Suzanne Barker spent over 15 years working for several different industries in various senior executive and creative roles. This experience has given her the tools and habits she required to start her own successful company, When I Shop, which she has co-founded and runs as CEO.
According to Suzanne Barker, Instagram inspired her to found When I Shop. She is an avid Instagram user herself, so she was frustrated when she couldn’t find interesting brands in an organic and “deliberate” manner, even though lots of brands and stores have set up shop on the platform. So, she decided to take matters into her own hands to give users a better way to find new brands on their own.
With her husband Max, Suzanne Barker founded When I Shop. Prior to launching, they dove deep into research, spending several months digging into the e-commerce world, so they could develop a tool that would “make brand discovery more efficient and interesting.”
When I Shop, as developed by Suzanne Barker, uses an affiliate business model presently. The company uses SEO optimization to drive demand from prospective customers, while the “improved liquidity of brands” also drive revenue.
At When I Shop, Suzanne Barker wants users to think of the tool as the main resource for clients and their friends to turn to whenever they want to find new brands to connect with, deliberately, which also “align with who [you] are and what [you] stand for.”
Jerome Knyszewski: What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Suzanne Barker: 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.
Jerome Knyszewski: Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
Suzanne Barker: 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.
Jerome Knyszewski: 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?
Suzanne Barker: 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.
Jerome Knyszewski: 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?
Suzanne Barker: 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.
Jerome Knyszewski: 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?
Suzanne Barker: 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 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.
Jerome Knyszewski: 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?
Suzanne Barker: 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.
Jerome Knyszewski: In your experience, which aspect of running an eCommerce brand tends to be most underestimated? Can you explain or give an example?
Suzanne Barker: 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, SEO, or social media, and each one is a complicated minefield. Never try to do them all at once.
Jerome Knyszewski: 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?
Suzanne Barker: 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.
Jerome Knyszewski: 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. 🙂
Suzanne Barker: 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.
Jerome Knyszewski: How can our readers further follow you online?
Jerome Knyszewski: This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this!
Suzanne Barker: Thank you. It was my pleasure.