Make the customer experience as seamless and efficient as possible, whatever the device. Leverage quick checkout like Apple Pay or Amazon Pay. Setup strong analytics and A/B tests to understand where customers drop out. And if you’re creative, go the extra mile to make them smile at one point in the process.
As part of my series about the “5 Things You Need to Know To Create A Highly Successful E-Commerce Business”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Benjamin Pipat, Co-Founder and CEO of Seelk, an Amazon software and consultancy, which is part of digital transformation partner Jellyfish.
Benjamin graduated from Polytechnique and the London School of Economics. He worked in management consulting in London before turning to entrepreneurship. Passionate of tech and eCommerce, he founded Vinify (a Pandora-like wine-cellar app) before co-founding Seelk with the ambition to build the most advanced retail-media technology and solution for brands on Amazon.
Benjamin is an active member of the Paris startup ecosystem, being board member of AngelSquare Impact and investor in companies like Slite and Bubble.
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’m a lifelong geek with a MSc in Computer Science and Renewable Energies, but I switched to the dark side after my master’s in management at the London School of Economics, which led me to join a London-based management consulting firm for two years.
I quickly felt the urge to get back to coding and came home to France to launch my first eCommerce startup: Vinify. It was a subscription-based wine business where everything was about customer centricity and customization: curated selections, recommendations, tailored frequency. Handling the entire value-chain from sourcing wines, acquiring customers to optimizing assortment and automating delivery was both exhilarating and an amazing way to discover the ins and outs of managing an eCommerce business.
After a long M&A process, I became a tech consultant on recommender systems with a few startups before meeting my future business partners in 2016.
What was the “Aha Moment” that led to the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?
I was approached by Fast-Up Partners, a French consulting firm and startup studio led by former P&G execs, who were seeing Amazon come up in an increasing number of board-level discussions. This is where I met Raphaël, a former Amazon exec who was looking into the subject and we decided to start this journey to help brands successfully address new eCommerce platforms with a mix of consulting, operations and technology.
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?
Our initial model was to help brands deploy on all eCommerce platforms around the world (Amazon, eBay, Zalando, Rakuten, Harvey Nichols, Cdiscount to name a few). This meant we had to build tech on all these platforms with mostly unstable and ever-changing APIs, as well as understand the ins and outs of every single one of them. At that time e-commerce represented less than 5% of brands revenue, and each platform less than a tenth of that. We were exhausting ourselves to generate a few thousand dollars on each platform while over 90% of the business was made on Amazon.
Mid-2017, we decided to pivot and focus solely on helping brands perform on Amazon globally. Bringing operational focus and clarity in our offering was a game changer, at the same time that Amazon was beginning to become unavoidable. We knew we were ahead in Europe and that the market was moving in our direction, we just had to stand strong and push through.
So, how are things going today? How did your grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?
Things did indeed move quickly at the end of 2018 when a lot of network agencies began to look to build or acquire their own Amazon capabilities. We were approached by a few but decided to join Fimalac with whom we set out to build a global leader in consulting & technology for Amazon. We had no plan to sell but Fimalac’s inspiring entrepreneurial approach was the best of both worlds: strong autonomy and the means to scale globally. The latest news is that at the end of 2020 Seelk has become a part of Jellyfish, which is another step-in line with our vision of supporting brands globally with experts and technology.
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?
I wouldn’t call it funny, but I had a realization a few months in launching the wine business. Given the strong constraints of sending wine bottles by post, we were only making around 1€ profit per bottle sold. Sounds silly, but that meant selling a million bottles to make a million in profit, and we were the ones doing the pick & pack in our warehouses. Two lessons there: unit economics and choosing what to outsource.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
We were the first company to address Amazon consulting from a technological standpoint. Our conviction was that without a deep understanding of eCommerce search engines, we would soon hit a glass ceiling in the relevance of our advice to brands. This is why we built our entire value proposition on a data and analytics platform which was initially supposed to be an internal tool.
But in a training session we were conducting at BIC’s global headquarters in early 2018, some of the eCommerce executives present in the room asked if they could have access to the platform we were showing. We launched a pilot with BIC’s eCommerce team, and they became our first SaaS client. Two years later, the Seelk Studio is now a fully-fledged software used by dozens of brands to pilot their Amazon business globally.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
2020 has been crazier than ever and we’ve had our share of team members losing their A-game due to a lack of focus or social interactions. What’s great is that this year taught most of the world that a good share of our work can be done from anywhere, at any time of the day. My advice is to find your own flow so you can be “in the zone” as many hours a week as possible. On my end it’s a mix of boxing workouts, long train rides with no internet and after-hours work sessions.
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?
So many people to be grateful towards, focusing on a single one would go against the idea that you don’t succeed overnight.
The main philosophy I’d like to share is the “pay it forward” mindset I was taught at The Family, the French startup accelerator which I joined with my first startup. That, mixed with an optimistic state of mind, is what creates positive value-creation loops and leads to sustainable success.
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?
Consumption habits have been forced to change and are now here to stay. More customers are accustomed to buying online, and the ones who already did now buy a wider range of goods (including grocery and daily needs).
Some brands didn’t wait for the pandemic to structure their Amazon strategy, operations and tooling, and have come out on top of this e-commerce frenzy.
Performing on Amazon isn’t dark magic, it’s the outcome of a continuous equilibrium including great content, always-available products and retail-driven advertising strategies. Digital-native brands have understood this and have invested the necessary tools & resources to maintain what is often called the flywheel effect.
So, for brands who are behind:
- Build compelling & trustworthy product pages (content & reviews)
- Elevate their supply chain to Amazon’s standards (in-stock)
- Drive growth by leveraging an agile mix of Amazon’s media levers (search & display)
This is one of the reasons we’re excited to be a part of Jellyfish. The pandemic has brought years’ worth of change in a matter of months. Digital transformation isn’t an option, it’s an imperative, and e-commerce is central to the new reality for everyone. Our approach has always been to help brands we love to thrive in the new environment, and the need for a digital partner with broad capabilities, deep expertise and global reach is greater than ever.
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?
When we talk about our mission, we explain that we aim to help our favorite brands fight on equal terms with digital native brands. This means creating agile dedicated teams, sitting between Sales and Marketing, to address these channels and investing in the necessary tools to make data-driven decisions.
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?
If we talk about Amazon and other eCommerce platforms, the main mistake we see is to consider a strong setup as an operational expense rather than a capital expense. Our recommendation is to invest considerably today to build performance-driven organizations to address Amazon and its likes, which will enable these channels to grow sustainably and profitably.
In your experience, which aspect of running an eCommerce brand tends to be most underestimated? Can you explain or give an example?
Unlike offline commerce, which has been operated for centuries with few structured data tools, eCommerce is data-rich by design. This creates the opportunity to create much leaner models, from product marketing to logistics.
One great example is how we combine Amazon’s forecast data and our proprietary tools to optimize brands’ inventory planning and reduce out-of-stock, which is one of the most impactful issues in search-engine ranks.
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?
Whether it’s on your own website or on a platform like Amazon, it’s all about optimizing each step of the customer journey. An advanced setup of Google Analytics with all own and paid media can go a long way in understanding how customers buy your products.
When it comes to Amazon, once you reach seven figures and start managing multiple countries, you can’t afford to spend any time downloading and consolidating data from multiple sources. That’s why we built the Seelk Studio, our analytics platform to bring actionable insights on all your Amazon business across the globe.
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?
Again, I’ll talk about conversion on marketplaces like Amazon. These platforms focus on making the customer journey as seamless as possible, with some purchases taking less than four clicks.
Once the customer is on your product page, that likely means they’ve made a price and brand vs. generic decision on the search results page. From there, two other aspects will drive their decision: content and availability. The latter is straightforward: the product is either in stock or isn’t, so an easy way to drive conversion up is by having a highly efficient inventory management strategy.
When it comes to content, energy should be spent on building compelling product visuals which answer customer questions no matter what device they’re browsing from.
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?
Your products, packaging and overall shopping experience should speak for themselves and leave customers feeling the urge to recommend you. Be truthful and don’t oversell anything (product features, shipping times). Interact with the customers who mention your brand on social media and try to always go the extra mile to make them want to share your response. Hint: A handwritten postcard in your first thousand packages can go a long way (I’ve been there).
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?
It’s no secret that Amazon’s algorithm is impacted by reviews. Bad reviews will decrease the visibility of the product on the platform. Conversion rate will also suffer as people will have less trust in your products.
Effective review management can help mitigate bad reviews and combining that with specific programs like Vine or automatic requests for reviews can drown unfair, damaging ones.
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.
1. Don’t underestimate customer acquisition costs. Driving relevant traffic to your website is becoming increasingly difficult and expensive, and we don’t all have the chance to have as many Instagram followers as Kylie Jenner. Test and learn.
2. Beware of hidden unit economics. Returns, damaged products, lost shipments, tax discrepancies and small variables we usually don’t consider when building a business plan, but added up they can be the doom of your P&L.
3. Make the customer experience as seamless and efficient as possible, whatever the device. Leverage quick checkout like Apple Pay or Amazon Pay. Setup strong analytics and A/B tests to understand where customers drop out. And if you’re creative, go the extra mile to make them smile at one point in the process.
4. If you go on Amazon, go bold with a clearly defined strategy (assortment, fulfillment, pricing). Build compelling and trustworthy product pages, match Amazon’s logistics standards and drive growth by leveraging an agile mix of Amazon’s media levers
5. Once you hit five figures in monthly sales, become obsessed with data. Invest the necessary time and tools to have a clear view of where you should spend your time and money.
Finally, look for help when things are going well. Having a strong digital partner will be key to getting to the next milestone.
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 sometimes wonder that if we could combine programming as a natural second language and teach environmental and societal ethics in all schools across the world, kids of today would have all they need to build a sustainable future.
What is the best way our readers can follow you online?
I wish I could say something as fun as TikTok but I’ll go with good old Linkedin.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this!