…An ability to generate traffic. An amazing site doesn’t matter if no one knows about it. This was way harder than we expected. When we first started, we relied almost exclusively on word of mouth. It allowed us to bootstrap our way to the next step, but it’s rare to scale on word of mouth alone. Generating traffic that converts requires a bunch of things to be working in tandem: word of mouth; social marketing; email marketing; engaging content; search engine optimization; trade shows; and bricks and mortar presence. I feel like getting this formula right is an endless pursuit to running a fast growing e-comm business.
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 Laura Whitaker, founder of Wildcraft, an artisanal skincare line handcrafted in Toronto, Canada. Wildcraft was founded in 2014 by Laura with an aim to make nourishing all-natural, high quality skincare available to everyone. What began with her experimenting in her kitchen is now a thriving business with a growing team and an expansive network of retailers.
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?
Thanks so much for having me! From a young age I always knew deep down that I wanted to do something entrepreneurial. I watched my Mom start a community resource centre in our small town and my parents ran their own landscaping business. They showed me that it was totally possible to start your own thing. I’ve never felt drawn to super structured environments and I’m someone who likes to problem solve and figure it out so I was always drawn to entrepreneurialism.
I had my first job scooping ice cream at 12 years old and have always worked at least part-time since then almost exclusively in small business environments. I learned a lot from working in these types of places. Many of those things I carry into my business today.
What was the “Aha Moment” that led to the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?
When you have an entrepreneurial mindset you’re constantly playing around with different business ideas mostly based on the world that you see around you. My “Aha Moment” for Wildcraft came when I started becoming interested in using natural skincare in 2010. When I looked at the market at that time, there wasn’t a lot of quality natural skincare, and what was available was out of my price range.
When I looked at the ingredients in the products of some of my favorite brands, I started to realize that they were mostly using things that could be found in my local health food store. I felt like there was a lot of room for a natural brand that was handmade and authentic but without the premium price tag.
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?
I was literally starting from nothing when it came to this business so it was a huge learning curve!
Previous to starting the company, I wasn’t particularly interested in skincare or beauty products and although I’ve had many different jobs, I’ve never worked in retail or with an ecommerce business. So all of that was really difficult to say the least.
A couple of the things I had on my side were the ability and, quite frankly, the drive to make beautiful things. I spent a year going to interior design school before starting Wildcraft and while I ultimately decided not to continue with that career path, the principles and elements of design that I learned in that program helped me come up with our initial packaging prototype and continue to serve me to this day.
The other thing that worked to my advantage was my overall interest in health and wellness, specifically through food and plants. I love to cook and one of the things I love about cooking is gathering the beautiful ingredients. The farmers market or our local organic food store are heaven to me. I also had some basic knowledge and a keen interest in plants and gardening. These interests were helpful when trying to formulate the initial line of products.
I also knew if I wanted to be an entrepreneur, I would have to start somewhere and I’m someone who learns best through doing versus taking a class or reading about it in a book. I thought it was pretty low risk to create a product and see if there was a market for it which turned out to be true and not that true as it took a lot of work to get here!
The secret sauce to the business was definitely my husband and co-founder Jake. When I wanted to start Wildcraft he was a few years into his career in consulting, mostly working in retail consulting. He was able to bring a lot of business acumen to the table and given we lived together, I was able to soak up as much as I could. He also has an engineering background from the University of Toronto and had enough basic coding skills to get our ecommerce site up and running.
So, how are things going today? How did your grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?
It’s been nearly six years since we sold our first product at a local farmers market and today things are going really well! We’ve managed to grow Wildcraft into a seven figure business with an incredible team of 5 full time employees along with a wonderful network of creative consultants.
Our original vision for the company was to provide affordable, quality natural skincare and that vision is still very much alive today. We’re also working hard to push some of our other values that have always had a more low level influence on the company culture to the forefront. Those values include things like our environmental impact and employee well being.
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?
Oh, we’ve made so many mistakes along the way! One of the silliest mistakes I made when I first started was how I wrapped our ecomm packages. I had no concept of how well packages needed to be wrapped in order to survive the mail system. When we got an order I would be so thrilled and I would wrap it so thoughtfully as if I were going to hand it to the customer as a present (which I occasionally did). All the labels facing up with very little wrapping around each product. It only took me a few attempts to realize this pretty package was going to arrive as if someone had shaken it up, thrown it down some stairs, ran it over, and tossed it onto a customer’s front porch. It took more than a few smashed precious products for me to learn my lesson!
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
What sets Wildcraft apart is the combination of quality products and approachable brand. We don’t make superficial claims about anti-aging or use the rarest of ingredients. We simply take timeworn, plant-based materials, put them in a beautifully designed container and make it accessible to as many people as possible. All of our products are handmade and shipped out by our team, allowing us to ensure high quality standards, closely control sourcing and be completely transparent. I love hearing all the comments and reviews from our customers about how happy they are to have discovered Wildcraft and what they love about us. There’s nothing better than hearing customers replay your value proposition back to you.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
Building a business that connects deeply to my personal values has been key for me. That connection to my deeper value system gives my work purpose. Without this deeper purpose, the business becomes all about making money, which simply doesn’t energize me day in and day out. I need a higher purpose, like creating an amazing work environment where people love their jobs or bringing wellness to as many people’s daily routines as possible. I find when I get in the money first mindset I start feeling overwhelmed and directionless. It’s just not enough of a purpose for me.
Another key for me has been carving out a role for everyone in the company, including myself, that is tailored to each person’s unique aptitudes and skill sets. When we first started the business we had to do everything ourselves, but as the business started to grow we hired people who are better than us at doing many of the things we used to do ourselves.
I find when my day to day work is aligned with what I’m good at I have so much more energy to give than when I’m white knuckling my way through things I hate doing. If you hate doing something, try to hire someone who is good at it and things will flow so much more freely!
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 would be nowhere without my husband Jake. He is the absolute ying to my yang. Jake and I both bring such different approaches to life and business. I’m all about the gut feeling and act on instinct, Jake is very cerebral, meticulous and well thought out. For example, everytime we look at launching a new product, I start with some grand idea of a novel product in unique packaging. Jake helps bring me back to reality with input on pricing, product portfolio fit and production practicalities. I don’t think either of us would be as successful on our own!
Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. 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?
Some large companies, like Amazon and Walmart, have generally done well through the pandemic and have become even more entrenched in people’s lives. And foreign competition will always be a threat. I think the key is to differentiate on quality, content and brand. This plays well into Wildcraft’s strengths.
It’s very hard for companies like Amazon and Walmart to offer the type of quality products we can in our niches. If I want a cell phone case, sure Amazon and Walmart have great options, but if I want an all natural, high quality candle, I’ll probably have to look elsewhere.
Likewise, it’s difficult for Amazon or Walmart to offer easy-to-access content that’s targeted and authoritative on a topic like natural skincare. Their product ranges are too broad and breadth of site content too expansive. Both rely heavily on user generated content that can be difficult to curate and sometimes misleading. While their mass scale enables them to do some things really well, like ship products with unbelievable speed and hyper-personalize emails, other things are harder, like providing a high touch experience and truly empowering content or services. Wildcraft can do things that would be hard to replicate at a mass scale, like handwritten notes and a free sample of a product we think you’ll like to try with everyone’s first order, or free live consultations to help with your purchase.
Lastly, we believe that people are increasingly looking to support brands that are aligned with their personal values. And this is almost impossible for massive multinational corporations to compete with, especially on more intimate products like skin and personal care. We think people want to know that their products are being made and shipped by people that are treated well and that companies are doing what they can to have a positive impact on their communities and the environment.
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 common mistake is underestimating how incredibly important the website experience is. It can never be good enough and you should constantly be trying to improve it.
Your website should clearly communicate your offering in the clearest way possible. It should give your customers a concise and consistent brand image, offer information about the products in an extremely easy to find way, and lead to a simple and seamless checkout experience.
I think of our online store as an actual storefront. If someone were to enter our store would it be immediately apparent that we sell affordable skincare products? How will the customer learn more about the products we have in our shop? Will they find the shopping experience friendly and inviting?
In your experience, which aspect of running an eCommerce brand tends to be most underestimated? Can you explain or give an example?
For me, shipping and logistics has been one of the most challenging areas of running an ecomm business. We do everything in house. The customer experience needs to continue right through the website and checkout flow and into shipping and customer service. All of the work that goes into making this a seamless process behind the scenes is a big challenge.
During the 2020 holiday season we, along with many online businesses, were experiencing an extremely high level of sales which impacted all of the shipping providers that we had access to at the time. This backlog led to some less than ideal experiences for our customers. We’ve been working really hard over the past little while to switch shipping providers and offer more shipping options to avoid any hiccups in the future, but it’s not as easy as just flipping the switch. There is a lot to consider when making those decisions, and the expectations of consumers for online shipping keep going up.
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?
The first and most obvious one is a great ecomm platform. We use Shopify and feel that it is one of the great equalizers between big, mainstream beauty companies and small upstarts like us. It offers a great out of the box, fully integrated solution, with lots of add-on options from a full marketplace of apps. It’s hard to imagine what we would have done before platforms like Shopify — there’s no way we would have the startup capital to build a site from scratch!
Beyond the platform, which is our company’s backbone, the other critical tool is a top notch email marketing client. Acquiring customers is hard, so retaining them is super important. Other than an amazing product, a well tuned email marketing capability is the number one way to keep your customers coming back. It enables us to provide relevant content to customers, let them know about new product launches and reminds them about our loyalty program and other services.
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?
- Creating a super user friendly website
- Giving as much information about the product as possible. Clear product description and images or even better videos.
- Having reviews of the products and brand readily available on your website
- Having a compelling shipping offer
- Making the checkout process as smooth as possible
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?
- Invest in good PR! If someone comes to your website and is able to view articles and see that people in the media think your product is as good as you think it is, it can go a long way.
- Connect with influencers that actually love your products. It comes through so much more authentically when the influencers you’re working with are genuine fans of your brand.
- Create an online community through social media that are enthusiastic about the company.
- Make sure that you have unfiltered, authentic customer reviews available on your website to give people an honest view on your products.
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?
If someone gives you a negative review you should always take it as an opportunity to learn more about your customer and potentially improve something about your product or service. We had someone leave a negative comment once that raised a good point about our creation process. At first, we wanted to be defensive, but after doing some research, we realized there was an opportunity to improve our process. A negative can be a positive sometimes too!
In general, we always address negative reviews head-on and never avoid them. No one is perfect and so no company is going to be either.
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.
There are so many things and probably more than one combination to be successful, but I think successful ecommerce businesses need most of these.
First and probably the most important is to find a great team. I always try to hire people smarter than me. It’s also incredibly important to have a strong team of contractors, especially for ecomm businesses. Content is king (more on this below) and no one person can do it all. There are so many aspects to running a strong ecomm business across graphic design, social media, copywriting, photography, and videography. We’ve found that to really grow, each needs to be performing well.
Second is an ability to generate traffic. An amazing site doesn’t matter if no one knows about it. This was way harder than we expected. When we first started, we relied almost exclusively on word of mouth. It allowed us to bootstrap our way to the next step, but it’s rare to scale on word of mouth alone. Generating traffic that converts requires a bunch of things to be working in tandem: word of mouth; social marketing; email marketing; engaging content; search engine optimization; trade shows; and bricks and mortar presence. I feel like getting this formula right is an endless pursuit to running a fast growing ecomm business.
Third, and already mentioned in the first two, is content. There’s an almost infinite demand for good content in the digital world, and an abundance of bad content. Content can help a brand gain visibility on social media, help empower customers to make a purchase and embody a consistent brand image. It’s the lifeblood of most successful ecomm businesses. My husband and I used to create all the content ourselves. But it was only when we pulled together a team oriented towards generating quality, authentic content that we were really able to scale out of our kitchen.
Fourth might not be relevant to all ecommerce business, but certainly is for us: recreating the physical experience. This is an acute problem for skincare as people are generally used to seeing, smelling and testing products before buying. And beyond that, no ecommerce businesses have a window display to showcase its brand, a sales associate to educate and engage a customer or in-store merchandising to help a customer find what they want. So we’ve had to find ways to make up for this. For example, we offer low cost samples for customers to try out products, have an on-site quiz to help people figure out what facial moisturizer is right for them and offer free, live consultations with one of our employees. These all work together to lower the barrier for our customers to finding what’s right for their skin.
Fifth and final is shipping. This is where the digital world meets the physical for most ecomm businesses. People expect shipping to be fast and to know where their purchases are, and if you don’t meet this expectation, you’ll probably hear about it from that customer (and that will also probably be the last time you hear from them). I think ecomm businesses can sometimes look at providing better shipping as an added cost. But we think of it as a differentiating, cost reducing and revenue driving tool. A leading shipping policy can separate you from competitors. For Wildcraft, we try to offer the best shipping policy of any natural skincare brand with free shipping on all orders over $35. This very much aligns with our goal of lowering the barrier to access to wellness while differentiating our brand. It is also a very effective conversion tool. We know that offering this policy and more shipping options (coming soon) also increases conversion and drives revenue. Shipping is also our number one driver of customer service, so providing a great shipping service helps us cut down on customer service and saves costs. It’s a win win win.
You are a person of great 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. 🙂
Healthy eating options. We are what we eat (and put on our skin) and so many people don’t have access to healthy food. It’s such a big issue in all parts of the world and also such a tough problem because it’s localized. If I could solve any problem today, this would be it, which is why we’ve recently partnered with a local Toronto organization that’s doing just that. It provides fresh produce to families facing food insecurity by growing it locally.
How can our readers further follow you online?
We’d love it if you followed us on Instagram @wildcraftcare and check our website wildcraftcare.ca and signed up for our newsletter.
Thank you so much for the time you spent with this!