Bob Immerman: “Focus on what excites your customer”

Focus on what excites your customer: for example, people love having a wide choice of colors and finishes to meet their specific tastes and needs. Retailers used to be the gatekeeper, limiting options due to shelf space or their preferences. Now we can offer something for everyone, which allowed us to build a business in […]

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Focus on what excites your customer: for example, people love having a wide choice of colors and finishes to meet their specific tastes and needs. Retailers used to be the gatekeeper, limiting options due to shelf space or their preferences. Now we can offer something for everyone, which allowed us to build a business in five years that’s bigger than the one that took 40 years to build!


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 Bob Immerman, Founder and Chief Innovation Officer at mDesign, a digitally native, straight-to-consumer brand that brings solutions with style to consumers’ homes through thoughtfully designed storage and décor products. Since founding the company five years ago, mDesign is a seller of home goods on several marketplaces, and is a Top 5 vendor on the Amazon marketplace. Bob has over 45 years of experience in the home décor industry and is also the founder of InterDesign Inc, a brick-and-mortar companion to mDesign.


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’ve been working in the home decor industry for over 45 years creating and building original products that would organize, style, and simplify your life. I originally founded a brick-and-mortar business called InterDesign Inc. (which still exists today and is the brick-and-mortar companion to mDesign). I spent many years designing home décor products that would be offered up to retailers, such as Bed Bath and Beyond or Walmart. Sometimes only one product out of every 50 created would make it to the retail floor.

In 2015, I decided to create mDesign, a digitally native, straight-to-consumer brand only sold in online marketplaces. mDesign allowed me to bypass retailers and create my own home decor line for the untried and untested jungle known as the digital marketplace. Slowly, these experimental, direct sales to the consumer began to overtake sales of my products through traditional retailers, proving that this was more monetarily rewarding than selling to the retailers.

Today, mDesign remains a 100% digitally-focused brand and continues to see hyper-growth status year over year. The digital marketplace has been the home decor brand’s bread and butter since day one and the sales opportunities across the global digital landscape are endless.

What was the “Aha Moment” that led to the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?

mDesign was a company born out of frustration. I am a product guy and I love the product creation side of my business but didn’t love how the business of home decor worked.

Before I created mDesign, I would develop 20 great products for one specific season. We would send the entire collection and our retail buyers would pick three of the 20 products to test in a limited number of stores. Based on the test, they would buy maybe one of the three products to roll out to all stores. The other 19 were great products, but never had a chance with no way to reach the consumer!

I realized that via mDesign and the Amazon Marketplace, we could bring those 19 rejected products to life and offer them directly to the consumers. The days that retailers were the exclusive gatekeepers to reaching the consumer were over.

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?

When I started mDesign, it was part of my legacy business, InterDesign. We were doing big business with Bed Bath and Beyond, The Container Store, Target, and Walmart. The staff couldn’t make sense of this new online direction, where many things were opposite to the classic brick-and-mortar business model. I wouldn’t say it was hard times, but it required a lot of pushing to change long-established practices.

So, how are things going today? How did your grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?

I am very proud of the company that mDesign has become today. Within five years of launching on Amazon, we are in the Top 5 vendors on the marketplace, and we have consistently achieved over 100% year on year growth. We have also expanded into international marketplaces, with the end of 2020 seeing an expansion into Amazon marketplaces in Europe, Canada, Mexico, United Arab Emirates, and Australia. We have also cemented our footprint in other retailer marketplaces including eBay, Target, and Walmart.

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

mDesign has a unique business model that differentiates from other competitors out there. We make big bets on home goods and think bigger than the traditional DTC platform. First, we leverage marketplaces, which enables us to cast a wide customer net and go where the customer already is instead of trying to force them to come to us to shop.

The traditional DTC model has traffic driven via PR, Instagram, Facebook, and tons and tons of paid advertising — fueled by rounds and rounds of VC money. Amazon is considered the enemy. But Amazon is not the enemy at all; quite the opposite. Amazon is an effective way to eliminate friction and efficiently reach the consumer, and it’s the quickest way to do it at scale in the USA, Europe, and beyond. It also allows us to build our brand awareness with consumers since over 40% of our sales come from returning customers. Amazon has become intricately linked to our growth and expansion.

Another differentiator is our expansive assortment that covers different colors, sizes, and finish variations, and selling on marketplaces allows us to present ALL of these options to customers. We listen to both the quantitative and qualitative insights in developing our assortment instead of going off of predictions.

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

Don’t expect the same output will achieve the best outcome every time — learn how to adapt to your environment. I have stayed malleable throughout my career, reinventing myself time and time again when it was necessary. The path from the analog 1970s start-up business to creating and expanding mDesign has required constant adaptation to new realities. Business is not a 100-yard dash. It’s more like a “college marathon.” There’s a lot to keep learning and it doesn’t always happen as fast as you want.

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?

A friendly retailer once pushed me to take a strategic planning course. It didn’t turn me into a terrific planner, but I did gain a better sense of the big picture. It showed me that it is important to put things into context.

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?

The pandemic has caused a significant shift in consumer buying behavior, but eCommerce still has the same essential requirements. Now, it is just more important than ever that online retail businesses make sure they are on top of these critical areas since consumers are spending so much more time shopping online, comparing different websites, and looking for the best overall buying experience. Some of the key areas are:

  • Keeping the site and the product selection fresh to encourage frequent visits
  • Offering a diverse range of product options to meet all of the customers’ needs
  • Maintaining inventory levels to avoid out-of-stocks that frustrate shoppers
  • Communicating key information like product features, shipping details, or order status
  • Providing excellent Customer Service, including easy access to representatives and simplified returns

My advice is, don’t limit your potential. When mDesign started, we focused on top-notch storage solutions, but today, we are so much more. mDesign has become a fully-loaded home decor one-stop-shop for all types of home furnishing needs and is so much more than just organization. mDesign’s success can be attributed to consumers finding everything they need for the house in one place, without leaving the comfort of their homes. This is a huge win in the world that we are living in today, impacted by 2020, and the coronavirus pandemic that still grips on the nation. As we continue to expand our product range, we also never lose sight of our purpose: mDesign has always kept organization at the forefront of our products, whether that be a full line of custom-made furniture for every room, dining and entertainment items for any occasion, or a host of products specifically designed for outdoor recreation and gardening. The future is online, so make sure you are providing solutions for your customers, in an easy-to-use shopping environment, so they continue to return to your business as an invaluable resource.

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?

Focus on what excites your customer, know your purpose, and communicate it clearly and consistently through your brand message. From the beginning, mDesign has been a brand that simply seeks to uncomplicate lives. We deliver home solutions in each and every product that we offer, which has been a key to our success in growing the business. Hyper-growth is a difficult thing for any company to accomplish, but it takes a certain amount of well-engineered planning, an incredibly solid product that the marketplace needs, and exceptional word-of-mouth from all of the customers that touch the brand. mDesign’s home decor product line has managed to accomplish all of this and, in turn, has achieved a consistent state of hyper-growth since its conception. mDesign home decor moved into Amazon’s Top 5 marketplace sellers list in August 2020, touting 4,745 customer reviews in only 30 days with 167,156 lifetime reviews on Amazon. Over 40% of our sales come from returning customers, so the quality and experience of our products speak for themselves.

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?

Trust your instincts. It took me a while to become comfortable in making product decisions. Ultimately, I learned not to overthink things, and instead to take a chance, however, outside-of-the-box it might have been. I also think it is critical to listen to your customers. I love to read reviews. They tell me how the consumer uses our products, and it’s often not what we originally intended or expected. This has led to new product positioning, as well as the development of other new products and variations. Brick-and-mortar retailers don’t have the same ability to listen and react to consumer feedback. It’s a huge plus for online business.

In your experience, which aspect of running an eCommerce brand tends to be most underestimated? Can you explain or give an example?

People sometimes underestimate how much different eCommerce, or selling direct to the customers, can be from selling through retailers in a brick-and-mortar environment. Some aspects are much easier because you are in control of your product, your message, and your brand. But others are much more difficult since the entire selling process rests entirely with you — from merchandising, pricing, and supply chain to customer service and ultimate buyer satisfaction with not just your product but the entire shopping experience. Digital retailing is complex and constantly changing, so you can never stop learning, adjusting, or innovating.

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?

I love the tools that help me better understand what items are selling, which advertising is the most effective, and how consumers are searching for products. I often use the tools in novel ways. Market insights can be very valuable and often leads to more experimentation and innovation. You never know what will be the most successful strategy or direction, so you need to give yourself room to be intuitive and try new things.

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?

We like to give the consumer more choices. We love the long tail. It empowers and satisfies the consumer to find exactly what they want.

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?

We see every sale as an opportunity to make a brand statement and build a relationship. mDesign’s goal is to exceed our customer’s expectations by delivering more than function, more than style — we want to give them everything they want and then some. By offering quality products and giving consumers a wider range of choices than our competitors, we meet more of their needs to create repeat customers and brand loyalty, which is more important than an initial sale.

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 critical to pay attention to reviews — good and bad — to understand your customers and their needs. We listen to our reviews, especially the negative ones. Often the customers make valid points, whether they’re issues we did not think of, or flaws we were not aware of. It can be anything from damage in shipping because of poor packaging to confusing product descriptions on the eCommerce sites. The best response is to take quick action and use the information to make the product better!

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 very successful e-commerce business? Please share a story or an example for each.

  • Focus on what excites your customer: for example, people love having a wide choice of colors and finishes to meet their specific tastes and needs. Retailers used to be the gatekeeper, limiting options due to shelf space or their preferences. Now we can offer something for everyone, which allowed us to build a business in five years that’s bigger than the one that took 40 years to build!
  • Don’t underestimate the power of Amazon on your business: You can reach almost any customer segment (or every customer segment) in one place with maximum efficiency. Instead of trying to seek out your best customers, the customers will find you and allow you to hone in on your optimal market segment.
  • Stick to your purpose for the customer; You can develop products that are stylish and trendy, but always make sure they meet the needs of the customer.
  • Pay attention to the minor details: I always say God is in the details. The form is not enough. The function is critical. There are so many little decisions that need to be made along the way, and you need to get the small things right in order to create a winning final product. Consumers will appreciate the obsession with details.
  • Trust your instincts: Enough said!

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 have spent my life following my passion for developing innovative, quality products. I never wanted to be the biggest or richest — I just found my satisfaction in the product development process. Fast forward a few decades and now I can look at the people who work at my companies with a feeling of satisfaction, knowing that I have helped them earn a good living, provided them with quality health care, and enjoyed seeing them raise their families. The process itself has been tremendously gratifying and the results are my reward. That said, I think the movement would be to inspire other entrepreneurs to start businesses which in turn provide great jobs and health care for people in their communities.

How can our readers further follow you online?

You can always follow mDesign through our website and social media to see what new and exciting things we are up to!

Instagram

Facebook

Pinterest

YouTube

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


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