Harry Thakkar: “Master your supply chain”

Deliver a high-quality customer experience — Your primary communication channel with your customer, the eCommerce website, needs to do its job effectively. A poor user experience on your website is going to dramatically decrease your sales. There are a number of aspects involved in delivering a good experience to customers, including: easy and intuitive navigation, high quality […]

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Deliver a high-quality customer experience — Your primary communication channel with your customer, the eCommerce website, needs to do its job effectively. A poor user experience on your website is going to dramatically decrease your sales. There are a number of aspects involved in delivering a good experience to customers, including: easy and intuitive navigation, high quality product images, responsive/mobile friendly website, make it easy to find products, and easy access to customer support.

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 Harry Thakkar, founding partner at Avatria, which specializes in developing data-driven eCommerce products using machine learning and analytics. With over 15 years of experience in the eCommerce industry, Harry has helped improve the digital shopping presence for Fortune 500 and boutique SMB companies alike. With knowledge of the B2C and B2B space, Harry is focused on improving his customers bottom line and helping them differentiate themselves from the competition.

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 have always had a strong interest in math and science, and so naturally, I decided to study electrical engineering at the University of Illinois. While I loved the problem-solving elements of my engineering curriculum, I found myself more drawn to the business side of engineering. This led me to pursue a career in eCommerce consulting — the thought of helping solve complex technical challenges without having to sit in a lab all day was very appealing. Plus, I love to travel and thought this would be a great chance to see more of the world. I joined a company in Chicago called Acquity Group fairly early on and was fortunate enough to get some very deep hands-on experience helping Fortune 500 companies improve their eCommerce presence.

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

After having spent 10 years with Acquity Group working on dozens of eCommerce projects, I decided it was time to move on. I learned a lot about the ins and outs of eCommerce systems during my decade as a consultant, and one problem that always came up across all of my project work was the issue of product findability. Our clients would say things like “our search results aren’t showing the right products” or “customers aren’t able to find what they’re looking for due to our catalog size”. When we decided to start Avatria, we knew that was the problem we wanted to focus on as there was no good solution available in the market.

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?

One of the hardest things about starting Avatria was the shift in mindset you need to have when moving from being an employee to being an employer. There are a lot of things related to company operations you tend to take for granted as an employee, which we had to put in place while also looking to make sure we were generating revenue. Basic things like payroll, accounting/tax, contracts, office space, purchasing equipment, insurance, etc. were all things the three of us had to juggle and figure out while also building the business. While this could be exhausting, it was also very exciting. At the end of the day, we knew that we were ultimately in control of our future and that we could shape Avatria into the company we envisioned.

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

Avatria has grown significantly over the past six years and we have been successful from a financial and company vision standpoint. We have fully built and launched our first product and are now in the midst of executing on the next stage of our company’s evolution.

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

Avatria stands out primarily due to the team we have built within the company. We have a team of knowledgeable, passionate, intelligent, and hard-working employees that always have our customer’s best interests at heart. Our track record of customer success is proof of the high-quality work that our team provides — our customers love us, and many have worked with us for over five years now.

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

My answer here is really the same as the answer to the question above — surround yourself with people you trust and know how to get the job done. I think in any industry, some level of “burn out” is inevitable after a while — having a strong team around you that you can lean on when you’re feeling fatigue or need some motivation can make a huge difference to getting you back on the path to 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?

One of the most apparent things you will see is how eCommerce businesses are starting to diversify the product assortment that they sell online due to the pandemic. You now see a lot of sites selling masks and PPE equipment in direct response to the coronavirus, while others are expanding into other related product offerings (e.g. jewelry expanding into watches, furniture expanding into other home goods, skin care expanding into hair care or supplements, etc.)

Many retailers are realizing the need to modernize their eCommerce storefronts and are very quickly looking to improve their technology infrastructure. Whether this means partnering with vendors that can help handle things like BOPIS, conversion optimization and digital marketing or adapting their in-store approach to include more digital touchpoints.

Finally, loyalty programs are beginning to come to the forefront for many businesses as ways to incentivize their customers to shop online. Companies like Kohl’s, Sephora and Madewell are either introducing or revamping their existing programs to be more appealing during the pandemic.

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?

In many ways I think this goes back to the fundamentals of building a good eCommerce business: provide a good product, be effective at explaining the value proposition and provide a high-quality customer experience. Focusing on these fundamentals will clearly differentiate you from a lower cost competitor, as the customer will connect with your brand better and will be more willing to pay a premium for the experience you offer. In terms of Amazon and Walmart, I think eCommerce companies need to think through the best way to reach their target customers and determine what appeals to them compared to what Amazon/Walmart may be offering. For example, are the target customers most interested in two-day shipping? An extended product assortment? Improved product recommendations? Getting more effective at targeting customers and meeting their needs will help offset the competition from large marketplaces where shopping is primarily about efficiency.

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

Having a good handle on eCommerce data tends to be overlooked in organizations large and small. It’s one thing to be tracking analytics data for your website but making sure that you are collecting the right type of data and also analyzing it correctly to make it actionable is where most brands tend to struggle. The volume of data tends to be very large and can be overwhelming, which leads to a problem of where to focus the limited time and energy available. Making good use of data can be a very effective way at winning customers and keeping competitors at bay.

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?

Leverage the power of AI and machine learning to be more successful. There are a number of AI tools available that can help give you an advantage — from intelligent chatbots that streamline your customer service process, personalized product recommendations to help sell more effectively, or dynamic pricing that adapts to your customer and market trends. AI is just going to continue to increase in prominence with eCommerce, so it makes sense to start investing there now.

Avatria Convert also uses machine learning to help boost eCommerce sales. It can help your customers find exactly what they’re looking for at the top of your search and browse pages based on their shopping behavior.

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?

Increasing conversion rates starts with understanding your data. You will need to first answer questions like: What is my current conversion rate? How does my conversion rate change on a monthly basis, how much variability is there? What is the average conversion rate for the types of products that I sell? Which of my customers are “converting” on my site? What products are those customers buying? How am I acquiring those customers? For customers that are not converting, where are they dropping off?

Once you have established a solid baseline understanding of your conversion funnel, you can begin to focus on making improvements to areas where you may be struggling. For example, you may need to implement abandoned cart emails if you find a lot of drop offs at the shopping cart page. If you are seeing a high bounce rate on search or category pages, you may need to invest in improving search relevancy.

The last step here is to effectively track the changes you make and ensure that the effect you are seeing is not just a fluke due to a sale or promotion you have active. This can be done via A/B testing or by closely monitoring the data being generated by the solution you implemented.

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?

Provide great customer service — this one may seem obvious, but it is often overlooked. Every interaction a brand has with their customer is an opportunity to establish a relationship. If customers have issues or questions on your products, doing everything you can to meet their needs will show that you value their opinion and appreciate their business. This goes a long way when customers are thinking about where to make their next purchase.

Give back to the community — With everything going on in today’s world, showing your customers that you care about more than just profits are a great way to make a positive impression and convey your brand’s values. Whether you choose to give back via donations, sustainability, volunteering, or some other mechanism, being a part of the broader community will help to humanize your brand with your customers.

Social proof — No one likes to be the first one to ever make a purchase with a brand, so reviews and referrals go a long way in establishing trust with customers. Having influencers or brand advocates, showcasing your product being used by real customers and highlighting customer feedback are great ways to emphasize how much other customers love your products.

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.

Some of these factors we’ve touched on already throughout the conversation, but I will use this as an opportunity to reiterate the primary points:

Deliver a high-quality customer experience — Your primary communication channel with your customer, the eCommerce website, needs to do its job effectively. A poor user experience on your website is going to dramatically decrease your sales. There are a number of aspects involved in delivering a good experience to customers, including: easy and intuitive navigation, high quality product images, responsive/mobile friendly website, make it easy to find products, and easy access to customer support.

Know your customer — Data plays a very important role in your ability to be successful within eCommerce. The more you know about your customers, the easier it will be to target and entice them to visit your site to make a purchase. This information will also help you understand what is important to your user base, allowing you to focus on those aspects to improve your customer experience even further.

Build a strong brand — As before, having a strong brand message and story is a great way to differentiate yourself from the competition. It also allows you to connect with your customers in a meaningful way. The more you can establish a relationship with them and make the sale seem less transactional, the higher the chances are that you increase customer lifetime value and build a loyal brand following.

Master your supply chain — Know the ins and outs of your product throughout the entire supply chain, from manufacturing through distribution. Having a firm understanding of the operational side of your eCommerce business will allow you to react quickly to anything that may impact your ability to maintain inventory. The coronavirus pandemic is a great example of how critical the supply chain is to the success of your eCommerce store.

Understand the financials — This is another fundamental aspect of an eCommerce business that shouldn’t be overlooked. At the end of the day, none of the above tips matter if you aren’t able to turn a profit. You need to fully understand your product and customer acquisition costs, product price points, and overall margins of your business so that you can adjust the financials as needed to stay in business. At the end of the day, the organizations that best understand the data and numbers behind their business are the ones that will be left standing when a downturn occurs.

How can our readers further follow you online?

You can visit https://convert.avatria.com or follow us on twitter (@avatria) or LinkedIn (https://www.linkedin.com/company/avatria)

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

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