Vipin Porwal of Smarty: “Always know your numbers”

Build Genuine Social Consciousness that Gets Reflected in Your Social Media — People value a company with a conscience — a brand that stands for something and shows that it cares about more than just its bottom line. Customer Service is Key — Brands that offer real-time customer service and provide quality solutions make consumers feel like they are valued. That keeps […]

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Build Genuine Social Consciousness that Gets Reflected in Your Social Media — People value a company with a conscience — a brand that stands for something and shows that it cares about more than just its bottom line.

Customer Service is Key — Brands that offer real-time customer service and provide quality solutions make consumers feel like they are valued. That keeps customers loyal to their brand.

As part of our series about the future of retail, I had the pleasure of interviewing Vipin Porwal, CEO and founder of Smarty, a premiere shopping destination that makes online shopping ‘smart’. He is an entrepreneur with 20+ years of experience in finance and consumer technology, with a background in software development. Prior to Smarty, he founded the influencer marketing platform, which serviced big brands like AOL and Huffington Post.

Porwal created Smarty with an inherent goal to build confidence for the Smarty user during the shopping process, leading them on the fastest path to the best possible deal while helping retailers with the conversion, and keeping them challenged to offer the best possible deal. Smarty intelligently makes online shopping time and cost efficient for consumers by eliminating the endless search for coupons and promo codes and adding the best ones directly in the users’ shopping carts. Smarty also lets shoppers earn cashback and has evolved to include online price comparison and protections for shipping and returns. Smarty works with more than 6,000 U.S. retailers such as Target, Walmart, and Best Buy.

Porwal has an MBA from Cal Lutheran and an engineering degree from Bangalore Institute of Technology in India.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

With an engineering background, I have always been driven to build products and solve problems. Previously, I have worked in the Influencer Marketing space — I founded SocialMob and worked on payment platforms.

The dot com era boomed right as I was graduating from school, so working on internet products was an exciting thing to do. Solving problems on the internet is still something about which I am passionate. Clearly, we have come along a long way, and it’s been exciting to walk through all these changes that technology has brought us.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

Early in my career, I had a strong value system of working for big companies because they can provide the right software and hardware infrastructure and investment to build out systems that can scale. But I learned very quickly that big companies often have too much bureaucratic weight that not only slows them down but also demotivates younger people on their team.

At one of those companies, I put in a request to double the RAM on my computer (from 64Mb to 128 MB). I had to fill out so much paperwork and go through an approval cycle — only to eventually get rejected. Yet getting the RAM would have helped my productivity as an engineer, which would have paid off that cost in a few weeks. And buying my own RAM was not an option.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson or take away you learned from that?

More often than not, as you are starting out, you will hear that you are too small to work with or you are not worth our time. Grow big and then we can have a discussion, they’ll tell you. At one of my earlier startups, I was on a call with a company that I was looking to partner with, and someone asked me our revenue numbers. Clearly, we didn’t have any at that time. But I didn’t want to sound small, so I threw out a random revenue figure, and the guy on the other side said that “Your revenue is double that of ours. So, why are you looking to partner?”

Lesson learned: Always know your numbers.

Are you working on any new exciting projects now? How do you think that might help people?

I feel like I’m always working on exciting projects! Once you get into creating stuff, infinite ideas cross your mind on a daily basis. Some of them may just be exciting ideas, though, so the challenge is always bringing your focus back to your existing product and to continue adding value for your product’s users. My company, Smarty, provides coupons and cashback to online shoppers during the checkout process. My goal is always to make the experience as easy and honest as possible for consumers.

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

My go-to tips for burnout include: Patience, perseverance and decisiveness.

Patience because it really takes significant time and an honest effort to bring your vision to life. Hire the team, work with them, but give them space to learn and develop. It will take some time, but it’s worth it if done right.

During your initial build out you will have moments of weakness and self doubt. Stay strong on your path; those moments will pass. It’s key to get through that cycle so you are better prepared on the other side. But it takes perseverance.

You also need decisiveness. Although you may have a vision, you will have to make a lot of quick decisions while your product is being built. The key moment of decision making is to come to a point where you have to learn when to quit and move on.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person to whom you are grateful, who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

Many people have helped me. I am a first-generation immigrant, and this journey wouldn’t have been possible without the wonderful people who I have met along the way — personally and professionally. Suzanne Coleman, now CTO at Agave Pay, was my boss when I was a coder, and her relentless pursuit to build the best payment products set the path for my passion to build world-class products.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

Success is a very relative term, and bringing goodness is very personal. But I do encourage all entrepreneurs to develop a product with social responsibility to give back to the community that has helped them get to where they are.

For example, at Smarty we have created the Smarty Gives Back program through which users can choose to donate a percentage of cashback to any charity of their choice. It’s a wonderful way for people to give back to causes they care about, even at a time when they may not have much to give. Every little bit helps, and we are happy to empower users to help the organizations and people they believe in.

Ok super. Now let’s jump to the main questions of our 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 large retail outlets are implementing to adapt to the new realities created by the Pandemic?

Retail outlets were hit the hardest by the pandemic, but they have responded very quickly to adapt to the new reality. A few examples include:

  • Order online
  • Curbside pick up
  • At-home deliveries and free shipping
  • Pre-pandemic, most retail outlets treated online as a separate P&L center and were shipping goods from warehouses. But now many have improved their supply chain, can ship quicker from local retail stores, and have created a hybrid solution.

More retailers have partnered with personal shopper services like Instacart, which has gone beyond groceries and daily necessities. This is because retailers realize that people have needs beyond the essentials and don’t necessarily want to wait for shipping times or can’t leave their homes for curbside pickups. I have seen Sephora, The Disney Store, Best Buy, and Petco expanding their user reach by partnering with services like Instacart.

In your opinion, will retail stores or malls continue to exist? How would you articulate the role of physical retail spaces at a time when online commerce platforms like Amazon Prime or Instacart can deliver the same day or the next day?

Yes, I would like to believe retail stores and malls will continue to exist. They will have to adapt to the new reality as well, and I am sure they will go through their own evolution as the pandemic subsides. You can classify shopping mostly into essentials and non-essentials. Essentials like grocery and everyday items will make a quick comeback. For non-essentials, the clothing sector will recover quickly; but electronics was already on decline pre-pandemic, so will likely have a tough time recovering.

Amazon Prime and Instacart have their own challenges. They can deliver quickly, but the quality of the deliverable is getting compromised and people are going through a return fatigue. Even though it’s free return shipping, I still have to drop it off and then go through the step to reorder a new purchase, so now my shopping cycle is getting extended. The advantage that retail spaces will have post-pandemic is that consumers can evaluate quality in real time and can avoid the return cycle.

The so-called “Retail Apocalypse” has been going on for about a decade. 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?

You have to build strong brands with unique value propositions. These particular brands (i.e. Lululemon, Costco, etc.) have quality products that are a mix of essentials and non-essentials. They have established reputations for delivering quality goods to their customers, which builds loyalty that brings consumers back and gives these brands an opportunity to offer new products. Users are more likely to expand to new or non-essential products with a retailer they trust.

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 to retail companies and e-commerce companies, for them to be successful in the face of such strong competition?

Competition from China and other countries was always there. It’s nothing new. But, definitely, the paradigm has changed with companies from China selling cheaper stuff directly to consumers. But consumers are also having experiences and learning that cheap stuff actually is expensive in the long run. Customer relationships with such suppliers are virtually non-existent, returns are hit and miss, and consumer disputes with credit card companies are on the rise. Eventually these costs will catch up.

Retail and e-commerce companies have to stay focused on custom relationships, which they have done for years. Don’t compromise on the quality in an effort to keep up with the competition. Companies selling cheap stuff are not your competition. They will get wiped out or will have to adjust their business models to compete with you.

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.

  1. Focus on Branding — Investing in social marketing is key. People value trends, deals and product promotion from those that they trust and look up to. Successful retailers have created almost cult followings on social media and seen an increase in consumers trying new products and expanding beyond their “grocery list”.
  2. Clearly Identify Your Target Audience — Know who you are and who you want to reach. Expansion can happen later, but building a solid customer base is key.
  3. Build Genuine Social Consciousness that Gets Reflected in Your Social Media — People value a company with a conscience — a brand that stands for something and shows that it cares about more than just its bottom line.
  4. Deliver a Quality Product — People will remain loyal to a brand that delivers the quality they are looking for. Consumers have limited time these days. When they spend time to find a product, they don’t want to have to return it, and deal with faulty products and all the hassle that comes with that.
  5. Customer Service is Key — Brands that offer real-time customer service and provide quality solutions make consumers feel like they are valued. That keeps customers loyal to their brand.

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. 🙂

Volunteering your skills and educating the next generation of engineers, doctors, architects and/or anyone in your field is key to creating a top-notch workforce. You never know who will become inspired by your effort and create great things in future.

How can our readers further follow your work?

You can follow Smarty on social media to see our journey in making online shopping efficient, smart and honest.

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

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