Abdul Ahmed of Adesso Man: “Be empathetic”

Be empathetic — If you remain consumer-centric the way you approach the customer is different. It’s less about selling and helping customers feel great about themselves. Our approach is never to sell products to our customers. We have realized that many people initially don’t know what they are looking for when they enter our store and tend […]

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Be empathetic — If you remain consumer-centric the way you approach the customer is different. It’s less about selling and helping customers feel great about themselves. Our approach is never to sell products to our customers. We have realized that many people initially don’t know what they are looking for when they enter our store and tend to not feel comfortable expressing that. So our approach is always to make the customer feel comfortable enough to open up to us. We ask a lot of open-ended questions and educate our customers rather than trying to push products.

As part of my series about the “How To Create A Fantastic Retail or E-Tail Experience That Keeps Bringing Customers Back For More”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Abdul Ahmed.

Abdul Ahmed is Co-Founder and CEO of Adesso Man, a men’s lifestyle brand dedicated to helping men look good, feel confident, and build community. Abdul and his partners Ayaz Raja and Lucas Anderson have built a purpose-driven brand that offers functional, premium products that are affordable and built to last.

Born in Pakistan to a father in jewelry manufacturing, Abdul grew up around the family business, eventually immigrating to Canada. He is passionate about brand and product development, retail, and consumer behavior. He has more than 20 years of retail and fashion experience, working for Guess, The Gap, French Connection, and Mexx.

He received a degree in marketing from Mount Royal University in Calgary, focusing on brand development and strategy. He established Adesso Man in 2016 while still in college and working full-time in retail. To date, the brand has generated more than 2 million dollars in sales, creating 20 jobs in the process.

Abdul’s mission is to help contribute to the growing movement towards conscious consumerism. He uses his platform to build meaningful community relationships that elevate the most vulnerable members of society. His team has proudly raised 50,000 dollars+ for various charities and organizations and has helped support 15 small Canadian brands and counting.

In his spare time, Abdul enjoys traveling and experiencing new cultures and is a big foodie and basketball fan.

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?

The story of how we started Adesso starts back in 2013/2014. While I was still in university, I created a mock business plan for an idea behind a men’s lifestyle brand and shop that served as a community hub for men’s fashion, grooming, and lifestyle. Business runs in my blood as my father is a generational jeweler and had multiple retail shops. I was always drawn to the fashion and jewelry industry and started my retail career in 2006, working in many management roles. I always felt I would find myself working in the industry long term and, with my desire to own my own business, I naturally used my business plan to conceptualize what is now Adesso Man. I founded Adesso Man with my business partners, Ayaz and Lucas, in 2016 as a passion project to change the landscape of the men’s fashion and lifestyle market.

Adesso Man was born to meet the needs of modern men. We noticed that while the men’s style and personal care trend was on the rise due to the rapid adoption of social media and e-commerce, there remained a significant gap in our hometown, Calgary, and Canada as a whole was behind of the times. We had a hard time finding unique accessory pieces or men’s grooming products that would allow us to express our personalities.

At that time, if you were looking for fashionable, European-inspired, premium quality accessories and/or apparel, the options that existed were few and far between in Canada than in the U.S. We believed that a premium, on-trend, accessible lifestyle brand that offered value and a sense of community to the modern man needed to exist in the marketplace. Adesso Man was born first as Adesso Accessories, an accessory-focused brand, and has since evolved into a multi-faceted lifestyle brand for men who want to feel more confident about how they look and feel in today’s world.

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?

My business partners are like my brothers now. Without them, we could not be where we are today. Ayaz and Lucas both have unique skills that I do not possess, such as creative direction and design (Ayaz) and operational and technical skills (Lucas). We have had many good times together, and the best part about us is that we can communicate with each other, respect each other, keep each other accountable, and support each other at all times. Without them, there is no Adesso Man.

Is there a particular book, podcast, or film that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

The Pursuit of Happiness is one of those movies that inspired me. It was based on a true story and showed the plight of many people struggling to make ends meet and make it for their families. Being an immigrant and person of color especially showed how much harder we have to work to succeed. But most importantly it showed commitment and determination. The lesson I took from it was to keep trying and pushing through the tough times, being the best you can be, have faith in God, and trust that your hard work will pay off. There have been many times in our journey we have had moments where we did not know if we were going to survive, multiple sacrifices that we have had to make in our personal lives, and times where you almost feel like you are done but you have to remind yourself what you are fighting for and not give up.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

We stand out because we are genuinely invested in helping people become the best version of themselves. We are taking the time to learn about who we serve and how we can best solve their problems with the tools and resources we have. This means that we are flexible and ready to evolve at any time as the needs of our customers change. We are forward-thinking and consumer-focused in our approach to business. We genuinely care about people and go above and beyond for them. I have had in-depth conversations with my customers and allow them to have access to me if they require it. Our entire team has the same mentality, and we do our best to really understand our customers and their needs and then create products and experiences for them. An example of this is how we set up our stores. Our environment is eye-catching, comfortable, and intimate for our customers which allows them to explore and discover our products, while we engage them and build meaningful relationships. We have customers with whom we have built deep relationships and have helped with mental health issues. I have had customers tell me that we helped save their life because of how we treat them and that for me is what our brand is all about.

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

This past year, the power of self-love and investing in your physical, mental, and spiritual health is vital. For me, investing in myself and making sure I am 100 percent good so I can give my 100 percent is essential. I make time for my well-being every day through prayer, diet, social life, physical activities, acquiring knowledge and skills, and rest. Invest in yourself as much as you invest in your business.

Ok super. Now let’s jump to the main questions of our interview. The so-called “Retail Apocalypse” has been going on for about a decade. The Pandemic only made things much worse for retailers in general. 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?

I believe it’s simple — they created monopolies for themselves in their specific categories. They invested in either being the best in class for their category or building a strong loyal customer base/community around their brand. You can only do that if you deliver on what you say you are going to do with the customer’s best interest in mind. In a time where it is hard to trust anyone, the companies that are winning have built their brands on creating loyalty and trust by saying what they are going to do and working for their customers and their needs.

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 retail companies and eCommerce companies, for them to be successful in the face of such strong competition?

Be better, be more innovative, offer more value to the consumer than your competitors. And this doesn’t necessarily mean you compete just on price as value is perceived and not always dependent on price. If you are having to compete on price or spend a lot of money on marketing, your product is not good enough.

What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs & founders make when they start a retail business? What can be done to avoid those errors?

One of the biggest mistakes I have seen founders and CEOs make is getting stuck on an idea. When the ego is in play, you can sometimes get caught up forcing something that may not be working. Having a great team around you that is honest and taking feedback and criticism to adjust and change accordingly is essential.

Another mistake I see founders make is they have a hard time letting go of control and wanting to have their hands in everything — micromanaging is rarely efficient and can cause many internal issues. Trusting your team and also hiring the right people is essential to success. You ideally want to focus on what you are passionate about and good at so that you can lead the business without being distracted.

This might be intuitive, but I think it’s helpful to specifically articulate it. In your words, can you share a few reasons why great customer service and a great customer experience is essential for success in business in general and for retail in particular?

Well, it is the heart of what any customer-facing business is all about. For me, it comes from always having a service mentality. My purpose is to serve and help as many people as I can. It is rooted in empathy, and when you have it, you can understand the people you serve better. You can solve their problems and create long-lasting relationships. Business success is not just about acquiring new customers but about nurturing them and investing in their loyalty. If you can create an experience that invokes a genuine emotion that resonates with the consumer, you have now created a bond between you and them that will keep them coming back and lead to ambassadorship, which leads them to advocate for your brand/company as well.

We have all had times either in a store, or online, when we’ve had a very poor experience as a customer or user. If the importance of a good customer experience is so intuitive, and apparent, where is the disconnect? How is it that so many companies do not make this a priority?

More companies are making an effort to care for their customers, but I still think that when you live in a world where so many people are insecure and/or self-involved, they rarely genuinely care about who they are serving and are only looking for quick ways to make money. It is transactional, but I do feel that consumers are demanding more from companies now. As a new brand coming into a highly competitive marketplace space, you have to have great customer service to stand out or even be considered.

Can you share with us a story from your experience about a customer who was “Wowed” by the experience you provided?

Yes, we have a regular customer of ours that comes in our store often but does not always purchase. However, we make him feel welcomed and spend time building a relationship with him. Since he frequently comes in, we reach out over text or phone when we have new products to check in with him. He happens to be Black and mentioned he said he keeps coming back to us because he never gets treated well in other stores. He also is alone sometimes. He does not have many friends in the city, and his family is back in Africa. He would reach out to me to chat, and I could tell that he was going through a rough time over the pandemic. I would then invite him to the store and spend time with him, giving him attention and outfitting him with items that would help him feel taken care of. He has told me multiple times that he loves our store and our team and that we helped him through depression, to a point where he admitted he almost committed suicide, and us being there for him helped him through the dark times and saved his life. It was such an honor for me and one of the most heartfelt moments of my career.

Did that Wow! experience have any long-term ripple effects? Can you share the story?

The long-term effects are that it strengthens your resolve and motivates you to want to continue your mission. It also trickles down to the rest of the team, and the buy-in from our team is amazing. It helps build culture, and we love sharing stories about our experiences. One such story happened recently where one of my team members came across a girl crying outside our store — he happens to be a musician and brings his guitar to the store sometimes and plays music for customers or in the store when he feels like it. He went and got his guitar, and he played her a song that turned her day around. She even came back and thanked him again. He didn’t need to do that, but he went out of his way to try and make someone’s day better.

A fantastic retail experience isn’t just one specific thing. It can be a composite of many different subtle elements fused together. Can you help us break down and identify the different ingredients that come together to create a “fantastic retail experience”?

  • The right people — hire well and train well. Building the right culture and getting buy-in from your team is essential. An example of this is lululemon.
  • Your product needs to be worth it — you can have the nicest store and the best service, but if your product isn’t great, it won’t matter.
  • Store design and ambiance — how your customer feels in your space is essential. It includes the fixtures, lighting, displays, windows, signage, music, the layout of the store. If your store design does not invoke the emotion you want your customer to feel, the experience will fall short.
  • Your Sales Process — how you engage your customers is the meat of the experience, so lead with empathy and build genuine relationships.
  • After-Sale Service — creating a loyal customer is essential, you want them to come back for more.

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 fantastic retail experience that keeps bringing customers back for more? Please share a story or an example for each.

  1. Hire Right — It starts with the people, top down. If you have a great team, great training, great culture, and buy-in, you will win. For example, when we go above and beyond for our customers, our staff is inspired to do the same.
  2. Be empathetic — If you remain consumer-centric the way you approach the customer is different. It’s less about selling and helping customers feel great about themselves. Our approach is never to sell products to our customers. We have realized that many people initially don’t know what they are looking for when they enter our store and tend to not feel comfortable expressing that. So our approach is always to make the customer feel comfortable enough to open up to us. We ask a lot of open-ended questions and educate our customers rather than trying to push products.
  3. Be clear and consistent with your messaging — A customer should know who you are and what you are about every time they leave the store. From your window display to your merchandising and your approach, your experience should tell the same story and be consistent. If you have a specific display, for instance, that does not match the overall aesthetic of the store, it may throw off customers.
  4. Create systems, processes, and accountability — Use these to measure and ensure that every customer receives the same level of service and respect. For example, having regular check-ins with your team, consistent training, and policy and procedures to follow so you can hold them accountable.
  5. Create value — Every person perceives value differently, so if you can figure out how to create value in every interaction with your customers, from your products to your service and even the store design, you will win. Your packaging, your pricing, the way you educate your customers, the suggestions you make — all of these items need to be in place in a way that each creates value for the customer.

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. 🙂

I would love to start a movement towards creating more empathy and less judgment this year. I think empathy is fueled by gratitude and love, and this leads to people caring about each other, not just themselves. When we start making decisions based on the impact they have on us but also others, we can change the world.

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this!

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