In this interview series, we are talking to founders, CEOs, and ecommerce business leaders about how to choose the best platform for ecommerce. As a part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing Siera Smith.
Can you tell us about your backstory and how you grew up?
Growing up in Southern New Jersey with my dad and grandparents, my family had a significant impact on my journey to where I am today. From a young age, I was exposed to my family's entrepreneurial ventures, and I was always eager to be a part of them. At just 11 years old, I started assisting at trade shows and even competed with my brother to see who could secure the most sales. As I grew older, I became more involved in the family business, working alongside my Dad and Uncle to create a business plan for a family-owned restaurant and club when I was only 13. I have fond memories of analyzing the numbers and devising strategies to make the business successful. It was during this time that I realized my passion for becoming a business leader.
While my family ventures prepared me on a business level, my personal life had a big impact as well. I LOVED running when I was younger. Getting out there and pushing myself to go longer distances each time helped me build determination. Eventually, I would take that and transition to jiu-jitsu in my early 20s, which helped me develop a sense of grit. I also took on the responsibility of raising my younger brother, who I always refer to as “Little Man.” This experience allowed me to develop a great sense of compassion. Which later would be reinforced by watching my grandfather (who raised me) fall ill.
After high school, I received my undergraduate degree in Communications at Stockton University. While in school, I developed my grit by getting to sink my teeth into various projects and juggling multiple tasks at once. At Stockton, I started the national chapter for Public Relations - a program that is still functioning there to this day. All while having a full-time job, internship, studying hard, and getting good grades. After receiving my undergraduate degree, I went to Rutgers University to work on my MBA while also working a full-time job as VP of Operations at a fintech company. I really wanted to learn as much as I could, build my career, and absorb so much knowledge and experience along the way by juggling multiple things at once.
During this time in my life, I realized I loved the startup business lifestyle. Getting to work on every aspect of a business and growing it from the ground up really gave me a sense of fulfillment. So, I took this passion and applied it in a few different areas of my life. I have founded a number of nonprofits, been an integral part of planning an annual charity gala in New Jersey, and started my own business that helped companies in various sectors grow. Eventually, I would come to Upright Labs, where I am today. At the time, Upright was a new small startup specializing in ecommerce tools and software that helped secondhand industry businesses scale. I knew it was a great fit for where I was in my career because I could jump right in and get a lot of exposure to very different departments but also dig my teeth into a rapidly growing organization with a really strong mission behind it.
What led you to this specific career path?
I believe that my experience over time has made me a resilient person, which is important working in a startup environment because these businesses operate differently. It’s tough. It’s fast-paced. There are a lot of growing pains. On any given day, you can wear many different hats helping out different departments. However, I thrive in this type of environment.
In the early years of my career path, I had a major focus on the operations side of businesses, but ultimately, I’m able to bring the most success when having a hand in every aspect of a startup’s growth. I’ve worked in product, customer support, sales, marketing, accounting, finance, and operations through all of the companies I’ve worked in.
Working in these different areas of the business has allowed me the opportunity to gain a great deal of exposure to what goes on day-to-day at a macro and micro level. This has allowed me to really jump in and develop strategies that build innovation, processes, and systems that take a startup from ground zero to a successful business.
Can you share the most exciting story that has happened to you since you began at your company?
As President of Upright Labs, I get the opportunity to have a lot of hands-on work with our clients. Just about every week, you’ll find me on-site at our clients’ facilities getting to learn about their ecommerce businesses - what’s working, what are the bottlenecks, how can we help them become more efficient, and really how we can drive more value to their organization by selling inventory online. It’s a really fulfilling experience for me to see Upright’s entire process, from services to software getting our clients off the ground and building new revenue streams in ecommerce.
One specific case that stands out for me was during the pandemic when a lot of physical retail businesses looked to gain more revenue by selling products online. We began working with a larger client with many physical retail stores throughout the nation. This particular business tasked our services team to design their empty 20,000 sq foot warehouse into a fully functional ecommerce business unit.
Essentially, our team had a blank canvas to work from, and in just a few days, we set them on the right path to gain more revenue. Upright helped this organization plan and build out its entire warehouse space, train over 30 employees, and launch its ecommerce business on our multi-channel listing software, Lister. The best part about this was that in the first 50 days, this client sold over 6,700 items and generated over $175,000 in revenue. Having the opportunity to be on-site for the whole process from start to finish gave me amazing exposure to see an idea become something tangible with results.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? How do you think that might help people?
From a global perspective and more so in the businesses we are working with, we are seeing organizations struggle with their resources. Organizations are struggling with keeping employees on staff, and those that have the staff are struggling with training their team to be efficient so that they can save time and money. With this problem, one of the big things that we are working on at Upright is addressing it on both sides of our business with software and services.
On one hand, when thinking about our Lister software, we are developing new ideas around efficiency. Specifically, how can we make listing products online an easier process for the ecommerce departments? The answer is through automating redundant processes and making our software even more intuitive. These enhancements will reduce the amount of touchpoints and/or thinking involved when listing products online to sell. Our software product team is always thinking about how we can get individual team members to list more products more efficiently.
On the other hand, when we look at resources from a services perspective, our team is using data, best practices, and physical tools to create more productive environments for ecommerce departments. We work to remove layers from their day-to-day processes that cause bottlenecks so that they can have a streamlined workflow. If we can make it easier for ecommerce teams to physically move inventory, then our clients will have better engagement from their team and ultimately drive more revenue to the bottom line.
By providing easier workflows from software to services, we can help organizations win back employee loyalty and engagement. Ultimately, providing less strain on their resources as a whole.
What are three traits about yourself that you feel helped fuel your success?
The three traits that have fueled my success thus far are Resilience, Kindness, and Foresight.
- Resilience: This is probably the most important trait of all three. I believe that as a leader, you’ll undoubtedly have to face challenges or setbacks, but the ability to bounce back and keep moving forward is really what sets you apart.
Very early on in my career, my grandfather faced some medical challenges while being the linchpin for our family business. As a whole, the business and my family saw financial setbacks. It was a completely draining and overwhelming experience for a young adult to face. However, still a student, I stepped in and continued to advance my career further and further to help support my family - my first job outside of college propelled me into a COO seat years later, because I always kept moving forward. The struggle hasn’t defined me, but through optimism and resilience, I continue to work harder each day so that I can be a strong leader for the team at Upright Labs.
- Kindness: I’ve found kindness to be an important trait when it comes to my own experience in leadership. Leaders that practice empathy tend to relate to their team on a personal level. That’s driven a lot of my success in different roles and companies through the years.
You never really know someone else’s story, so it’s important to show kindness at every level. Early on in my business career and growing up outside of Atlantic City, I was at a casino with some friends, and the blackjack dealer was being (what we thought to be) very rude for the entire time at the table. We were so put off by the experience that we ended up moving to another table. However, one of my friends went back to the table to talk to the dealer one-on-one. We later learned that this person had just been diagnosed with terminal cancer with only a few months to live. She had been working to support her family and medical expenses. This moment really put things into perspective for me on a personal and professional level. There is so much diversity and different experiences in life, and it’s impossible to know what’s going on behind closed doors. So, I practice kindness at every opportunity as a result. I schedule one-on-one meetings weekly with team leaders and quarterly one-on-ones with everyone in the company, so I can make sure there is clear communication and a personal connection across the board.
- Foresight: In my experience, I’ve always had a clear vision of where I want to take this business. I think it is imperative to have the foresight and be able to relay that same information to the entire team for cohesion. It will inspire and motivate everyone to work towards a common goal.
A recent example of this would be during a period of time when Upright Labs was acquired by our parent company, Cordance, and at the same time, I stepped into the role of President. I created a week-to-week schedule of everything I needed to learn, strategize, and act on to get the most effective results. For the first 6 months of this period, I would always be thinking ahead to the next week until the transition was completed. I was constantly thinking about what would set Upright Labs up best for success. Also, thinking about how we could set our team, partners, clients, and myself up for the best experience. Our company has always had an openness with each other as part of our culture, so it was important to have well-laid plans and be able to communicate them properly.
What was the original vision for your ecommerce business? What pain points were you trying to solve for your customers?
The vision of Upright Labs is to support mission-driven organizations in building and launching ecommerce businesses as an additional revenue stream. The ultimate goal is that we can help these organizations drive more revenue back to their mission through our intuitive ecommerce software and hands-on services. The more revenue they earn, helps their missions continue to succeed.
We found a niche in the secondhand industry surrounding mission-driven organizations that had an untapped opportunity to sell individual items at a higher value through ecommerce solutions versus inside their physical retail stores alone. For example, almost every day, we’re seeing videos published online of thrift shoppers finding Air Jordan sneakers in our potential client’s stores for super low prices ranging from $10-$30.
Meanwhile, the customers we work with are selling the same pair of shoes through our methods and strategies for 10-15x up to $225 online. Selling their inventory through online marketplaces allows further distribution and an exponentially larger buyer network than they previously had in their physical stores.
As this network of purchasers grows, more and more people are purchasing secondhand products online. This creates a circular economy where donated and used goods are seeing a second life.
Ultimately, avoiding a landfill and moving our customers and their customers to a more sustainable shopping experience.
What ecommerce platform does your business use, and what key features were you looking for when you selected it? Was it your first choice, or did you switch from a previous one?
When it comes down to our clients in ecommerce, we specifically have to analyze their business model and see what their biggest goals are first and foremost. We think about how we can help our clients create revenue, generate more revenue, and diversify the revenue through multiple platforms. The most notable ecommerce platforms we work in as integration partners are ShopGoodwill, eBay, and Shopify.
In working with Goodwill organizations in ecommerce, we help them grow within their proprietary global marketplace, ShopGoodwill. Our Lister software integrates with this popular shopping platform using listing strategies, templates, reporting, and other features making the most of their selling experience here.
However, our clients are not limited to just one marketplace as we provide multi-channel listing abilities.
eBay is the largest and most popular marketplace we integrate with as a certified Solutions Provider. For this marketplace, we work with Goodwills, Habitat ReStores, Salvation Armys, Independent Thrifts, and any secondhand industry resellers that look to utilize and expand their selling power here as well.
Additionally, when some of our clients are looking to set up their own ecommerce website outside of large-scale marketplaces, we assist them with our Shopify Partner integration. Many of our clients choose Shopify to sell their products when they want customers to come to their website to learn about their mission and their organization and to shop.
In addition to the marketplaces we provide solutions for, Upright has partnered with businesses that help enhance our clients’ selling power. For example, our partnership with Authenticate First allows our clients to authenticate products like purses and shoes. Another partnership we value is with Blue Box. Our customers can sell their products at a wholesale level in bulk at a much greater value than what they could inside their stores.
At the end of the day, we integrate our clients' list products online using all of these platforms, but it really comes down to what is going to drive our clients more revenue and exposure, so their mission can continue to thrive.
When should an ecommerce business consider switching platforms? Which factors should drive a decision to make a change or upgrade?
There are several factors that an ecommerce business should consider when deciding whether they should switch platforms. In my experience working with hundreds of clients looking to get started or grow in the ecommerce space, these are among the top 2 to take into consideration:
Diversification: Does your current setup allow you to diversify your revenue streams? Not every ecommerce business should be looking at a single platform for their revenue. Different markets hang out in different marketplaces.
For example, most of our clients are selling used goods and among the most popular for them are in the clothing category. While a pair of Gucci shoes may sell more in an auction on ShopGoodwill or eBay, a group of 15 lower-value shoes may sell better as a bulk lot.
So, you might want to look into selling your greater quantity, but lower value bulk items through our integration partner, Bluebox. Bluebox allows for sales of bulk lots sold in boxes to customers looking to build out their wardrobe in one shot. Optionality gives you the best bang for your buck when you are selling online right now, so always determine which marketplaces will drive the most value to your store.
Revenue: While considering optionality, it’s important to make sure your current platform allows you the tools and format to drive the most revenue back to your organization. For example, we recently did a study on fixed-price listings and auction-based listings to see which earned more revenue in the secondhand industry. Of the 650,000+ products that sold through our software, the average auction-style listings gained $14.35 more than fixed-price listings—additionally, auction-style listings sold for higher in 25 of 28 categories.
So, in this instance, if you’re not working in a marketplace that allows for auction-style listings, then you could be missing an opportunity to build more revenue. We look into the data heavily when thinking about what works and what doesn’t work for our specific industry and customer. Every business is not one-size-fits-all, but if we have data that pertains to businesses following the same or similar model, we use this to determine which platforms can build you more revenue.
Given the number of ecommerce platform options available, what are your top five questions you need to ask to choose the best platform for ecommerce?
1 . What kind of items am I selling?
You’ll need to determine the category in which you’re selling to figure out where you should sell.
For example, many of our clients sell secondhand items, and one of the top-selling categories is jewelry. An Upright client sells over half a million dollars in jewelry sales each year, selling primarily on eBay. It’s a great marketplace for them because jewelry shoppers know they can find a wide variety of sellers and options here. So, this client doesn’t have to spend a ton of marketing dollars for buyers to find them. They’re already there looking for them.
Another consideration is if you’re selling your products in multi-quantity type listings. If you are selling in multi-quantity, then Shopify is a great platform for your organization. Shopify’s platform allows for an efficient way for sellers to manage their inventory and streamline their sales process. They can list a single product with multiple quantities available instead of creating separate listings for each individual item. By listing multi-quantity items, sellers can save money on listing fees and other associated costs. This can be particularly beneficial for small businesses with limited resources.
2 . Who is my target market?
When selling anything at all, one of the first things you need to know is who your target market is. In ecommerce, you want to determine if you’re trying to target resellers, wholesalers, or individual end-consumers. Some platforms we work with cater to all of those groups.
For example, ShopGoodwill and eBay can address all of those target markets, but some platforms are really only focusing on a single target market. When you can determine who you want to buy from your online store, you’ll be able to address your market best. You’ll be able to focus on niche marketing and be able to speak directly to them and drive more clicks through your storefront.
3 . What kind of marketing budget and resources do I have?
It’s important to understand how much money, resources, and time you’ll be spending on marketing when determining where you should sell online.
For example, some of the more well-known marketplaces with millions of daily users will likely have more listing fees associated with them. However, that’s because there are literally millions of shoppers already on there looking for products to buy, so the costs make sense.
On the other hand, sellers can build their own website and storefront through platforms like Shopify and have minimal costs when listing new products. However, the tradeoff is that you won’t have millions of users on your site each day—at least not immediately. To gain a flow of traffic, your organization is going to have to build out a marketing plan. The costs you saved on listing fees by building your own site out will likely be spent on online marketing and advertising. So, there is a tradeoff between these two options.
4 . Where do you want to sell and ship to regionally?
Thinking more logistically, your organization will have to consider the area and region you will be selling and shipping to. Selling internationally adds a few extra levels to think about when selling. For example, international shipping is more costly than local shipping. In some cases, it can double or triple your shipping costs, so you’ll have to consider that when working internationally. Additionally, you’ll need to think about international taxes, returns, fees, and even any laws involved in selling outside of your own governing body.
In some cases, it can be fortuitous to grow your brand or organization’s reach to a global market, but you’ll need to consider the additional burdens that may be associated with scaling internationally.
5 . What scale of product flow do you have?
The more consistent your organization is with its online ecommerce presence, the easier it is to scale.
- Do you have a steady product flow in your system?
- Can you consistently have new listings to help you stay relevant?
- Additionally, if you are staying consistent with your product flow, are you working with a platform that allows for reviews or a ranking algorithm?
If you have a steady consistent product flow of products listed and products sold, then you’ll start to build a rapport with your addressable market. Customers are more likely to buy a $60 jacket from a seller on eBay with 400 positive reviews than they are to buy a $60 jacket from a seller with 0 positive reviews. Your consistency in product flow will help you scale your ecommerce revenue stream on the platform you choose.
Is there a specific feature or functionality you haven’t found in any platform that you would love to have? What is it, and why?
Many of these secondhand items our clients specialize in are sometimes rare, unique, or one-of-a-kind items. We are already diversifying their revenue opportunities by allowing them to list these on multiple marketplaces with our software. However, the next level would be to add more opportunities to integrate with their in-store POS systems.
Many of our clients are growing their brands through ecommerce platforms exponentially, but still have foot traffic through their physical retail storefronts, so there is an opportunity for them to showcase their products to potential customers in-person at their stores.
Also, the storefront allows for an opportunity to have customers pick up their purchases to avoid shipping costs and wait times. We are starting to integrate with some in-store POS systems to enhance this experience, but we’d like to make it more streamlined and a better workflow process overall, so our customers can broaden their reach and build more revenue.
If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most people, what would that be?
At Upright Labs, we get the opportunity to work with mission-driven businesses to build new revenue streams. This is really great that we are adding more money to their organizations, so they can help give back to their communities and surrounding areas in more ways than they ever had before
However, overall, I think what our company does is build a more sustainable environment through our efforts. We are helping organizations list products online and get them into the hands of end-consumers. Since our clients sell primarily secondhand products, these items are finding new life instead of ending up in landfills.
Another branch of our business is building sustainability programs within our clients’ organizations. Through our sustainability services offerings, many of our clients are able to recycle, reuse, and generate revenue from new products created from recycled waste.
If we could continue to grow our business in the sustainability sector and get more end-consumers to think more holistically about the products they buy and use every day, we’d be building a better planet overall. That is a movement I would love to get behind.
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