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Don Cumming of BlueWillow Biologics: “Speed and Agility ”

Speed and Agility — With the Coronavirus hitting the US hard, our team at Blue Willow knew we had an incredible product that could help consumers. We also knew we needed to move quickly to get this solution to market. We went from concept to live on Amazon in 100 days. The key was partnering with Amazon […]

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Speed and Agility — With the Coronavirus hitting the US hard, our team at Blue Willow knew we had an incredible product that could help consumers. We also knew we needed to move quickly to get this solution to market. We went from concept to live on Amazon in 100 days. The key was partnering with Amazon to help expedite item setup and ensure we had all proper documentation to pass their strict product compliance. It was important that the brand launched on Amazon with the Prime Promise vs. some competitors that launched via FBM (Fulfillment by Merchant), which may not offer free two-day shipping. Being a new brand on Amazon, going to business through Seller Central FBA (Fulfillment by Amazon) was the fastest way to market and the best way to deliver product to the end-user.


As a part of my interview series about “Five non-intuitive things you need to know to run a very successful Amazon business, I had the pleasure of interviewing Don Cumming, VP Marketing and Sales at BlueWillow Biologics.

Don is a seasoned global marketer with brand and product development expertise in the cosmetic, OTC, and medical device product categories across industry sectors with leaders including Perrigo, Ranir LLC, 3M, Kellogg Co., and Meijer. He arrived at BlueWillow Biologics®, an Ann Arbor, Michigan-based clinical-stage biopharmaceutical company, as the Vice President of Marketing and Sales in July 2020. At the time, the pandemic was in full force and the Company was in the midst of launching a pivotal new brand and product with Amazon. Don has been instrumental in creating a successful launch program into e-commerce and retail channels for this timely new brand and product, NanoBio® Protect, an over-the-counter nasal antiseptic solution.

Don holds dual master’s degrees from Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management in Engineering Management (MEM) and Business Administration (MBA), and well as a Bachelor of Science in Engineering from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

Don gives back to his Grand Rapids, Michigan community by volunteering on the marketing committee of Kids Food Basket, an organization combatting childhood hunger with fresh, locally-grown food.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you share with us the “backstory” about what brought you to this specific career path?

I think the common theme across my career has been my love of problem-solving. Early in my career as a consultant with Arthur Andersen, problem-solving often came in the form of finding ways to reduce costs for businesses. What I found was that my real passion was solving the needs of people. So, I transitioned to marketing, where I focused on understanding the breadth of consumer needs and developing products that meet those needs and messaging to bring those solutions to life. I have had the opportunity to apply these skills across a wide range of industries, with both manufacturers and retailers, and with both national and private brands. All have brought different challenges to address opportunities to learn and their own set of rewards.

Can you explain to our readers why you are an authority about selling on Amazon.com?

My first experience selling with Amazon was on Vendor Central back in 2016. My sales partner at the time owned the relationship with Amazon and was very inclusive as we looked for ways to optimize and grow our assortment using a range of Amazon’s tools. When I arrived at BlueWillow and learned that our retail launch was exclusively on Amazon, I dug in with my agency partner, Global Overview, to find efficient ways to grow our 1 ASIN business. In a matter of six months, we were able to extend our item lineup to 4 ASINs and grew our retail sales from almost nothing to over 1MM dollars. You don’t often see this with new brands and in new categories that require new consumer behaviors (in this case, swabbing your nose to kill and protect from germs that can cause respiratory infections).

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started this career?

I think my most interesting Amazon story starts with a dire warning: Think carefully before running deep discounts! With a prior employer, we had a major brick-and-mortar retailer promotion that did not sell through as planned. Given product dating, we decided to sell large quantities in closeout to cover our manufacturing costs. Unfortunately, that same inventory started to appear on the market just weeks after the closeout sale through third-party sellers on the Amazon marketplace. For the next six months, we consistently lost the buy box to third-party sellers, and our normal Amazon sales that had previously been healthy began to suffer significantly.

The important lesson: third-party resellers have more platforms than ever to resell your products and are here to stay. Be thoughtful about your depth of discount when promoting or closing out items, as these short-term decisions can come back to haunt your profitable business in the months ahead.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

My first experience working in retail was a high school job at a local pet store. My duties included stocking shelves, operating the cash register, and helping people with small live animals that we sold in store. During my second week on the job, a customer wanted help buying a chameleon. While I had never been trained on how to handle a chameleon, I figured: how hard could it be? I grabbed a small animal box and reached in to get the chameleon by the tail. That’s when the chaos began.

On my first attempt the chameleon swung around and bit my finger. I impulsively pulled back, and the chameleon dropped to the floor and proceeded to run away. When I finally caught it, I picked it up differently (so I would not get bitten again) and placed it in the box. As soon as I set it in the box, the chameleon swiftly scaled the side of the box, dropped to the floor, and scurried away again. After chasing it down the second time, I was prepared to close the box lid quickly — only this time, after placing it in the box, the chameleon escaped through the air hole on the side of the box. By the time I chased down the chameleon for the third time, my manager had noticed what was going on. He came over, put the chameleon in a plastic fish bag, and handed it to the customer. I was left feeling tired and a little embarrassed after seeing how simple the solution was.

The lesson: Don’t be afraid to ask for help if you don’t know what you’re doing…you’ll save yourself a lot of running around!

Are you working on any exciting projects now? How do you think that will help people?

Yes. We are very proud of a new philanthropic initiative we recently started. NanoBio Protect’s mission is to protect what matters most so people can live healthier lives. As a small brand trying to make a big difference, we recently implemented a “Buy One, Give One” philanthropy initiative on Amazon. This enables us to make our mission a reality and give back to frontline workers and economically disadvantaged communities in need. For every purchase a customer makes, we donate a bottle of product. We have partnered with Good360, the global leader in product philanthropy and purposeful giving, to achieve this. We feel it is a win-win as our customers get to play an instrumental role in helping others. In the short time since we launched the program, we have donated more than 12,000 bottles. This is an ongoing initiative that we plan to continue indefinitely.

We have additional innovations in development that we plan to add to our NanoBio Protect Amazon portfolio of products in 2021 that will further provide essential germ protection to our customers.

Given the current pandemic and the day-to-day battle we are all facing against germs (even in non-pandemic times), we are hopeful all of our efforts are instrumental in helping people protect themselves and their loved ones from respiratory infection.

Ok. Let’s jump to the core of our discussion. You are a seasoned Amazon expert. Can you share with our readers five non-intuitive, insider tips, in order to be as successful as possible on Amazon? Please share a story or example for each.

We attribute these five tips to our success with Amazon:

  1. Speed and Agility — With the Coronavirus hitting the US hard, our team at Blue Willow knew we had an incredible product that could help consumers. We also knew we needed to move quickly to get this solution to market. We went from concept to live on Amazon in 100 days. The key was partnering with Amazon to help expedite item setup and ensure we had all proper documentation to pass their strict product compliance. It was important that the brand launched on Amazon with the Prime Promise vs. some competitors that launched via FBM (Fulfillment by Merchant), which may not offer free two-day shipping. Being a new brand on Amazon, going to business through Seller Central FBA (Fulfillment by Amazon) was the fastest way to market and the best way to deliver product to the end-user.
  2. Content — As with any product launch on Amazon, we knew content was going to be essential. We had to build out content to be multi-faceted. Our team not only had to build awareness around the NanoBio Protect brand but also for a new category and a new type of solution for consumers to protect themselves from respiratory infection. Before we invested in advertising, we made sure to be fully optimal from a content perspective: Titles, Bullets, Tiles, A+ and a Brand Store. We made sure to maximize the character count for titles and bullets and made sure the content was keyword rich yet consumer friendly, keeping the overall customer experience in mind. For Tiles and A+ we told a story with strong imagery and concise copy. The goal was to clearly educate the consumer on the product benefits and provide clear reasons to believe in the product. Our content was fully live on Amazon as our product went live on Amazon, leading to a fast start.
  3. Building Awareness — We had a big task at hand as we had to build a brand and a category. Therefore, it was imperative to drive awareness (top-funnel advertising). We did this leveraging Amazon Advertising Sponsored Products and DSP and leveraging social media to drive external traffic to the product detail page. This media mix drove the item to be within the top 10,000 products within the Health & Household category within 30 days of being on Amazon. We managed all the advertising not measuring ROAS but staying focused on overall sales performance and watching key KPIs of traffic (sessions) and conversion rate.
  4. Ratings and Reviews — We took advantage of Amazon programs Vine and Early Reviewer; however, we knew the key to driving reviews is to continue to sell more products. Our product achieved nearly 2,000 reviews just ten months into launch by fueling the business with Amazon Advertising (both DSP and Sponsored Products).
  5. Testing and Learning — We moved quickly to launch on Amazon, but we could not rest on our laurels. We were starting with limited consumer data; therefore, we learned from our Amazon consumer and the platform’s different tools and continuously updated our content based on the following learnings:
  • Customer Engagement — From questions on Amazon and the Ratings and Reviews we listened to our consumers to understand how to better communicate about our product and updated the content accordingly
  • Search Terms Report — As we were building a category, we monitored how consumers were bidding on our products along with different competitors that were coming into the category to stay on top of consumer trends and make sure we are targeting our product in the correct manner
  • Social changes — As the country shifted into our new “normal,” we had to make sure our product was relevant and relatable to the new norm. We made sure our content mirrored the importance of mainstream recommendations of social distancing and wearing masks. In addition, we wanted to do our part to help others and created a “Buy One, Give One” program on Amazon to give back to frontline workers and communities in need that we mentioned above. We recommend always making sure your brand is socially relevant and current with the times. The beauty of digital is the ability to be nimble; stay current and always be willing to adjust.

Amazon sellers have a reputation for being great guerilla marketers. Do you use any clever and innovative marketing strategies that you think large legacy companies should consider adopting?

Yes: run your business on Seller Central, not Vendor Central. I have had the opportunity to work in both spaces and without question, Seller Central is preferred, primarily because it provides maximum control of retail price. Amazon’s Vendor Central pricing algorithms can drive brands into the ground based on inventory levels, competitive pricing, etc. Even though Seller Central can be more expensive to operate, the tradeoff for pricing control is worth every penny.

Because of the position that you are in, you are a person of great influence. If you could inspire 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. 🙂

SARS-CoV-2 has been devastating for families and economies around the world. But there are valuable, societal lessons that the survivors can carry forward, specifically related to the importance of public health. There are many GOOD habits we have begun to engage in as a society with regard to reducing the risk of spreading and contracting respiratory illnesses. This includes keeping up with vaccinations, staying home when sick, covering your mouth and nose when you cough or sneeze, and protecting your nose, which is the primary entry point of most respiratory infections. These are simple things that we can all do to help keep both ourselves and our economy healthy for decades to come.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“The only thing you control in life is your attitude.” This is something I soundly believe to be true. In business and in life, bad things happen…many of them entirely out of our control. How you respond to situations — good and bad — define who you are as a person. It is a lesson I remind myself, and my children, on a regular basis.

Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

That’s a tough question! There are so many amazing people that I would love to meet one day, who have inspired me because of how they have overcome perceptions to reach the top of their professions (Barack Obama, Tom Brady, Sandra Day O’Connor, among others). But if I had to pick one to meet, I would choose Stephen Curry. Steph is an inspiration on so many levels. He was overlooked at the high school level because of his size, but that didn’t stop him from working hard to be the best ever at what he does. Also, as a father of two daughters, I love how he inspires girls to rise up, dream big and work hard to make their dreams come true. His message is inclusive, inspiring, and rooted in what makes this country great. Steph Curry is a brand that millions want to be a part of for all the right reasons…and I am one of them.

However, if Steph Curry and I did ever have lunch, my daughters would be shattered if they didn’t get to tag along!

Thank you so much for these great insights. This was very enlightening!

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