Ashwin Sokke, the founder of Wow Skin Science, an 8-figure skincare and haircare brand including best-selling products on Amazon, shares the importance of customer feedback to grow a brand and shares his best tips to create an online brand. Originally from India, he started early in the online business, from affiliate marketing and online advertising to building an omnichannel brand. We also discuss productivity, how to plan weekly tasks, deal with a problem, and self-care routine.
Ashwin Sokke: I am originally from India and have been in the affiliate marketing space since high school, from the late 90s to the dot-com era. Eventually, I graduated from college in India in computer science and got a coding job. I was always fascinated with e-commerce, the beauty of selling things online whether it is leads or physical goods.
As a kid in India, being able to connect with anyone in the world was fascinating. Not just selling, but also communicating with different, relevant, and like-minded people who are either doing web design, AdWords, any kind of advertising taught me a lot. Then, I spent some time in the Philippines and eventually ended up being here in the U.S. since late 2009.
Ideas are worthless, execution is priceless. Anyone can come up with ideas, but it is so important to execute them. Not so many people pursue all their ideas.
Ashwin Sokke: I had expertise in selling health and beauty products in the US as an affiliate and as an advertiser. That gave us the idea of which products were trending. Generally, what trends in the West ends up in the East and vice versa. You see it with Chinese medicine or Yoga for example. So it was like a combination of what I’ve learned living in the US for a few years, and transfer that knowledge to the Indian market and see what happens.
We took on supplements and we probably were some of the early players in the field when we started selling supplements from our own website. We became so popular that people were searching for our brand name on the marketplaces.
This is difficult to compete in an oversaturated market like the US with limited funds and I noticed that there were a lot of copycats too. That is why I looked up at India as an option at the time. I still had my connections there, my family and I go there often.
Around 2011, 2012, The e-commerce business was just picking up on the output spectrum in India. During one of those trips in India, I reconnected with my high school best friend who had all this experience selling products online and we thought “Why don’t we try selling something in India?”
Supplements were doing super well in the US. We decided to order one product and see what happens. I clearly remember we ordered 5000 bottles and it got sold out in 8 days.
One of the interesting things was that marketplaces were growing rapidly in India. Flipkart founded by former Amazon employees is a local player in India and now owned by Wal-Mart. Back then it was the first Indian big e-commerce platform launched to compete with Amazon, which was also making a big push and selling brand names.
Then, Amazon approached us to sell our products on their platform too as they had a lot of demand for our brand. We took that decision. We thought that If our customers feel confident to buy our products on another platform, we should go for it. This actually increases authenticity and trust in the brand, because you are available in multiple places, not just on our official website.
As our numbers were going up, Amazon suggested us to start selling products in more categories. While I continued to live here in the US, I would always drink apple cider vinegar shots but going back to India, I was never able to find a local one. That is a great ingredient, a great product that I personally use that affects my life in a positive way.
So, we thought why not launching our own in India and do it the right way. We found an apple farmer up in North India, and see if he could make it because you know, this is a long and specific process. It’s not just to make apple juice. It has to be fermented for six to eight months.
We finally got our own version, kept it all-natural, 100% apple juice, not concentrate. That got us a lot of positive feedback because this was the first time someone was pushing the natural way and our product became #1 in the supplements category on Amazon India and is still probably in the top five even today after six years.
One of the good habits of the company that we had was listening to our customers. Take both positive and negative feedback, and adjust. When you start a brand, you make mistakes. You have to find the most common complaints and find out how to fix those issues. Doing this helped us to quickly fix a problem we had with our packaging for example.
On the other hand, one of the things that customers kept telling us was that they were using our apple cider vinegar drink as a hair rinse and all the benefits for the hair. That is something we didn’t know. We knew it was great for digestion, blood pressure, and that you can use it diluted with water as a toner for acne and for the skin.
If it was you know 2 or 3 customers, we probably didn’t take it seriously, but within the first quarter after selling a few thousand bottles, we received like 300 messages and reviews from customers telling us that we should make a haircare product out of it.
The question was: How do you find yourself in a competitive market like India and where you find shampoos from a few cents being sold in sachets to $7+ shampoo bottles. And how would you come in and differentiate yourself as a player in this market?
It was about four, maybe five years ago, and I noticed my girlfriend back then, was mentioning things like natural hair care and skin care. By “natural”, I am not talking about organic but chemical-free products. No sulfates, no paraben. That gave us a twist of how we can communicate about our products in India. We have vital ingredients and clean hair care products.
We did that and pushed it through. It went viral, climbed up the rankings, and been the number one selling shampoo on Amazon India since then. Then, we launched new products in the haircare line using other ingredients like organ oil, coconut oil to start expanding the product line.
Yes. And actually, most brands don’t do that. We all are entrepreneurs. And we think we know the best for our customers. It works for probably Apple. But, you know, that’s very different from what’s happening in the real world.
You need a good balance because you cannot take every feedback seriously but if there are trends, you have to address them and we were able to continuously do that.
Two years into that flow, Amazon suggested us to take all our products from India and sell them on amazon.com. We got a few thousands of bottles and decided to give it a try. Obviously, our expertise in online marketing and social media helped. During the last three years, we’ve been able to scale the business. Last year, we grew over 375% compared to the previous year, in the US alone.
Passion needs to be there obviously. Manish, who is one of the partners and co-founder in the business is super passionate about the product. He travels the world to find the next best ingredient, the next unique packaging. So it does involve passion. It’s not just about marketing and feedbacks. Someone has to take action based on feedback. How do we make this packaging better? How do we find that new ingredient to solve hair dryness? All this does involve passion. Otherwise, you would give up after the first couple of years.
There’s passion behind what is the ultimate focus of your brand. For us, the goal is to provide clean and health and wellness products to the world at a reasonable cost without the expense of support. We are not an “expensive Sephora brand”, we want to be reasonable, provide clean ingredients, great quality packaging, and products that will help the world in a way. We choose to be neutral in our brand in terms of approach. Like we want our products to be simple and usable by all kinds of people, all types of skin or types of hair.
That’s something we learned. For example, there is more diversity in the US. This is a multicultural country compared to India. We featured on BuzzFeed, Daily Mail, Vogue, Elle, Oprah magazine, and so on. That has helped us achieve that acceptance, which is rare for a made in India healthcare brand in a highly competitive market like the US market.
Yes, we do. We are in this current state of our story where we are just hitting that point where we have to work with A-list celebrities which we recently did in India. But we’ve always felt there needs to be a good equal spread between direct response advertising and branding advertising. They both have a place. Just because we feel we have a brand new company, there’s a lot more education and more than teaching people and potential consumers, what are the benefits of your products. That happens only on the direct response ads. You can’t do that just by running TV ads.
You know, we get so many comments on our ads and on our social media asking when we will be available at Walgreens, Wholefoods, CVS, Walmart, etc. That’s been happening for two years now and we have to take that seriously as we become a truly omnichannel brand, not just a B2C online brand. Especially for Health and beauty products, people like to smell, touch, and feel. So, next year we will probably be in brick and mortar stores in the US.
Yeah! I’ll tell you the idea. Most people don’t see this, but it’s super important. Basically, for the best e-commerce brands, for every 100 people landing on your website, only 4 or 5 will buy. Then, what happens to the other 95? You spend money on them, they interacted with you. Yes, you can retarget them on Snapchat, Google, and social media and get to 15. Again, what happens to the other 85 people who obviously engaged with your ads?
Next time, they’re walking through a store and they might say “Oh, I saw this bottle online”! That’s why it’s important to be a truly omnichannel brand because, for us, we’re losing a lot of that add value attribution by not being also in the stores.
We are obviously in this pandemic, but if you really look at e-commerce as a whole, even in a very westernized and mature market like the US, only 14 percent of all purchases happen online. The offline market includes food and fuel but this is still a long way to go to catch up.
Target, Walmart, Whole Foods, grocery chains. We’d rather be a mass premium brand than being a super high premium brand. The vision of the company is we are making a great product that needs to be tested by everyone, not just those who can afford it.
I’m not saying selling expensive products is not good, I’m just saying it doesn’t fit in with our vision. We wanted to sell in India, we want to sell in the US, we want to go to Europe. Imagine trying to sell a $50 shampoo bottle in India, that is not going to happen. That’s why Android has 99% of the Indian market and not Apple because you can buy an android phone from $50 to $900+.
We want to be a global mass premium brand, not just a super-premium brand where we can sell only to 1% of the global market. Being in retail would really help us drive to be a brand accepted globally, and as Korea has K-Beauty, Japan has J-Beauty, we could be the flagbearers of an Indian brand.
What inspires me is people who are working on things that will change the world in small ways and push the human race forward in a positive way. Whether it is people working on cleaning our oceans or people like Elon Musk, pushing for electric cars, slowing down our dependence on oil. Taking those small steps so that overall we are moving towards a better world. Some of these people could have easily just taken the easy way. They were successful, but they’re doing the hard things and I’m not just saying on the business side or even on the personal side.
Being part of something that will change the world. Not necessarily with this company. Maybe in the future, but I’m just saying something that will make a positive change in the world. That would be my definition of success. And I think I have a long way to go to make that happen!
Getting rewarded for building a company and so on is fine. But I think my success would be after the fact. What would you do with that success? How would you like, get back to society and so on? I feel if you’re able to use that success. And Help other people in terms of changing the world in a positive. In our DNA on the road, in the medical field to be an educational figure, that’s what I’d like.
Your product is your biggest selling point: It’s so important to build the community aspect of a brand. That comes with great products. If you really focus on every aspect of the product. Every ingredient. You should be able to tell the story of your product better than anyone else in the world.
If you don’t see your product exist five years from now. Just don’t do it. I’m not saying there’s no value in doing dropshipping and finding products. That’s a different business. . If you think this product is going to come and go in the next three months, why would you build a brand? looking in the influencers, building this whole funnel up if you can’t do it?
Watch for your supply chain: We see this in cases where brands scale too fast. Customers are not getting their products before 30 or 60 days. It leaves a bad taste in the customer’s mouth. He or she will never buy from your website or your brand if that happens.
Take long term decisions and don’t take short term profit.
Ashwin Sokke: The main ingredients, when a problem arises, are patience and calmness. Yes, it’s important to take action quickly. But it’s also important to be calm. Look at all the pros and cons of the action you’re going to take. Whether it’s positive or negative. It can be on the customer side, it can be on your team member side. Just do weight your options, negative or positive, and then take action!
I’m not sure if it applies to a lot of people. But nine months ago, I decided I was going to eat less. I eat about one meal a day, which is dinner around 6.30 pm. Otherwise, I use a couple of supplements, have coffee, and drink a lot of water throughout the day. Surprisingly, I have lost all the fat, I sleep better and have more energy. I also love biking and try to get 20 to 30 miles a day early in the morning during the week. And like 45 miles on weekends. There are plenty of bike trails in California so it’s easy to do so.
I wake up really early. That gives me a lot of free time to plan my day and week in terms of what needs to be accomplished today, for this week, or next week. Always keep a task list for yourself and for your team so you can follow up. The other thing is, I know in this new world a lot of conference calls and meetings, so I try to place all conference calls on a single day in a week.
Just put all the calls from that day and plan them out so you know that that day is completely focused on that and you’re executing just conference calls, whether it’s business, banking, product-oriented, etc. So you get that out of the way. Otherwise, it’s so easy in the fast-paced, busy life, even with all the calendars and notifications to miss meetings, which is the wrong thing to do. I’m not saying you can’t have conference calls on other days. Sometimes things come up. But that’s one way to get it done. You could also do only do kind of conference call earlier in the day or later in the day.
Another productive detail that helps me a lot is I don’t do emails on my phone, I’ll only do emails on my laptop. That’s good if someone wants to get a hold of me, they can get me on like a one time if it’s not urgent. Otherwise, I noticed I have the phone right here I would like I’m looking at the same notification twice and distracting emails coming non-stop. And let’s continue what’s important. I still have emails right on my phone.
If one team member calls me and said, hey, check that email can give me feedback within the next five minutes. I still have it, but the notifications at all. So I’m not consistently you get a lot more emails in a day, then messages of calls. So now you’re less distracted looking at your phone nonstop and stuff doing actual work.
Kate Morgan. She runs Morgan Publicity, a PR firm in Beverly Hills, and is also our PR lady. Kate opened my ideas on how to push our brand up in the press. Like what are the things to say or not to say for instance. She can give insights into how she looks at brands.
If you liked our conversation with Ashwin Sokke, our editor recommends: Valérie Grandury on How She Built The Natural Skincare Odacité
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