[Originally printed in Seven Days: Seven Vermont Tech Startups Worth Watching, Oct. 18, 2023]
Local Amazon rival Myti goes live to keep e-commerce dollars in Vermont
When Bill Calfee announced in 2020 that he was creating a local alternative to Amazon, he faced a healthy dose of skepticism. Having no prior experience working in the tech sector, Calfee planned to take on the world’s fifth-largest company, whose name is synonymous with e-commerce. That he had the chutzpah to call it Myti — pronounced “mighty” — suggests Calfee had some idea of what he was up against.
But Calfee also had his share of supporters, including deep-pocketed investors. Many consumers detest Amazon and, if given a choice, would prefer to spend their money at local businesses if the price, convenience and delivery times were comparable to those Amazon offers. The problem was, for many items, consumers had few if any alternatives.
Until now. Beginning in early October, shoppers who live in Chittenden County can visit the Myti website and, without having to pay a membership fee, buy goods from at least 24 Vermont retailers — what Myti refers to as its “shops” — including Homeport, Brio Coffeeworks and Small Dog Electronics. Those products, which range from books to pet supplies to sporting goods, will then be delivered to consumers’ homes or businesses in Chittenden County, via Myti’s fleet of all-electric vehicles, in two days or less.
“Vermonters are spending $20 per second with Amazon … It’s horrifying.”
Local business owners, whom Myti calls “shopkeepers,” pay only a modest transaction fee on each purchase. But unlike Amazon, which maintains massive fulfillment centers around the country, Myti digitally searches the stockrooms of its member shops using a shared inventory-management tool. When a consumer buys an item through Myti — say, fuzz-lined Crocs from Lenny’s Shoe & Apparel in Williston — the company’s software automatically adjusts Lenny’s inventory to reflect that purchase. Consumers can either pick up the item in person or have Myti deliver it to their doorstep.
The goal, Calfee explained, is twofold. First, he wants to reduce the huge environmental impact of buying through Amazon. The mega-retailer routinely ships products thousands of miles and often sends returned items straight to a landfill because it’s cheaper than restocking them. Myti’s returns, which are free, go back to the store of origin.
Second, Calfee wants to keep Vermont’s e-commerce dollars in the state and supporting the local economy.
“Vermonters are spending $20 per second with Amazon,” Calfee said, citing recent sales figures from the Vermont Department of Taxes. “We’re sending half a billion dollars out of our economy [each year]. It’s horrifying.”
But Calfee envisions Myti as being more than just an Amazon rival. Part of the company’s mission is to serve as an information clearinghouse, providing local shopkeepers with data on consumer buying habits so that they can stock items Vermonters routinely purchase.
Recently, the company launched its Myti Concept Shop, which offers items that shoppers regularly search for but aren’t carried by Myti’s member stores. For example, because no Myti shop currently carries 20-count packs of AA batteries, Myti lists that item under its Myti Concept Shop, then purchases it through a local retailer not yet linked to Myti.
Ultimately, Myti’s intention is for one of its member shops to recognize the demand for that item, then stock it in its own inventory. Said Calfee, “We want enough items on the platform so that people feel like they can find anything [they need] here.”
Though Myti has begun testing its market outside of Chittenden County, Calfee wouldn’t disclose where its services will be available next.
That said, when central Vermont was hit by severe flooding in July, Calfee was frustrated that Myti wasn’t prepared to assist. As he explained, if Montpelier retailers had inventory stored elsewhere, Myti’s technology could have helped those stores maintain their cash flow.
“When Bear Pond Books was flooded, their customers were faced with the problem, ‘Where do I get a book?'” Calfee said. “If they started buying that book from Amazon, once Bear Ponds reopened, they have to get that customer back again.”
Similarly, when Bed Bath & Beyond closed its Williston outlet, it created a void for people who routinely shopped there for home goods.
“We’re frantically loading sheets and towels and shower curtains” on the Myti Concept Shop, Calfee said, “trying to fill that void.”
Thus far, Myti hasn’t enabled one feature it initially promised: a live video chat function that would enable shopkeepers to speak with online customers and answer their questions. That feature is still in the works.
Asked what he’s learned from his three-year startup experience, Calfee thought a moment, then said, “It’s hard.”