Here are the take-aways from my June 19th fireside chat with Tai Odunsi (Wizker.com), to discuss his entrepreneurial journey as an eCommerce brand owner.
We experienced a massive tropical rain storm in NYC, that night. As my luck would have it, it was the biggest one yet this summer. Still, there were plenty of eager attendees who braved through the storm to witness firsthand the testimony of an author turned into an owner of a product-based brand. It turned out to be a very intimate, and special event.
Before the recap, I want to give many thanks to Spark Labs Bryant Park who provided us such a cool space to have our lively discussion, with no pressure to close out on time. It was the perfect setting for such a special evening.
Normally, I would insert this line at the bottom of my posts. However, I want to put this right here so that you can stay on top of future events to be part of my growing community, and experience the magic of being present at electrifying, valuable business events in NYC:
Now, about the fireside chat: there was a lot that Tai and I covered that night. My intention for this post is to boil this down to the essence of what made Tai so successful with his business. Once you read it through, you should pick up on a common thread among all the points, but in case you don’t, I’ll summarize it at the end of the post.
The list of take-aways:
1. Finding his own voice through a product that helps others, while also acting as a form of self-expression.
2. The best hack for a successful business is to do what others avoid doing.
3. “De-risking” by taking bite size risks, enabling you to fail-forward.
4. Unexpected setbacks are part of the game, and solutions must come from a good place.
5. Be presentable in potential mentors’ eyes by showing them your work, instead of asking for help empty-handed.
Take-away #1: Finding his own voice through a product that helps others, while also acting as a form of self-expression:
Tai started out his career as a graphic designer. As a creative professional, he was always on a hunt for ways to express his voice. Before Wizker, he had published three books which he truly enjoyed working on. But Tai felt there was something else that could reflect his voice better: he began brainstorming his next business idea. The process wasn’t an easy one, because he wanted to find an idea that would satisfy the following criteria:
1) A product that would be a great representation of who he is, and what he is about
2) A product that would solve a problem for others
3) Something that gives him ample creative opportunities, as opposed to just being a seller of goods that someone else has made.
Many businesses start from someone finding something that scratches his/her own itch. Tai’s case was no exception. He was having a hard time getting rid of razor bumps from shaving daily. He tried all sorts of products that were available back in 2011. None of them worked well enough for him. This was his light bulb moment. Tai quickly realized this might be something worth considering as a business idea.
After making the decision to try solving the skin problem caused by frequent shaving, he didn’t simply jump into creating a product. First, he began talking to others to see if they were experiencing the same problem, in order to validate his business idea.
Many business ideas fail because people give themselves an easy way out when they in a process of validating their ideas. When Tai was starting out, he could easily guess there were many people who had sensitive skin and suffered from frequent shaving. But what he wasn’t sure about was whether they had a perfect remedy to their problem. It was very possible that some people would have given Tai a list of recommendations that he hadn’t tried, instead of saying outright that they had not found a good solution. He needed to be sure that there were enough people who were not satisfied with any products that were available at that time.
Take-away #2: The best hack for a successful business is to do what others avoid doing.
Once his hypothesis was confirmed, he started to work on his own unique solution for shaving irritation. The first step was for him to come up with a prototype brush with the materials that were available to him. This presented plenty of challenges. He was not able to find a material that had an exact shape he had in mind. Nonetheless, he pressed on by finding something that was close to what he wanted, and he moved on to test it on himself.
Good news was that the first prototype generated an okay result. Also, it gave him a chance to show his results to people whom he had already spoken to. Throughout the entire beta testing process, he had to revise the product a few times, consistently talking to people to get their feedback. “I went up and down Flatbush Avenue so many times visiting all the barber shops on that street many, many times,” said Tai.
For those who are not familiar with Brooklyn, just to give you an idea, Flatbush Avenue stretches out for 9.8 miles. Not many would even attempt to do this once. But, Tai was determined to get real feedback from people, so that he could perfect his product.
Moreover, each time he was faced with a new business challenge (i.e. deciding on a pricing structure), he went back on Flatbush Avenue to find out what they had to say.
While Tai was working on the product, he also put together a business plan, and entered a small business idea competition. It was remarkable that he won that competition! This was another way for Tai to validate his business idea, and get feedback from seasoned business owners.
Talk about the arduous process of perfecting a business idea. What is intriguing about Tai is that, although his background is being a creative professional, his approach to his new business resembled that of someone who is a serial entrepreneur. He didn’t just go with his gut, or fall blindly in love with his own idea. Instead, he took his time and energy to validate his idea every step of the way.
This is something many would avoid doing. It became clear to me during our talk that his “taking a longer and harder route” gave him an edge.
Take-away #3: “De-risking” by taking bite size risks, enabling you to fail-forward.
Coming up with a brand-new product is costly. Each milestone comes with some level of risk, and added costs, to make it to the next milestone. However, Tai was strapped for cash, and did not have enough funds to waste on random mistakes. After winning the small business competition, he was able to find a mentor – one of the judges for the competition. Since Tai was new to the world of product-based businesses, he welcomed his mentor’s wisdom.
His mentor eventually agreed to partially fund Tai’s project, but unfortunately, the deal ended up falling through. Even then, Tai did not get himself into massive trouble as he did not place a large order, or spend lots of money on advertising. In other words, he did not count on the funds his mentor agreed to put upfront.
Tai believes it is necessary to take certain amount of risks going into any business. What he made sure of though, was to take one small risk at a time. Initially, the manufacturer Tai found in China required a large minimum order. Instead of forcing himself to scrape up the money to make it happen, he paused the project. Basically, he said no to the manufacturer.
Turns out, a short while later, the Chinese manufacturer came back offering a much smaller minimum requirement, which Tai was pretty comfortable with. Now, the manufacturer may have thought Tai was a hard negotiator, but in reality, he wasn’t. He just wasn’t willing to take that risk at that time.
Although he lost an opportunity to fund his project, he did not get himself into big trouble, and was still able to move forward with his project.
Take-away #4: Unexpected setbacks are part of the game, and solutions must come from a good place.
The biggest, and the most shocking, setback for Tai happened when his Amazon account was shut down. If you are familiar with Amazon FBA (fulfillment by Amazon) accounts, you may be aware that Amazon does not always provide you with in-depth explanation as to why your account may be shut down.
Tai’s case was no exception. His hunch was that it was caused by a sudden increase in negative customer reviews. Luckily, the main complaint was not about the core part of his brush; it was an additional accessory which caused an unexpected effect that some customers did not like. This was much less costly and required only an easy fix.
Tai dealt with this challenge head-on. Instead of coming up with excuses, he reached out to customers explaining what he would do to resolve the issue. He also contacted Amazon describing his plan to remedy the situation and assured them that customer dissatisfaction was not due to neglecting his customers.
Just like Google and Facebook, Amazon’s ultimate goal is maintaining the highest possible customer satisfaction. Amazon is known to be ruthless when it comes to shutting down FBA accounts when it detects even just a hint that a product is not providing meaningful customer experience.
It took some time for Amazon to review the case and reinstate Tai’s account.
Although it was a stressful time for Tai, he took the matter seriously and dealt with a problem in the most genuine manner he could. Whether you have an account with Amazon or not, a genuine approach towards aiming for the highest customer satisfaction is key to a successful business. How Tai managed to bounce back from this setback, is something we can all learn from.
Take-away #5: Be presentable to would-be-mentors’ eyes by showing your work instead.
“Learning everything there is to know about business has been always my goal,” says Tai.
To achieve this, he consistently reads business books and posts. He also reaches out to people who have created successful businesses for their insights. One thing he does not do is to walk up to someone and ask to be his mentor because it doesn’t work that way.
I see many make this mistake. It seems there are scripted email templates circulating around to help those who are seeking mentorship. Sadly, this is a big turn-off for many who receive such requests. The gist of the template goes like this:
“Hi, my name is XYZ. I am your biggest fan. I always loved your work. Currently, I have this project I have been working on for some time, and I am seeking a mentorship opportunity from someone like yourself who has built a handful of successful businesses to schedule a weekly call. In exchange, I would offer my time to do… (insert a list of things you would do for free).”
This just doesn’t work. If you were thinking about doing something like this, I urge you not to do it.
What Tai suggests instead, is to show others your work. A good example is when he submitted his business idea to a small business competition. He made his business plan available to be reviewed by judges, and one of them became his mentor. Other times, he makes sure that he qualifies himself to be a good mentee candidate, by providing the track record of his business, without asking for any help.
Tai also mentioned there was no need to find an official mentor for those just starting out. To him, some of his favorite mentors are business book authors, business bloggers, and podcasters. I couldn’t agree more. I am always amazed when I am asked very basic business questions. Mentors are everywhere if you look for them, especially on this thing called, “Google,” you should try it sometime.
So, what’s the common thread among all the take-aways I mentioned earlier?
In short, “Not cutting any corners is the shortest and the fastest way to achieve success.”
When I think of Tai, two words come to mind:
These are the traits that support his effort of not cutting any corners. But those who attended the event may have noticed that Tai is a fun guy! Even while he keeps his head down and do the real work, Tai doesn’t forget to enjoy the ride. He has a clear vision that this is a journey is his own, and he makes the most out of it.
Tai started Wizker in 2011. Six years may sound like a long time in terms of growing a business, but I think that he actually took the shortest route, by fending off all the common mistakes other entrepreneurs make. Tai minimized foreseeable setbacks, so that he had enough capacity to tend to the unforeseeable ones. He is the real-life example of someone who measures twice and cuts once. While he took a slower approach to his project, he tested Wizker, every step of the way to obtain a constant flow of feedback from would-be-users and active users. Most importantly, he learned what he needed to succeed along the way.
Be sure to visit www.wizker.com & his YouTube channel: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCcGhusvdQTdOnHgHMruaLTg