Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I graduated from college with a lot of debt and a degree that wasn’t very marketable to prospective employers. So, I worked as a temp for several years until I found my way into a role as an office administrator. I was great at crafting documents, answering phones and solving operational problems. But this wasn’t my calling in life. At that time, a friend was laid off from his job at an investment bank and we collaborated to develop a niche DVD rental by mail company, similar to Netflix. I quit my job and went all in on this business. As an autodidact, I figured out the ins and outs of digital marketing, while we sorted out our picking and packing algorithms. Eventually I had a small crew and no leadership training whatsoever. Still, we managed to sell the company and I leveraged my newfound skills to begin my journey as a digital marketer and consultant for companies ranging from start-ups and small businesses to public companies with billions in market cap. I was the CMO of an ecommerce design firm in Manhattan, where I productized recurring digital marketing services to create value for their clients. I got the entrepreneurial itch again, and with the blessing of my previous employer, I started my own marketing and design agency, Consorte Marketing. We grew really fast — too fast, in fact, and I burned out. I took a couple of years off to find my “why,” and rebooted. Now I help a handful of start-ups and small businesses that bring meaning and joy to the lives of their customers. In my role at Digital.com, I have a platform where we provide advice and data to small businesses, so that they can compete with much bigger entities with deeper pockets.
What was the “Aha Moment” that led to the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?
I realized that happiness and feeling a sense of purpose in my work was the end goal, not money. During my time off, I explored several passion projects. The first one that comes to mind was a political campaign. While I didn’t make any money, I felt like my work mattered. Everything we did — win or lose — made a positive impact on my community and gave me hope for a brighter future. This was when I realized that my real problem was that I lost my sense of purpose while grinding to keep my company afloat. This inspired me to find other ways to get that feeling back, and I taught a summer course to at-risk youth in Brooklyn. These were mostly kids aging out of foster care, or kids accepted into the program as an alternative to incarceration, where staying on their current path would lead to a life of crime, or worse. While that experience was short-lived and difficult, I knew that the work I did mattered. The only problem was that I couldn’t see it as a means of sustaining the quality life to which I had become accustomed. So, I lifted myself up and found some clients. One of these was a health and wellness company. I started out doing SEO and email marketing for them, and now I serve as their COO. This work brings me a tremendous amount of joy, as I know that the content and products that we create are helping others to live healthier, happier lives as they discover their own “why.” Now, I’m intentional about the types of clients I accept and once they’re part of my eco-system, I’m all-in.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
Every decision in life is a gamble. When I started my DVD rental company, I quit my job and subsisted on ramen noodles and chicken thighs for a good year. It turned out to be the best decision I made in my professional life, despite those hard times. But I’d prefer to expand on the lowest point in my journey as an entrepreneur. When I started my digital marketing agency, I wanted to scale fast, and I had bills to pay. So, I took on way too many clients. A big part of my model at the time included serving as the back-office for several noteworthy digital agencies. They brought the clients, and I served them — under each other company’s brand. NDAs meant that I couldn’t take credit for most of the work that I did. It felt like a good deal, since I didn’t want to spend time on business development. In retrospect, it was not the right fit for me at all. As soon as I could afford it, I gambled a large portion of my revenue and hired a bunch of recent college graduates, and I trained them to the best of my ability at the time. This created a number of problems.
First, I was responsible for numerous salaries, so I took every client that came to me, to pay down my overhead. Often, I offered discounted rates, particularly to other agencies looking for a private-label solution. This meant that most of the work wasn’t profitable, which resulted in an endless cycle of hiring and finding clients to cover my overhead. It also meant that I found myself touching every account, since I wasn’t very good at empowering my team with the responsibility that came with bringing on new clients. Due to my poor leadership skills and business decisions at the time, as well as some things that were out of my control, I burnt out after a few years.
During the last year before I shut my doors, I was a miserable person. I was angry, depressed, and impatient. That of course was toxic for my company and the experience that my team had with me at the time. My mental health suffered, and I’m sure that had an impact on the people around me. Eventually I asked people to start looking for jobs elsewhere. Most of them did, and when I look people up on LinkedIn, I am so proud of the journeys that each of them took in their professional lives, and my hope is that they found value in their time with me, despite that dark period. I took a lot of time off to deal with my depression and loss of purpose. I still do the same kind of work. But the difference is that I found a new mission, and a new set of core values to remind me of why my work is so important. I engage in numerous wellness practices including meditation and exercise, as I continue to move towards being my best-self, one day at a time.
So, how are things going today? How did your grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?
Life is amazing right now. It’s not perfect, but I’m doing a much better job with my work/life balance and being intentional about the clients I support. I found purpose in helping small businesses and start-ups past the hurdles that I struggled through in my personal journey. Part of this came about when Larry Sharpe became one of my mentors. His background is in leadership training and he helped me to develop my emotional intelligence and other soft skills. This, combined with my extended history with Toastmasters International helped me to become a much better communicator and leader. I became more intentional about my clients, with much of my focus on the health and wellness start-up, 1AND1 Life, and Larry’s online show, The Sharpe Way. My role as a subject-matter expert at Digital.com also brings me a tremendous amount of joy, as I can help small businesses and start-ups at scale even when they are not my direct clients.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?
Early on in my career as a digital marketer, I was the Director of Ecommerce at David’s Cookies. I had poor leadership skills at the time, but I delivered amazing results given my available resources. I grew my network significantly, especially in the affiliate marketing space. My affiliates were close to me. We had fun times, and we made a lot of money together. But there was one problem: at least one in three would call me “David” instead of “Dennis.” Both two-syllable names started with the letter, “D” so it was an easy mistake for people to make. Some people from that era still call me “David” today, or know me as “the cookie guy.” While I really did have a sense of ownership in that position, the name on those cookie tins was not mine to claim. And this brings me to an important lesson: in my view, the greatest leaders don’t take credit for other people’s work. Instead, they acknowledge the contributions of their teams whenever possible, and especially when they’re not in the room. When you do this, your team feels valued, and you build trust that is often a highly motivational feeling.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Digital.com is a platform where we share web hosting reviews, advice, and ideas with small business owners at scale. As a digital marketing consultant, I also have the privilege of focusing on projects that give me a sense of purpose. This means that I turn away a lot of business, because I can’t work with everyone. But I still get joy out of sharing information when my experience can help people avoid some big mistakes in their own journeys. A common theme is that someone finds my profile on LinkedIn and calls me to work on their business. They’ll ask about one service when I know they can benefit so much more from another. Recently, I got a call from an ed-tech start-up. They wanted to hire me to activate and manage an affiliate program. But they were a new company, with no brand recognition and low sales volume. I knew this was the wrong path for them.
I suggested expanding their successful lead gen activities on LinkedIn, and investing the revenue that generated into search engine marketing. I also introduced them to the concept of a digital marketing funnel. Of course I’m not a non-profit. So I can’t spend hours giving people free advice. But I don’t mind investing a few minutes here and there to build new relationships, to steer people in the right direction. He would have wasted thousands of dollars and many months on something that likely wouldn’t have produced results. I believe that the work that I do that stands out the most is often the value that I bring to people without attribution.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
Schedule time for hobbies, family, exercise, and introspection even when you think you don’t have the time to spare — that’s often when you need these things the most. Focus on those things that are in your control, and don’t stress over things that you have no control over. Find a mentor, therapist, or peer who’s a good listener that’s not afraid of telling you when you’re about to make a really bad decision. Play the infinite game. Be your best self and don’t focus on comparing yourself to others. Someone else will always be better than you at something. Have an abundance mindset and try not to spend so much time around people who focus on scarcity and zero-sum games. Sock a little away frequently — you never know when you need to tap into that rainy-day fund. And, start investing.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
There are so many people who have helped me throughout my journey in big and small ways. I work most closely with Larry Sharpe on my personal development today. Jeffrey Ashey is another name that stands out. He was the CFO at what I consider my first long-term, full-time job and taught me to “carve my own path.” I picked up a lot of skills working with him, which enabled me to launch my first ecommerce start-up. In-between, I worked with a therapist for over 10 years who helped me to overcome my fear of leaving the paradigm of working for a “stable company” among other things. My parents, teachers, siblings, fraternity brothers, friends, and colleagues have all left an impression on me.
I try to learn from everyone I meet. Clients, colleagues, and random people I come across have something to teach. This is true no matter their stage of personal development. Often I meet someone who isn’t their best self, and it’s humbling when I recognize the traits that I had when I was at my lowest. My knowledge that I overcame similar hurdles to theirs makes me less judgmental, as I know that eventually they’ll find their own path towards a happier life. Of course, the person who brings the most meaning to my life is my spouse. She has stayed with me through some of the most difficult, and most rewarding periods in my life and I am so thankful for the time we spend together.
Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. The Pandemic has changed many aspects of all of our lives. One of them is the fact that so many of us have gotten used to shopping almost exclusively online. Can you share a few examples of different ideas that eCommerce businesses are implementing to adapt to the new realities created by the Pandemic?
Mobile-first ecommerce is more important than ever. People are staying home more, but they’re still attached to their devices. Keep that in mind while you work on the other aspects of your business. Be realistic about whether your products can survive this new paradigm. We’re in a K-shaped economy, which means that some types of products and businesses will thrive in this environment, while others will tank. So figure out which path your product or service is on, and pivot if your products are no longer in demand. Back in the days of “two weeks to flatten the curve,” manufacturers were already retooling to produce PPE. If your business isn’t thriving, then take inventory of your assets and capabilities and retool your company if it makes sense.
The COVID-19 lockdowns have led to mass-depression, too. Your customers are still recovering from long-term social isolation, so it’s especially important to address their emotional needs. People are starving for community, and any connection they can get with other humans has value. If you can give them a sense of community, then they may reciprocate with their dollars and recommendations. They are also feeling uncertain about the future. Jobs are disappearing due to closing businesses and automation, and people are afraid to let go of their dollars. So, provide them with some elements of certainty and control over their own destinies. Show them how your product or service is not an expense, but an investment. And, be aware that people are hypersensitive about hygiene, for good reason. So, communicate what you’re doing to maintain a safe, clean environment.
Amazon, and even Walmart are going to exert pressure on all of retail for the foreseeable future. New Direct-To-Consumer companies based in China are emerging that offer prices that are much cheaper than US and European brands. What would you advise retail companies and eCommerce companies, for them to be successful in the face of such strong competition?
Don’t make price your primary driver. You’re not going to win against Amazon and D2C companies in China. Connect with people emotionally and give them a sense of community. Let your customers know that they matter. Know your “why.” Many small business owners get to work without thinking about their mandate, mission, vision, or core values. I was in this category. I thought that money was my primary driver, but it wasn’t. Money was a vehicle in my pursuit of happiness, and the same is true for so many people. Figure out what brings you joy as a small business owner, and then shape your product and services around your own sense of purpose in a way that brings value to your customers beyond their functional requirements. Try to figure out your customers’ “why,” too. Help them feel safe, connected, and hopeful, and you’ll carve out a niche where you can thrive.
What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs & founders make when they start an eCommerce business? What can be done to avoid those errors?
With the exception of impulse-buys, people tend to buy from companies and people they know, like, and trust. The same is true in ecommerce. So, focus more on building trust throughout the customer journey and less on expecting a purchase within 5 minutes of discovering your brand. Use retargeted ads and emails to bring people back to your website where you can give them value over time through blog posts, reviews, and other content. Always think about your customers in a funnel. Those at the top aren’t ready to buy yet because you haven’t established trust. Give them a lot of value over time and show them that you are part of their community.
It generally costs a lot more to acquire a new customer than to retain an old one. Therefore, optimize your email marketing campaign. Create some automations including an email sequence that’s triggered whenever someone signs up for a newsletter or makes a purchase, separate from your usual email blasts. Segment your database to send relevant messages that people won’t ignore. Once you’ve built systems around your marketing tactics, level up by weaving in your humanity. Take some time to understand human psychology and think about your marketing funnel in the same way as you would think about building rapport with a customer in person. If you’re authentic and have a good product or service, people will buy from you.
In your experience, which aspect of running an eCommerce brand tends to be most underestimated? Can you explain or give an example?
Digital marketers like myself are often data driven. We see the world as a logical puzzle of numbers and conversion actions, and we often neglect the power of connecting with customers on an emotional level. We’re also so focused on what products do, that we forget why people buy them in the first place
For example, FitBit, Apple Watch, and other wearables are high ticket items that sell well. Functionally, they measure biometrics and provide a number of tools to the user. But this isn’t why people buy them.
These customers want to feel better about themselves. They want a sense of accomplishment. They want to be part of a community that’s bigger than themselves. The wearable becomes their digital companion. It tracks their progress, helps them set goals, and holds them accountable. It’s a symbol of their core values. If I were selling one of these devices, I would insert emotional messaging throughout my website that speaks to this emotional need that the device can fulfill. In ecommerce, when it comes to building a community for your customers, you have so many more tools than a bricks-and-mortar location. Blog posts and other inspiring content on your website, and in your emails will help your customers feel connected.
The work I do with the team at 1AND1 Life is driven by this underlying principle. We don’t just focus on the tangible goals of weight-loss and physical fitness. Instead, we see life as the intersection of 7 dimensions of wellness and shape our content around that framework. We then curate and produce products around this lifestyle. You can follow a similar path with your business. Think about the emotional aspects of the lifestyle of your customers, why they buy into it, and how you can tie other major aspects of their lives into that framework.
Can you share a few examples of tools or software that you think can dramatically empower emerging eCommerce brands to be more effective and more successful?
There are so many tools you can consider. Start by making a prioritized list of outcomes that you want, in terms of customer acquisition, retention, and purchases. Quantify your marketing budget, then look for reviews on the types of tools you’re considering. You can look at email marketing platforms like Klaviyo and Mailchimp, and CRMs like Zoho and SalesForce. When you consider your content creation process, look at keyword research and SEO tools like SEM Rush, AHRefs and Uber Suggest. If you’re a bit more scientific about optimizing for conversions, then try landing page tools like ClickFunnels and Unbounce. You can even play with funnel simulation tools like Geru. This is a lot to manage, as can be your team. So be sure to keep things organized with a project management platform like Monday.com, Asana, ClickUp, Trello, Jira — the list goes on and on. Of course these tools cost money, so if you’re bootstrapping then start with a free spreadsheet and documents platform like Google Sheets, or use software like Excel, OpenOffice, and Numbers. No matter what you do, stay organized. Follow good practices like reviewing your business on a quarterly basis to set new goals based on the actual outcomes of your existing tactics.
As you know, “conversion” means to convert a visit into a sale. In your experience what are the best strategies an eCommerce business should use to increase conversion rates?
Tactics like landing page optimization and UX design are of course important. But remarketing and list-building are my favorites, because people can discover your website at any point in time during their buying journey. If you can capture those leads while they’re still deciding, then you can meet them where they’re at, and be their companion until the point of purchase. A common framework is to think of all of the touchpoints along the customer’s journey in a funnel. There are many ways to label the different stages, but generally customers are at the top, middle, or bottom of the funnel. The top is the awareness stage when people first hear about your product. They aren’t ready to buy, so you just want to stay on their radar by facilitating ways to continue to engage them and build rapport.
At the middle of the funnel, they’re considering competing products, so you want to start differentiating yours while drawing the customer into your community by addressing their emotional needs. The bottom of the funnel is the point of conversion. If you’ve done your job up until this point, and they have an existing need, then it should be easy to close the deal. You then get into the loyalty and advocacy stages, where you turn your customers into repeat-buyers and word-of-mouth advertisers. There are other frameworks, too, like the flywheel concept which turns the funnel on its side like an inverted ouroboros. The most important takeaway is that you need to meet your customers where they’re at, and then lead them to where you know you can bring them the most value by way of your product or service.
Of course, the main way to increase conversion rates is to create a trusted and beloved brand. Can you share a few ways that an eCommerce business can earn a reputation as a trusted and beloved brand?
Just meet customers where they are at, and then figure out how your product fits into their “why.” Product specs are important, but people often make decisions based on their emotions. Work on foundational aspects of your business. Trust comes from consistent messaging. Every product you sell, and every blog post and email newsletter you write should be compatible with your company’s mission and core values. Don’t just say you sell products that address your customers’ interests — show them that you understand their needs through your products, your content, and your communications.
One of the main benefits of shopping online is the ability to read reviews. Consumers love it! While good reviews are of course positive for a brand, poor reviews can be very damaging. In your experience what are a few things a brand should do to properly and effectively respond to poor reviews? How about other unfair things said online about a brand?
Be proactive and respond to negative reviews and social media posts promptly. Use tools like Google Alerts, Talkwalker and Awario to stay on top of your brand mentions. Stay positive and show people that you’re listening. Try to avoid going on the defensive. Show customers that you hear their concerns, and that you will work with them to fix whatever problem they have with your product or service. In extreme situations where you know you’re in the right, and have nothing to apologize for, try asking questions to get a better understanding of why a customer feels as they do. Don’t immediately assume that they are attacking you for no valid reason. Sometimes you might uncover an operational problem that you can fix. This can lead to increases in sales volume that surpass your customer satisfaction costs.
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to create a very successful e-commerce business? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Learn how to measure your Key Performance Indicators, or KPIs. This is just an initialism that represents a laundry-list of initialisms like CTR, LTV, CR, and ROAS. Think of them like a panel of dials that you can turn slightly. Individually, increasing just the click-thru ratio, customer lifetime value, conversion rate, and return on ad spend of your ecommerce website and associated activities may not produce a sizable increase in revenue. But collectively, if you can improve each of your KPIs, then you should start to see sustainable growth. Early in my career, when I was the Director of Ecommerce for David’s Cookies, I was hired to drive revenue. The first thing I did was to look for ways to improve their overall conversion rate. One thing I noticed at the time was that they were getting frequent database connection errors, causing a poor user experience for virtually every session. Fixing that alone resulted in something like a 20% lift in conversion almost immediately. Next, I improved the architecture of their website for SEO and added some content, which doubled their traffic in a short period of time. Then, I convinced management to increase prices by about ten percent, while I also implemented an email newsletter to drive average order size and customer lifetime value. In the first year, I had more than doubled their online sales and set the foundation for a lucrative second year, too. This is the formula that I apply often to companies of all types and sizes, and it produces predictably good results every time.
- Work on your messaging and express it in everything you do. When you sell online, you’re competing against Amazon and a virtually unlimited number of sellers. It’s hard to compete on price, and if you’re a reseller then it’s also hard to compete on the various brands that you carry. But you can compete by projecting your brand in a way that makes people want to be a part of your community, and that means sales. Take a deep dive into your mission, vision, and core values. Make sure they align with the company you aspire to become. Then, work those beliefs into everything you do. Think about your customers’ needs when you work on your messaging, and make sure that your values align with theirs. You really know your customers and their needs. Once you do, you can use emotional communications to connect with them. You’d be amazed by how much depth you can create in your ads on Google, Facebook, and elsewhere once you start thinking beyond CTR. You’d be amazed by how much you can grow your audience when your values show through on every blog post, product page, and other content you create. People love a strong message and if it resonates with them, they’ll come back for more. One company that I help is Majestic Awning & Outdoor Structures. They install awnings and pergolas to increase outdoor space for consumers and businesses. We thrived when restaurants struggled to make ends meet when they were forced to limit their seating, and I believe that we did a tremendous amount of good by helping them to serve more customers. Emotional language about outcomes is the crux of our campaign. Every consumer landing page and email sequence talks about spending time with family, and their B2B equivalents talk about the importance of a person’s business in serving the community and leaving a legacy.
- Know what you don’t know. If you’re a small business owner or start-up entrepreneur, then you no doubt wear many hats. Every day, you’re doing something that you never did before. That’s normal. But don’t be afraid to ask for help when you need it. You may find that you’re pretty good at crafting ads that drive clicks. But maybe you’re not the best at landing page optimization, where those clicks turn into cart-adds. Or maybe you can get people to your site, but you don’t know how to build a marketing funnel that keeps them engaged until they’re ready to buy. Fortunately, there is an endless supply of experts who are ready to help you with your company. If you can afford it, hire some experts who will focus their time and energy on delivering results. If not, then reach out to your network. You’d be surprised how many people will help you out of kindness. Just make sure that you pay it forward if you’re receiving free help. Keep a list of people who have contributed their time to your cause, and what they do for a living. Whenever you come across an opportunity to refer business to someone, start with this list. In my world, I’m a great digital marketer, and I know enough about coding to be able to solve problems as they come up. When I had my DVD rental company, I wrote the code myself. This helped us to bootstrap our company. Had I to do it over again, my time would have produced significantly more value had I instead hired software developers while I focused on marketing.
- Be fiscally responsible, but don’t be cheap. Work out your budget and spend money on the tools you need. Anything that saves you time or helps you make better decisions has value. The right tools can free up hours each day that can be used to strategize on how to drive the sustainable growth of your business, or to spend time on other enjoyable activities. Recently, I was tinkering with Google Forms for a small lead gen campaign because I wanted to save my client $50 a month. But it lacks the functionality to redirect to a new platform, like a calendar booker. I came around to spending the money on a Typeform subscription, got almost exactly what I wanted, and saved myself hours of tinkering.
- Make sure that your business brings you joy. You will likely spend more of your time working on your business than anything else you do in your life. So, if you don’t love spending 12 to 16 hours per day on it, then consider reframing how you think about your business, or find a new path forward. The easiest way to do this is by choosing a product or niche that you would invest in for your own use. If you love taking pictures, then consider selling cameras online. If you’re addicted to handbags, then consider selling those. A good litmus test is to ask yourself whether you would spend your time researching this product in your free time, for pleasure and not for work. If the answer is yes, then you might have a winner. Of course, if you can spend less time on your business, to free up time for other things you enjoy more, and can still earn the income that you want, then do that. Just keep in mind that if you’re a brand-new start-up, you will likely spend a great deal more time on your business than you originally anticipated.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
COVID-19 lockdowns have devastated small businesses in the hopes of containing a global pathogen. While well-intentioned, these lockdowns have destroyed the hope in the hearts of so many people who are inspired by successful small businesses and start-ups. This drove me to create Snackable Solutions, a Youtube channel and platform where small business owners and experts can share simple tips with others in our community. These are generally videos under five minutes in length that provide clear, actionable steps that entrepreneurs can take to improve their businesses in small ways. I’d love for more people to contribute their own videos and tips to the platform while we build out this community. And of course, keep reading the articles and reviews on Digital.com. Most great ideas start with some form of human connection, so be sure to connect with me on Medium and LinkedIn.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this!