Well.ca‘s Ali Asaria and his team are aiming to build the kindest, most friendly store you’ve ever shopped at. In this unique interview, read about how this CEO and founder went from working for RIM and Microsoft to starting up; the importance of finding angel investors who are willing to bet and believe in your vision; and how being nice goes the longest way.
Allentrepreneur: So much to cover, so little space! Welcome to Allentrepreneur and thanks for taking the time to do this interview. First off, the customary but necessary query for those who are about to get acquainted with you: who is Ali Asaria?
Ali Asaria: Hi! I’m the founder and CEO of Well.ca. We’re Canada’s largest online health and beauty store. In a nutshell, we carry everything you could get at a drugstore – that’s more than 15,000 products – and we ship orders anywhere in Canada for free.
About me, I studied Computer Engineering at the University of Waterloo. A lot of my initial work experience was at Research In Motion starting before they made phones.
Allentrepreneur: It’s quite obvious from your previous work experiences (RIM, Microsoft) that you are very tech-savvy. How did the decision to launch an online drugstore, and to subsequently deal with physical products, come about and why?
Ali Asaria: My education and background is in hardware engineering and microprocessor design. But at RIM and Microsoft, I was lucky to get to work on things that impacted millions and in the case of MS Outlook, billions of users. I realized quickly that, although I like geeky things, I also love to build things that impact real people.
Why an online drugstore? I grew up knowing and caring about the industry, as my father is a pharmacist in a local store in Guelph.
Allentrepreneur: Well.ca has been praised last year as “Canada’s best Angel-backed early-stage investment opportunity”. What motivated you to choose this method of funding? What are some of the pros and cons of an angel-funded start-up?
Ali Asaria: Whenever we’ve been presented with opportunities, our approach has always been about looking at all the different options and picking the one that would help us make Well.ca a better service. We were lucky to find a group of Angel investors that believed in our vision and team.
I think that the biggest advantage of getting Angel funding is that you’re gathering a group of people that care more about the people and idea of the business rather than just profit. The disadvantage is that getting big VC funding is cool – VC backing is a much better way to impress your friends!
Allentrepreneur: Here’s a picture of you and your team from your personal blog. Starting out is about many things, but one of the most important has always been to start with the right partners. How did you gather the Well.ca team?
Ali Asaria: There’s nothing I am more proud of than the awesomeness of the team we’ve built. We’re a group of friends that can’t wait to see each others faces at the beginning of the work day. But, no, we didn’t have some special plan – we’ve always just brought on people that we think are kind-hearted, fun, goofy, but smart and hardworking. Once you have a great core, then it grows naturally.
Allentrepreneur: After 30 minutes browsing Well.ca, two words came to mind: Customer Service. And Well.ca does this particularly… well! (pun absolutely intended). You offer online chats with your Customer Care unit, you run a company blog, and you have a company facebook account. Hell, you even aim to be the “kindest, most friendly company”. This is something I think adds a very unique, even personal touch to the whole shopping experience. Are more and more companies catching on? If so, what might the future of online shopping look like?
Ali Asaria: Kindness is in our DNA: making people happy is what we care about most. Good customer service is central to that goal.
We’ve learned that being reachable and taking part in online communities is part of being a friendly company. But it’s also all about the little things: hand written notes on every order, paying for return shipping, not timing calls, and remembering people’s names.
The theory behind the first generation of e-commerce was about using technology to serve as many people in the cheapest way possible. E-commerce used to be about removing the human element from retail – that’s why Amazon.com doesn’t provide a phone number for you to call.
There’s a neat trend in the Internet in general. To most people, the Internet used to be about anti-social technology. Recently, Web 2.0 has completely flipped things over: the Net is now a platform that can actually enhance human social interaction. In the same way, it’s my belief that e-commerce is flipping too. E-commerce 2.0 will be more personal, more human, and more social.
Allentrepreneur: Finally, tell us what has been both the hardest and the most gratifying part about striking out on your own. If you had to do it all over again, would you?
Ali Asaria: Would I do it again? Without a doubt. I love my job.
The most gratifying part about doing something on your own is that you can build an environment around you that reflects the things that matter to you. The hardest part is then accepting the fact that the problems that are in your environment are ultimately your own responsibility!