Merchandising a Product Into a Lifestyle
JoAnn Martin, VP of Marketing
Doug Blacker, Founder & CEO, PlantRise
Doug Blacker has something of an unconventional background for the CEO of an ecommerce business. In this episode of The Ecommerce Merchandising Show, he walks us through his journey from corporate lawyer to founder of PlantRise, which specializes in nutrition products and healthy living. Listen in to hear his thoughts on everything from startup life to merchandising for continued growth.
Connect with Doug on LinkedIn
Turning a product into a story, and a lifestyle
When you first visit the PlantRise site, you may not realize the business focuses on a single product.
Through clever merchandising, content, and design, the customer is introduced to an entire way of life that transcends the product.
“What I love to hear is that people are really incorporating PlantRise into their morning routine, it’s become a part of their life. That’s really what our brand encourages.”
Check out this week’s episode to hear how Doug approaches storytelling, brand, and continuous learning as the founder and CEO of an ecommerce store.View / Hide Transcript
[00:00:15] JoAnn: Before we dig into the story behind PlantRise, tell us a little bit about yourself, Doug.
[00:00:21] Doug: Okay, well, I am a lawyer. So prior to PlantRise, I was a corporate lawyer in the exciting area of structure finance in the mortgage business. So, exciting, right?
[00:00:34] JoAnn: It’s not what I was expecting, most, e-commerce folks don’t start with, well, I was a lawyer.
[00:00:42] Doug: Yeah, before that I was in finance, so I worked in an investment bank, and went to law school. I was a corporate lawyer for many years. Um, but, I always had a passion. For products, for starting my own business, and I think for several years, I was looking to make a career change, and get out of the corporate world. But, uh, it took a little bit of time.
[00:01:10] JoAnn: Throughout that time, as you’re working in finance and practicing or studying law, did you always have this nagging feeling that you wanted to go to start your own thing or did it kind of just come about one day and you thought, all right, today’s the day I’m going to go?
[00:01:26] Doug: I tried to align myself with people who were doing things in general, people were starting all types of businesses, who went to a ton of speakers and panels. I thought, I want to start my own thing. Um, but at the same time was also looking, you know, maybe for a partner to start something with.
[00:01:47] I would write down a ton of ideas. Um, I have plenty of notebooks and documents on my computer or just random ideas and would research them. But, uh, you know, for a while I would sort of just, have those and then move onto the next and just get caught up, in my work and my family.
[00:02:07] JoAnn: Yeah. I mean, so many people have that kind of back of their mind dream, right. Where they’re like, Oh, one day when I go do my own thing or one day when I start my company or my store, so it’s cool that you made the leap. I’m super curious what, among all the ideas that you have, I assume, scribbled in notebooks somewhere, where did the idea come for PlantRise? And why did you get started on this project of all of those ideas?
[00:02:33] Doug: I actually have a good friend who started an e-commerce mattress business. So he has been a great mentor and I had a lot of conversations with him, and actually one day I pitched him on, if I could start a hospitality side of his business, just because I was looking for some sort of side hustle, I thought, I know that his product is a great product.
[00:03:01] Um, and I thought that, okay, well maybe there’s something I can do here. I’m really good at building relationships. So within several weeks, I had a few deals with a couple boutique hotels and at that point I was sold. I knew that, this is where I should be.
[00:03:26] JoAnn: Yeah. So you went from, let me get this straight from finance to law, to mattress, hospitality, sales, to nutrition and wellness.
[00:03:40] Doug: That’s right.
[00:03:40] JoAnn: Like a pretty straight career path that most people follow?
[00:03:44] Doug: Health and nutrition and fitness has been a part of me my whole life. I’m a very active person, very energetic, I live in New York city. I play soccer every single Saturday, going out hikes. I’m an outdoors man. So wellness and nutrition has just been a big part of my life always. I think I always wanted to try to find some way to be in that business.
[00:04:11] Doug: Actually, you know, now that we’re talking before I had kids, I actually made protein bars in my apartment not to sell, but I think I was sort of testing it out and I wrapped them up individually and in saran wrap and stacked them in my fridge and it didn’t go anywhere, but I, I just, um, I think that was probably the first time I sort of, tried to actually make a product.
[00:04:36] JoAnn: That’s so cool, there is some kind of common thread through there then. What is the opportunity that you saw for PlantRise specifically? Because starting a direct to consumer nutrition and wellness brand isn’t unheard of, it’s a very competitive space. There are a lot of companies out there, what made you look at PlantRise and think this is it. This is different, people are gonna want to buy this and I’m going all in on it.
[00:05:00] Doug: I really wanted to create a relatable product that motivates people to be active and healthy. I think having a top quality product is table stakes, you know, there’s plenty of companies out there that say they have top quality products. Um, but I think it’s important to, you know, tell people and show people how to incorporate those products into their lives and the benefits of that. I think it’s important as a brand to be more than just a product that you’re telling people to buy, buy, buy – it’s, you know, what else can you offer?I think for us, we want to show people how our product can help them in their routine, give them tips, give them morning tips, for example. I really see a benefit, brands in general of, not just being product focused, but helping people’s general wellness.
[00:05:56] JoAnn: And I can see that when I look at the PlantRise site, there’s so much on the website. And I don’t mean that in a bad way. I mean, in terms of information content, the experience the first time I looked at it, I didn’t realize you only had one product. And that is actually a really smart design in the sense that your product is more than your product and you almost merchandise your site in that way, which I want to get to in a little bit, because I do want to talk about merchandising because this is a podcast about merchandising.
[00:06:24] Doug: Well, that’s great. because, stay tuned there will be more products, down the road.
[00:06:29] JoAnn: Oh folks, you heard it here first, breaking news. It’s clear that you’re really passionate about the PlantRise brand and it’s much more than a product. What is it about that brand that makes you so passionate? And have you heard feedback from customers on why it’s worth being passionate about or makes you remember why you love what you do?
[00:06:50] Doug: We’ve had amazing feedback on the product. And what I love to hear is not just that, your product tastes great, which it does, and we’re getting that. But people are really telling us how they’ve incorporated it into their morning routine, it’s become a part of their life. And I think that that’s really what the PlantRise brand encourages, it’s healthy daily habits, and showing how incorporating healthy daily habits can lead to a better quality of life.
[00:07:17] JoAnn: Yeah, I love that. That’s like a perfect brand for someone like me who thrives on habit, where if I do the same thing every single day, then I’m just happy. So it’s cool that you’ve worked that into your brand. I want to talk a little bit about merchandising, like I mentioned, because one of the reasons we’re so fanatical really about merchandising is it’s one of those activities that kind of spans cross-functionally across your company and the way that you think about how your site is displayed and the way that consumers interact with it, they can grow your business.
[00:07:48] It grows your brand. It centers your product around your customer’s experience and what they’re looking for. But you have a unique perspective in a couple of ways, in the sense that one, you’re a founder, and you’re probably at this point in your company’s life cycle wearing very many hats. And two, you’re the founder of a direct to consumer company with one product, which is a really different kind of merchandising challenge.
[00:08:13] So I want to touch on you being a vet founder first. So how do you, as a founder, think about how you merchandise your website?
[00:08:21] Doug: Yeah, that’s a great question. Um, from the beginning, I wanted to set up the website, to best succeed in the future. So to be able to add products, and do so without doing a full redesign of the site with a developer, that was a really, a big driving force with how the website itself was designed. I would say we are a headless e-commerce business. I’m not going to try to explain what that is, but, you know, it allows us to make changes quickly, to A/B test on our own, and set up our first product. Which we have now super good, by telling a compelling story for the brand, a compelling story for the product.
[00:09:08] And, like we talked before as for the next set of products, you know, we have in place our compelling story for the brand and we just, we’ll build upon that for the next set of products.
[00:09:18] JoAnn: That’s super interesting. So how do you think about that in terms of some of these new products that you’ve hinted at potentially coming up in the future? What are some of the specific things that you looked at and said, I want to be able to replicate this across new products in a way that’s really smooth and easy to find and easy to shop, but also each has their own distinct product experience?
[00:09:44] Doug: I think it’s most important to be very clear and concise with what the product is for the product description. What the benefits are, who will benefit? We want, you know, when your audience lands on your site to know exactly what your brand stands for, and how they will benefit from each product.
[00:10:07] So, you know, we really spend a lot of time on the copy, what to say and how to say it, I think from tone to, word choice, and just how that is perceived by the customers. You know, we really get a lot of feedback. Certainly early on, we’re still early on, but I solicit feedback from everyone that I talk with.
[00:10:29]I think that’s so important to get feedback from your customers and your critics and, you know, whether or not you decide to act on that at that time or file it away for another time, I think it’s really important to get that feedback
[00:10:48] JoAnn: So how do you solicit feedback from customers? Is it a really complicated process or just a phone call or how does that work?
[00:10:57] Doug: It’s emails that are sent post-purchase, it’s personal emails from myself to people. Again, after their purchase. And importantly, I’m also interested in, you know, when people have just been on the site but aren’t users yet of the product. I tell everyone about the site and I really try to get to a place with whoever I meet, where I can get them to give honest feedback.
[00:11:26] JoAnn: At the end of the podcast, we’ll have you share the best way for people to give feedback on your site. And then we’ll just have everyone go to the PlantRise site, who’s listening and then email you feedback. So you’ll just like crowdsource feedback from the podcast. I love that. One of my husband and I’s favorite cycling brands is called Twin Six and every now and they do charity t-shirts as one of their categories, and every now and then they’ll launch a new one and we go out and buy too many cycling t-shirts and one of the founders sent me an email one day asking what you’re talking about, how did you like the site? How was the experience? Do you have any feedback for us? And I started the email back with like, well, I work in e-commerce, so you’re probably going to get more than you were looking for in this particular email. And of course I went through this whole like, well, if you did this and you merchandise your products like this, and your product photography, and that, I don’t know if they wanted that much feedback from me, but they got it.
[00:12:26] Doug: They probably did, you know, they probably weren’t expecting it. You can put up there, we’re interested in feedback. They’re probably like, you know, okay, thanks. And then went in and documented it you know, or talked about internally.
[00:12:40] JoAnn: One day I’ll hear that. Like the reason that they changed the black overlay on products was because of like one bullet point buried in my very long feedback email.
[00:12:49] Doug: Yeah, he makes sure they use you as a source.
[00:12:52] JoAnn: Yes, I want to be named in the credits. It’s very important to me. So you’ve mentioned that you’re early on building your brand. And when you think about scaling your company and building out a team around you, to help you build this business, how do you think about merchandising, and site design as a function within that?
[00:13:12] Doug: I think it’s so important. When you’re a founder who didn’t necessarily have that experience from the beginning, it’s talking with people who are in those roles, you know, at other companies and just getting advice from them. So as far as the team, in the future, you know, you eventually get to the point where you’re able to bring on those sales people that you aligned yourself with from the beginning.
[00:13:37] JoAnn: Isn’t that one of the coolest moments in startup life, getting to hire your friends or at least people who you consider trusted advisors, maybe not your best friends, because then you would never get any work done.
[00:13:49] Doug: Yeah, I think that was the dream, always to start things with your friends.
[00:13:54] JoAnn: Should we expect a mattress slash nutritional collaboration in the future?
[00:14:01] Doug: Um, I would say yes, but I will first have to run that.
[00:14:05] JoAnn: If your brand is all around, waking up in the morning and having this morning habit, there’s something there, right.
[00:14:11] Doug: Yeah, I think, I really think there is something there.
[00:14:14] JoAnn: I want to be in the credits if you use that. So as a founder, we’ll get back on track here, as a founder, thinking about, uh, your bottom line, what is your go-to strategy for increasing conversion rates on your site?
[00:14:30] Doug: I think it’s really being on top of tracking the traffic coming in, look at the different sources that you have. Um, and just constantly trying to optimize that, whether that’s on desktop or mobile. Seeing what customers or potential customers are doing when they come to your site, are they clicking around, on something that looks like a button?
[00:14:54] There are a ton of different integrations to track that kind of stuff. So I think it’s really finding out if you are providing a good experience for consumers who come to your site. Are they confused or do they get it?
[00:15:11] JoAnn: Yeah. So what are you most looking forward to? As we know, e-commerce has grown pretty significantly this year and it’s, it’s all the rage in the news. What are you most looking forward to as e-commerce continues to grow? And what do you think this means for you and for PlantRise?
[00:15:29] Doug: I think what’s been amazing is, the mobile site designs. Now that really, have a look and feel like you’re on an app, or the load speed is incredibly fast where everything is really smooth. And I think that as more and more people are shopping on their phones, that’s such an important piece. It is one of the reasons why we chose to work with some specific technology partners that we have. And I think that just providing really smooth and awesome mobile experiences can really help conversions, for e-commerce sites.
[00:16:05] JoAnn: So, Doug, it has been fantastic having you on the show today. For folks who want to reach out, or who want to learn more about PlantRise, or who want to take a look at your site and send you some feedback, how do you recommend people reach out to you or find you or your brand?
[00:16:20] Doug: You can find us at plantrise.com and I’d love to hear any and all feedback via email, at email@example.com.
[00:16:30] JoAnn: Awesome. Have a wonderful day.
[00:16:32] Doug: Thanks. You too.Hide Transcript
Highlights Worth Hearing
Turning a passion into a business
Finding your niche in a competitive market
Merchandising from a founder’s perspective
Soliciting feedback from customers and critics
Optimizing for conversion
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