built with an identity layer, in which users control and share their personal data from a single store. Even Tim Berners-Lee himself is working on a new kind of internet that starts with identity.

Starting with checkout is a means to an end for Fast, but also a clever shortcut. "It's a lot more boring to say to users, 'Hey, we're building an identity API, can you go to our website and give us some information?'" Holland said. "The attraction for that is a lot lower than saying, 'Hey, next time you want to buy a T-shirt or groceries, you could do it in one click.'" People happily give up most of their relevant personal information in the checkout process anyway, so Fast can accomplish everyone's goals all at once. And it's true that login and checkout are inextricably linked, and the only way to do one-click checkout is to solve both problems together.

By combining login and checkout, Fast becomes a powerful tool in online shopping. It can show all of a user's purchases from all over the web, track their deliveries, simplify reordering and returns, and more. Users can see all that stuff in the Fast app.

If Fast can become as ubiquitous as it hopes, it would become an unparalleled source of shopping information and personal data. Holland said the company has no interest in selling this data to advertisers — "absolutely not, it's just not our model" — and that Fast makes its money by charging a fraction of sales that run through Fast, not by selling ads. Still, Fast does see a huge opportunity in personalizing the shopping experience. "We'll have data about more than just how much you spend at a store," Barr Allen said, "and to be able to use this data to provide personalized, better experiences for consumers is where we also see a huge opportunity."

One challenge for Fast will be convincing users to give up this kind of shopping data to another platform and convincing retailers to do the same. Just as Netflix steadfastly refuses to let other companies see who's watching what on Netflix, most retailers carefully guard data about how their shoppers shop. Fast wants to be part of the retail experience without owning it or taking it over, but that's a tricky line to walk.

For now, though, Fast just wants to be everywhere. Or, at least, everywhere on the web. In-app shopping is a much thornier problem (and a smaller market), so that'll come later. It wants a Fast Checkout button on every retailer's site on the internet, with the promise that nobody can get sales done faster. On the flip side, Fast is betting that obviating credit card numbers and address forms can make it an indispensable part of the shopping experience. And once it knows everyone, it becomes an indispensable part of the internet altogether.

Image: Yuanxin

Yuanxin Technology doesn't hide its ambition. In the first line of its prospectus, the company says its mission is to be the "first choice for patients' healthcare and medication needs in China." But the road to winning the crowded China health tech race is a long one for this Tencent- and Sequoia-backed startup, even with a recent valuation of $4 billion, according to Chinese publication Lieyunwang. Here's everything you need to know about Yuanxin Technology's forthcoming IPO on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange.

What does Yuanxin do?

There are many ways startups can crack open the health care market in China, and Yuanxin has focused on one: prescription drugs. According to its prospectus, sales of prescription drugs outside hospitals account for only 23% of the total healthcare market in China, whereas that number is 70.2% in the United States.

Yuanxin started with physical stores. Since 2015, it has opened 217 pharmacies immediately outside Chinese hospitals. "A pharmacy has to be on the main road where a patient exits the hospital. It needs to be highly accessible," Yuanxin founder He Tao told Chinese media in August. Then, patients are encouraged to refill their prescriptions on Yuanxin's online platforms and to follow up with telehealth services instead of returning to a hospital.

From there, Yuanxin has built a large product portfolio that offers online doctor visits, pharmacies and private insurance plans. It also works with enterprise clients, designing office automation and prescription management systems for hospitals and selling digital ads for big pharma.

Yuanxin's Financials

Yuanxin's annual revenues have been steadily growing from $127 million in 2018 to $365 million in 2019 and $561 million in 2020. In each of those three years, over 97% of revenue came from "out-of-hospital comprehensive patient services," which include the company's physical pharmacies and telehealth services. More specifically, approximately 83% of its retail sales derived from prescription drugs.

But the company hasn't made a profit. Yuanxin's annual losses grew from $17 million in 2018 to $26 million in 2019 and $48 million in 2020. The losses are moderate considering the ever-growing revenues, but cast doubt on whether the company can become profitable any time soon. Apart from the cost of drug supplies, the biggest spend is marketing and sales.

What's next for Yuanxin

There are still abundant opportunities in the prescription drug market. In 2020, China's National Medical Products Administration started to explore lifting the ban on selling prescription drugs online. Although it's unclear when the change will take place, it looks like more purely-online platforms will be able to write prescriptions in the future. With its established market presence, Yuanxin is likely one of the players that can benefit greatly from such a policy change.

The enterprise and health insurance businesses of Yuanxin are still fairly small (accounting for less than 3% of annual revenue), but this is where the company sees an opportunity for future growth. Yuanxin is particularly hoping to power its growth with data and artificial intelligence. It boasts a database of 14 million prescriptions accumulated over years, and the company says the data can be used in many ways: designing private insurance plans, training doctors and offering chronic disease management services. The company says it currently employs 509 people on its R&D team, including 437 software engineers and 22 data engineers and scientists.

What Could Go Wrong?

The COVID-19 pandemic has helped sell the story of digital health care, but Yuanxin isn't the only company benefiting from this opportunity. 2020 has seen a slew of Chinese health tech companies rise. They either completed their IPO process before Yuanxin (like JD, Alibaba and Ping An's healthcare subsidiaries) or are close to it (WeDoctor and DXY). In this crowded sector, Yuanxin faces competition from both companies with Big Tech parent companies behind them and startups that have their own specialized advantages.

Like each of its competitors, Yuanxin needs to be careful with how it processes patient data — some of the most sensitive personal data online. Recent Chinese legislation around personal data has made it clear that it will be increasingly difficult to monetize user data. In the prospectus, Yuanxin elaborately explained how it anonymizes data and prevents data from being leaked or hacked, but it also admitted that it cannot foresee what future policies will be introduced.

Who Gets Rich

  • Yuanxin's founder and CEO He Tao and SVP He Weizhuang own 29.82% of the company's shares through a jointly controlled company. (It's unclear whether He Tao and He Weizhuang are related.)
  • Tencent owns 19.55% of the shares.
  • Sequoia owns 16.21% of the shares.
  • Other major investors include Qiming, Starquest Capital and Kunling, which respectively own 7.12%, 6.51% and 5.32% of the shares.

What People Are Saying

  • "The demands of patients, hospitals, insurance companies, pharmacies and pharmaceutical companies are all different. How to meet each individual demand and find a core profit model is the key to Yuanxin Technology's future growth." — Xu Yuchen, insurance industry analyst and member of China Association of Actuaries, in Chinese publication Lanjinger.
  • "The window of opportunity caused by the pandemic, as well as the high valuations of those companies that have gone public, brings hope to other medical services companies…[But] the window of opportunity is closing and the potential of Internet healthcare is yet to be explored with new ideas. Therefore, traditional, asset-heavy healthcare companies need to take this opportunity and go public as soon as possible." —Wang Hang, founder and CEO of online healthcare platform Haodf, in state media China.com.

Zeyi Yang
Zeyi Yang is a reporter with Protocol | China. Previously, he worked as a reporting fellow for the digital magazine Rest of World, covering the intersection of technology and culture in China and neighboring countries. He has also contributed to the South China Morning Post, Nikkei Asia, Columbia Journalism Review, among other publications. In his spare time, Zeyi co-founded a Mandarin podcast that tells LGBTQ stories in China. He has been playing Pokemon for 14 years and has a weird favorite pick.

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