…provide excellent customer service. The easiest way to stand out in an online world is to show the real people behind your business. When we launched during the pandemic, customers called us who were not familiar with shopping online and needed help getting critical supplies like masks. I tried to take care of these customers like my family, and some of these customers remain our biggest fans.
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 Gurwin Singh Ahuja.
Gurwin is the founder and CEO of Salvos, the “eco-everything store,” and a Strategic Communications Director at the Glover Park Group. Gurwin previously served as an advisor in the Obama White House, the National Field Coordinator for President Obama’s re-election campaign, and a Political Fellow on the Biden for President campaign.
He is also the founder of the Know Your Neighbor Coalition, a coalition of leading civil rights organizations backed by the Obama White House which focused on fostering a national dialogue on the country’s growing religious diversity and the “We Are Sikhs” campaign, which helps the broader public understand the values and contributions of Sikh Americans.
Gurwin’s civil rights work has been awarded the highest honors in the marketing and PR field. He has won a PR Week Award, several Shorty Awards, and a pair of Webby Awards.
Gurwin graduated from Columbia Business School and summa cum laude from Ohio State University.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to get to know you better. Can you tell us a bit about your backstory and how you got started?
My background is in politics and activism. When I was in high school, I was deeply inspired by a senator from Illinois named Barack Obama. His rise to power gave me confidence that if I worked hard and did things the right way that there were no limits to my potential. When I got to college, I was motivated to succeed academically and participate in politics.
My drive for politics secured me a White House internship that led me to join the Obama re-election campaign and eventually a staff position in the White House where I worked on foreign policy and international trade.
My activism started when I worked on the Obama campaign, and a self-avowed white supremacist opened fire into a Sikh temple in Wisconsin in 2012. The incident compelled me to help share the values and contributions of the Sikh American community — which was often discriminated against and misunderstood because we practice wearing turbans and having beards.
I eventually started an organization called We Are Sikhs which partnered with senior leaders on the Obama campaign to create a comprehensive awareness campaign about Sikh Americans. The campaign was extraordinarily effective and has won numerous industry awards for our innovative content. We Are Sikhs became an outlet for me to help advance my fundamental belief that all people are created equal during a particularly socially contentious time in our country and politics.
These two experiences together drove my desire to work on sustainability and climate change issues. I feel that catastrophic climate change has the potential to create more extreme weather and upend our economies and our politics. It also questions the assumption that the future will be more prosperous and just than the past. I ultimately thought that such a scenario could eventually cause people’s faith in democracy to backslide and impact whether people treated each other equally and justly — two issues that animated my entire career.
What was the “aha moment” that led to the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?
The “aha moment” came after months of meetings with advisors and professors in business school. I was in a startup course at Columbia University, and I was pitching several business concepts that mainly centered around sustainability and climate change to my classmates and my professors. After months of pitching different business ideas, I talked with a friend in the library about sustainability. We were both sharing how difficult it was to be sustainable and that even though we cared about climate change, we didn’t even know where to start or what to buy when it came to be more eco-friendly.
That’s when it hit me — that there really wasn’t really any place where you could go to buy credibly sustainable products in one place, and thus Salvos was born.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times 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 Salvos launched amid the pandemic, it launched with a bang. With hindsight, I made a series of intelligent moves of inventorying Hemp and Organic Cotton masks and toilet paper right as Covid-19 was declared a pandemic. Since we had so many masks and toilet paper on hand as states began locking down, we could fill many orders.
However, after that initial jolt, sales started to taper off a few months later, forcing me to think deeply about keeping the business going.
What kept me going through these difficult months was our mission. I wanted to help people become more sustainable and combat climate change. Leaning into our mission gave me the drive to think creatively about how we could drive more customers to Salvos.
So, how are things going today? How did your grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?
Things are steadily moving along. We’ve completely revamped our website, refined our product offerings to focus mainly on home and beauty, brought on some excellent new brands like Public Goods, and increased sales by 100% from last month.
Our genuine commitment to helping our customers live more sustainable and eco-friendly lives gave us the resilience to dig deep and think about how we can best serve our customers. If you are committed to your mission, it is much easier to weather the inevitable storms of entrepreneurship.
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?
When I got started, I was the absolute worst at shipping. As a Millennial, I rarely sent letters or used the post office, and I sort of had to relearn how to use the Post Office. I know the tape job on some of my initial orders was horrific, and I even had a few initial orders sent back to me because I used the wrong box.
The biggest lesson from my early mailing mishaps was that no matter how grand your goals are as an entrepreneur, you must know and be willing to do the little, unglamorous things, or your vision will never become a reality.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
I think three things make our company stand out.
First is our curation and product selection. We genuinely carry some of the best sustainable brands in the country.
The second is our free carbon neutral shipping. Every order placed on Salvos is carbon neutral, and shipping has always been free.
Third, we have 100% plastic-free shipping. Our shipping boxes are biodegradable and compostable, including the shipping label. Every order from Salvos is entirely sustainable, from the products, the packaging to the shipping.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them thrive and not burn out?
I think everyone has a personal practice that keeps them sane. For me, I love to exercise and talk with my friends.
Exercising clears my mind and wrings out the angst in my life. After I finish a challenging workout, I feel more confident and more optimistic. I am usually not super excited before I start training. Still, when I finish, I am almost always super happy that I did it because I feel so much better physically and mentally.
Being around my friends refreshes me too, but differently. I get a lot of energy from being around other people, and I enjoy hearing their ideas, struggles, and aspirations. When I spend time with my friends or just people in general, it helps me get out of my head and broadens my perspective on my life and the world.
None of us can 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 am particularly grateful for my co-founder Cecilia and our intern Emma. Cecilia’s optimism and can-do spirit lift me up and keep me going. Emma is incredibly talented, and she has quietly done a tremendous amount of work.
Starting a business is not for the faint of heart and consumes a tremendous amount of your time. People that can help you weather through storms are invaluable. Just last month, I had an incredible number of things happening in my personal life that divided my attention. Still, Cecilia’s spirit and Emma’s relentless consistency helped keep Salvos afloat and on task, and they helped keep me personally motivated.
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 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 molded Salvos because we launched right as it was unfolding, and frankly, we don’t know a business environment in a non-pandemic world. However, one theme I noticed with businesses across the board, eCommerce or brick and mortar, was the importance of diversifying their supply chains. I think it became apparent — particularly early on in the pandemic — that many supply chains were beholden to factories in China.
Now that the pandemic seems to be ending, I think it is more interesting to see where eCommerce goes in a post-pandemic world. Do things go back to normal? Will companies diversify their supply chains? Will more consumers continue to ditch brick and mortar and shop mainly online?
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 U.S. and European brands. What would you advise retail companies and eCommerce companies for them to be successful in the face of such intense competition?
Speaking of Amazon, I think Jeff Bezos gave the best advice when it comes to thinking about competition: “don’t be afraid of our competitors because they’re never going to send us any money. Be afraid of our customers.”
If you take care of your customers, there will always be a place for you in the market.
What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs & founders make when they start an eCommerce business? How do you avoid those errors?
The most common mistake that I have seen is people trying to chase trends or try to find hot products to dropship. I think that is the easiest way to blow money and waste time. I think it is far better for people to think through a problem they are passionate about solving and carefully crafting a sustainable business around that. Their passion for solving the problem will give CEOs and founders the internal fortitude to get through the natural ups and downs of starting a business.
In your experience, which aspect of running an eCommerce brand tends to be underestimated? Can you explain or give an example?
I think the whole endeavor of running an eCommerce brand is underestimated. When I started Salvos.shop I had to be the sales manager, customer support staff, a packer, and the shipper, but I also did not know anything about running Google and Facebook ads, search engine optimization, or even correctly shipping my products. In the beginning, you are learning, and as a consequence, you are making a ton of mistakes, but you have to keep persevering.
Nothing about eCommerce is easy. It takes an incredible amount of time, passion, and grit to be successful. If you are not passionate about what you are doing, it will be tough to stomach the first few weeks, let alone the first year.
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?
Shopify. It is straightforward to use, and their software makes it incredibly easy to get a quality eCommerce website and backend on the ground in minutes. Some of their courses and blogs that teach you how to run Google and Facebook ads, how to source products, and even how to package your products are better and more practical than anything you can learn in business school or from a business book at a bookstore.
It’s kind of mind-boggling how easy Shopify has made it to make a quality eCommerce store.
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?
These three simple things you can do to increase conversions.
First, have excellent product photography. How you present your product — especially to online customers who cannot touch or hold it — makes a significant difference. Buyers want a clear sense of what will be arriving at their home in the next few days.
Second, let your customers do the talking by showing casing reviews and testimonials. Nearly 95% of shoppers read reviews before making a purchase, and surveys have consistently shown that customers trust reviews more than descriptions provided by the store or manufacturer.
Third, address your customer concerns. If you truly know your customer’s motivations for buying your product, you should know the objections or concerns they need to address before making a purchase. You should preemptively handle those concerns in the product description or product photos.
Of course, the primary 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 unique brand?
The best way to build a trusted brand is by doing the basics right over a long period. Have a great product with excellent customer service, and eventually, the word will get out.
One of the main benefits of shopping online is the ability to read reviews. Consumers love it! While good reviews are positive for a brand, poor reviews can be very damaging. What are a few things a brand should do to effectively and adequately respond to poor reviews in your experience? How about other unfair things said online about a brand?
I think the best practice is simply to be honest and don’t get defensive. If we screwed something up as a team, I think it is better to own up to it. If someone didn’t like a product, then it is what it is. Maybe that product was just not for that particular person. When it comes to the online world, we try to make things more complicated than they should be. We try to keep our interactions with our customers online as if they were face to face.
Here is the central question of our interview. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know to create a very successful e-commerce business? Please share a story or an example for each.
First, you need to have great products. If you have a great product, customers will remember you, come back, and recommend you to their friends. For example, one of our best products is HiBAR Shampoo and Conditioner bars, and that product drives people to come back every few months and shop the rest of our catalog.
Second, the design of your website is critical. The aesthetic of your website is a crucial part of communicating your company’s brand and its purpose, but more importantly, it signals whether your company is trustworthy. We work hard to ensure that every aspect of Salvos.shop has a good user experience, a clean aesthetic, and transparent contact information to increase the likelihood of a customer interacting with us for the first time doing business with us.
Third, provide excellent customer service. The easiest way to stand out in an online world is to show the real people behind your business. When we launched during the pandemic, customers called us who were not familiar with shopping online and needed help getting critical supplies like masks. I tried to take care of these customers like my family, and some of these customers remain our biggest fans.
Fourth, learn search engine optimization. The easiest and most profitable way to make a sale is if someone finds your eCommerce brand organically through a Google search. And to do that, you must make sure your website is optimized for Google. Ranking well on Google is like having a prime location in a high-traffic mall.
Fifth, know your niche. Sustainability is a big space, and there are many products and categories that have a more sustainable alternative. One of the biggest mistakes we made is trying to go too wide and offer too many products. That left us with an unwieldy number of items to market, inventory, and advertise. Having a tight focus will help keep every realm of your business more manageable, especially early on.
You are a person of significant 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. 🙂
In the immediate term, any movement that can help transform our economy away from fossil fuels and towards more sustainable practices will prevent a significant amount of suffering from the effects of catastrophic climate change.
In the past century, our economic progress has uplifted billions of people out of poverty. It has provided safety and security for more people than at any other time in human history. However, all this progress could amount to an illusion since it rests on the back of unsustainable supply chains and capitalism powered by fossil fuels.
How can our readers further follow you online?
You can check us out at Salvos.shop online or @shopsalvos on Instagram and Facebook.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this!