AC: Tell us about your personal career path. What brought you to where you are today?
Eric Tam: My father always asked me what I wanted to do when I grew up, but all I knew was that I didn’t want to be an architect like he was. Little did I know that software architecture would be in my future! Right out of college, I gained a data perspective as a market analyst for APL. Soon after I ended up managing marketing collateral for PG&E.
When the internet first emerged, my friend and I started our own digital agency, Red Eye, when I was just 27. Three years in, we had 30 employees and were acquired! In some ways, we were in the right place at the right time, but we also built our own luck. Whereas most companies were just trying to create electronic brochures, we focused on back-end development and led e-commerce trends by advising clients to sell online, which seemed crazy at the time.
When the bubble burst in ’01, I left my role with the acquiring company. Over the next few years, I became the CEO/COO for three different startups, generating funding for each. Eventually, I moved on to work at Fluid as the senior vice president of development and delivery, then became the vice president of global digital at Benefit Cosmetics, where I helped manage the digital global program.
In 2016, I started independent consulting for Bay Area-based brands and was soon recruited by Amyris to manage Biossance’s digital and technology program. The team here is much smaller than others I’ve managed, and I like that I can take a hands-on role that allows me to test waters, make mistakes, and use those learning experiences to succeed going forward. Having that kind of freedom is essential to building an established brand.
AC: What was your strategy when you came into the company?
ET: My intent coming in was to watch, listen and learn, but within a couple weeks I saw a lot of low-hanging fruit that I just couldn’t be passive about. Because Biossance is still essentially a startup, there were opportunities to have quick wins and make an impact on the business, so I accelerated observations and analytics and started moving the needle.
AC: How do you create a strong workplace culture to foster overall company success?
ET: The past 20 years have seen a big change in workplace culture. The old, hierarchical, fear-based management structure is completely out the window. Successful management is about humility and transparency. The workplace is competitive, and if employees don’t feel respected, they’ll move on.
There’s also been a big shift in responsibility. Employees used to have the mission of nurturing the company, period. These days, successful work cultures have a balance between employees nurturing companies and companies nurturing employees.
At Biossance, we focus on sustainability and No Compromise Beauty. We also try to make our employees’ lives better through little things like catered lunches, bagels, happy hours, unlimited PTO policies, etc. This shows a progressive, employee-oriented culture, and it encourages project ownership and loyalty. Instead of asking “what can I get away with?,” employees ask, “what makes sense for my responsibilities?”
My own personal management philosophy is that the team comes first. Titles really don’t matter. I don’t want ego or attitude; I want transparency and ideas. When we do something successfully, I’ll put my team in the spotlight. If we make a mistake, I’ll stand in front. That’s the management philosophy that brings out the best in everyone.
AC: What does it take to be a successful head of digital/technology at a startup vs. a larger corporation?
ET: As you move up within an organization, it’s important to have a greater breadth of experience so that you can handle diverse expectations. In a larger corporation, it can be hard to effect change while managing up and down and dealing with legacy infrastructure. At a startup, on the other hand, everything moves fast, and you want to make as few mistakes as possible so that you can develop efficient processes for people. To do this, you have to know what success looks like in different business environments.
AC: With over 20 years of experience in the digital transformation and e-commerce world, what are your key takeaways from a branding perspective?
ET: Digital has evolved to become the premier medium for branding. Today, brands that don’t fill all digital channels — influencer programs, social media, paid media, search and email — cannot survive. People innately seek validation and inspiration, especially in the beauty industry, and this comes from influencers and social media groups. For instance, some beauty product customers enter SKUs into Instagram to discover how others are using products. Brands, product information, social inspiration, ratings and reviews, etc., all feed into our buying decisions, so it’s essential to give customers this information.
AC: What are your plans and objectives for tech strategy and implementation across digital channels?
ET: We have to get the basics right first. We’re doing that now by cleaning up our user experience so customers can find products, using basic best practice e-commerce features, showcasing best-sellers and products of the month, etc.
We’re also beginning to plan for strategic innovation. I want to look at how we can push personalization and artificial intelligence. Do we need a chatbot, live chat, or a hybrid? What about a product decision tree tool to make stronger personalized recommendations? For instance, we’ve seen a lot of technology evolve over the last few years related to before-and-after imaging. Showing product payoff on live models works great, but it’s hard to accurately render a virtual before-and-after at the customer level.
AC: Based on the evolution of the industry that you’ve seen so far, what can we expect in the next five years to 10 years?
ET: It’s a little cliche, but I genuinely believe that using technology to connect with consumers will become more natural across all channels. There are still some areas of life that technology hasn’t entered, and there’s some healthy resistance to this related to privacy, but eventually the digital experience will permeate much more than it does today. When this happens, I think we’ll have a level of personalization we’ve never seen before.
Shopping today is about making it easy for customers to find and buy products. However, we’re hitting the limits of consumers finding products. The next step will be products finding consumers based on buying habits, activities, etc. If you can stitch omnichannel activity together, a profound story about each customer will emerge that will enable retailers to spoon-feed customers exactly what they want. It will save consumers time, and conversion rates will go up as well.
AC: Which innovators and leaders do you follow for inspiration?
ET: My inspiration comes from individuals in all walks of life. I don’t put anyone on a pedestal no matter how well known they are. I’m inspired by Obama. I’m inspired by my wife and my son. I’m inspired by the people I get to work with every day. This shows care for people, not just their titles, which is the key to success in the workplace and in branding.
AC: Love it, Eric. Thank you for sharing your vision and philosophy. We’ll stay tuned for more great things coming out of Biossance!
Holly Vander Wall
Holly Vander Wall is the Director of Marketing and Client Services at Avenue Code. She is an eCommerce enthusiast, a marketing guru, and an animal lover.