Enhancing Customer Support: Customer service in a COVID world is also exceptionally important and will be a make or break for many customers. According to Deloitte, unpredictable spikes in customer requests, combined with increased staff absence through sickness has made it extremely difficult for customer support professionals to meet inbound demand. One way retailers are responding to this is by implementing chatbot technologies that can help speed up response times and answer routine questions.
As part of our series about the future of retail, I had the pleasure of interviewing Ryan Mendoza. Ryan, Partner at Scrum Ventures, has been involved in entrepreneurship and startups for 10 years in various capacities. He has led investments in companies across various industries including IoT, AL/ML, SaaS, retail tech, and robotics. Prior to Scrum, Ryan worked at a university accelerator called PCI Ventures where he was in charge of spinning out companies based on technology developed at the University of Pennsylvania. Roles to that he was the third employee and co-inventor of the technology at a material science startup, an engineer at Lockheed Martin, and an investor and founder at an angel investment group. Ryan holds a B.S. and M.S. in Electrical Engineering from the University of Southern California and the University of Pennsylvania.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I’ve always been driven by a sense of curiosity and the need to understand the inner workings of technology. This passion led me to my first job where I worked as an electrical engineer at Lockheed Martin developing space flight vehicles, and where I am today as at Scrum Ventures investing in companies across various technology sectors including IoT, AL/ML, SaaS, retail tech, and robotics.
My career path was never cookie cutter, and I made several risky decisions along the way that either gave me a new perspective on what to do next or provided me with key learnings that advanced my personal and professional development.
Two years at Lockheed Martin propelled me back to school at the University of Pennsylvania to continue learning and furthering my education in engineering and nanotechnology. After graduating with a Master’s in Electrical Engineering, I was presented the opportunity to join Graphene Frontiers as Senior VP of Engineering, a boots on the ground startup that spun out of a research lab in the physics department. I was just the third employee to this company, charged with developing technology first, and then faced many other facets head on such as fundraising, business development, operations, team building and managing.
As a young post-grad in my twenties, I was eager to fundraise and scale the company and did this by founding R2M Investments, an angel investment group for seed stage investments. Shortly after I joined PCI Ventures, an incubator program out of the University of Pennsylvania, where I further learned how to successfully scale products and businesses and sat on the board of several companies. These roles drove me to quickly learn the ins and outs of business and investing and served as a launchpad for my career in venture capital today.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
I joined Scrum Ventures just as the firm was about to host one of their key flagship events in Japan. As a fresh new Associate to the team, I was invited to travel abroad to Japan from San Francisco and lead a panel with two of our portfolio companies on the main stage. Having never been to Japan before, I was eager to meet my international colleagues and explore the country. However, I couldn’t help escape some nerves as I boarded the plane with my wife, not knowing what to expect.
Though that first trip was filled with a lot of first experiences and a sense of uncertainty that came along with it, it provided me with many lessons about embracing the unknown. While this may not be the most peculiar or interesting story compared to some, it served as a crucial stepping point to the evolution of my professional development and a reminder for myself that while uncertainties to any new experience is inevitable, it’s important to trust my gut and dive in head first.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson or takeaway you learned from that?
Very early on as an engineer, I remember being very green in business development — which is expected in the early years of your career with little experience. There were mistakes I made along the way, but more importantly, what I took from it was being comfortable with not having all the right answers. I have learned that making mistakes can be an incredible learning tool, and it also helps build a good character.
Are you working on any new exciting projects now? How do you think that might help people?
As an investor in venture capital, my job is one next exciting project after the next, as I’m given the task to seek out new and innovative companies that are the world’s next market leaders. My work can change by the hour, and new projects are always on the horizon. Whether it’s a new startup in diligence, supporting a portfolio company with a new task, or refining our internal operations, I’m constantly drawn to this fast-paced style of work.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
Burn out in the venture capital industry is extremely common due to the long hours that comes along with the job, and this has become even more prevalent in a remote work era. In fact, a recent study by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that the average workday lengthened by 48.5 minutes in the weeks following stay-at-home orders and lockdowns and the number of meetings increased by 13 percent. Due to this, it’s important to ensure you create a healthy work life balance that will keep you in a positive and healthy mindset throughout the day, which will in turn, allow you to perform better at your job.
Before your workday starts, I’ve found it’s incredibly useful to set aside at least fifteen minutes to check in with yourself. Diving into work the second you wake up will inevitably build more stress throughout your day, and I had to learn that the hard way as the first thing I would do in the mornings would be to reach for my phone to check emails. With our days getting longer and longer as more emails and calendar invites for meetings pile through our inboxes, a morning routine will help set the tone for a more balanced workday. In addition, another tip is to try and exercise during lunch time instead of before work. This will break up the day better and force you to get moving around.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person to whom you are grateful, who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
Mike Patterson, the Chief Executive Officer at Graphene Frontiers, was an incredible advisor and mentor during my early days working at his startup. Mike helped build Graphene from the ground up, which started from an idea to a revenue generating, world class sensor developer and recognized manufacturing leader. While he was not that much older than I was at the time, he had an incredible wealth of knowledge and all the right instincts on what it took to successfully grow a business.
After joining Graphene Frontiers, he quickly took me under his wing by bringing me into his day to day operations and teaching me the fundamentals of what it takes to build and run a startup. With his guidance, I quickly learned how to successfully fundraise, interface with investors, become an impactful leader, manage teams, and much more. Mike had an incredible hand in allowing me to understand the first stages of a startup, understanding what they need, and he instilled the importance of remaining focused and heading North, but staying dynamic and going another direction when change is needed.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
Spreading knowledge and providing professional guidance to others in my community is something that is deeply important to me. In order to do this on a regular basis, I launched Scrum Ventures’ “Office Hours,” an initiative that opened our doors the last week of every month to emerging entrepreneurs seeking advice on how to fundraise and scale their business. Due to our sessions, I have received feedback from entrepreneurs that have pivoted their business and raised their first round of seed funding, which has been incredibly rewarding to see. I also serve as a mentor for The Founder Institute in San Francisco, where I meet with founders 1:1 and give presentations on best tips and practices on how to grow a successful business.
Ok super. Now let’s jump to the main questions of our 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 five examples of different ideas that large retail outlets are implementing to adapt to the new realities created by the Pandemic?
The ongoing health crisis of COVID-19 has dramatically impacted the retail industry, forcing many brick and mortar stores — large and small — to completely alter the way they run their operations in order to remain compliant with global health regulations and ensure their consumers remain healthy. Remaining afloat in today’s new reality is a challenge for a lot of retailers, but in order to be successful, they must remain agile, dynamic and digitally savvy. Below are five examples of what large retailers are doing today that are allowing them to remain operable and in business.
- Ensuring High Touchpoint Cleaning: Retailers that are able to open their doors and allow in store shopping are following an entirely new set of procedures to ensure their store remains as sanitary as possible — and I see this remaining the standard for years to come. Not only are masks required at all times from both customers and employees, but many are implementing sanitary stations and enhancing workplace cleaning that allows everyone to feel clean and in a safe environment. Large department stores like Nordstrom and Macys are also deploying a “no try on” rule that forbids customers from trying on any clothes, and they are installing protective plexiglass shields at checkout stations during points of sale.
- Implementing Technology Adoption: In addition to adopting these new procedures, many large retailers are also relying on the help of new technologies that enable self-service kiosks and contactless check outs, which allows customers to shop and check out by themselves and in a socially distant manner.
- Facilitating Curbside Pick-up: Retailers are also offering curbside pick-up that allows customers to order ahead and avoid going into the store to find and purchase their items. This is becoming a widely common practice for many larger retailers and will continue to remain a large trend in 2021.
- Strengthening Retail’s Digital Presence: Although retailers are making in person shopping accessible through new cleaning procedures, self-check outs, and curbside pickup, online shopping still remains a preferred method of shopping in today’s COVID era. Now, 62% of U.S. shoppers say they shop more online than they did before the pandemic and according to IBM, the e-commerce industry is projected to grow by nearly 20%. Because of this, retailers are revamping their online presence and instilling new e-commerce strategies to make elements of their online experience as similar as possible to their stores. For example, large brands like Wayfair, IKEA and Sephora have implemented augmented reality applications online that brings their products to life.
- Enhancing Customer Support: Customer service in a COVID world is also exceptionally important and will be a make or break for many customers. According to Deloitte, unpredictable spikes in customer requests, combined with increased staff absence through sickness has made it extremely difficult for customer support professionals to meet inbound demand. One way retailers are responding to this is by implementing chatbot technologies that can help speed up response times and answer routine questions.
In your opinion, will retail stores or malls continue to exist? How would you articulate the role of physical retail spaces at a time when online commerce platforms like Amazon Prime or Instacart can deliver the same day or the next day?
Despite retail’s massive migration online, in-person shopping will always exist in some way. However, now more than ever, the retail experience will remain omnichannel, where customers will be able to choose from purchasing their products in person, online or through mobile applications, and it will continue to evolve into new forms. Though consumers will have many options to choose from, in person shopping will forever remain a beloved social activity and a core aspect of American culture, and I don’t see that going away anytime soon — especially during large holiday seasons like Black Friday and Christmas. As the retail experience continues to evolve, large shopping centers will also continue to adopt different forms of stores, entertainment and provide new services. We have already started to see these changes come to light, with experimental stores like B8ta rising the ranks in popularity prior to the pandemic. B8ta is disrupting the traditional retail model by getting emerging technologies into a physical retail space so consumers can discover and try new products out in person. Soon, we will see stores with contactless and cashier less checkout, robotic in-store agents, new co-retailing and pop up stores emerge, along with many more possibilities.
The so-called “Retail Apocalypse” has been going on for about a decade. While many retailers are struggling, some retailers, like Lululemon, Kroger, and Costco are quite profitable. Can you share a few lessons that other retailers can learn from the success of profitable retailers?
Lululemon, Costco and Kroger have all experienced success despite many changes the retail industry has faced over the last few years. Though each brand is different in their own way, they have adopted new business models that each propelled them to success. I’ve broken out each brand’s key success factors below.
Lululemon: This apparel company has taken off over the years, most known for kicking off the widely popular athleisure trend so many have come to love. Lululemon has remained profitable by selling unique and niche products, implementing a successful omnichannel approach via their app and website, and adopting new technologies and services through many strategic investments and business decisions. Their latest decision to acquire The Mirror will help expand their reach into a new customer base — as more individuals cancel their gym memberships and choose to exercise at home due to the pandemic.
Costco: This multi-billion dollar global retailer has warehouse club operations in eight countries, and has remained incredibly successful through selling a range of different products at low price points. Costco is known to instill a positive work culture and team environment and treat their employees well, so they feel supported and safe — especially during the pandemic. Their membership fees also create exclusivity and is a good source of recurring revenue for the business.
Kroger: This grocery store company stands as the largest supermarket by revenue and the second-largest general retailer in the United States. Similar to Lululemon, they have also moved towards an omnichannel approach, providing ecommerce options that makes buying food products more convenient and accessible. They offer delivery and curbside pickup options which makes shopping fast and easy for consumers. Additionally, Kroger remains competitive through several investments and acquisitions including the purchase of Home Chef, a provider of subscription-based meal kit delivery services, Murray’s Cheese, a mail order business that ships cheese to fine restaurants, and ModernHEALTH, an independent provider of specialty pharmacy services.
Amazon is 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 to retail companies and e-commerce companies, for them to be successful in the face of such strong competition?
In order for retail and e-commerce companies to remain successful in a world where Amazon and other large retailers continue to dominate the sector, it’s critical to focus on a niche and personalized product that is unlike anything else in the market. Large companies like Target, Home Depot, and Walmart take a broader approach and sell a huge variety of products at low prices. In order for an emerging incumbent to stand out, they must do the opposite: narrow their focus by building a product and company that is unique, and offer different business models through subscriptions, loyalty programs, referrals and rewards.
Thank you for all of that. We are nearly done. Here is our final ‘meaty’ question. 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. 🙂
From a venture capital perspective, I would make it a requirement across every fund to commit to invest in technologies that can positively impact our environment and make the world a greener, safer, and more sustainable place. As a California native, I’ve seen the destructive effects of global warming firsthand where just this year, we faced over 47,000 wildfires that burned 8.6 million acres — a travesty that nearly doubled in quantity from 2019. As a venture capitalist, we hold the responsibility to fund the next generation of companies and leaders. Regardless of the return on investment, I would urge my colleagues and firms across the globe to unify under a common goal that can finally make progress in achieving net zero, lowering carbon emissions, and putting an end to plastic production.
How can our readers further follow your work?
Readers can follow my work via Scrum Ventures’ blog post, which you can access here: https://medium.com/@ScrumVentures.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!