“Be your authentic self”, with Jason Remilard and Helene Berkowitz

Don’t copy someone else’s pitch, email campaign, or social media messaging. Be your authentic self. After all, YOU are the face of your company. Authenticity is so important, and people really respond to that. Asa part of my series about “Lessons From Inspirational Women Leaders in Tech”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Helene Berkowitz. […]

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Don’t copy someone else’s pitch, email campaign, or social media messaging. Be your authentic self. After all, YOU are the face of your company. Authenticity is so important, and people really respond to that.

Asa part of my series about “Lessons From Inspirational Women Leaders in Tech”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Helene Berkowitz.

Helene Berkowitz is a Retail Tech executive and startup founder with a background in finance and international payment systems. She is passionate about technology with a human component. In 2017, Helene founded ReceetMe to create a positive digital retail experience focused on the consumer.

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?

Itall started with a pair of pants. My husband — who hates to shop for himself — needed a new pair of jeans. I offered to stop at a local store on my way home from work and pick up a pair for him. I mistakenly bought the wrong size. I wanted to exchange them for the correct size, but couldn’t find the receipt. I looked everywhere for that little piece of paper, but had no luck.

That’s when I had my ‘aha’ moment. It occurred to me that although we’re living in an age of next-gen technology (think IoT devices, robot-assisted surgery, and packages delivered by drone), so many aspects of our lives have remained low-tech and inefficient. I thought about how many paper receipts are generated by retail stores each year, the environmental strain of excessive water, chemicals, and trees used to create millions of receipt paper rolls, and of course, the customer experience.

I researched current digital receipt solutions and what I found was that few of them had addressed the consumer pain point in a significant way. Many shoppers dislike paper receipts, email versions crowd our already crowded inboxes, and other solutions require excessive manual steps for the user. I also knew that retailers were investing millions in technologies that personalized the customer journey, but they had no information on cash-paying customers, their data was fragmented across multiple systems, and shifting behaviors made it difficult to predict — and meet — consumer demand.

I felt the lack of a clear market leader with a simple solution. Having worked for a number of other people’s startups, I saw how things could be different. I knew I had the right vision and the business background to bring my idea to life.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?

Three years ago, I saw a Facebook post about an international conference organized by the governments of the US and India. The theme of this Global Entrepreneurship Summit was “Women First; Prosperity for All”, supporting the idea that the inclusion of women into the world’s economies could boost prosperity for all of humanity.

Since ReceetMe is a woman-led company, I applied to participate and was accepted. I flew to Hyderabad, India, and joined 1,500 other delegates from around the world to learn, network, share, and be inspired. I met incredible men and women who were actively rebuilding communities in Haiti devasted by the 2010 earthquake, volunteering their dental care services to poor communities, creating programs to encourage girls to get into STEM fields, and more. These were 3 of the most incredible days of my life.

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?

When I first started my company, I maintained a full-time job elsewhere since ReceetMe was still in “stealth mode”. I was approached by an investor to discuss my venture and scheduled a conference call, but there was no place for me to make a private phone call except outside of my office building with noisy traffic. The only place I could find was a different floor inside that was under construction. After the call, I returned to my office, which had an open-floor plan of cubicles. Minutes later, someone noticed a huge trail of dust and tiny pieces of debris all over the carpet. I had unknowingly trailed in construction debris from my shoes that ended up strewn all over the floor!

The lesson I learned was this: be more careful and plan for contingencies.

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?

I faced some challenging times, financially and psychologically. Having a family or paying rent are treated like a dirty little secret in the startup world. It’s as if you’re not supposed to admit that you have a spouse and children, bills to pay, or family events to attend, while you’re also hustling to bring your startup to market. I couldn’t focus on my own company 100% of the time because I needed to support my family by maintaining a side job.

I’ve considered giving up plenty of times. I’ve often thought, “Nope, this is just too hard. I should go back to a 9–5 job, collect my paycheck, and go home”, but there are 2 things that drive me to continue: family and FOMO.

First, I’m raising 4 daughters and am very conscious of being a role model, especially when it comes to balancing my personal and professional lives. I want my girls to know and to see with their own eyes what they can accomplish if they work hard.

Second, whenever I’m about to throw in the towel, someone inevitably sends me a WhatsApp photo of a super long paper receipt (or a massive pile of them) and says, “When are you going to fix this problem?” and I know I’ve got to keep going if I want ReceetMe to become the market leader.

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 about that?

My parents. They’re immigrants who came from humble beginnings who got to live the American Dream. I learned about hard work, dedication, and the importance of helping others from them. My father emigrated to North America without speaking a word of English, built a career in hi-tech, and was laid off 8 times throughout his 30-year career, but he never gave up. He helped other people find jobs and taught them about networking. My mother worked for non-profit organizations and taught English to new immigrants. They’ve both always supported me in whatever I chose to do in life and were one of the first to help me get my company off the ground.

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

“Authenticity is your most precious commodity as a leader.” — Marcus Buckingham

I think for many entrepreneurs, we believe we have to be like everyone else. We see business leaders and CEOs of huge companies and use them as sort of a cookie cutter mold, but that’s inauthentic. I need to be myself, and so I never begin a meeting or presentation by showing graphs or discussing the market opportunity. I tell the jeans story because we’re all shoppers; we’ve all experienced the frustration of returning something to a store. It’s human and it’s real.

Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. We’d love to learn a bit about your company. What is the pain point that your company is helping to address?

We’re addressing the need for an all-encompassing digital receipt platform. While every retailer has their own app, no consumer wants 50 different apps from 50 different stores. They want simplicity and usability. ReceetMe is all about data aggregation: thousands of receipts, 1 platform.

With ReceetMe, retailers gain detailed insights into consumer purchasing behaviors, including data on cash transactions. Consumers gain a positive retail experience by accessing all e-receipts on their smartphones. They enjoy contactless, frictionless checkout, which is payment agnostic and environmentally-friendly.

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

We stand out because we include cash and we think big. I come from a finance background, where you’re taught that the world is completely cashless and everyone uses mobile payments. But this just isn’t true. Cash is still king in many markets, including North America. In fact, 16 million Americans are unbanked and 70% of them use cash as their primary payment method. Globally, those numbers are much higher.

Whenever I say this in a public forum, I always see several people in the audience nodding their heads in agreement. 9 times out of 10, they work in Fintech and they just “get it”. I approach them later and say, “You work in finance, don’t you?” and we laugh.

Our competitors typically think small. Their e-receipt solutions are limited to some retailers, such as cafes and restaurants. Others are limited to certain credit cards or banking apps. We’re going bigger. We stand out because our solution isn’t limited to specific payment methods or specific shops.

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

ReceetMe’s long-term vision is to rebrand as a total retail optimization company. We want to make people’s lives easier and more convenient, whether they’re shopping for groceries, clothes, appliances, gifts, office supplies, or furniture. We’re all busy — we want to make things just a little better for people.

Let’s zoom out a bit and talk in more broad terms. Are you currently satisfied with the status quo regarding women in Tech? What specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?

I’m dissatisfied with the status quo for women in tech. There are many talented women that companies never meet, let alone hire, either due to outdated recruiting practices or inflexibility, especially important for parents. Many women study computer science or programming but feel discouraged by negative press about the tech sector, so they decide to change careers. They lack mentors and guidance.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women in Tech that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts? What would you suggest to address this?

For many young women with children, flexibility is a huge factor in their career paths. Mothers are typically the ones organizing childcare, doctor appointments, and school and family events. Inflexible working conditions make this balance difficult. One positive outcome from COVID-19 has been normalizing remote work. Who hasn’t been on a Zoom call and seen a child in the background or on a lap?

Female employees and executives need mentors and role models; talented, experienced people to advise and help guide them. This is a great way to forge a successful career in tech.

When it comes to job searching, men and women approach it differently. Women are often encouraged to dumb down their skills for fear of being seen as overqualified or overbearing, whereas men are encouraged to beef up their resumes to be seen as experienced and authoritative. Women are more likely to bypass a job opportunity if they don’t meet 100% of the qualifications, whereas men will go for it.

To address this, we need to first acknowledge the problem. Recruiters and companies should embrace transparency in terms of job requirements and skills. Women should be encouraged to remain self-confident and true to their skills and professional experience.

What would you advise to another tech leader who initially went through years of successive growth, but has now reached a standstill. From your experience do you have any general advice about how to boost growth or sales and “restart their engines”?

Take a break from your current trajectory and start talking to your customers. Ask questions and listen to what they have to say, not so that you can swoop in and save the day, but to really understand what drives their decision making. This is the best way to cultivate great customer relationships and create a better company, which of course, impacts growth.

Do you have any advice about how companies can create very high performing sales teams?

Don’t aim too high, don’t aim too low. You’re not going to talk to the CEO or top decision maker right out of the gate. Find the person with enough clout to make decisions about investing in external solutions. Do your research to gain a clear understanding of their challenges and how your company helps solve them.

In your specific industry what methods have you found to be most effective in order to find and attract the right customers? Can you share any stories or examples?

We’ve found that marketing our product as an objective solution — not tied down to a specific POS system or retail type — clarifies our unique offering. Because ReceetMe includes cash transactions, retailers such as dollar stores, whose business is primarily a cash one, grasp our benefits very quickly.

Based on your experience, can you share 3 or 4 strategies to give your customers the best possible user experience and customer service?

  1. Check in regularly, even if your customer isn’t reporting any problem or requesting anything. This accomplishes 2 things: 1) It shows that you value your customers; and 2) It cements the business relationship.
  2. Ask for customer feedback. Some of the best ideas happen this way.
  3. Create use cases for your marketing strategy. Has your business or product helped a customer achieve a goal, create a new business opportunity, or identify new customers for their business? Build a story around this.

As you likely know, this HBR article demonstrates that studies have shown that retaining customers can be far more lucrative than finding new ones. Do you use any specific initiatives to limit customer attrition or customer churn? Can you share some of your advice from your experience about how to limit customer churn?

Regular check-ins are an important element of reducing customer churn. It helps you as the service provider stay informed about customer needs and market movement.

Check out the competition. Whether it’s new features, reduced pricing plans, or a changing industry, customers are always on the lookout for a better deal or service. Keep your eyes out for developments from your biggest competitors. If you consistently offer a better deal, the likelihood of customer churn will be much lower.

Here is the main question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to create a very successful tech company? Please share a story or an example for each.

  1. More time on product, less time chasing investors. Even with a large influx of capital and great investors, if the product isn’t exceptional, the company will go nowhere. I wish I had spent more time focused on product development instead of chasing investors. This wasn’t a productive use of my time.
  2. Don’t copy someone else’s pitch, email campaign, or social media messaging. Be your authentic self. After all, YOU are the face of your company. Authenticity is so important, and people really respond to that.

I once presented my startup to a panel of judges, which was supposed to be sector-specific, but in the end was very general. I thought, “How am I going to tweak this to a general audience?” I decided to get more personal. I thought about how much I love Jon Bon Jovi, so I told a story about a lost concert ticket with no digital record of the purchase and how it felt to miss out on seeing my favorite performer. One of the judges smiled and I heard her humming ‘Livin on a Prayer’ to herself. My approach spoke to my audience because it was authentic and funny.

3. It’s ok to use humor. I thought I had to sound like everyone else out there, kind of stiff and serious, but that just isn’t me. I use humor in many ways, from how I talk about the Retail industry, to how my company got started, to facing new challenges, and the many ups and downs of being a tech founder.

4. Market research never ends. Just when you think “Aha, I’ve got it!”, someone else inevitably comes up with a better message, a better product feature, identifies a new microsegment of the market, etc. Never stop researching and learning. Before the pandemic, we often talked about contactless shopping, but this became even more relevant in a COVID-19 world and retailers are responding to this more.

5. Be open to criticism. Take the ones that are constructive, help you grow, and build a better brand. Ignore the ones that aren’t helpful, but smile and say, “thank you”, anyway. Be kind and help others. A new hire, business partner, or vendor isn’t for you? Founders know other founders — maybe there’s someone else who would be a better match. I’m always happy to do this for others and I know many founders who do the same.

Wonderful. We are nearly done. Here are the final “meaty” questions of our discussion. You are a person of enormous 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. 🙂

If I could inspire a big movement of greater good, it would be about mental health. I wish that mental healthcare was on par with physical healthcare. Although mental illness is far less taboo than it used to be, there is a long way to go before we get to a place of exceptional healthcare for both physical and mental health.

We are very blessed that very prominent leaders 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 🙂

I would love to meet Theresa May. She seems to have both the focus of a bull terrier with the temperament and humor of a charismatic tough love grandmother. I’ve always seen her as a truly exceptional leader and would love to meet her to chat about anything and everything.

Thank you so much for this. This was very inspirational, and we wish you only continued success!

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