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Saad Siddiqui of Bonsai: “Ensure the quality of your products”

Anticipate your customer’s needs Ensure the quality of your products Incentivize with customer rewards and “gifts” “exclusives” “first looks” Create a unique and convenient shopping experience. Retail is cluttered so you have to stand out. Make your items accessible by creating a functional layout for their perusal (in-person and online). Offer delivery. Listen! As part of my […]

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Anticipate your customer’s needs

Ensure the quality of your products

Incentivize with customer rewards and “gifts” “exclusives” “first looks”

Create a unique and convenient shopping experience. Retail is cluttered so you have to stand out. Make your items accessible by creating a functional layout for their perusal (in-person and online). Offer delivery.

Listen!


As part of my series about the “How To Create A Fantastic Retail Experience That Keeps Bringing Customers Back For More”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Saad Siddiqui.

Saad founded Bonsai in 2016 while he was a student at the University of Toronto. Previously, Saad was the Chief Marketing Officer at Kettlebeck.


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. I’m Saad Siddiqui, CEO of Bonsai, a technology company I started when I was in college. I grew up really into streetwear and created a site focused on this passion of mine as a hobby. It was part-blog and part-marketplace and to mesh this together my team built technology to make the UX smooth for readers shopping the site. This niche site caught the attention of both merchants and publishers. Merchants were curious as to why people were seeking to shop from us instead of directly from them. Publishers wanted the technology because it was a solution to solve some of the industry’s biggest pain points, such as diluted revenue from affiliate links. Through these conversations with both sides we recognized an opportunity to completely reshape what Bonsai was — from a niche upstart lifestyle site to an industry-leading e-commerce tech platform. We were able to make both major merchants and publishers our partners and have created millions of dollars of revenue opportunities since. I’ve gained a lot of real-world experience about business and leadership that I could never have learned in the classroom. I’m now 23 and I could not be more proud of the growth and evolution that the company has seen in the past five years and there’s still more to come!

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 we were first launching Bonsai on a mobile app my team and I wanted to do something really big. We had this expectation in our head that the size of the activation we did was going to drive conversion. I had recently seen this interesting pop-up by a company I followed in San Francisco. They essentially build a pop-up store out of shipping containers, stacked them on top of one another and build a store within the containers. I saw this idea and knew immediately I wanted to copy this for Bonsai’s original activation. I went ahead and ordered two containers to be set up in downtown Toronto. This was an incredibly expensive activation. The containers had to be shipped from China via cargo ship, then driven from Vancouver to Toronto, truly a logistical nightmare. Against our better judgement, we also decided to have this pop-up activation in the dead of winter in Toronto — not something I would suggest. Once the containers were set up and the Bonsai pop-up was open, it was a complete failure. No one showed up, one article was written about it and I think we generated 5 app installs from the activation. While it was a hugely expensive mistake, it certainly taught me a lesson that doing something bigger does not always guarantee results. From this experience, I learned that in order to optimize a marketing campaign you need to ensure that it is measurable, trackable and has a clear ROI, without a large upfront cost.

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 find the most important mentors are those who have no underlying business motivation and purely want to see you succeed. For me, that is my high school drama teacher William Scoular. He is consistently a sounding board for me. He’s not impressed or interested in business numbers or valuation, he genuinely cares about how I am doing and that is incredibly refreshing in a mentor. While he can’t offer me business advice, his guidance throughout my career has been invaluable.

Is there a particular book, podcast, or film that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

I recently read former Disney CEO, Bob Iger’s book, The Ride of a Lifetime. Bob speaks a lot about the role that ownership plays into your everyday handling of business when you are a CEO. This resonated a lot with me and taught me the importance of accountability being a top-down practice — and how it is an indicator of the performance of you as a leader, your workforce and the overall success of your business.

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

Our company culture is the cornerstone of all of the success we’ve been able to achieve. We strive for diverse, passionate leaders who are interested in not only growing a company but making a difference in the world. Now being fully remote, we’ve been able to sustain recruiting a talented diverse pool of talent. Remote working is not always ideal, but I’m proud in how we’ve been able to come together as a team and keep our great company culture alive through Zoom happy hours, virtual games and always keeping a sense of humor during these crazy times!

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

  • Flex hours/Take breaks: Startup life is extremely fast-paced and non-stop. We encourage our employees to work in a way that is most convenient to them and to take advantage of their time off
  • Flag issues early: We have an open forum and an HR department. We ask our employees to speak with their teams as soon as they run up against an issue and seek additional counsel to serve as a moderator if things don’t resolve.
  • Seek help: We believe mental wellness is foundational to the success of each individual. Whether it be taking walks, using a meditative practice or therapy, every person should seek out ways to decompress.
  • Find a hobby: Our employees all have personal hobbies that give them something to look forward to outside of work. It allows them to maintain that balance between their professional and personal lives.
  • Have fun: It’s important to incorporate a culture of levity within the company and find activities that will bring fun to the workplace and bond employees.

Ok super. Now let’s jump to the main questions of our interview. The so-called “Retail Apocalypse” has been going on for about a decade. The Pandemic only made things much worse for retailers in general. While many retailers are struggling, some retailers, like Lululemon, Kroger, and Costco are quite profitable. Can you share a few lessons that other retailers can learn from the success of profitable retailers?

The loss of main street shopping has been on the horizon as the options for online shopping have become more accessible and convenient for consumers. This was only accelerated when COVID-19 forced individuals to socially distance and stay at home. Lululemon, Kroger and Costco sit in particularly unique situations as they service consumers interested in fitness and food. Fitness companies saw a boom as it became a pastime in lockdown. Food is simply essential and with people buying in bulk due to panic, grocers couldn’t keep stocked shelves. These companies also have e-commerce and delivery options. All retailers need to pivot to making their online shopping experience primary and their brick and mortar secondary or let physical stores go completely.

Amazon is 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?

Owned and singular shopping experiences are essential to both brick and mortar and e-commerce. The consumer is the priority so unique shopping experiences that are convenient are of paramount importance. Retailers should also incentivize users with discounts available from them, rewards points or customer gifts with purchases. Shopping local also has the advantages of in-store pickup options as well as better delivery times, which have become a major issue with the large amount of packages being ordered and shipped every day.

What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs & founders make when they start a retail business? What can be done to avoid those errors?

Curation is key! We work with publishers and often they want to create experiences for themselves or everyone. It’s important to have a point of view that goes beyond your own needs but isn’t so generic that anyone would be able to replicate it — therefore leaving your venture non-essential.

This might be intuitive, but I think it’s helpful to specifically articulate it. In your words, can you share a few reasons why great customer service and a great customer experience is essential for success in business in general and for retail in particular?

Making individuals feel special and letting them know you are there for them is invaluable because it engenders trust and loyalty. Retailers should always have a way for customers to get questions answered and resolve problems. With retail, it’s inevitable with the amount of inventory and the many parts of making, packaging and shipping a product things will go wrong. It’s important to have your team be responsive, accountable and caring enough to guide your customers to a solution.

We have all had times either in a store, or online, when we’ve had a very poor experience as a customer or user. If the importance of a good customer experience is so intuitive, and apparent, where is the disconnect? How is it that so many companies do not make this a priority?

It’s the issue of not thinking through the “return” stage of the retail life cycle. Instead, they only focus on creation and promotion. Even if your products are eye-catching or useful, customers won’t think twice about your company if they have a poor CX. Shoppers are extremely vocal nowadays and eviews on websites and social media are guiding how people select where they spend their dollars. Retailers who don’t pay attention will continue to lose out.

A fantastic retail experience isn’t just one specific thing. It can be a composite of many different subtle elements fused together. Can you help us break down and identify the different ingredients that come together to create a “fantastic retail experience”?

The different ingredients that are required to create a fantastic retail experience are:

  1. Storytelling: People buy products because they identify with the story a brand is telling or see the brand’s story as aspirational and want to buy into that. I would say that the second ingredient
  2. Experiential: Both online and physical retail shopping should feel like an experience, playing further into that idea of storytelling to consumers. Getting consumers excited about their experience when shopping at your store converts them into both brand advocates and return shoppers.
  3. Convenience: Making your product easily accessible is of paramount importance, especially today with the consumer’s impatient nature when it comes to receiving product.

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 fantastic retail experience that keeps bringing customers back for more? Please share a story or an example for each.

While Bonsai is not a retailer, we do enable our customers to create fantastic experiences for their shoppers and from that we have identified the following as the five most important things one should know to create a fantastic retail experience:

  1. Anticipate your customer’s needs
  2. Ensure the quality of your products
  3. Incentivize with customer rewards and “gifts” “exclusives” “first looks”
  4. Create a unique and convenient shopping experience. Retail is cluttered so you have to stand out. Make your items accessible by creating a functional layout for their perusal (in-person and online). Offer delivery.
  5. Listen!

Thank you for all of that. We are nearly done. Here is our final ‘meaty’ question. 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. 🙂

There are many movements I would love to start, but one that I feel very passionate about is improving venture capital access to underrepresented communities in the technology industry,

How can our readers further follow your work?

Check out getbonsai.com and follow me on Twitter: https://twitter.com/saad_l_siddiqui

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


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