Varun Sharma: “Build a brand ”

Optimize the customer experience — If you want customers converting, you need to optimize the customer experience and the customer journey. If a visitor gets lost or confused, they will leave your website. Site navigation should be easy to use. Make it clear what your business does on the home page and continue to reinforce it over […]

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Optimize the customer experience — If you want customers converting, you need to optimize the customer experience and the customer journey. If a visitor gets lost or confused, they will leave your website. Site navigation should be easy to use. Make it clear what your business does on the home page and continue to reinforce it over the entire website. Make sure every email that goes out to the customer has a consistent voice and resonates with the customers too.

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 Varun Sharma.

An entrepreneur with a focused mission to inspire, Varun Sharma believes in empowering the community to create a better world with the help of technology and knowledge. His latest venture Laumière Gourmet Fruits is a D2C company, aiming to change the orthodox misconceptions regarding nutrition and health by setting new trends that redefine healthy-eating, gifting, and self-indulgence. During his undergrad, Sharma continued to pursue his entrepreneurial and philanthropic goals by has co-founding Inara, the largest student-run non-profit organization in UAE. Inara had over 400 volunteers and an outreach of 10,000 people. Sharma has previously been a TEDx Speaker and was awarded the BITSAA Mantra Award for Social Leadership by his Alma mater.

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 love technology. I love the potential it has and have always been fascinated by it. I have spent most of my life in Dubai, and the city gave me a myriad of opportunities to grow as a person and dream out of the box simultaneously. As a person with an avid interest in technology, I care about the future of the planet and am committed to make it a better place but I believe my intentions aren’t enough to do that. I need to work on projects and ideas which align with that. My first full-time job was a Consulting role where I consulted and implemented large-scale digital transformation projects. Consulting helped me understand the transformational power that planning a project with a clear goal can have and at times be one of the significant reasons behind a project’s success or its lack thereof. In the past few years, the common denominator has been my intrinsic want to take risks which helped me learn from different individuals and nurture others in the process of my self-growth. Rising together as a team, organization, and community — brings me deep satisfaction and joy. The personal connection I build with people during the journey adds to the excitement and has played a pivotal role in who I am today. Today, I work on Laumière Gourmet Fruits where I advance its digital platforms and grow the e-commerce markets.

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

The aha movement came from my dad instead of me. He spent close to 5 years perfecting his idea and when it was time to get it going; I got involved, and we slowly scaled a company that is primarily retailing online. He spent 20+ years in Dubai and then moved to the USA to launch Laumière Gourmet Fruits. I am just here to help him out and build a brand that remains relevant in the years to come. At the same time, I am learning about the complexities of leading a meaningful life. I do not have all the answers–but I feel strongly that progress with Laumiere will help me answer them.

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 think getting started was scary. 2 years back, my dad quit his job and moved to the US to get Laumière established at 53. Within moments, so much had changed in our lives and I was the only one earning at home while my brother was completing his final year in university. The year could have been the toughest year for us as a family, but he meticulously planned the finances so no one would take a hit but regardless, such a drastic change of moving continents, of changing jobs, and having our family scattered in different parts of the world was daunting. Once we did the initial product testing in the American market, I left my job to focus on the digital growth of the business, and here we are, full time building the brand we never thought would thrive so well. I think his story is an inspiration to everyone who dreams and wants to make it big. We have had rough months in the business where we do not cover costs, but I have never seen him disappointed. There hasn’t been a single day where we felt like giving up and we continue every day to be a brand we want to be associated with.

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

Things are great today. We have a lot of interesting collections coming up in Q4 and we are excited about it. We are trying to diversify our offerings to niche festivals and occasions. The problem that a lot of people face is that they seek the shortcut to success. They want to work less while still achieving more. Unfortunately, that’s not how success works. If you want to achieve your goals, you have to be willing to do anything and everything. I believe that the most meaningful goals require an insane amount of hard work, determination, discipline, commitment, and sacrifice. But get real with yourself — are you ready to go all-in? How bad do you want to succeed?

At Laumière I know I want to do this and it keeps me going. We hope to make great strides in the food industry and bring a global change to the market. We’d like to encourage a healthier choice of eating that packs a subtle punch worthy of praise. Leaving a footprint in the food industry while paving the way for health-based diets for our consumers is the goal. We are committed to it and will continue to work on our vision.

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?

We did not focus on email marketing early on and that was a big mistake. We did not realize how important it was for us. But we learned eventually and now we have doubled down on email marketing. We are even trying out other forms of marketing such as SMS & Messenger marketing to see what works best for our audience. One lesson is to never assume a particular channel or strategy will not work without trying it out.

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

In the food industry, there has been a decaying factor when it comes to maintaining a quality-oriented essence. Nutrients getting lost in this process and crafting low-quality products in its stead can lead to physical ailments. Including a hearty diet into your daily routine can maximize every aspect of your life. As a food brand, Laumière believes in seeking a healthy balance of delicious and luxury. We also believe that you can be virtuous and compassionate in a capitalistic world. A value-based business model can create goodwill for businesses from all around the world and we try to do that with everything we get our hands into.

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

Keep art in your life. For me, it’s music. I’ve been a DJ for over the last 10 years. The new music I listen to keeps me going and has an immensely positive impact on me. For some people, this might be via painting, dancing, or drawing. When you have art in your life, it nurtures joy from an activity you can rely on which is so essential, especially in this day and age.

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 agree with you on this! I wouldn’t be on the journey I am today without the support of many people. I feel blessed to be surrounded by the right kind of people who push me to do better and make me challenge myself. Someone I am truly grateful for is my mom, who has been my biggest supporter and motivator to get things going and has believed in every dream of mine.

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 of the most interesting ideas I’ve been seeing online are primarily around going digital, bringing innovation into omnichannel presence, reimagining the physical networks, and embracing the agile operating model. The savviest retailers have spent years creating omnichannel strategies that blend physical and digital channels. COVID-19’s impact on customer behavior has changed that. In-person interaction has dramatically changed or been supplanted by digital engagements and early indications show that it will continue to stay. This has led to massive adoptions of digital technologies but the companies who will thrive will be the ones with a long-term mindset to digital adoption. A lot of companies are providing contactless deliveries, free shipping, and complimentary returns but to do well with an eCommerce store, businesses need to truly understand the customer, their needs and build that relationship better.

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?

Build a brand over just selling a product. eCommerce comes with so many challenges and there are quite a few which you haven’t mentioned like competition, cyberattack, and customer experience apart from China. Build on your company value proposition which consumers cannot get anywhere else. The e-commerce space has become so saturated that standing out from other e-commerce businesses is really difficult, through no fault of your own. Distinguishing yourself from the competition is crucial to stand out and attract new customers for the business. Give customer service so good that customers will want to visit your website again and again.

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 lot of people I meet feel having the prettiest website does the job. I believe it is the first step in the journey. Having a user-friendly website that is trustworthy & has a defined customer journey is equally important and is often overlooked. Every website is different so understand your audience and build a website that resonates well with them. Study how your website actually resonates with the customers and continue A/B testing and tweaking to always improve the website and your offerings.

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

Building a relationship with the customers. The world is changing faster than ever. Your customers are evolving too and it is imperative to keep up with their wants and new trends. People think an eCommerce business is all about acquiring customers. You do not become profitable by doing just that. You become profitable by building a community that sticks with your brand over a long period of time.

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?

Build the website on a solid platform that is scalable. Think about what you want your website to look like over the next few 5 years and build it around that. Do not rush into the idea of building a website quick and cheap. It’s definitely going to get back to you later if you don’t think about it today. We use a couple of tools between the teams but the core ones are Trello, Slack & Google Analytics to easily communicate and understand what’s going on.

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?

A simple interface, with a clear call to action, is the only way to go when it comes to eCommerce websites. People think there is a magic formula that can just be used to create conversions of 5–10%. That doesn’t happen. Apart from that, do not overcharge your product. Don’t forget to use an automated email as efficiently as you can.

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?

We actually faced problems back in the day when we just launched our website and barely had customers converting. We made a lot of bold decisions — one of the biggest ones being 100% refund if the customers don’t like the product, without any questions asked. Have a credible and reliable refund policy so customers won’t be afraid to buy and try out your product. You need to believe they will buy your product and like it before you sell it.

Another aspect overlooked is that stores don’t list the feedback and reviews they have received from customers on the website. This shouldn’t be corrected as reviews help indicate the strong community an individual brand has.

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?

I love this question. Primarily because bad reviews aren’t really bad for the business. They are learning and should be taken as feedback on how to improve your product and services. When dealing with negative customer feedback, first make the customer feel safe and secured. Let them believe you are truly there for them and then proceed to solve their problem and help them out. You can’t control what’s written online about the brand if the feedback isn’t authentic so let it be and move on.

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.

  • Build a brand — Your brand is your purpose. Your eCommerce business has a brand at the core of its identity. It has been clear in what you do and why you do it. Your brand should embody a set of values related to your business’s endeavors. Good marketing should take the brand’s voice and extend it outward to reach potential customers. Market your product to change the culture for the better. We do this with every collection we launch, every blog post we write, every social media post we work on.
  • Create a solid product — Create a design philosophy and work on that. Let your website, theme, photos, and products align with it. You need to create a product and experience that people want to share, that fills a gap and that solves a real problem. If it doesn’t, it is not going to work. Gone are the times where you can acquire any customers online and grow the business. Seth Godin puts it very nicely and says that you need to be prepared but not ready. What it means to be ready is that it’s going to work. But you do not know if it’s going to work. Play it as a long term, instead of a short term game. The idea that this is a long-term game and not a short term is what motivates us to keep going. We want to build a brand that pays attention to quality, health, and wellbeing and truly resonates through everything we do. Every element of our website should communicate our message, including the packaging, the copy, and the emails. All of it adds up to increase the desirability among potential customers.
  • Optimize the customer experience — If you want customers converting, you need to optimize the customer experience and the customer journey. If a visitor gets lost or confused, they will leave your website. Site navigation should be easy to use. Make it clear what your business does on the home page and continue to reinforce it over the entire website. Make sure every email that goes out to the customer has a consistent voice and resonates with the customers too.
  • Start generating revenue early on — First mistake entrepreneurs make early on is believing that if you raise capital and spend capital you can build a business. Most eCommerce businesses can bootstrap on a small amount of capital. The key to a small business is not expenses, its revenue. So if you have an idea, the ultimate test to the business is to go find revenue, specifically go find the first set of clients. Validate the concept and use client money to fund the business further and grow. Once you do prove the concept, you should be able to raise external capital. It is very difficult to raise money on a brand new concept. Start small. Find revenue. Revenues make a business. Not capital.
  • Understand Data — An eCommerce store can win if it can leverage the data it has and process it accurately to find the right kind of trends. Have the vision, use data to fine-tune it, and execute to kickstart any idea to build on the brand.
  • Don’t overcomplicate it — We tend to believe that success is complicated, because if it isn’t, then why hasn’t everyone achieved it already? For some, there’s a sort of security in documenting and analyzing every little step before a step is taken. This tendency falls into the categories of procrastination and fear of failure. If as an entrepreneur you spend more time thinking about your business plan than you do acting on it, this may be a problem. Have a positive mindset and continue every single day until you make it.

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. 🙂

I would want people to understand what they are eating and how it impacts their bodies. About three-fourths of the American population has an eating pattern that is low in vegetables, fruits, dairy, and oils. To resolve it, one part is to understand mindful eating, a concept for maintaining an in-the-moment awareness of the food and drink you put into your body. It involves observing how the food makes you feel and the signals your body sends about taste, satisfaction, and fullness. Understanding good nutrition and paying attention to what you eat can help you maintain or improve your health. The second part is getting people educated about nutrition and what it means to eat healthy. 2 in 3 Americans think that they have to sacrifice “fun” for eating healthy which isn’t true. At Laumiere, we believe including a hearty diet into your daily routine can maximize every aspect of your life and I want to work on it further.

How can our readers further follow you online?

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

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