Embrace Amazon early! The savviest e-commerce brands will not fight against Amazon, but embrace it for the powerful partner it could be. Think about Amazon as a collaborative partnership, not as a competitor. And make sure you figure out how to incorporate Amazon into your omnichannel marketing plans early on in your company’s development.
As a part of my interview series about “Five non-intuitive things you need to know to run a very successful Amazon business, I had the pleasure of interviewing Alex Song, the New York-based investment banker-turned-startup founder who, after several years of working on Wall Street, took his investment experience to the tech space. Not only is he the founder and CEO of Innovation Department, a startup studio that helps foster and invest in the growth of early-stage e-commerce, media, and SaaS companies, but Song is also a co-founder of DojoMojo, a platform that streamlines the process of partnership marketing for growing brands. And while Song has plenty of noteworthy ventures that may stand as a testament to his success in the startup space — WellPath, reBloom, Valyrian Media, just to name a few — one of his greatest successes to date may be in not just the companies that he’s built, but the team cultures that he’s fostered within them.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you share with us the “backstory” about what brought you to this specific career path?
After finishing college, I worked as an analyst in Goldman Sachs’ investment banking division for a couple of years before being promoted to the private equity group, where I stayed for about three and a half years. After that, I joined a hedge fund called Pershing Square. So I was deep in the world of investment banking, but at the same time, I’d always had a passion for entrepreneurship and early-stage businesses. I’d constantly been thinking about business ideas as far as starting something on my own, and at one point, the opportunity arose where tech was doing well and I felt like it was the right time to make that shift. The only thing for me was that I wasn’t necessarily willing to give up all of the experience that I’d gained up to that point just to be an operator or anything like that. So what I decided to do instead was use what I knew well — investing — as my way in. I began investing in different types of businesses with the goal of learning and over time I invested in more established companies like Pinterest, Lyft, ClassPass, Dropbox, Digital Ocean, etc., and with each of those investments, I essentially gave myself access to leaders whom I’d be able to learn from. Then, I began investing in more early-stage companies, and with those investments, my ask was that I be allowed to stay in their offices one day a week for free. This gave me the operational, on-the-ground experience that I was lacking, and it was my opportunity to get a sense of where there was a need for improvement in the startup space. What I ultimately saw was that, for a lot of these early-stage companies, the hurdles were pretty consistent across the board, with the biggest being resources — or, rather, a lack thereof. That’s when I kind of got the idea to create an ecosystem of aggregate resources that tended to be lacking for a lot of these companies — engineering, design, content, etc. — and get them on a single payroll and in a single space. From there, we could help budding companies in a very hands-on way by offering support in a number of creative and operational areas that we’d have an established expertise in. Basically, I was creating a startup studio before I even really knew what a startup studio was. I was just building something based on what I knew how to do well — invest and advise — and as I became more and more experienced in the operations side of things, that just naturally progressed into a model where the bets we were taking were on ideas that we believed had the potential to be some of tomorrow’s successful companies.
Can you explain to our readers why you are an authority about selling on Amazon.com?
We’re a startup studio that is transforming the speed to success for e-commerce startups as they’re launched and grown. One of the ways that our brands have grown so quickly is by embracing Amazon as a partner (versus thinking of Amazon as the e-commerce devil). We’ve had the pleasure of launching brands like Wellpath, reBloom.com, Sole Serum, WineAwesomeness.com, many of which have effectively tapped into the wealth of benefits that Amazon offers — everything from built-in logistics to audience reach to customer feedback. Understanding that Amazon is an effective marketing channel has allowed us to leverage it to scale our products quickly and efficiently while accelerating growth and increasing cash flows.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started this career?
When we first started investing in businesses and bringing them in-house, they all had their own founding teams. And as we worked with these companies to help them build their business and accelerate their growth, we found ourselves becoming increasingly aware of the methods of growth that proved most effective for companies over time, with one of the biggest examples being partnership marketing. We saw that this was a really efficient way to fuel growth and that we might be able to better help the brands and companies that we worked with if we could streamline the process of engaging in these partnerships. To that end, we built a pretty basic software that could help all of our businesses initiate relationships and partnerships with other brands. What ended up happening though, which was pretty great, was that brands and people outside of our businesses were using the platform on a regular basis. Then, one day, General Assembly came to us and asked if they could use the platform for their own campaigns, and said that they’d be willing to pay for it. That was the moment we knew that we had something on our hands that we could scale into something bigger. That’s how DojoMojo, our partnerships marketing platform, was born and it was a major step for us. Beyond just having this great, effective tech software that we can say we built from scratch, this also gives us the confidence we need moving forward to continue building businesses and applying what we did with this software to our direct-to-consumer businesses.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
When I was in investment banking, there were these client presentations that I had to make and send over whenever a presentation was happening. On one occasion, there was a meeting where there were going to be about 50 participants there and my boss who was going to present asked that I send over the presentations and all of the details to the location of the client place. Unfortunately, I accidentally sent everything to the wrong address, so 50 of these confidential documents ended up going to a nearby 7-Eleven instead of the client. I ended up having to chase the documents down, but by the time I got to the 7-Eleven, they’d already tossed the documents out and I literally had to go out back and grab them from the dumpster. It was such a silly mistake but it definitely taught me that you have to pay so much attention to detail. In this case, the address mixup was something as simple as using “street” versus “avenue” or something like that, but it ended up being a pretty big issue.
Are you working on any exciting projects now? How do you think that will help people?
One exciting thing that we’re doing with DojoMojo is launching a media marketplace, which will essentially democratize the process of partnership marketing. It used to be that things like content swaps or media sales were sort of reserved for some in-the-know businesses and that was that; it felt incredibly exclusive and only a few select brands had access to it. But, as we’ve turned DojoMojo into a network of over 7,000 brands, we saw an opportunity to democratize the connections that fuel partnership marketing in a way that goes beyond just sweepstakes. This new media marketplace is going to be an opportunity for brands and businesses to transact with ease and a sense of transparency that didn’t really exist before us.
It’s a reality of the current business landscape that brands are finding it crucial, more than ever before, to take the approach of tackling their efforts through commerce, community, and content. What that ultimately means is that every e-commerce business is going to need to have a media arm of some sort, while one side of that is leveraging that media arm to promote your own products or services, that can only be done so many times before you exhaust your audience’s attention and patience. Hence the importance of partnering with other brands in order to intersperse different kinds of content to your audience that feels more genuine and helps build trust with your users.
Ok. Let’s jump to the core of our discussion. You are a seasoned Amazon expert. Can you share with our readers five, non intuitive, insider tips, in order to be as successful as possible on Amazon? Please share a story or example for each.
Absolutely. While much has been said about the Amazon effect in shutting down small businesses and start-ups, I think the opposite is true. In fact, a smart Amazon strategy is essential for any e-commerce start-up to survive, and is one of the core components of our process for launching and scaling successful companies. Here are some tips to keep in mind:
● Embrace Amazon early! The savviest e-commerce brands will not fight against Amazon, but embrace it for the powerful partner it could be. Think about Amazon as a collaborative partnership, not as a competitor. And make sure you figure out how to incorporate Amazon into your omnichannel marketing plans early on in your company’s development.
● Leverage the feedback loop. Amazon is well-known for providing its users a forum for feedback, customer reviews and communications. Tapping into this ongoing feedback loop can be a real gamechanger, providing you with access and insights you may not have otherwise had. This is not to replace a direct customer relationship, rather it’s an enhancer. If anything, a presence on the largest e-commerce platform strengthens brand equity, by creating multiple impression points.
● Make the most of the search function. Think of Amazon’s search function as an acquisition funnel. More than 50% of retail customers begin their search not on Google, but on Amazon, according to a Kenshoo survey. If done right, visibility on the platform can be a direct line back to your website as customers seek out more product information and details.
● Use Amazon’s traffic to your benefit. Utilizing Amazon’s organic traffic can actually minimize your paid marketing spend. We’ve found that by tapping into Amazon’s built-in audience we haven’t had to invest as heavily in other marketing channels to drive revenue.
Amazon sellers have a reputation for being great guerilla marketers. Do you use any clever and innovative marketing strategies that you think large legacy companies should consider adopting?
One of the biggest challenges facing companies — startup and legacy included — is reaching new customers. We’ve found that one of the most impactful ways to build new audiences is through partnership marketing. A partnership with the right company on the right project can go a long way in helping you deepen market share and enhance your brand identity — and at the fraction of the cost of traditional paid marketing channels. For example, DojoMojo has helped more than 7,000 brands leverage the opportunity to more efficiently and transparently find marketing partnerships that have yielded tangible business results. Partnership marketing could be the secret ingredient today’s legacy companies are missing from their marketing plans.
Because of the position that you are in, you are a person of great influence. If you could inspire 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. 🙂
Anything that could really minimize the time we spend on our phones and on social media and help us reconnect with human existence.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
The one that comes to mind is, “A good idea today is better than a perfect idea tomorrow.” A lot of times as an entrepreneur, you risk getting stuck in a paralysis-like state because you just want to make the perfect move but by waiting for that, you’re losing out on opportunities and learnings that you could have picked up along the way. When you’re out there creating something new, there’s nothing more crucial to your success than the data, learnings, and momentum that you gain over time. Really, what you ought to be looking for isn’t the perfect idea or the perfect moment to start, but rather, the perfect series of moves, both good and bad, that in aggregate make-up your success.
Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂
Only because of recency bias, I’d have to say Tony Robbins because I went to this Tony Robbins: Unleash the Power Within Conference and it was awesome, so I think that would be a great one.
Thank you, this is very inspiring!