Learn about your customer, the niche market, and the competitive landscape
Develop a scalable multi-channel platform strategy
Find out what drives traffic to this market, and focus on these traffic drivers
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 Jason Folk, Director of E-commerce, Business Development at RealMe, a transformative new technology solution providing a no-cost, turnkey way to protect people in online marketplaces to make them safer and reduce fraud online.
Jason’s a Bay Area native, working and living in Silicon Valley most of his life. Along with working in software, hardware, fintech & eHealth, Jason’s focus has been in E-commerce, with an emphasis on Online Shopping Marketplaces, since 2007. Specifically, he’s worked for such companies as eBay, NexTag, Wish.com, Find & Save, Walmart eCommerce (Walmart.com); and he’s currently heading up RealMe’s E-commerce Marketplace (therealme.com) efforts — helping merchants & shoppers transact safer when shopping.
Jason’s built and marketed platforms for all seller & customer-types, offering physical goods & digital goods to SaaS & subscriptions. He’s an expert on maximizing the mutual benefits, and minimizing the churn, between sellers and buyers on either the frontend (user experience, design, flows, checkout, retention, etc) platform, or on the backend (multi-directional messaging, site speed optimization, picking/packing/shipping/delivering items).
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?
Thank you for having me. Being born and raised in Silicon Valley to techy parents, I’ve been surrounded by computers and tech for as long as I can remember. After getting my undergrad and MBA degrees, I returned to the Bay Area, and worked at companies like Hitachi, eBay, NexTag, Wish.com and Walmart.com.
I found e-commerce particularly interesting, due to the strong human-to-technology elements; such as the use of data to get sellers to better define and market to the right buyers, at the right places, and at right times, resulting in delighted buyers whose needs have been correctly anticipated. The pandemic brought many new merchants online, and as expected, companies like Amazon, eBay and Walmart naturally gained bigger shares of our wallets. What we’re also seeing is just how much these giants have affected e-commerce users’ expectations. Everything from the breadth of inventory, to the shipping terms, to the security of payments have influenced what users expect from e-commerce platforms in 2020. Also, this influence is not limited to only the biggest platforms selling directly to consumers, as even enterprise/business-to-business customers on small-to-medium sized platforms are increasingly expecting Amazon Prime-levels of services.
One of the biggest problems facing e-commerce today is buyer and seller fraud. I joined RealMe, in part, because we provide e-commerce user validation and verification tools to fight fraud proactively, affordably, and on all sides of the transaction.
While many large marketplaces hide the true costs and impacts of fraud, smaller and medium-sized companies are increasingly needing to address this issue, with a small fraction of the budget of their competition.
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?
After leaving eBay to pursue opportunities at a smaller e-commerce company, Amazon, Walmart and eBay continued to either displace or absorb competition, and it started to feel like competing against them was pointless. Fortunately, many smaller niche players found success, and companies that specialized in optimizing a facet of e-commerce (such as payments, fulfillment, or fraud) started becoming household names.
So, how are things going today? How did your grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?
I feel the most satisfied when I’m able to help take a company to a new or the next level. Lately, I’ve been building marketplaces, along with new customer bases, from within b2b and b2b2c platforms. I’ve learned a lot over the last decade in e-commerce, and I enjoy being able to either refine or apply my learnings to help smaller companies succeed, even when I’m in a market that’s new to me.
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?
I was working for a now-dissolved e-commerce aggregator, in a product development capacity, where we were struggling with user retention and stickiness. We were experimenting with everything from site UX/UI changes, jumping on the latest trends, to embracing limited-time flash sales. To build buzz, we sponsored deals like 80% off LCD TV’s, to sell 14K gold ingots below their strike price; and it was during an attempt to “guerilla market” these products when I learned to never underestimate professional deal-hunters.
These deals were excellent, due to being highly-subsidized. I attempted to post one such deal, as a customer who happened to know when and where these deals would be offered (hint: our website!). One of the sites I posted on was famous for having hyper-aware and keen users, who had ways to sniff out a “shill” deal; which is exactly what I was doing, and which is also strictly taboo. Despite the deal being legitimately great, I was punished by having my account revolved, and my IP address banned. My takeaway from this ordeal was to never try to undermine the customer, and that people can always tell if a deal’s too good to be true.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
RealMe offers something I’ve never seen before joining the team earlier this year. When researching reviews or reputation about a merchant or provider, those metrics are exclusive to one specific platform (i.e.; eBay’s Seller Percentage score out of 100%), but RealMe has a Reputation Score curated from different platforms across the internet, which are gathered and interpreted around a 0-to-5 score (5 being the highest). This score is accompanied by a background report, for more a more detailed view of why a certain user has a certain score. RealMe’s verification platform is designed to help e-commerce platforms, and the buyers and sellers who transact on it, make informed decisions while instilling better trust and safety among its users.
Also, the fact that RealMe is legitimately risk-free for partners is definitely very generous; and these principles and philosophies of removing the risks, while maximizing the customer ROI, can be observed at all levels of RealMe; from the CEO to the individual contributor ranks.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
Companies with low churn and happy employees tend to embrace the Zuckerberg ethos of “Move Fast, Brake Things”. Employees typically want to participate in their company’s future, and by allowing employees to experiment, even if they fail, this can lead to better decisions and happier work environments. Another way people can stay motivated for longer is if they’re empowered to test and learn outside their domain; which not only breaks up the grind, but gives the company fresh perspectives.
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 actually have 3 mentors, and I keep in touch with them all. My first mentor, Susan, was my manager who was the first person who believed in me, and invested in my success by backing up my decisions. My second mentor, Phil, is such a good guy that we ended up working at three different companies together. He’s the reason that I have a Vizsla/GSP mixed breed dog, named Ivy, and love to pieces. The third person is Alice, who showed me how to be a better leader by showing compassion and creativity in my work.
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?
With this >25% rise in e-commerce sales, especially by previously-unknown merchants, the massive spike in fraud that we’ve been seeing surprises nobody. In fact, one of the factors that led me to RealMe was how useful their merchant verification and validation solutions are for addressing online fraud. RealMe has already been featured in Forbes for their insights into online relationships, and I’m confident that the value we offer to e-commerce platforms, and their users, will be realized and adopted in a big way, quite soon.
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?
After the “flash sale” trend subsided, the biggest companies left standing were AliExpress and Wish.com; which I worked for early on, as well. Buying directly from a dropshipper or manufacturer is an appealing option, especially for cost-sensitive teens, who are willing to wait 5–8 weeks delivery times, if it means getting an outfit for 9 dollars, shipping inclusive; but it is not without risks. A big reason why d2c platforms from China and countries with massive manufacturing hubs can profit from selling low-cost individual items is because of the lack of any fees for listing items. Typically, listing fees, or paid subscriptions are required, even for unsold items, and are used to fund the platform’s marketing, user support, or refund/return efforts. It’s a no-brainer for sellers to then cross-post any items they’re currently listing on Amazon, Walmart, or Craigslist, because the absence of costs is an absence of risk, for these sellers. The buyers on these unmanaged marketplaces, and similar agnostic shopping platforms, on the other hand, incur all this risk, and often must engage with the manufacturer directly, in the event of any fulfillment issues, or product discrepancies — which is happening with alarmingly growing frequency, and is turning shoppers away from these “Caveat Emptor” platforms.
Also, a quick scan on the reviews, and stars-out-of-five comments left by consumers is very telling; shoppers on these platforms are constantly dealing with not-as-described, mis-sized, counterfeit and fraudulent item issues. Some of these sellers don’t even have the means to contact the original sellers, leaving the buyers burned, out of money, and unlikely to return to the platform again.
I advise any and all sellers and seller platforms not to be a 100% unmanaged shopping platform; and at very least, offer a way for buyers to vet sellers before transacting, which can be done preemptively using RealMe’s verification. By providing another “premium tier” that includes a way for sellers to identify themselves proactively, along with requiring sellers to adopt some type of refund/return policy, many of the biggest complaints and problems consumers have with these direct sellers will go away quickly
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?
Leaders who are “Penny Smart/Pound Foolish’’ or those who put good money after bad, are the first on my list. Those who require everyone to abide by a strict, arbitrary set of rules, because it’s always been that way, are also on this list. I’ve also never seen an ecommerce company or platform succeed for long that does not put the user before everything else; usually this takes the form of trying to squeeze every dollar from a user, before they invariably catch-on, and never return.
In your experience, which aspect of working for an eCommerce brand tends to be most underestimated? Can you explain or give an example?
In my experience, those who try “to boil the ocean” or try to be everything to everyone. There’s so much value in serving one or a few specific verticals really well, but everyone also wants to be the “next Amazon”, which is really hard to accomplish.
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?
My last few roles have been in B2B, and also SaaS companies, which can be difficult for even internal employees to fully understand; let alone sell to other companies.
There are many freemium and shared-platform solutions, like Google’s G Suite, Amazon Web Services, are easy and scalable for almost every company.
E-commerce platforms selling goods and services benefit from Shopify and BigCommerce, when getting started. To date, I don’t think I’ve seen a more economical way for sellers to show how reputable they are to prospective buyers than RealMe; which I believe will become a defacto staple for all SMB e-commerce platforms soon.
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?
Educate, don’t obfuscate! A good platform doesn’t hide or confuse the important stuff. The buyer should always have a good understanding of how much they will be charged, and by when they will receive their purchase. Similarly, the seller should know their costs, but also how much they should be charging sellers, and also should know best practices, and how to be a successful and lasting merchant on your platform.
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?
Like trust, fraud cuts both ways. Of estimated 1.5B dollars lost to online sales fraud expected for 2020, sellers lose ~3.75 dollars for every 1 dollar of fraud costs. The biggest, most successful online shopping platforms insist on mutual user honesty; connecting reliably paying buyers, with their accurately fulfilling sellers. Like Uber and eBay, it’s now more important than ever for e-commerce users to be able to see the reputations of their transaction partners, clearly and easily. This is where RealMe’s user verification services will really make the biggest impact.
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?
Unless reviews are grossly obscene or trolling, the best way to reply to bad reviews is to own the mistake, apologize in earnest, and offer recompense. Buyers are very forgiving if an apology is offered, and new shoppers will look past reviews which have been earnestly addressed.
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.
- Find an underserved niche market to enter
- Learn about your customer, the niche market, and the competitive landscape
- Partner & hire to your weaknesses, if you don’t have the assets/competencies in-house already
- Develop a scalable multi-channel platform strategy
- Find out what drives traffic to this market, and focus on these traffic drivers
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this!