When Jack Abraham sat down to talk retail at Signifyd’s FLOW San Francisco, you knew you were going to get some interesting stories about the evolution of eBay, the early days of omnichannel and the founding story of digitally native darling Hims.
And he delivered. But more than that, through engaging storytelling, Abraham left attendees at Signifyd’s most recent FLOW event with an itemized list of how to succeed, not only in business but in the rapidly changing and highly competitive world of ecommerce.
Abraham founded Milo.com out of college as a ground-breaking online/in-store hybrid product search engine. It later became the foundation for eBay Local, a division he ran at age 24. He went on to leave eBay and launch start-up studio Atomic, birthplace of $1 billion men’s health retailer Hims. And he recently touched on the keys to launching and maintaining ecommerce success.
“If you take things that people are already doing, but they’re suffering through the process — there are a lot of steps, there is a lot of work that has to be done — and you can somehow reduce that to one or two steps, that is a recipe for innovation,” Abraham told 50-plus ecommerce execs gathered in the penthouse of The Battery in San Francisco.
It was the sort of advice that resonated with FLOW attendees, including representatives of Allbirds, Boardriders, Tophatter, Rothy’s, Build.com, Metallica, Purity Cosmetics and others. They gathered for an evening of drinks, dinner, networking and serious talk about the challenges and potential of retail in a time of upheaval.
It was also a night to recognize two FLOW award winners — home networking company eero and digital agency Blue Acorn iCi. Both were honored for their dedication to providing stellar customer experiences.
Find the pain and fix it
Abraham’s fireside chat with Signifyd Senior Vice President of Marketing and Alliances Indy Guha was peppered with insights, like the advice to find the pain and ease it. Clearly, it was part of the inspiration for Hims, but Abraham’s observation extends to the wider world of retail.
Think about shopping online or buying through an omnichannel process and consider all the places where things could be made easier for customers, where the customer experience could be improved. Fixing those things is a differentiator, a competitive advantage.
Abraham didn’t present his wisdom as a list, but as he traced his progression as entrepreneur, investor and mentor, the lessons Abraham learned were clear enough. And what better resource to offer them, then Abraham, who started working as a programmer at his father’s business when he was 13 years old. He went on to the University of Pennsylvania and the Wharton School, which he left in 2008 to start a company funded with an innovation prize from Wharton.
The company, by the way, was Milo, a digital site that cataloged the vast inventories of countless retailers to help online shoppers locate the products they wanted in brick-and-mortar stores. The company was ultimately purchased by eBay, where Abraham went on to lead eBay Local. He next founded Atomic, which has launched more than a dozen and a half companies, including Hims.
So yeah, Abraham is probably someone you might want to listen to. Which leads us to the six lessons that spilled out during his conversation at FLOW San Francisco.
Opportunities ride waves
Before starting Milo, Abraham was struck by how the internet (still relatively new in its commercial form) was changing things. It was a wave — a big one.
“Some of the biggest opportunities ride waves,” he told the FLOW crowd. The internet was changing expectations, particularly among consumers.”They’re going to want to buy it now,” he said. “They’re going to want instant gratification.” And so, why not give consumers a way to find what it is they want — right now?
Look for what has worked
So, you have an innovative idea. You want to change the way things are done. Now what?
“Some of the best businesses have a chicken-and-the-egg problem that is really difficult to solve at first,” he said. “It’s really difficult to get started.”
So, Abraham suggested, look at what has worked for others before. Find examples of successful businesses that you can learn from. And while Abraham was speaking specifically about starting a company, the same applies to making changes within a company — by, say, improving the customer experience a retailer provides or finding ways to cut costs or boost revenue.
When noodling with the Milo idea, Abraham studied travel aggregator Kayak. Kayak crawled travel sites and pulled together fares and rates for air travel and hotels. It brought everything together, so consumers didn’t need to have 15 browser tabs open to comparison shop. One would do. And the industry recognized the genius in what Kayak was doing.
“Study history,” Abraham said, “and what happened before.”
Be in the hero-making business
Milo had tons of data for all kinds of retailers. Eventually, many of those retailers came calling. Sure, they were curious about what Milo was up to, but they also liked what they were seeing. Milo was a channel. The site was leading to increased sales. When retail representatives would reach out, Milo would explain that they were providing backlinks and they’d demonstrate how they were driving sales. Who wouldn’t want to be a part of that?
“We would make that person a hero,” Abraham said. And by doing so, Milo would create advocates within retail organizations.
Behave like a startup
Abraham stressed the importance of being nimble and fleet. Hewing to tradition can be a recipe for disaster. Abraham said he’s seen many companies follow the path of having an idea, working to raise the money to support the idea, taking the time to build the idea and then taking the idea to market. It can take years, rendering an idea irrelevant or redundant. Instead, he said, begin pushing the product right away. Get buy-in. Or discover the market isn’t there.
“If you do that process, you can build something great, that people love,” he said.
It’s basically the start-up idea of start small, iterate, learn from failure and iterate again. But the notion isn’t restricted to new, up-and-coming companies. Large legacy retailers can practice the same nimble innovation. When eBay bought Milo, Abraham knew a lot was changing. eBay was more mature. It had more developed policies and processes.
“The culture of a startup — move fast and break things, grow quickly. I loved that. Once you become addicted to that, you become really addicted,” he said. “So at eBay, I thought, ‘What if I start starting things up again?’ At a big company, you can do that.”
Sometimes, it takes creativity. For one project that then-CEO John Donahoe handed Abraham, Abraham recruited a half-dozen people and flew them to Australia, where eBay had a location. “Ebay had an office in Sydney. I always wanted to go,” he said. “We got this great Airbnb and transformed it into an office.”
The startup feel was back.
Never stop thinking and watch the horizon
When Abraham left eBay to start Atomic, he had 250 ideas for new businesses. His challenge was narrowing it down to the best 10. The thing is, the next new thing is always out there — not necessarily waiting to be discovered, but waiting to be created.
“One of the big things that is going to continue in the world,” Abraham said, “is things that are happening in person, there will be a digital version.”
That was part of the inspiration for Hims, an Atomic company that he co-founded with Andrew Dudum. Again, find the pain and then find a way to make it go away.
Don’t avoid the contrarian view. Sure, digital advertising is taking over the world. Google AdWords, social shopping on Facebook, Instagram and other platforms. But Hims does a large portion of its advertising on traditional channels — television, radio, print and billboards, Abraham said. The difference in the supply and demand realities of digital and offline means that traditional media isn’t subject to the same upward cost pressures that digital advertising auctions bring.
“I actually think it’s a sustainable competitive advantage that not a lot of people have figured out,” Abraham said.
It’s still about the customer
A retailer can never lose sight of the customer, no matter the strategic initiatives it is focused on.
“The short answer,” Abraham said, “is find customers, keep them happy, check in with them, build affinity with them, so they really love you and are very happy.”
The long answer is, well, longer. Building customer loyalty is hard. Hims, for instance, had to find the right price point for its products. It looked for health aids that consumers would want to use repeatedly and over extended periods of time. It worked hard at customer support and iterated.
“You have to hire and train really good customer support staff and arm them with technology to make sure they’re doing a good job,” he said. Beyond that, he added, you need to consider how you can “use technology to help customers in a really meaningful way.” Abraham cited the example of sophisticated, artificial-intelligence-based customer support solutions that use chatbots and human intervention to get customers what they need.
Getting customers what they need, of course, is a relentless focus of everyone who was in the FLOW audience. FLOW goers work constantly on finding new and better ways to make buying experiences more efficient, effective and enjoyable. After spending an evening with Atomic’s Jack Abraham it’s a good bet that they are better prepared to do just that.
Photos by Colson Griffith Photography