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Suzanne Barker: “Not concentrating on a niche”

Build a brand story and concentrate on what sets your brand apart. Ministry of Supply capitalizes on using the same high-tech temperature regulating materials as NASA astronauts for their business attire. Show that you are a thoughtful company. TOMS captivated the world with its mantra to improve lives. Be overtly transparent and lay it out proudly on […]

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Build a brand story and concentrate on what sets your brand apart. Ministry of Supply capitalizes on using the same high-tech temperature regulating materials as NASA astronauts for their business attire.

Show that you are a thoughtful company. TOMS captivated the world with its mantra to improve lives.

Be overtly transparent and lay it out proudly on your homepage. If your product is Made in the USA do not make your visitor accidentally trip over that information, shout it from the rooftops!


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 Suzanne Barker, Co-Founder and CEO of When I Shop. When I Shop is a brand discovery tool to help you easily find women’s fashion brands based on your interests and style. The platform adds transparency around brands and helps people more easily find and support labels that may make, for instance, sustainable denim, made in USA activewear, or are minimalist in style. Suzanne is a New Zealander and mother of one.


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?

I grew up in Auckland, New Zealand where I had a pretty adventurous childhood sailing on our family yacht, which we build on our front lawn, on the weekends and holidays.

I’m sure all that adventure as a youngster helped develop my entrepreneurial spirit. I did lots of fun things to make money when I was young. I sold my artwork on coat hangers to our neighbors, set up a feijoa fruit stand on the main road out of town, and recruited my friend to start a gardening business for our nearby pensioner community.

I studied visual arts at the turn of the millennium and wasted my time learning photographic darkroom techniques, which seems absurd now.

After my son was born I started a small online e-decorator business. I realized pretty quickly that I had a huge knowledge gap when it came to building a business online. I decided to quit the business and, instead, do a deep dive into everything online growth-related, like, pay-per-click ads, analytics, and influencer marketing. It was during that time that I identified a problem with brands and shoppers struggling to find each other, which I got pretty excited about solving.

What was the “Aha Moment” that led to the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?

I had a moment of clarity while using Instagram. I actually only joined Instagram because I was curious about how influencers earned income and pitched products on the platform.

I knew that it was the platform of choice for brands and shoppers to find each other but there were no tools to deliberately seek out specific types of brands and that frustrated me. Brands had to rely on ever-increasing advertising spend to get themselves in front of the very people who wanted to find them. And that just seemed crazy to me. So I started working on the problem with my husband and co-founder, Max, and we explored how we could make that discovery process more efficient.

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?

Actually, we got so close to giving up. In fact, I started building websites for companies because I didn’t think we were going to figure out how to bootstrap our idea to market with no funding. We hit a brick wall. The problem was we were thinking really big and struggled to work out what the slimmest version of an MVP could look like that was still interesting for a user. It was a tough mindset shift that took time to work through, but in the end, doing things that don’t scale is what got us there in the end. Possibly the best advice out of Y Combinator!

So, how are things going today? How did your grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?

We’re excited to have our business on a good trajectory now. When I look back at what we were doing, even just a week ago, I realize how fast we are evolving our business model. It feels great to finally be in a position to iterate our MVP quickly after so long bogged down in how to go-to-market.

Together we’ve had lots of business ideas and we’ve got pretty good at pessimistically poking holes and spotting weaknesses. But with When I Shop we never had a moment of doubt. We solicited advice from many people and held tightly to the nuggets of wisdom that resonated with us and simply ignored the rest. That’s a crucial skill to develop, especially in the early days when your idea is so vulnerable.

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 can’t say we’ve had any funny mistakes. One thing I remember though is speaking to two seasoned entrepreneurs in our industry a few days apart. They both hated our idea and told us so. And then they gave us the exact same vision for how to go-to-market which we didn’t resonate with at all. It was so funny to get the same advice from two different people so close together and it really baffled us for a few days. Ultimately we just pushed on and ignored their advice.

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

We give transparency around where and how brands are making their product is what sets us apart. This information is almost always suppressed and in a few isolated cases, we’ve seen subterfuge in this area which is disappointing. We’ve gone to great pains to draw this information out into the open for shoppers.

Ultimately though, we feel that brands should be found easily, we want to celebrate brands which are being responsible, and help people shop following an informed brand-first strategy rather than the traditional opaque product first strategy.

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

While it often feels like a luxury to take time out to exercise, the clarity of mind and energy that you gain more than makes up for the time spent. I’m also of the opinion that when you are working through a tough problem you have to step away from it for the solution to come. You won’t get to the solution quicker by pushing hard against it.

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?

My husband and co-founder, Max Loddo. He’s a software developer and it is his skillset that has bought When I Shop to life. I definitely wouldn’t have been able to do this without him.

When I first had the idea for When I Shop I spent two weeks trying to get him excited about it. Initially, I struggled to articulate the business idea well but together we worked through it and with his vision have a strong pathway that we’re excited to implement.

We also got some spot-on advice from Bob Schwartz, who bought us Nordstrom.com and Magento. He was very generous with his time talking to us and gave us a lot of confidence that helped propel us forward. Michael Seibel, from Y Combinator, also very kindly replied to our email and gave us some stellar advice.

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?

Some large retailers have experienced perhaps a decade’s worth of online growth in a mere few months, and in response some loss-making branches are being turned into “dark stores” to act as online fulfillment centers and Click & Collect hubs.

Click & Collect, or curbside pickups are possibly the fasted growing trend in retail right now. Even the smallest Bricks and Mortar stores with an online presence can capitalize on this. Shopify recently launched their new POS system which connects Brick and Mortar with online sales. Add their local pickup option and you have a robust omnichannel offering that will help future-proof your business.

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?

The only way eCommerce retailers can compete with opaque Chinese companies is through radical transparency. Retailers need to double-down on their brand stories and concentrate their messaging on their innovative and responsible manufacturing processes and, if relevant, locally-made products. I often find that, if this information is on a brand’s website, I have to dig around to find it. Brands should put their brand stories front and center on their homepage. Cuyana is a brand that continually does a great job with this.

If brands make their product in China that’s okay, but, now more than ever, they need to be upfront about how they ensure ethical standards are met right throughout the supply chain. We have seen major international clothing brands with really no idea if their cotton is sourced through forced labor in China.

One brand that stands out for transparent messaging around their Made in China product is For Love & Lemons. They have a nice “Inside our Factories” page that’s worth checking out.

Look, I feel that we are at a critical crossroads for retail. People’s spending power is weak, retailers are weak, and Chinese manufacturers and Amazon are capitalizing on that. Cheap product, produced in opaque, possibly highly unethical ways, is not only flooding the market but is being heavily promoted right now. It kills me every time I see an Instagram influencer with a huge following aggressively peddling 10 dollars jumpers just because Amazon pays them. These are influencers with their own clothing brands and I doubt they have considered the impact they are having on the viability of their own brands by promoting Amazon fashion.

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?

Not concentrating on a niche. If you start out being the brand that makes everything, in the eyes of a consumer it’s like you’re the brand that does nothing. In the beginning, it is fundamental for brands to do just one thing great. It helps a brand quickly establish a strong identity and become known as the brand that does X. Only once a brand is well established in that niche should it expand its offering.

There are multiple ways to approach a niche. Brands can dominate in just one category, like say swimwear, or be known for expertly working with one type of material, like denim, or nail a particular style like minimalism. Then layer on top of that brand stories like benefits of technical materials they use, design collaborations with artisans, or their manufacturing processes.

In your experience, which aspect of running an eCommerce brand tends to be most underestimated? Can you explain or give an example?

Customer acquisition is complex, highly competitive, and costly. It’s almost always underestimated. There are so many ways to approach customer acquisition, whether it be paid ads, or social media, and each one is a complicated minefield. Never try to do them all at once.

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?

Micro-influencers continue to be a good funding for eCommerce brands whether that be through paid promo or just by sending them products in the hope they’ll share it with their followers.

You can seek out natural brand ambassadors using a tool like Upfluence and publish user content to relevant product pages on your website using a tool like Pixlee or Bazaarvoice.

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?

I find it quite staggering how light on detail brands are with their product descriptions. Aim to be on the heavier side of detail and shoppers won’t leave because they have unanswered questions. And again, be transparent. Brands almost never list where their product is made and they are doing themselves and their customers a disservice by being opaque. Shopbop is excellent at always including where the product is made.

I think more than anything though, it’s continually working on getting the brand and authentic stories in front of people. Retargeting ads help too, so get that retargeting pixel on your website right at the start!

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?

I believe that it is well-considered products, never compromising on quality, fair pricing, and a strong brand message that makes a trusted brand. Showing that you are a brand that cares and that you stand for something is important.

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?

All bad reviews should be replied to in the public forum and done so in such a way that assumes a thousand other people are going to read it.

Instead of a short snippet like “I’ve sent you a DM” or “Please call customer service”, which I’ve seen a million times, a brand should say something like “I’m sorry you haven’t experienced our usual high standard of service” or “the product you received does not meet our usual high quality of workmanship that we pride ourselves on”. Every bad review is an opportunity to reinforce your brand story.

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. Niche right down to even just one item. Make sure that item is something unique and captivating, like “the world’s most comfortable shoes made with natural materials” in Allbirds case, or “Swimwear made to fit and function like a leotard” in Flagpole’s case.
  2. Build a brand story and concentrate on what sets your brand apart. Ministry of Supply capitalizes on using the same high-tech temperature regulating materials as NASA astronauts for their business attire.
  3. Show that you are a thoughtful company. TOMS captivated the world with its mantra to improve lives.
  4. Be overtly transparent and lay it out proudly on your homepage. If your product is Made in the USA do not make your visitor accidentally trip over that information, shout it from the rooftops!
  5. Build a solid micro-influencer fan base, both paid and organic, and capitalize on their content. It’s not enough to have an Instagram feed on your website, you need to create context around content and place it on the relevant product pages.

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. 🙂

If business leaders could gift just one hour of their time per month to mentor indigenous business people online I’m sure it would have an incredible impact on those communities.

How can our readers further follow you online?

You can find me on LinkedIn and Instagram @whenishop.app

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

Thank you. It was my pleasure.


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