From Agency to eCommerce Empire: The Obvi Journey

From Agency to eCommerce Empire: The Obvi Journey
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Discover how Ronak Shah, CEO of Obvi, moved from agency ownership to creating a standout direct-to-consumer brand, sharing insights on e-commerce success and branding strategies. Ronak explains:
1. How his agency background helped him launch his e-commerce brand: Obvi
2. How he uses surveys to create new products and flavours for Obvi's growing product range
3. How Facebook Groups have helped create a core community to propel the brand's mission statement forward
4. How Obvi uses email marketing & SMS Marketing in a harmonious manner to nurture customers and increase lifetime value
5. His preferred tech stack for growing Obvi on Shopify

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Adam: Okay, we are live on LinkedIn. I'm joined by Ronak Shah, who is the CEO and co-founder of Obvi. This is episode two of E-Commerce on Fire. Ronak has graciously agreed to join us and tell us a bit about how he transitioned from an agency owner, like myself, into the direct-to-consumer world with Obvi, his own brand. 

We're going to run through some questions related to e-commerce marketing. He's going to give us his insights and expertise. Ronak, welcome to the show. Let's just start off with the basics. Give us a background on how you started the company and how you've transitioned from an agency ownership into having your own brand. How is it on the other side of the fence?

Ronak: Absolutely, well first of all, Adam, thank you for having me. I'm excited to be on live and share our knowledge collectively. So, with Obvi, we started it last year, June 2019, so we're just about 18 months old now. Prior to that, we had an agency called Ghost 3 Media, which we ran for just around six years. We actually look at our agency experience kind of like going to college, where we really went to go and learn. We learned by working with different clients, what to do, what not to do.

We also got to work internally with some of our clients and really understood how business processes work. So, we went to school for basically six years, got our master's degree. We finally graduated, and I think what we look at Obvi as is our final thesis, right? It's our final kind of project to say, everything we've learned, everything we've done as an agency with other clients, with other brands, we wanted to take the best practices and bring them to Obvi and try and see if we can cultivate a brand that is truly off the best practices.

So, after running an agency for some time, you kind of want to do something that's your own. And I think that's really where the fruition of Obvi came into place. It is a women's healthcare brand, healthcare and wellness brand. It is not only for women, but it is definitely targeted towards women. And, you know, we went into this space because of our expertise, collectively, me and my partners, and Ashland, our expertise has collectively been in the health and wellness space for the last eight years.

Adam: Interesting. And let's talk a little bit about your branding as well because I've noticed a trend, especially in supplements, where it's definitely gravitated towards really bold, striking colors. If you look at brands like even Magic Spoon as well, where does the inspiration for that come from? Is that something you noticed early on and made an integral part of the branding?

Ronak: Yeah, it's a great question. I think the branding came into play where, you know, a lot of people, I think, when they're first starting a brand, they're kind of confused on who they want to target. Everyone's obvious answer is, "I want to reach everybody," right? I want to make a product for everybody.

And as much as that's probably very effective on a top-line revenue goal and objective method, I think what becomes concerning is, you don't become a brand for anyone while you're trying to brand for everyone. And so, what we've seen, as again, while we were in an agency concept, we saw that when we pick a target market, target demo, and you speak, that's where you see the biggest result because you build something for someone that feels, "Oh wow, this is for me."

So, our branding, before we even kicked off the brand, is we are going to build something that's targeted for women, you know, ranging between millennials to your baby boomer. That's going to be our target demo. Now, if people younger, in their teens, want to take our product, or people older, in their 70s, 80s, want to take our products, sure, why not? If men want to take our products, sure.

We're going to make it a product that's available for everyone, but who we're going to target was going to be fully focused around that millennial to, you know, baby boomer age. And that's really where the branding started. Be loud. If it sits on a shelf, we wanted to at least make someone and say, "Hey, what is it?

Now, they may not buy it, but we want everyone to stop and say, "What is this?" When you're scrolling on Facebook, we want that pink to stop you and say, "What is it?" And if we can trigger, "What is it?" then we can take our mission, which is becoming the obvious choice, pretty much aligned, right? So, I think that's really our goal around the branding.

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Adam: Yeah, it completely resonates with what you're saying about niching down and not trying to appeal to everyone. I think that's very important and also a mistake a lot of people make. Just to take that concept and apply it to our business, in the agency world, me and my business partner had a lot of conversations in the beginning, like, should we offer ads?

Should we do, you know, content marketing, SEO? And one of the reasons we decided to niche down in email was because we just wanted to really have laser-like focus on our target audience and focus on our strengths. So, yeah, it's really interesting. Can definitely understand what you're saying about that.

Just going to talk about the e-commerce platform. Obviously, you went with Shopify. My opinion is that the market is consolidated really, and it's going in the direction now where I think if you're launching a D2C brand, the most overwhelming majority of people are going with Shopify. Did you have any other considerations, like in terms of Magento, WooCommerce, or was it always from the beginning that you were going to go with Shopify?

Ronak: Yeah, I think you're always looking at the WooCommerce or the Magento, you know, or BigCommerce. And the problem, not the problem, but I think the one thing that people tend to forget some of the other platforms besides Shopify is you need to come built-in, ready with a developer on hand when you're doing anything outside of Shopify. And if you have that, then I would probably, I think all of us, in our, you know, between my partners, would agree, probably going custom with WooCommerce or, you know, or WordPress is probably the route to go.

But if you don't have that sense of overhead in your team, Shopify is becoming more and more just the obvious choice in terms of what route to go. And I think the second thing that Shopify has, I think, truncated the market in is the app store, right? That they have. If you can't build the solution, they most likely have something in the app store. And I think it, you know, you can connect it very closely to how when Apple came out with the iPhone, it was driven through the app store, right? It was, you could get all the solutions you need through this app store. And Shopify has done such a good job where here's an out-of-the-box package to build your site, but then you use the app store to really power that site. And you look at Apple and you look at Shopify, besides their stock market doing well, but it's really two similar solutions. And that's why it makes it so easy for people to use.

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Adam: Yeah, definitely. Ease of use and we've actually, we're not developers, but we've noticed some of our clients migrate away from things like Magento and WooCommerce, based on the reasons you've mentioned, just for ease of use. I think ultimately Shopify's success is that they just make it easy to sell. Whereas there are so many engineering and development headaches on other platforms, people are just going, "You know what? Let's just go with where it's easiest to sell.

Ronak: That's really it. The barrier of entry for starting an e-commerce brand has become easier and smaller. Shopify is solidifying that by saying, "You want a site tomorrow? You can probably get it today." That gives people the power to start easily.

Adam: Just touching on a point before, you talked about apps and plugins that can be seamlessly integrated into the store. How do you not get carried away with those as you scale up? Because the tendency is to want all the bells and whistles for the perfect Shopify store. What would your advice be in terms of core plugins and apps that have helped your business? What do you recommend for new business owners and even existing ones to focus on?

Ronak: You know, I'd be lying if we didn't fall into that trap where we're like, "Let's add this, let's add this," and your site looks almost spammy. Taking steps back and saying, "Let me get this custom coded," because as good as the apps are, they do slow down your site and can mitigate conversion rates. For us, the apps we consistently use are those that make the shopping experience easier, like announcement bars and opt-in pop-ups. We use OptiMonk for A/B testing because it allows us to test variants easily. Anything that helps keep a visitor on your site longer is beneficial, like exit-intent pop-ups or showing what others have recently bought. These features help the buyer feel more connected and informed.

I think when it comes to spending money on sending traffic to your site, it's crucial to consider all the tools you can implement to capture that person's attention. Obviously, adding a tracking pixel and similar basic tools is straightforward, but leveraging apps to encourage visitors to stay on your site longer has proven to be our most effective strategy.

For instance, one of our successful campaigns is our exit-intent campaign, which features a pop-up that appears right before someone attempts to leave the site, offering them an extra special deal. Additionally, the pop-ups displaying recent purchases by others have been particularly influential. They show the most common and frequently bought items, like our best seller, the Collagenic Burn, which appears as a recently bought item almost every other minute.

These strategies not only enhance the buyer's experience but also foster a sense of community and trust. So, rather than cluttering your site with unnecessary add-ons that might seem like they're helping, it's more beneficial to focus on solutions that genuinely meet the buyer's needs. It's also important to continually assess the return on investment these tools provide, ensuring they contribute positively to your site's performance.

Adam: On exit-intent pop-ups, have you found a specific tool that works effectively on mobile?

Ronak: It's tough because there's no 'X' button on mobile, so nothing has been successful in terms of triggering an exit-intent on mobile. We use certain scroll levels or hovering above the menu as our triggers. But really, there's no perfect solution for mobile yet.

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Adam: Touching on the pop-up again, I noticed that you deliver the coupon immediately upon signup in the post-success window. I'm assuming you've done that because it has a better impact on conversion rates as opposed to sending the user to an email where they have to click through. Is that why you've structured it that way?

Ronak: Yes, we did it that way. Our theory is, if someone's on the site, we don't want to take them off. We've spent money to get them there. Using Attentive for our SMS platform didn't align with our strategy because it requires users to leave the webpage to retrieve a discount code. We believe in keeping everything on site, especially after investing in driving traffic there.

Our SMS platform strategy is quite interesting because the typical approach is to send the discount code through SMS, but this requires the user to navigate away from the web page to access the code on their mobile device. Honestly, it's a mess. I don't believe that people who are ready to make a purchase will still be as inclined to do so if they have to wait or take additional steps.

Considering the average bounce rate is around 30-40 seconds, it's unrealistic to expect that these potential customers will pause their shopping experience to check a text message, especially if they get distracted by something else, like a text from a friend. This could result in losing the entire shopping momentum they had. We prefer to keep everything as integrated and on-site as possible, especially after investing significantly to drive traffic there. Analyzing traffic in a way that disrupts the user experience doesn't align with our goals or make much practical sense.

Adam: Let's talk a little bit about how you're using Klaviyo and SMS in a harmonious way because there seems to be a strange war on LinkedIn, where it's like SMS versus email. How are you using them together?

Ronak: It's a good point. I see a lot of debates about SMS versus email, which is silly. Both are great, and there shouldn't be one without the other. Our strategy revolves around our messaging or campaign, and then we decide where that message goes—SMS, email, Facebook community, Instagram ads, stories, etc. We pit SMS and email against each other only in terms of timing. It's almost ineffective to send them at the same time. 

The way we strategize things centers around what our messaging or campaign is. Once we have that aligned, for example, when we launched our Black Friday sale, our messaging was "25% off plus up to four free gifts." With this message in hand, we then decide where it should be disseminated—be it SMS, email, our Facebook community, Instagram ads, or stories. These are all the platforms where we can engage with our audience.

We then begin creating tailored assets for each channel, streamlining the launch process. The one aspect where we specifically differentiate between SMS and email is in their timing; sending them simultaneously is almost ineffective because we aim to use them as distinct points of action.

We maintain consistency in our messaging across all platforms, whether it's for an abandoned cart or a single campaign, but we strategically separate their timing—one in the morning and one in the evening—to ensure broad coverage and multiple touchpoints with consumers throughout the day. This approach underscores the importance of utilizing both SMS and email, as we have observed continued success in both our Klaviyo and Postscript accounts by following this strategy.

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Adam: Interesting, okay, so you're using Postscript to send the SMSs. Yeah, out of curiosity, have you experimented with Klaviyo to do that?

Ronak: Yeah, we have, but I think it's a bit clunky, especially with using MMS and setting up certain things, even certain flows. I think, again, you know, we would go back to what we initially discussed. There are brands, companies, agencies, or networks that are very niche in what they do.

Klaviyo has been known to be an excellent email platform, an ESP, and they are great at what they do, which you'll probably agree with. Now, Postscript is an MMS platform known for doing SMS and MMS extremely well. Their entire platform is built around that. So, in our theory, you utilize what a platform is known for and give it that specialization.

Of course, there's a theory of bringing everything under one roof, but I see Postscript trying to do email, too, but it's not the same. And I see Klaviyo's SMS, in my opinion, at least from what we've experienced, it just doesn't compare. So, you go to the platform or the agency that is known to do something specialized because you'll probably get 100% effort out of it. 

Adam: I completely agree with you, and any small additional increase in cost will probably be mitigated by overall ROI by just using the best solution. One of the challenges is having enough people in-house competent with all the different software; it's more like tech overwhelm, like you said. 

Ronak: Yeah, no, I think that's exactly it. Sometimes the learning curve on a platform offering another service becomes more than just using a different service that's specialized for it.

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Adam: Absolutely interesting. I want to talk a little bit about how you survey customers to create new products because I've seen in another LinkedIn Live you did, you mentioned that you were talking to customers in private Facebook groups that Obvi has to create new products. I've never seen a brand, especially one that would have massive funding behind it, hit the markets as fast as you guys have and created so many different variations of flavors and products. What’s the secret to that success? 

Ronak: The secret to that success, I think, lies in the approach we adopted when we launched the brand back in June. The biggest thing that set us apart and contributed to our success is being completely consumer-centric. This approach eliminates the guessing game, which often leads to failures or halts progress for many brands. We're not fond of guessing; we'd rather get the answers directly by asking our customers.

We've created and navigated ways to ask through surveys, which we try to conduct roughly once every quarter. We ask our customers what they want, giving them options of eight to ten things or 10 to 15 to 20 flavors, and then they rank their preferences. Based on their responses, we pick the top three or four options to move forward with in the next quarter. This method has allowed us to streamline our entire year and alleviate the stress that usually comes with launching new things. For instance, we had our planning meeting a couple of days ago for 2021, setting the stage for future launches based on direct customer feedback.

We implemented this strategy because we took directly from the survey what flavors people wanted and figured out how to integrate these preferences into our marketing strategies and various initiatives. Now, our focus is primarily on innovation and pipeline enhancements, topics we specifically asked about in the survey.

Essentially, we use the survey results to determine where each new idea fits into our marketing and launch calendars, including the practical aspects such as how many labels our designer needs to prepare. This approach significantly reduces the guessing game, ensuring that when we launch these products, our customers are already invested because they played a part in selecting them.

So, in essence, our process not only simplifies our operations but also eliminates any guesswork about future endeavors, making our product development and launch phases more efficient and aligned with consumer expectations.

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Adam: I remember reading something a while back that mentioned around 80 percent of new product launches fail. It's astounding to consider the amount of money that must be lost to research and development, not to mention marketing efforts. Also, can you elaborate a bit on how do you stay consumer-focussed as you scale? How do you manage that and temper it with the growth?

Ronak: I've encountered similar statistics, underscoring the high rate of failure. Often, even with a dedicated innovation or R&D team, the ideas generated by a handful of people might not align with market demands. Our objective is to eliminate the guesswork. We prefer to let our customers guide us towards what they genuinely want, making the process more consumer-focused.

However, maintaining this consumer-centric approach as we scale poses its challenges. It might set unrealistic expectations for the level of attentiveness we can provide directly to consumers. To be honest, we're still navigating this growth phase, witnessing our community's expansion day by day.

Our Facebook community, now the second largest for a collagen brand, has grown to 18,000 members and is increasing by about 100 to 200 members daily. That in itself is a beast. Managing this involves a significant amount of work, with a team of nine admins and moderators responding to posts and comments daily. The challenge lies in continuously seeking and valuing customer input without overwhelming our capacity to respond and adapt.

I think that's where decision-making has to come into play. We haven't reached that point yet; we're currently at around 50 to 60,000 customers since the inception of our brand, which isn't too large.

However, the challenge arises as we grow, potentially surveying 100,000 to 200,000 customers. Selecting the best results becomes trickier as the responses become more varied and vast. Until we reach a juncture where decisions start to split, we can still rely on our current method.

Yet, it's crucial to remember that what is now a split between 80/20 could shift to 70/30 or even 60/40 as we expand. We're keeping an eye on this evolution; these are indeed nice problems to have.

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Adam: The Facebook group community aspect is particularly intriguing because, despite Facebook being an expensive platform, it allows us to migrate users into a more intimate community for direct conversations. Choosing moderators and ambassadors involves identifying customers who are deeply engaged and passionate about the brand, essentially grooming and vetting them to ensure they embody the brand's values and can foster the community spirit we cherish.

Ronak: No, that's a phenomenal question. When you're building this community, it almost is this domino effect, right? The energy you start with is what's going to keep the dominoes rolling. We were very blessed with having one of our directors of the community, her name is Brittany. 

She actually started with Obvi just being a model for our photography that we had done back in June when we launched the brand, and she quickly just turned into loving the brand, loving the energy around the brand. She really takes every single product every single day for the last 18 months.

She became a part of where, "Hey, why don't you help us out with this? Why don't you do this? Why don't you try this?" And she's really turned the community into her baby. You'll probably see her a lot as the face of our brand. What she's cultivated under her is a system of spotting out other people who are just as excited about the brand as she once was. She recruits them, and again, they're not employed by Obvi, but she recruits them and says, "Hey, of course, there's some perks, we'll give you some product every month."

But these are people who were already customers that are truly, truly huge fans of the brand, huge around their testimonials have really seen serious results. The first two of our admins that Brittany had recruited, their names were Vicky and Chelsea and Sherry. Those three women actually, they were such big believers of the brand because they also saw life-changing results in their life.

Some got de-stress, some lost serious amount of weight, some were able to really change their whole lifestyle with the keto diet. And then under them, they were able to recruit another six moderators. It's become this tree of recruiting people based on the love and passion. There's no financial benefit besides, of course, we try and give them some product and stuff, but it's truly customers that have seen life-changing and altering moments throughout.

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Adam: And that's what you want, obviously, isn't it? That loyal foot soldiers on the ground driving the brands forwards for you because then the engagement feels authentic and natural.

Ronak: Exactly, and that's, I think, we can't thank them enough. I think we always, in the office too, we're always talking about how much of a difference they make. You know, I can tell any random person to go and spend 15 minutes in our community, and may or may not like Obvi's products, but they will love the energy, the authenticity that comes through the community. Awesome, well, it sounds like Brittany might be coming for that CEO job soon.

Adam: I'm going to end on some quickfire questions. I think there might have been an issue with the stream at some point, but we'll definitely post the recording afterwards. What do you think the most underrated marketing channel strategy is for direct-to-consumer?

Ronak: Underrated? That's a good one. I truly think it's utilizing influencers in the sense of how we're going about it, which is utilizing them for their presence and running ads through their networks. Influencers have always been seen as, "Oh, paid post?" and yeah, they post a story or Instagram, this and that. I think what we've seen success with is actually utilizing their network to actually run ads through, and dark posting and white listing. That's been something that's very successful, and I see a lot of brands doing it, but I don't think it's widely spoken about as the new way to really do influencer marketing.

Adam: How do you gauge the ROI with influencer marketing because I feel as though that is a lot of the hostility towards the channel, is people have that misconception where it's like Kim Kardashian posting a picture of a product, and that's influencer marketing. How do you do that in a way that's conducive to ROI and obviously positive for the brands as well?

Ronak: I think that's why we've taken this approach. Both me and my partner, we're not fans of looking at, oh well, this story brought in 500 visitors and maybe some sales, or this discount code. I think those days are kind of getting wrapped up. But the way we're doing, which is actually running, taking their platform and running ads through their platform where the ad of Obvi's coming from them, that's the nasty strategy that is fully calculated. You get to see it, it's like running ads where you get to see the ROI, you see the ROAS, but it's coming through their platform. And that's what's been very successful.

Adam: Very interesting to see. D2C or B2B -  what do you prefer for building a new brand?

Ronak: D2C. I think our big side of our business, which I would say is about 25%, uh or 20%, it's a great pillar to our business because we're getting mass exposure. In terms of getting into the hands of people, but we're not getting as much awareness as we do when we're running D2C ads and, you know, people on our website.

You know, it feels really good when you see 200, 300,000 new people on your website every month. B2B is good, but I don't know how many eyeballs are actually looking at our product in the store, right? You know, it could be more, could be less, but at least through here we get to control the narrative, whereas B2B, you have to rely either on the store, the rep, or the consumer that's walking in to build their own narrative around the product.

Adam: Good stuff. What would your advice be to people starting out so they don't crash and burn?

Ronak: Really find what is missing in the space. I see a lot of drop shipping, private labeled products. Those are great ways to start off and learn, but if you're trying to build a brand, have that differentiation point question answered. For Obvi, we wanted to confidently say every product we come out with is first to market. What do we need to do to the formula, the packaging, the label? If you can confidently say your product has some element that is first to market, then you go and ride that wave. Building a brand becomes trickier if you're just testing products.

Adam: Ultimately, if you're not solving a problem, then don't enter the market.

Ron: Yeah, or enter the market but don't expect to build a brand because a brand signifies you are trying to do something different.

Adam: Completely agree, Ron. It's been a pleasure. How can people contact you if they want to speak more?

Ronak: The best is email, my first name Ronak at Follow me on Instagram at the dedicated. Either one, I'm always happy to talk and always a pleasure talking to you. It's great to always catch up.

Adam: Likewise, mate. I'm going to end the broadcast now. Cheers, Ron.

Ronak: Wonderful, thank you.

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