Dr. Dionne Mahaffey of ‘Culture Greetings’: “Use Tech To Your Advantage”

Use Tech To Your Advantage: Nowadays, there is so much powerful technology available to make our jobs as business owners and salespeople easier. My advice is simple — use it! Don’t rely on manual processes when you could leverage automation or AI. For example, we send automated reminders of important moments to our customers via Messenger. With […]

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Use Tech To Your Advantage: Nowadays, there is so much powerful technology available to make our jobs as business owners and salespeople easier. My advice is simple — use it! Don’t rely on manual processes when you could leverage automation or AI. For example, we send automated reminders of important moments to our customers via Messenger. With the volume of sales we do, we wouldn’t be able to manually keep track of all our customers, their individual celebrations and send them a note to alert them to an upcoming occasion. This sales tactic is only available to us because of the power of technology and Messenger.

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 Dr. Dionne Mahaffey, a business-psychologist and tech entrepreneur. She’s spent 30 years in the tech industry. Two years ago, she founded Culture Greetings, an innovative greeting card platform, that allows users to personalize greeting cards and have them mailed directly to their intended recipient. In 2015 she launched The WhereU app; a local business search app with a real-time leaderboard of Black owned businesses across categories, ranked by peer-to-peer referral counts. WhereU can be found on the App store and Google Play. Her other apps include, The Greek Gram and Divine 9 emojis, both are iOS products.

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?

My goal with creating Culture Greetings was to design a culturally relevant greeting card platform that would become a leading destination for Black consumers. I also wanted it to be as convenient as a social media post, so I knew leveraging my coding skills was critical. Representation matters, and for our community, seeing a reflection of ourselves in the mementos that we use to celebrate life milestones is just as important as the milestones themselves.

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

I had the idea of developing Culture Greetings about seven years ago. But in 2018, the idea overwhelmed me and I found time to just do it. Within 6 months of beginning development, I launched Culture Greetings and personally completed most of the coding. I also integrated aspects of the platform with other custom, technology solutions.

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?

Fifteen years ago, I suffered a business loss during the economic downturn. I lost my primary source of income and had to close my local office as well as my offices in Los Angeles and New York. I had to lay off my staff of 15 people, except for my assistant. The next thing I did was get a job. I went back into management consulting, but I wasn’t giving up on my business. My entrepreneurial pursuits became part-time. I focused on my business at night and on the weekends. I wasn’t depressed about my situation, I opted to demonstrate resilience. I did a personal inventory of my strengths and weaknesses and then did a retrospective on my business. I assessed what went right and what went wrong and then focused on my go-forward plan. After three years, I was able to quit my job and go back into full-time entrepreneurship.

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

For my current endeavor, Culture Greetings, when the Coronavirus pandemic began to spread across the world the team wasn’t sure how this would affect the platform. The decision was made to strategically target our business marketing tactics to include platforms like Facebook Messenger, Instagram and traditional media. Through these increased efforts the Culture Greetings team wanted to ensure that Black, Brown and other under-represented communities knew there was a brand that had reflected them.

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

While there were already quite a few African American greeting card brands in the market, not many are available in stores and for those that can be found in retail outlets, the offerings were few. So, we wanted to create a platform that made Black greeting cards available to everyone. The process is simple. Pick a card and write a note inside using our handwriting fonts. Then through state-of-the-art automation, Culture Greetings will print the card and stuff the envelope in one seamless process. The company mails the cards directly to the intended recipient. Or customers can pick the cards up at a local Walgreens, usually within an hour. They’ve made buying greeting cards as fast as a social media post while still maintaining the classic touch of sending a real, printed card in the mail.

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

Stress management is very important for entrepreneurs and can help avoid burnout. I personally take time to meditate, take walks and vacations when needed to help me keep my balance. I have to be intentional about it because I’m a workaholic and I can literally work for several days straight with no breaks, so I schedule free time for myself to recalibrate and maintain my balance.

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?

I started my career as a software developer. Early in my career I went on a job interview for a major telecommunications company. This was before the internet was used by consumers, so there was no Google search available for me to find out more about who I was interviewing with or to ensure that I had talking points about the technology they were using. So, I winged it! I really didn’t have that much experience with the specific programming language they required, but I just kept talking. Ray, the manager interviewing me, had a smirk on his face. I didn’t care, I just kept talking about my capabilities. He hired me and said it was because I had the “balls” to sit there and act like I knew what I was talking about! He served as a great mentor for several years and taught me to continue to expand. He also pointed out to me that I had a gift of innovating and that my curiosity would serve me well.

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?

As the COVID-19 pandemic began to spread across the United States, Culture Greetings saw an uptick in sales and site visits. The stay-at-home orders encouraged people to explore new, or as some would say old-fashioned, communications methods to share support, well wishes, and condolences. The brand provides a way for the community to reach each other in a time when face-to-face communication is limited, and health uncertainty is at an all-time high. Being a small female-led and Black-owned greeting card brand, I take pride in being a voice for the community in times of celebration and in times of hardship. I have also leveraged new ecommerce tools like chat support, artificial intelligence text support and other communication tools to make the process of customer engagement easier.

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?

A lot of eCommerce entrepreneurs have great ideas and amazing products, but lack strategy, effective marketing and customer engagement. Inspiring strategy that aligns to customers buying habits and emotions is key. This entails good products and great digital content to demonstrate to customers how your brand is relevant to them. Founders and CEOs must also have systems in place that make their business run more efficiently and then hire the right people to run those systems. To go from hobby or side hustle to a bustling business that scales, strategy is critical. That strategy must also include customer engagement from their first site visit to their first purchase to after the purchase. The number one goal here is repeat business, so you must give the customer a great experience and motivate them to shop with you again.

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

Storytelling is underestimated. Today’s environment is hyper-competitive. There are new brands launching every day and they are coming for your customer. So, to build a successful online store, it takes more than a nice website and simple checkout. A customer’s journey has to show them what’s in it for them. Ongoing storytelling on social media and through paid ads keeps customers engaged and keeps the brand top of mind. You must connect with the customer’s emotions and their imagination to retain buyers and also inspire them to tell others about your brand.

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?

There are so many wonderful tools available now to help you become more efficient and increase sales. For example, we use Messenger to help us automate conversations with customers and stay top of mind. For example, we’ll remind customers of important milestones or birthdays. We’ve found that these types of conversations help drive more traffic to our website, directly translating into sales. In fact, 20% of our Messenger conversations lead to sales!

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?

Live chat has helped me increase conversion. I hired chat agents and trained them to respond to customers on my site and via direct messages that originate from Facebook or Instagram via Messenger. On the site, they are available to chat 24 hours a day. So, no matter when a customer needs assistance or has questions, someone is available to assist them with everything from site navigation to tutorials on how to personalize our cards to guidance on the checkout and delivery process or any other general question they might have.

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?

So much goes into building a brand that people love and trust. One thing I think that is particularly important in today’s world is being authentic and sharing the people and story behind the business. Social media like Facebook and Instagram is such a great way to do this. No other business has your unique backstory and sharing it can help set you apart.

Another thing I think that’s very important is building a genuine relationship with your customers. This starts from day one. During the holiday shopping season, I heard from grandmothers that were new to online shopping. They reached out and asked questions about our products or how to get catalogues. We connected with them 1:1 patiently just as we would have if they’d had questions in an in-person setting. They appreciated this personal attention. Oftentimes, this will result in not only sales but a loyal customer who will come back time and again to shop with you.

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.

Here are what I think are five of the most important things to create a successful e-commerce business:

Know Your Story: As I said, storytelling is underestimated! In a highly competitive market, like the one we’re currently operating in, ongoing storytelling via social media and advertisements helps to keep your business at the front of the mind of your customers. Of course, the more your story captures shoppers’ imaginations and elicits emotions, the more likely they are to think of your brand, tell others about and shop!

Use Tech To Your Advantage: Nowadays, there is so much powerful technology available to make our jobs as business owners and salespeople easier. My advice is simple — use it! Don’t rely on manual processes when you could leverage automation or AI. For example, we send automated reminders of important moments to our customers via Messenger. With the volume of sales we do, we wouldn’t be able to manually keep track of all our customers, their individual celebrations and send them a note to alert them to an upcoming occasion. This sales tactic is only available to us because of the power of technology and Messenger.

Give the people what they want. The products or services must resonate with customers. Business owners must know how to pivot and add new products, change things about their products or even sunset products that don’t grab customers’ attention or address their needs. To that end, using surveys and polls are a great way to poll customers about their perspective of the business.

Leverage social elements. Along with the previous tip about giving the people what they want, it’s also a great idea to include their feedback, testimonials, reviews and user generated images on your ecommerce site.

Consider mobile. A lot of customers make online purchases from mobile devices. So the website must be responsive, if the business doesn’t warrant having an actual native app for iOS and Android.

How can our readers further follow you online?

You can check us out on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

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

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