In this interview series, I talk to ecommerce experts, industry professionals, and thought leaders with in-depth knowledge and experience in online shopping trends. As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing David Conforti.
Can you tell us a bit about your backstory and how you grew up?
Sure thing! I'm originally from Boston, Massachusetts, and I started my first business during my high school years. As a passionate Sneakerhead, I was immersed in the sneaker culture booming around 2014, nearly a decade ago. My friends and I were eager to find ways to make money and fuel our sneaker obsession. We began accumulating more and more pairs, camping out in front of stores at night, strategically identifying the most exclusive drops, purchasing them, and then reselling them on eBay. This experience served as my initial exposure to the world of business, igniting a deep interest in the intricacies and psychology behind customer preferences.
When I enrolled at NYU's Stern School of Business, my enthusiasm for entrepreneurship drove me to further explore this passion. I sought to expand my knowledge and gain more insights by starting my own business. During this time, my partners and I noticed a significant rise in startups within our generation. These startups encompassed various sectors, such as apps, different brands, and ecommerce platforms.
Witnessing this trend, we were motivated to establish an agency that would provide comprehensive support and enable the success of this burgeoning crop of startups. Thus, Varfaj originated from our time at NYU and served as the foundation for our entrepreneurial journey.
What led you to this specific career path?
So, what really led me to ecommerce was curiosity. I've always been a naturally curious person, eager to learn new things and stay ahead of emerging trends. Over the past decade, and particularly in the last five years, ecommerce has emerged as one of the most dynamic and exciting industries to be a part of. Recognizing this, I knew that Varfaj had to align itself with the ecommerce realm.
Ecommerce is a perfect amalgamation of marketing, psychology, technology, design, and copyright. It encompasses all of these elements blended into a single industry, product, and experience. To thrive as a company in this space, one must excel in every aspect: offering exceptional products, implementing effective marketing strategies, harnessing cutting-edge technology, creating captivating designs, and crafting compelling copywriting. I appreciate the precision required in ecommerce, as it demands creativity and agility.
Given all of this, you can draw a straight line from curiosity to ecommerce, which brings me here today.
Can you share the most exciting story that has happened to you since you began at your company?
That is a tough question. The most exciting part of what we do is, hands down, working with our clients, and we have the privilege of collaborating with some remarkable ones. Among the most recognizable names is Jennifer Lopez, for whom we handle all ecommerce operations for JLo Beauty.
I vividly recall my first visit to her office in L.A.—it was an absolutely surreal experience. Situated in a stunning glass building right on the Sunset Strip, the office exuded an air of grandeur. I approached the front desk and was buzzed up into the elevator, feeling a mix of excitement and trepidation. The office was adorned with photographs of Jennifer Lopez alongside the most influential figures in the world, as well as her platinum albums. It was an awe-inspiring sight, and I found myself sitting there with my partner, Markus, thinking, "What have we gotten ourselves into?"
However, the intimidation quickly dissolved as we interacted with JLo Beauty's incredible team. They effortlessly put us at ease, making collaboration remarkably smooth and yielding excellent results. Over time, even as we presented amidst towering 10-ft images of JLo and surrounded by her iconic platinum albums, the atmosphere grew increasingly relaxed. It is undoubtedly one of the most extraordinary experiences I've encountered since founding Varfaj.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? How do you think that might help people?
One project that I'm really excited about right now is Chattie, a community-building tool we're currently working on. The age of the influencer is over, and brands need to embrace community engagement to thrive in this decade. This entails connecting with your customers and your brand evangelists—the individuals who embody the heart and soul of your brand and product.
Currently, the tools used to foster community are inadequate. Brands attempt to build community through social media posts, such as on Instagram, Facebook groups, text message and email marketing, and blogs. However, these approaches fail to truly recreate a genuine community.
At its core, a community facilitates many-to-many interactions, allowing individuals with shared interests and personalities to engage in meaningful conversations. Chattie enables brands to tap into this essence by creating a space that fosters genuine many-to-many interactions under the brand's umbrella and within the brand's control.
This platform is set to launch by the end of September, and we are thrilled with our carefully crafted rollout plan. We are collaborating with some of our larger clients, who will be among the first users of Chattie. We firmly believe that this breakthrough tool will revolutionize how people connect, how customers engage with each other, and how they connect with brands. It signals the future of commerce, reshaping the way interactions occur and fostering deeper connections in the digital landscape.
What are three traits about yourself that you feel helped fuel your success?
While I'm by no means an expert on this, I do believe that there are a few traits that have consistently helped me throughout my experience running my own business. These qualities include empathy, level-headedness, and a willingness to learn quickly.
Let's start with empathy. It is crucial for your team to feel supported, and as a leader, it is your responsibility to foster that support in every way possible. Personally, I see myself as being lower than all of my employees on the organizational chart, as my role is to provide unwavering support to each team member. One way we demonstrate this is through creative acts of support that brighten our employees' days.
For example, if someone expresses a desire for a particular tool, such as the digital notepad called Remarkable, we take note of their request. We understand the value they see in the handwritten aspect of note-taking, even though it may not be as efficient as digital notes. Surprising them with the Remarkable notepad is a thoughtful gesture that brings joy and demonstrates our commitment to their well-being. When they notice and appreciate such gestures, it fosters team camaraderie, trust, and encourages them to go the extra mile.
Next is level-headedness. Starting and running your own business can bring about numerous stressful situations, ranging from negotiations to issues with payment and personal conflicts among employees. In all of these circumstances, maintaining a level-headed approach is essential to achieving optimal outcomes.
Let's consider negotiations. Level-headedness is of utmost importance in this realm, and I have observed its impact in two significant ways. Firstly, it is crucial to always occupy the moral high ground during negotiations. Maintaining a morally defensible position has consistently served me well when engaging in negotiations. Secondly, once you have established the moral high ground, it is vital to remain composed.
For instance, when facing payment issues with clients, we take pride in being in the right. If we acknowledge our mistakes, we are willing to rectify them by waiving a payment. However, when clients fail to pay us and act unreasonably, we rely on our timesheets, the quality of work delivered, our effective communication, and the strength of our professional relationships.
When communicating difficult topics, it is crucial to deliver the message with a level head. The way you convey a morally sound message matters greatly; anger and frustration can undermine the moral high ground you hold. Therefore, maintaining composure is crucial when navigating challenging situations in business ownership.
Level-headedness is a fundamental trait for successfully running your own business, particularly when confronted with difficult or sticky situations. By staying composed, you can navigate negotiations, payment issues, and challenging conversations with greater clarity and effectiveness.
The final factor that has significantly contributed to our growth is our ability to learn quickly. Over the past four and a half years, especially in the last two years, we have experienced remarkable growth. Throughout this journey, I've come to realize that no two situations are identical. This understanding has proven immensely beneficial, as it enables me to identify similarities and differences between various scenarios.
When faced with a new situation, I employ a process of analysis. I identify what aspects are similar to situations we have encountered before and what elements are distinct and unique. By recognizing these differences, we can adjust our approach accordingly. This approach allows us to learn rapidly, adapt swiftly, and effectively tackle new challenges and situations.
Our ability to swiftly adapt and implement solutions sets us apart. It empowers us to learn from each experience, quickly implement the necessary adjustments, and confront new challenges head-on. This agile approach positions us to navigate and adapt to new situations more efficiently than many other companies.
While these insights may not make me an expert, they have proven invaluable in my journey as a business owner. The ability to empathize, stay level-headed, and continuously learn has contributed to a positive work environment and stronger team dynamics.
What was the original vision for your ecommerce business? What pain point(s) were you trying to solve for your customers?
When we initially launched Varfaj, we focused on assisting startups and smaller companies with their Shopify needs. We did this by quickly identifying a significant gap in the ecommerce industry—development services. While there were numerous individuals and companies specializing in strategy and design, reliable and high-quality development assistance proved to be a major pain point for these businesses.
Recognizing this need, we made it our mission to address this gap. We prioritized providing dependable and top-notch development support to our clients. As we accumulated more clients and gained invaluable insights from each collaboration, we were able to leverage these learnings and share them with all our clients. This allowed us to offer well-rounded strategic consulting services, drawing from the diverse experiences of working with over 20 different brands.
This year, our focus has expanded further to encompass creative and design. We are committed to ensuring that our creative offerings are best-in-class, delivering exceptional results for our clients. Our goal is to gradually add these service offerings, one layer at a time, with the ultimate aim of expanding into marketing. Our vision is to become a comprehensive one-stop solution for all things ecommerce for merchants and brands. By partnering with us, businesses can operate efficiently and achieve outstanding results, relying on our skilled team while maintaining a lean operation.
How do you see the ecommerce industry evolving in the coming years?
Community is going to drive brands. It's starting to become a thing now, but everyone is doing it wrong. They are using blogs, SMS marketing, and social media to foster a community. None of these do that effectively. What people should really be using is a tool like Chattie (getchattie.co) to empower their evangelists, allow for customer-to-customer interaction, and break down the barriers between a brand and its customers.
How do you balance the need for innovation and experimentation with maintaining a stable, reliable ecommerce infrastructure?
Reliable ecommerce infrastructure should be a given. With Shopify, you can ensure 99% uptime for your store, and when you work with an agency or an in-house team, you can’t ever have bugs on the site.
So then your focus should shift to iterating, testing, experimenting, and pushing the envelope as much as possible. Consumers are just people who get bored with the same, so change it up. The brands doing the best in ecommerce and DTC at the moment are the ones that are carving out their own space, not ones following a playbook.
What five emerging trends do you believe will have the biggest impact on the future of online shopping?
1. Community-centric brands
In a rapidly evolving digital landscape, the future of online shopping is being shaped by five emerging trends with profound implications. At the forefront of this transformation is the shift towards brands adopting a community-centric approach, where customers are not merely consumers but passionate evangelists. This new paradigm emphasizes the importance of authentic engagement, shared values, and a sense of belonging.
Successful community-centric brands, such as Patagonia, Outdoor Voices, and First Phorm, understand that beyond offering a solid product that fulfills a need, it is crucial to establish deep connections with customers. As online platforms tighten targeting and attribution measures, particularly with the advent of Apple’s iOS 14.5 and the upcoming iOS 17, brands must pivot from focusing solely on acquiring new customers through Facebook ads to prioritizing customer retention.
The future of online shopping demands thoughtful and intentional marketing strategies that foster genuine connections. Brands must strive to create an experience that resonates with customers' lifestyles and values.
Personalization, in-person activations, and small delights are all key elements that demonstrate a brand's commitment to its community. By focusing on customer retention, brands can maximize the value derived from each customer, generating long-term loyalty and advocacy.
Customer obsession is a central pillar of community-centric brands. Neglecting customer care erodes trust painstakingly built through targeted advertising on platforms like YouTube, Facebook, and Google. Imagine purchasing a shirt the wrong size and encountering unresponsive support channels, indifferent chat services, or incomprehensible call center agents. Such experiences shatter the trust customers place in a brand, rendering all marketing efforts futile.
Conversely, an exemplary customer-centric experience entails swift, empathetic responses to customer concerns. Picture reaching out to a brand about a sizing issue and receiving an immediate apology along with a promise to rectify the situation. Not only would you be offered a replacement shirt, but you might also find additional surprises like stickers, company swag, or a hat in the package. These gestures not only delight customers but also reaffirm the brand's dedication to their satisfaction.
Lululemon stands as a shining example of customer obsession in action. Their lifetime policy on clothing sets them apart, making it difficult for customers to switch to competitors who lack the same level of commitment. The assurance that any defects or damages will be swiftly addressed without hassle or inconvenience solidifies the bond between Lululemon and its community.
As the future of online shopping unfolds, brands must embrace a community-centric approach and prioritize customer obsession. By forging authentic connections, delivering exceptional experiences, and demonstrating unwavering commitment to customer care, brands can thrive in an increasingly competitive and discerning digital marketplace.
In an increasingly crowded marketplace where capturing and retaining attention is a challenge, the third trend shaping the future of online shopping builds upon the foundations of being community-centric and customer-obsessed. Brands that embrace a mission-driven approach resonate with consumers seeking to support causes larger than themselves. By aligning their purchases with initiatives addressing climate change, social injustices, or health crises, customers feel empowered and part of a greater movement.
This powerful shift towards mission-driven brands is evident in the stories of remarkable companies we work with. One such example is Mosh, a protein bar company founded by Maria Shriver and Patrick Schwarzenegger. Mosh is not only committed to delivering a great product but also contributes a portion of its net proceeds to Alzheimer's research. Moreover, Maria Shriver's advocacy for women's rights and gender equality amplifies Mosh's impact, creating a meaningful connection with customers who value the brand's dual mission.
Outerknown, the apparel company led by legendary surfer Kelly Slater, demonstrates an unwavering commitment to environmental sustainability. Slater's decision to leave a prominent sponsorship deal with Quicksilver due to unsustainable practices led to the inception of Outerknown. Customers enthusiastically embrace the brand's dedication to producing eco-friendly garments, from sourcing materials to manufacturing processes, making every purchase an ethical choice that resonates with their values.
Fourlaps, a New York-based athletic leisure brand, stands out for its innovative use of recycled materials. By transforming discarded plastic water bottles into high-quality pants, Fourlaps exemplifies the potential of fashion to reduce waste and promote sustainability. Last year alone, over 1.2 million water bottles were up-cycled into their production line to create Fourlaps’ textiles. Each pair of pants represents a tangible step towards a cleaner environment, motivating customers to not only appreciate the product's quality but also align themselves with the brand's mission.
These mission-driven brands are experiencing remarkable success because customers are not only drawn to their exceptional products but also feel a deep connection to their purpose. The alignment between customers' values and the brand's mission fosters loyalty and repeat business. Customers are increasingly seeking brands that demonstrate their commitment to making a positive impact, transforming the act of shopping into an opportunity to contribute to a greater cause.
In a world where attention is a precious commodity, mission-driven brands offer a beacon of hope, empowering customers to effect change through their purchasing decisions. As more brands embrace this approach, the future of online shopping promises to be a landscape where purpose and profit go hand in hand, inspiring a new generation of socially conscious consumers.
4. Tangible component
As the world of ecommerce continues to evolve, the fourth major trend reshaping the online shopping paradigm takes a surprising turn away from the digital realm. The future of online shopping lies in embracing tangible components that bring the online experience to life, providing consumers with a tactile connection and real human interaction with brands. This shift manifests through in-person activations and the establishment of retail brick-and-mortar or pop-up stores, bridging the gap between the virtual and physical worlds.
Over the past decade, brands have diligently pursued a direct-to-consumer and digitally native approach. However, amidst the saturation of online presence, it has become evident that standing out requires more than just a virtual existence. The brands that successfully cut through the clutter are the ones actively engaging with customers on the ground, orchestrating in-person activations tied to culturally relevant events that align with their brand and mission. These meaningful experiences resonate deeply with consumers, forging lasting connections.
Prominent examples from this year include Rihanna's utilization of her Super Bowl performance as an opportunity for brand engagement. Similarly, Nike's running clubs in various cities exemplify the blending of community-building and tangible in-person experiences. These brands understand the importance of fostering a personal connection beyond the digital interface, providing consumers with the touch, feel, and social interaction that enriches their relationship with the brand.
Additionally, retail and brick-and-mortar presence remain integral to the buying experience. Despite advancements in virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR), the immersive qualities of physical retail spaces are unmatched. Until VR and AR reach a point where they can fully replicate the tangible experience, brands must continue to embrace and invest in the omnichannel approach. Whether through collaborations with distributors, establishing their own stores, or securing pop-up spaces at farmers' markets and events, brands need to integrate physical touchpoints into their strategies.
For startups and consumer packaged goods (CPG) companies, hosting events and meetups allows for authentic and personal interactions with the community, establishing a deeper level of connection. By meeting customers in person, brands can foster loyalty and dedication, leading to increased online shopping engagement in the long run.
The future of online shopping hinges on striking a delicate balance between digital convenience and tangible experiences. By embracing the power of tangibility, brands can elevate their online presence, build stronger connections with customers, and create an immersive shopping journey that transcends the boundaries of the digital realm.
In today's fiercely competitive landscape, where capturing attention is increasingly challenging, marketing has become the vital engine propelling ecommerce growth. Acquiring new customers remains paramount for survival in this ever-evolving space. However, as marketing becomes more expensive and attribution and targeting become more complex, a new trend is emerging—the convergence of large-reaching platforms, influential personalities, and quality products.
While we witnessed the rise of influencer-led brands in recent years, many were merely superficial money grabs, lacking the foundation of a genuine ecommerce business. These ventures relied on dropshipped products, with influencers hastily setting up websites and driving traffic through their social media followings. They lacked substance and were ill-equipped for long-term success.
However, a new wave is taking shape as influencer-led brands leverage the marketing power of these personalities alongside meticulous business operations, forging authentic, meaningful enterprises. This powerful blend of influencer reach and product quality is exemplified by the likes of Fenty, spearheaded by Rihanna, and JLo Beauty, driven by Jennifer Lopez. These ventures are underpinned by real business people armed with brilliant strategies which harness the celebrity of their influencers to drive sales, raise awareness, and foster deep customer loyalty.
Influencer-led brands cut through the marketing noise, enabling a reduction in customer acquisition costs while swiftly establishing genuine connections with their audience. By leveraging the authenticity and influence of their chosen personalities, these brands create an immediate bond with customers, one that extends beyond the transactional. The presence of reputable business figures at the helm ensures that these ventures are built for long-term success, positioning them as legitimate players in the ecommerce arena.
As the ecommerce landscape continues to evolve, influencer-led brands offer a strategic advantage, combining the power of influential personalities with exceptional products and robust business acumen. By tapping into the established reach of influencers, these brands bypass traditional marketing challenges, creating an impactful presence and forging a genuine rapport with customers from the outset. The result is a unique blend of celebrity influence, product quality, and entrepreneurial brilliance that propels these brands to the forefront of the market, setting a new standard for success in the ecommerce space.
Is there a past trend that’s now common practice in ecommerce that you would have spent 50% more time focusing on? Which one and why?
Community, community, community. Community-led growth is the way of the future. However, it takes time to build a real community. Because it takes so long to build, it is crucial that brands start now. As a brand, if you haven’t started building a community yet, it’s okay—this is still a new trend and isn’t common practice yet, but it is something you need to focus on today.
Looking ahead, what are the biggest opportunities and challenges facing the ecommerce industry, and how do you plan to address them in the coming years?
The ecommerce realm has undergone a remarkable transformation in recent years.
From 2019 to 2021, it seemed like anyone could effortlessly set up a basic Shopify website, run Facebook ads, and profit handsomely without touching the business or engaging with customers. However, the advent of iOS 14.5 disrupted the ease of targeting through Facebook and Instagram ads, causing attribution to falter and the industry to recalibrate.
In the face of this challenge, the ecommerce landscape presents a significant opportunity for brands, marketers, and operators to reinvent themselves and get creative once again. The reliance on Facebook ads and a single marketing source allowed subpar brands, products, and operators to thrive.
However, the current environment demands excellence across all fronts for true success. From branding and design to creative content, product quality, customer service, development, and operations, every aspect must be finely tuned. The industry has become fiercely competitive, and only those who excel in every aspect can truly flourish.
Ecommerce is a winner-takes-all battlefield, where standing out amidst the noise is crucial. In this highly challenging space, being mediocre is not an option. The greatest opportunity lies in embracing creativity and finding innovative ways to differentiate oneself. Brands must rise above the clutter and captivate customers with unique and compelling experiences. By leveraging creative strategies, distinctive branding, and exceptional execution, companies can seize the rewards that await those who navigate this difficult terrain successfully.
If you could start a movement that would bring the most good to the most people, what would that be?
In the ecommerce world, I think that there are work-life balance problems. I would start a movement to build cultures like the one we have built at Varfaj. A culture of doing good work and having meaningful relationships can’t be overvalued.
What "next big thing" tactic or strategy should leaders in ecommerce be digging into?
Build your community now, or be looking for a job in two years.
What is everyone wrong about in ecommerce?
The current method of doing community is broken. Community is not SMS blasts or a blog.
What are you reading right now?
The No Rules Rules by Reid Hoffman of Netflix. Phenomenal book on culture building.
What product, tool, or service do you wish existed?
An AI to prompt ChatGPT for me.
What product are you obsessively using right now?
Hotjar is simply the best for session recording.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Varfaj’s website: varfaj.com
But the best place is probably my LinkedIn. Give me a follow there and let’s keep the conversation going!
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