Interview: Suzanne Barker, CEO of When I Shop

by Jerome Knyszewski
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Suzanne Barker, CEO of When I Shop

Suzanne Barker has had several years of experience in online entrepreneurship, from 2015 to present. She has also worked for a few years as an executive for various companies. Currently, she runs the company When I Shop as CEO and co-founder.

At When I Shop, Suzanne Barker helps clients discover the latest hip women’s fashion labels using the company’s unique discovery tool. If you want “denim, minimalist, or sustainable brands,” you won’t go wrong with When I Shop. And if you want to know where your favorite brands are made, When I Shop is the tool for you.

Prior to When I Shop, Suzanne Barker served as a digital marketing consultant for Dimension Software Limited. At the company, she helped create and implement a “digital marketing strategy” for the firm, which provides enterprise software for the energy sector around the world. Part of her tasks at the company are “advising and enacting branding, messaging and promotional campaigns.” She also wrote, designed, and edited the company’s promotional videos, optimized the website for SEO, and managed digital advertising.

Suzanne Barker has also received certifications for Facebook Planning, Google Adwords, and Google Analytics. She has spent over 15 years playing various senior executive and creative roles in several industries.

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Jerome Knyszewski: 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?

Suzanne Barker: I grew up in Auckland, New Zealand where I had a pretty adventurous childhood sailing on our family yacht, which we build on our front lawn, on the weekends and holidays.

I’m sure all that adventure as a youngster helped develop my entrepreneurial spirit. I did lots of fun things to make money when I was young. I sold my artwork on coat hangers to our neighbors, set up a feijoa fruit stand on the main road out of town, and recruited my friend to start a gardening business for our nearby pensioner community.

I studied visual arts at the turn of the millennium and wasted my time learning photographic darkroom techniques, which seems absurd now.

After my son was born I started a small online e-decorator business. I realized pretty quickly that I had a huge knowledge gap when it came to building a business online. I decided to quit the business and, instead, do a deep dive into everything online growth-related, like SEO, pay-per-click ads, analytics, and influencer marketing. It was during that time that I identified a problem with brands and shoppers struggling to find each other, which I got pretty excited about solving.

Jerome Knyszewski: What was the “Aha Moment” that led to the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?

Suzanne Barker: I had a moment of clarity while using Instagram. I actually only joined Instagram because I was curious about how influencers earned income and pitched products on the platform.

I knew that it was the platform of choice for brands and shoppers to find each other but there were no tools to deliberately seek out specific types of brands and that frustrated me. Brands had to rely on ever-increasing advertising spend to get themselves in front of the very people who wanted to find them. And that just seemed crazy to me. So I started working on the problem with my husband and co-founder, Max, and we explored how we could make that discovery process more efficient.

Jerome Knyszewski: Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?

Suzanne Barker: Actually, we got so close to giving up. In fact, I started building websites for companies because I didn’t think we were going to figure out how to bootstrap our idea to market with no investment. We hit a brick wall. The problem was we were thinking really big and struggled to work out what the slimmest version of an MVP could look like that was still interesting for a user. It was a tough mindset shift that took time to work through, but in the end, doing things that don’t scale is what got us there in the end. Possibly the best advice out of Y Combinator!

Jerome Knyszewski: So, how are things going today? How did your grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?

Suzanne Barker: We’re excited to have our business on a good trajectory now. When I look back at what we were doing, even just a week ago, I realize how fast we are evolving our business model. It feels great to finally be in a position to iterate our MVP quickly after so long bogged down in how to go-to-market.

Together we’ve had lots of business ideas and we’ve got pretty good at pessimistically poking holes and spotting weaknesses. But with When I Shop we never had a moment of doubt. We solicited advice from many people and held tightly to the nuggets of wisdom that resonated with us and simply ignored the rest. That’s a crucial skill to develop, especially in the early days when your idea is so vulnerable.

Jerome Knyszewski: 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?

Suzanne Barker: I can’t say we’ve had any funny mistakes. One thing I remember though is speaking to two seasoned entrepreneurs in our industry a few days apart. They both hated our idea and told us so. And then they gave us the exact same vision for how to go-to-market which we didn’t resonate with at all. It was so funny to get the same advice from two different people so close together and it really baffled us for a few days. Ultimately we just pushed on and ignored their advice.

Jerome Knyszewski: Can you share a few examples of tools or software that you think can dramatically empower emerging eCommerce brands to be more effective and more successful?

Suzanne Barker: Micro-influencers continue to be a good investment for eCommerce brands whether that be through paid promo or just by sending them products in the hope they’ll share it with their followers.

You can seek out natural brand ambassadors using a tool like Upfluence and publish user content to relevant product pages on your website using a tool like Pixlee or Bazaarvoice.

Jerome Knyszewski: As you know, “conversion” means to convert a visit into a sale. In your experience what are the best strategies an eCommerce business should use to increase conversion rates?

Suzanne Barker: I find it quite staggering how light on detail brands are with their product descriptions. Aim to be on the heavier side of detail and shoppers won’t leave because they have unanswered questions. And again, be transparent. Brands almost never list where their product is made and they are doing themselves and their customers a disservice by being opaque. Shopbop is excellent at always including where the product is made.

I think more than anything though, it’s continually working on getting the brand and authentic stories in front of people. Retargeting ads help too, so get that retargeting pixel on your website right at the start!

Jerome Knyszewski: Of course, the main way to increase conversion rates is to create a trusted and beloved brand. Can you share a few ways that an eCommerce business can earn a reputation as a trusted and beloved brand?

Suzanne Barker: I believe that it is well-considered products, never compromising on quality, fair pricing, and a strong brand message that makes a trusted brand. Showing that you are a brand that cares and that you stand for something is important.

Jerome Knyszewski: 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 very successful e-commerce business? Please share a story or an example for each.

Suzanne Barker:

  1. Niche right down to even just one item. Make sure that item is something unique and captivating, like “the world’s most comfortable shoes made with natural materials” in Allbirds case, or “Swimwear made to fit and function like a leotard” in Flagpole’s case.
  2. Build a brand story and concentrate on what sets your brand apart. Ministry of Supply capitalizes on using the same high-tech temperature regulating materials as NASA astronauts for their business attire.
  3. Show that you are a thoughtful company. TOMS captivated the world with its mantra to improve lives.
  4. Be overtly transparent and lay it out proudly on your homepage. If your product is Made in the USA do not make your visitor accidentally trip over that information, shout it from the rooftops!
  5. Build a solid micro-influencer fan base, both paid and organic, and capitalize on their content. It’s not enough to have an Instagram feed on your website, you need to create context around content and place it on the relevant product pages.

Jerome Knyszewski: How can our readers further follow you online?

Suzanne Barker: You can find me on LinkedIn and Instagram.

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.

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