Know what you are selling (i.e. not “what is your product” but “what is your brand”). If you’re selling art, perhaps you are actually selling the prospect of beautiful spaces and homes. If you’re selling whimsical t-shirts, maybe you’re selling conversation starters. If you’re selling sustainable packaging like us, you might be selling a way for companies to ship their products in accordance with their own eco values. Coca-Cola doesn’t sell “soda”; it sells “happiness.” Amazon doesn’t sell stuff; it sells “convenience.” Know that for your 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 Saloni Doshi, CEO and Chief Sustainability Officer at EcoEnclose, a leading provider of sustainable packaging and shipping solutions. In the last 5 years alone, they’ve helped over 20,000 eco-minded companies. Previously, Saloni was co-founder of Fresh Takes Kitchen, a for-profit social venture making healthy eating accessible to lower-income individuals. She graduated Magna Cum Laude from Princeton with a B.S. in Operations Research and Financial Engineering and holds an M.B.A. from Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management.
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? What was the “Aha Moment” that led to the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?
Of course! In 2005, Erin Kimmett, the founder of Thirsties, a sustainable cloth diaper brand, was trying to find packaging options. She quickly realized that there weren’t any great eco-friendly packaging options out there. This started the search for and ultimately the development of EcoEnclose, where our first product was the recycled poly mailer, now 100% recycled, 50% post consumer resin, and recyclable!
In 2015, my husband, Kyle, and I acquired EcoEnclose after years of searching for a business whose mission aligned with our own. We loved the values that EcoEnclose was built upon and saw its tremendous potential for growth. We’ve now expanded into over 200 shipping solutions, almost all of which are 100% recycled and recyclable.
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?
We first took over the business when I was 7 months pregnant with my second kid. At that point, the business was too small to support our family to have both Kyle and I working on it. So, I got a second job consulting in sustainable agriculture. Those first six months were so hard — between the baby, not having a maternity leave (as a business owner for one company and as consultant with no benefits), the learning curve of the business, and the constant cash flow struggles that come from running a small but growing business. Back then, the drive for me came entirely from our mission that I was so passionate about along with the fact that we had the ability to serve so many progressive and awe-inspiring businesses. These businesses and their passion / commitment kept me going!
One really dark moment was about 7 months after we took over the business. We had moved into a new building, acquired a new piece of equipment, and after weathering a particularly challenging July, we found that we could not pay a very large invoice. Exhausted and dejected, this really put me in a spiral of wondering whether or not running the business was the right call. We did end up developing a doable payment plan on the invoice and have since continued to work with that supplier on some even bigger equipment items. That experience was a reminder of (1) treat your customers and vendors as partners; be generous and kind while also being professional and protecting your interests as needed and (2) face your problems head on, and just deal with them as they come.
So, how are things going today? How did your grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?
We’ve been very blessed with a successful five years — which is a combo of trends (both the need for eCommerce and sustainability rising) as well as our work ethic / grit, focus on innovation, and sustainability.
Here are a few ways our grit has led to our success:
- We never settle for a product as is. When we first took over the business, we had an 88% recycled poly mailer. Now, it’s 100% recycled with 50% post-consumer waste. We are always trying to increase the PCW every year.
- We take bets on new sustainable solutions even when they aren’t perfect at the start. With our Zero Waste liner, the adhesive at first was mediocre, and a lot of companies would have given up on the exciting technology. We instead worked with manufacturers for an entire year to get a corrugate / high strength adhesive for it.
- We never get complacent with both our business and our products / sustainability. People often laugh at me because I get conscious / nervous about changes to rate of growth right away. A silly example of this might is that we’ll have three months where our year over year growth is at 80%, and then the next month it’s at 50%. This throws me into a panic and has me take pretty aggressive action whereas others may think that’s fine as it’s still a great growth rate). But it’s that dramatic change to the rate of growth that I focus on.
- I’m always very willing to jump in and do the work. Back when we first took over the business, I’d be in on Saturdays / Sundays with my kids and Kyle. He would be running the box machines and I’d be fulfilling orders. Even during COVID-19 when we cut our staff hours down 40% to ensure only one person worked in a department at time, I worked in the warehouse every night from 5PM to 1AM fulfilling orders because of how far behind we were.
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?
Mistakes are a plenty! It was hard to call them “funny” when they took place, but now in retrospect we’ve come to laugh at a few of them:
There was one time where I bought a die cutter, and I read the dims wrong. They were in inches. But because they were a European company, and their first spec sheet was in mm, I thought the second spec sheet was also in inches. The machine came, and we had to rearrange half of our warehouse to make it fit!
Another time, I got so excited about a new software plugin for shipping only to find out that I programmed it wrong and accidentally gave 200 people free shipping over an entire weekend! This cost us about 5,000 dollars at a time when I could barely pay the bills.
And finally, one time we printed 2,000 boxes, but the boxes said “tumeric” instead of “turmeric”! No one — not the company, not us — caught the typo, and for the 3 weeks the order was moving through our pipeline.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
It would be easy to say that it’s our focus on sustainability, which is there, and it’s authentic and something we are incredibly passionate about.
But I think what really sets us apart is just how much we love our team members. They really are like a family to me. When we first bought the business, we had 5 employees. Now we have over 65 people on the team, and I know everyone’s spouses / kids’ names, the health concerns in their family, the vacations their taking, their food allergies, and so much more. They all really care about each other, too. They support each other when cars break down, when they have to leave their apartment for some reason, and when there are fires threatening their homes. I am constantly struck by how much our team members rely on each other as their main support.
As an example, on someone’s second day of work with us, her brother passed away unexpectedly. She was actually from a staffing agency, so she wasn’t an official employee yet. We provided her with bereavement pay as a gesture, but what was even more moving was seeing one of our other employees organize a GoFundMe for her. Our employee was someone who was taking care of her granddaughter full-time and struggling financially herself. Almost everyone in the company donated — most of whom had yet to meet our new team member.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
Continuing off from last answer, rely on your team! As a business owner, it’s easy (and almost natural) to want to oversee and manage every moving part of your company. But learning to lean on your team members, trust them, and delegate tasks as much as possible makes a world of difference.
Also, take time off. When you’re first starting out, it’s difficult to have any sort of work-life balance. You may even get to the point where you’re having dreams (or nightmares) about your business. So giving yourself time to relax, even if it’s a short staycation at home, helps avoid burnout and may even lead to some new ideas for innovating / improving your business!
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?
Kyle, my husband, who co-runs the business with me. He is a true equal who knows when to motivate me to do more and when to coach me to do less. He knows when to praise and when to critique. Most importantly, he knows how to maintain calm in the face of a LOT of adversity this year. He is simply unphased by things he cannot control.
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?
I think right now, most small-to-medium sized eCommerce businesses are just struggling to keep up, particularly when it comes to inventory of goods and raw materials. Everything from t-shirts / textiles to components to packaging is going out of stock! And I think companies are getting creative, shifting to new materials and solutions as needed. The flexibility, creativity and willingness to change course has been really cool and inspiring to see.
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?
EcoEnclose typically works with companies who are trying to do business better: sourcing eco-friendly materials, manufacturing more sustainably, paying and treating their workers across their supply chain better / more ethically. So, I’m responding to this particular group. My advice in the face of “low cost at all costs” competition is to stay the course. The tides do seem to be turning. Consumers (particularly those voting on platforms like climate change and social justice along with protesting inequities) are starting to realize that policy and politics are not the only places where change needs to happen. How they shop and where they shop matters. I am confident that the companies that hold true to these values will find success.
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?
There are quite a few common errors (especially ones related to their websites) that I’ve seen:
- They’re not telling a story throughout their website. When someone shops on a site that isn’t Walmart of Amazon, they’re doing so in part to find something unique; a brand and product they can feel good about supporting. So, make sure your website conveys this!
- They don’t provide customers additional insights into what makes a product unique. What are the exact materials that it’s made of? Where is it manufactured? Are there enough photos/videos to demonstrate what it looks like and/or how it works?
- Their user experience on the website is poor. This can be anything from a slow load time to a product page that makes it difficult to place an order.
- They ignore mobile design. More and more searches are taking place on mobile every year. If your website doesn’t have responsive design / isn’t mobile friendly, you risk losing out on many potential customers.
- They don’t have great inventory management. This is absolutely necessary because it affects what people can and can’t buy from website based on what’s in or out of stock.
In your experience, which aspect of running an eCommerce brand tends to be most underestimated? Can you explain or give an example?
Definitely Operations! Specifically, the supply chain / inventory management and fulfillment.
When people think about running an eCommerce brand, they think about their website, product designs, social media, and marketing the most. But actually having the product on hand, making sure the product is high quality, and that it gets out the door to customers in a timely manner is what will really set you apart. It’s also a lot harder than it sounds!
You also can’t forget about customer service. Having a well-trained, well-staffed Customer Service team that’s well equipped / empowered to handle issues can make you stand out and help you compete with large businesses like Walmart and Amazon.
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?
- Remarkety, an eCommerce marketing automation software
- BrightPearl, an inventory management software
- HelpScout and Aircall, both really great customer service technology
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?
The biggest way to impact conversion is to make sure your product pages are easy to navigate. You want to make it as easy as possible for a customer to place an order. Low quality product images and a complicated check out process with too many steps can create high cart abandonment rates.
You should also optimize your site’s speed. If a customer has to wait too long for a product page to load, it’s highly likely that they’ll bounce and find another website with a faster loading time.
Last but not least, use data. Rather than try to guess how people interact with your site, you can install a heat-mapping tool like HotJar to see where users are clicking, how far their scrolling, and much more. You can also go into Google Analytics and Google Search Console to see how customers are finding you, what pages / products perform the best, and where people are spending the most time. From there, use this data to make changes to your website and adjust as necessary.
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, authentic customer service that is rooted in true commitment and loyalty to your customers.
- Share good, valuable content and tools to help your customers make smart decisions.
- Admit when you screwed up! Not a lot of companies are comfortable with this.
- Be vulnerable and personable. Transparency is really key here.
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?
We’ve gotten a few negative reviews because of our lead time or because our shipping costs are high. While these are valid concerns, it can be a bit frustrating because the lead times were clearly stated on the website and because we actually lose a lot of money on shipping (i.e. we pay more than what the customer pays). That aside, we respond by (1) validating the complaint, (2) explaining why we do things the way we do and (3) offering some sort of motivation for a customer to work with us again. Try to avoid negative emotion in the response!
We’ve also gotten a few fake negative reviews which were very frustrating. For these, we responded by saying we can’t actually find the customer’s order, but if they truly had that specific issue, we are happy to refund their order immediately and/or replace it.
In general, we find that responding to reviews and doing so fairly / thoughtfully goes a VERY long way.
When we got our fake reviews, we even posted about it which in turn resulted in a bunch of positive reviews from super loyal customers!
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.
1. Take the time to establish your vision, mission, and your core values. What are you trying to build and stand for? We recommend the book “Scaling Up” by Verne Harnish to help you thoughtfully navigate this foundational planning. I strongly believe that the right vision and core values are essential to building a successful company you will be proud to run.
2. Know what you are selling (i.e. not “what is your product” but “what is your brand”). If you’re selling art, perhaps you are actually selling the prospect of beautiful spaces and homes. If you’re selling whimsical t-shirts, maybe you’re selling conversation starters. If you’re selling sustainable packaging like us, you might be selling a way for companies to ship their products in accordance with their own eco values. Coca-Cola doesn’t sell “soda”; it sells “happiness.” Amazon doesn’t sell stuff; it sells “convenience.” Know that for your business.
3. Sell products you’ve thought through, that are of high quality, and whose success you are committed to. Leave low quality / mass production to others. If you are a small eCommerce shop, design and produce a product that is quality and unique. Don’t skimp on small things (like zippers or buttons if you do apparel).
4. Build a great website on a user-friendly platform (we use BigCommerce and it has worked beautifully for us). Create one that is easy to navigate, with photos that do your products justice, and with enough content / story that a customer can “feel” your brand and value proposition on it. Do not skimp on this as your website should be the ”manifestation” of everything above.
5. Start by fulfilling orders yourself rather than using a third-party fulfillment center. Don’t move to a 3PL until you know your products, your customers, and your processes really well.
Bonus: 6. SEO / Marketing / PR are necessary for growth. Create a thoughtful, doable marketing plan that gets eyeballs on your site.
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. 🙂
It would definitely be a #shopyourvalues movement.
I cannot tell you how frequently I’m in conversations with people who (like myself) feel so strongly about social justice issues and climate change. They take the time to march, to participate in petitions, to post online about stories they are following, and so much more.
Too frequently, these people do not bring those values into their shopping habits and instead turn directly to Amazon when they need to make a purchase. Amazon is designed in part to drive consumers to lowest cost options. Qualities such as ethics, sustainability, the diversity of a manufacturer, and a brand’s leadership is totally hidden on Amazon. Then, there are also a host of concerns people have with Amazon itself and how it runs its business.
I’d implore people to spend the time finding businesses that truly support their values. I think we’d all be astonished at how quickly true change happens within issues we call systemic today if we all put our money where our mouth is.
How can our readers further follow you online?
You can find out blog here: https://www.ecoenclose.com/blog/. We not only write about packaging, but we also regularly post about larger sustainability topics! You can also find us on social media:
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this!