Ashland Stansbury of Because: How To Create A Fantastic Retail Experience That Keeps Bringing Customers Back For More
There should be consistency across marketing channels. Social, ads, websites, emails, and so on should all have the same branding and messaging.
As part of my series about the “How To Create A Fantastic Retail Experience That Keeps Bringing Customers Back For More”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Ashland Stansbury.
Ashland Stansbury, the CEO & Founder of Because, is a graduate of Babson College’s Entrepreneurship program and also a recipient of the 2015 Student Painters Young Entrepreneur of the Year award. Before Because, she worked for both fast growing AI Chat startup, Drift, in Sales, and recently acquired sales enablement startup Xinn in Sales + Recruiting prior to starting Because.
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 was raised by my father, a multi-time entrepreneur, who launched and sold three software companies. When I was about seven years old, he sat me down and said, “I’m going to teach you what Daddy does.” On an easel with a permanent marker, he wrote the word entrepreneur. He started teaching me from a really young age about financial wealth and freedom and starting your own company. I was coached to be a CEO and the kid running around the playground declaring, “I’m gonna own a business one day.” I’m not technical, but I like the people side of things and I’ve always been interested in sales and marketing.
I started with the idea of Because about two years ago, smack dab in the middle of COVID. With the influx of brick-and-mortar businesses moving online, I wanted to get into eCommerce. I knew that Shopify and eCommerce in general were both booming amid the pandemic and social distancing. No one could predict the future of retail. I’m a very curious person, and I understood the best way to get a company off the ground was to have conversations with potential customers, asking them about their challenges. So, I did just that by following the Lean Startup model. There are a couple of different versions of that book, Lean Startup and Running Lean. I read Ash Maurya’s version, the more contemporary approach, which gives a blueprint for finding and having problem interviews with members of a certain target market, and then conducting solution interviews once you’ve come up with a potential answer to the challenge. You turn those interviewees into your first beta customers. With the help of an intern, I interviewed about 100 eCommerce stores. We reached out over Instagram DM and kept hearing over and over again that they were struggling to increase their conversion rates. As we talked with them, we coded out early beta versions of potential solutions.
Nearly every eCommerce store is trying to figure out how to optimize their site traffic into buyers. On average, the eCommerce conversion rate is 3 percent. So if you have 100 sire visitors coming to your site, only three of them are making a purchase. We saw an opportunity to help increase eCommerce conversion rates by placing targeted messaging throughout the purchase journey to provide the site visitor with all the information they need to make an informed and trusted purchase decision.
The example I like to use is Amazon. If you’ve ever shopped on an Amazon product page, they have everything that you need to make a decision. They have the shipping timelines, shipping costs, and where the products are coming from. They have all the reviews conveniently populated for you to peruse. They have info on sizing and fit, return policy, promotions, discounts, availability, inventory status, and so on. But nearly every other eCommerce store that doesn’t have a 300-person engineering team is struggling to pull all that data into their product page and ultimately move their site visitors through to purchase. Because is a platform that connects back-end data to the front end website to increase conversion rates.
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 knew nothing about eCommerce when I started having all these conversations with interviewees. I knew plenty about marketing and tech, but I didn’t know anything about eCommerce specifically. And there are a lot of acronyms in eCommerce, including PDP, which is the product detail page and a critical part of the buyer journey. This is where Because is focused on now. But when I was originally having those conversations, people kept using acronyms like PDP, talking about collection pages, and using all this industry lingo. If I’m being honest, I would just fake it until I made it. So here I am trying to figure out what solution we could build and I don’t even know what the acronym they’re saying meant. I’d be like, “Sure, we can totally build a solution for your PDP,” as I was googling what PDP meant.
When you’re first getting into a new industry, you have to go in with humility and accept that you’re new, but also be determined to figure things out. The best way to do this is to keep your ears open and have a lot of conversations. There’s no better way to get up to speed in a new industry than just having 100 conversations with people who are the experts. Also, be transparent. Let people know that you’re new, but that you’re trying to help them solve some problems. Build that trust and encourage them to work with you.
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?
When I first started my company, I went through a venture accelerator program called the WIN Lab, which is a female-founded accelerator program out of Babson where I went to college. In the early days, I had no idea what I was doing. And I don’t think anyone else in the program knew what they were doing either. We were all just trying to get our feet wet and get a little bit of structure because starting a company has zero structure.
In this program, I had a dedicated mentor named Diana Yuan. She’s one of the co-founders of a company called Indico, which is a data and AI company. She also started out with her company while she was attending Babson. With mentors that get assigned to you in this kind of program, it’s hit or miss. I wasn’t even sure if it was going to be valuable. But she literally took me under her wing like no one I’ve ever met. I’ve never had a mentor roll out the red carpet for me like she did.
Diana knew I had no network because I was fresh out of college. I didn’t have connections to investors or potential customers or employees. She started introducing me to everyone in her Rolodex. She’s one of the most connected people I know and well-loved in the Boston community. I attribute my network to her. She’s the only reason I know everyone I do, especially in the Boston area. You have to have a network to get a company off the ground. It makes or break. She trusted me enough to make introductions and was planning ten coffee meetings a week for me. Other than my dad, she has the most influence on me and my success.
Is there a particular book, podcast, or film that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
I would say the Running Lean and Lean Startup series. There are a few different authors but, as I mentioned, the Ash Maurya one really resonated with me. When I first said I wanted to start a company, my dad handed me Running Lean, which is like a bible and guiding force on how to start a company. The book outlines the whole concept of problem and solution interviews and tries to prove an idea with few resources. I didn’t even know how to code and I’m out there trying to build a tech company, understand customer problems, and, most importantly, prove that someone will pay for the solution. We landed twenty prepaid beta customers based on the directions of that book — before we even built our product, which is rare for a startup.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
There are quite a few solutions in the eCommerce industry trying to increase conversion rates. Two things that really set us apart.
The first is that we are specifically focused on high SKU stores or stores that sell a large catalog of products — anywhere from 50 into the range of tens and hundreds of thousands. This translates to about 40 percent of eCommerce stores. So it’s not a small segment. When we came into the market, we recognized that this whole concept of trying to drive personalization and updates across your website had never been done specifically for high SKU stores. So we built our product with a specific focus on serving them.
Our second biggest differentiation is that we are coming into a very saturated space around personalization, but rather than just focusing on site visitor data (like the site visitor is female, in the US, and oriented towards sustainability, and showing that visitor product based on that data alone) we’re taking the same site visitor data and layering it in with product data. So not only is she female, sustainably oriented, and located in the US, but she’s also viewing a shirt above $50, with only five left in stock, available in black, white, and blue, and ships in seven days based on her geolocation. No one else in the industry has come up with a solution that integrates both sets of data.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
I just did a video on this topic with North Coast Ventures, one of our VCs. They asked me to give one piece of advice, and I talked about how we don’t work weekends at our startup. I don’t work weekends, and neither does my team, which is rare for a startup that has only nine full-time employees. My mindset is that we will get too burned out if we’re working weekends. We’re already working really, really long days during the week putting out fires, and it sometimes feels like we never have enough time or enough people. My dad emphasized the concept of “work hard, play hard” growing up. I worked hard in school and played sports. Now, it’s about working hard during the week and then maybe going out for a margarita on the weekend (or on taco Tuesday). It’s having that balance and not overworking yourself which I emphasize across my entire team.
Ok super. Now let’s jump to the main questions of our interview. The so-called “Retail Apocalypse” has been going on for about a decade. The Pandemic only made things much worse for retailers in general. 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?
I can only speak to Lululemon as a consumer. I think one of the reasons why Lululemon has been so successful and unlike any other eCommerce or retail store is that they have consistently pivoted with the times. I’ve worn Lululemon since I was 13. I’m still wearing Lululemon today. It’s been over 10 years. I was just talking to one of my guy friends yesterday who says he can’t go into that store without buying something. But when I first found the brand, men weren’t buying Lululemon. What Lululemon did is they consistently adapted to the changing times and offered different styles. They now have this male market, which was not something they had in their early days. They’ve been able to reinvent themselves over and over again while maintaining a consistent brand around high quality. They’re not cheap, and they’re never trying to be the cheapest on the market. Their merchandise is functional for working out. It doesn’t wear down. It’s high performance. My advice is to follow a cue from Lulelemon: listen to the market and adapt to new generations.
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 retail companies and eCommerce companies, for them to be successful in the face of such strong competition?
It’s similar to what I was saying about Lululemon. If you’re trying to compete on price, and that’s your only way of competing, you won’t last in the long term. That has never been Lululemon’s strategy. I don’t know enough about Kroger and Costco to comment, but I don’t think it’s been their strategy either. It’s about maintaining brand recognition and a connection with your customers. And this goes into being able to provide a stellar online shopping experience on your own website, not solely relying on selling things on Amazon, Etsy, or Walmart, for example.
We’re building a solution that provides a big-player, Amazon-like experience for the smaller eCommerce store who is limited by resources. They don’t have the developers like Amazon to be able to pull the same experience off. But now, if they could actually bring that to life without code, they’ll be able to outlast their competitors from their own brand experience on their own website.
What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs & founders make when they start a retail business? What can be done to avoid those errors?
In the early days, many retail businesses are focused on generating more site traffic to their websites, rather than focusing on converting what they have. They’re spending endless money falling into traps with Facebook and Google ads. This type of advertising is not the most cost-effective strategy anymore. Spending money to solely drive more site traffic is a rookie mistake for many new retail businesses, versus actually investing in the right site experience to get their existing site visitors to move through to purchase.
This might be intuitive, but I think it’s helpful to specifically articulate it. In your words, can you share a few reasons why great customer service and a great customer experience is essential for success in business in general and for retail in particular?
Today, having great customer service isn’t a question. It’s not something that’s optional, it is an absolute requirement. But there is a difference between good customer service and fantastic customer service, where you leave the experience and want to tell all your friends. For example, I’m a major consumer of subscription brands. I’m always an early adopter. A few are MeUndies and Goodies. There’s a way these subscription brands handle their customer service that’s different from other brands. They’re so good at making sure that I can get what I want.
For instance, with Goodles, if I don’t want to get another box of mac and cheese this month because I filled up last month, they just let me skip it. Or, if I forgot to cancel before my MeUndies shipped because my drawer is still full, the company just gives me a refund and lets me keep the pair they shipped. These modern DTC subscription brands are taking an approach that requires them to lose money in the short term so that customers stick with them in the long term. I early adopted MeUndies, probably six years ago, as one of the first subscribers. And, I’m still subscribed, even though I don’t need more underwear. I’m obsessed with their customer service. I think that’s what really sets you apart — going above and beyond and being willing to lose money in the short term to generate customer loyalty in the long term.
We have all had times either in a store, or online, when we’ve had a very poor experience as a customer or user. If the importance of a good customer experience is so intuitive, and apparent, where is the disconnect? How is it that so many companies do not make this a priority?
I don’t know if it’s that companies aren’t making it a priority as much as it is that we still don’t have the right technology to enable a good customer experience. That’s an area that hasn’t been figured out. I think of all of the times I’m trying to call Bank of America or any of those big financial companies. They’re trying to provide a good customer experience. They have automated systems, which attempt to direct you to the right person. But the tech is so archaic, it can’t support the needs and expectations of today’s banking customers. I believe it’s more of a tech issue than it is an actual focus on customer service. You’d be hard-pressed to find a company today that says customer service doesn’t matter. But there hasn’t been enough innovation on the tech side. Maybe that will be my next company.
Can you share with us a story from your experience about a customer who was “Wowed” by the experience you provided?
Since we’re new to the market, we want to ensure that every customer properly understands how to use our products. We’ve built something that’s never been done before. We have customers install our platform onto their eCommerce store in advance of meeting with us. We’ve prepared an array of working examples based on our best practices of working with over 1,0000 merchants and have them install some of these into their websites. It’s a whole onboarding experience where we prepare content for their website based on what they’ve told us on our previous calls, as well as based on best practices.
We onboarded a fashion brand a couple of weeks ago. This particular customer said, “I will not churn because of the way that you’ve onboarded me.” He said he had never been onboarded in such an intuitive and detailed way where he fully understood how to use a platform. When you spend that extra time wowing people, they stick with you.
A fantastic retail experience isn’t just one specific thing. It can be a composite of many different subtle elements fused together. Can you help us break down and identify the different ingredients that come together to create a “fantastic retail experience”?
It’s about connecting the multi-channel customer experience. In online retail, from the second a customer interacts with your brand for the first time, whether it’s through a Google, a Facebook, or an Instagram ad or in some other way, they’re most likely going to check you out on social media, It’s the first thing Gen Z or millennial consumers look at. They may not be ready to buy but they will go ahead and follow you. They check out your content. They want content that is surprising, funny, or visually engaging. Those are always the types of brands that I’ll follow after seeing an ad.
Once you start following that brand, and they publish content that you like, that’s when the brand becomes etched in your brain. For me, personally, it’ll take months of seeing that name pop up before I’ll start to consider buying, unless I’m doing an impulse purchase, which doesn’t lead to long-term loyalty. So, I’ll start following that brand.
From there, what makes a really fantastic experience is bridging that initial social or ad interaction into the website where the larger experience feels connected; when you look at the website, you instantly know it’s the same brand because it has the same colors, the same messaging, the same tone of voice. Then you want to move them through your website. It’s not enough to just have a good-looking homepage. Each of the product pages, checkout page, and order page need to be easy to use, extremely intuitive and move the customer through to the post-purchase funnel. At the point of purchase and post-purchase, you should follow up with them with funny, engaging, or surprising emails. For example, some brands are getting really creative with order confirmation emails. You don’t have to be boring in your order tracking email. You can engage the customer and delight them in ways with imagery and copy that continues the same experience from the original channel on social media.
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 fantastic retail experience that keeps bringing customers back for more? Please share a story or an example for each.
- There should be consistency across marketing channels. Social, ads, websites, emails, and so on should all have the same branding and messaging.
- Brands should offer an insanely easy checkout process with familiar payment options like PayPal, Klarna (pay in four installments), Shop Pay, etc.
- Clear expectations should be spelled out BEFORE the checkout process. Tell your customers how long it will take to ship each item, whether or not their size or color is in stock and how much, state shipping costs, provide a return policy, etc. Don’t make them wait for the checkout page to learn what they need to make their purchase decision.
- Be willing to lose money in the short term to win customers for the long term. Waive shipping fees, send replacement items, send samples… do whatever you can to make your customer happy and their life easy.
- Connect with your customers on a deeper brand level. It’s not about what you sell but why you sell it. Your story and mission should be front and center.
How can our readers further follow your work?
Readers can follow me on LinkedIn and Instagram and Because on LinkedIn, Instagram, and Twitter.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this!