An Interview with Penny Bauder
Not only are the Founders of Hero Packaging, Anaita Sarkar and Vike Davé, composting ambassadors, they’re also simply good at business. With over 20 years of experience in the ecommerce industry, Anaita and Vik are experts in this space and know what works and what doesn’t.
Vik has worked in sales, marketing and ecommerce his whole working life. From starting in door-to-door sales through to the Head of ecommerce of one of the largest online retailers in Australia, where he increased sales by two and a half times in his five year period there. Vik has been involved in every aspect of sales and marketing from both a face-to-face perspective and online. If there’s something you want to know about marketing or ecommerce — ask Vik.
Anaita’s path to ecommerce guru was a bit different. Growing up in a family that owned a small business, Anaita began her working career behind the reception desk and she therefore fully understands the challenges small businesses face on a daily basis. After studying a Bachelor of Commerce, specialising in Accounting, Anaita soon realised the accounting industry wasn’t for her and moved into media. Within her first year she was promoted twice and began presenting at meetings whilst a junior, which at the time was not standard practice. In 2013 Anaita began guest lecturing marketing subjects at Macquarie University and whilst pregnant with her second child, Anaita started her first ecommerce business Olivia & Co (now exited). Anaita is also author of the digital marketing book Sell Anything Online.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit how you grew up?
Anaita: I was born in India and came to Australia when I was three years old. My mum and dad immigrated here in 1990. My Mum had to re-sit her medical exams so that she could work in Australia, and as soon as she passed, she started her own Practice here. When I was old enough, I started working behind the reception desk at Mum’s surgery and I learnt a lot about business and customers by working there. We didn’t have any family support, it was just my parents and I. Dad is a musician and made a name for himself by performing classical Indian songs and having concerts around Australia. He also started a music academy.
Vik is Aussie born and bred and moved from Newcastle to Sydney when he was three. Vik loves his sport and grew up playing cricket. He was brought up in a traditional sense, where he was expected to study hard, go to university and get a 9 to 5 job. The idea of business and entrepreneurship wasn’t even on the cards until his mid-twenties.
Vik and I have actually known each other since we were kids as our parents were best friends. We started dating when we were in our late teens.
You are currently leading a social impact organization that is making a difference for our planet. Can you tell us a bit about what you and your organization are trying to change in our world today?
[Vik] What we’re looking to do is have a positive environmental impact by eradicating plastic in the shipping process for online retailers. Online retail is growing exponentially and we think that packaging is a key issue that has been flying under the radar because there were no other options. The packaging used in online retail is not as visible as the use of plastic in physical retail stores, restaurants and supermarkets. Most of what ends up on customer doorsteps is thrown straight into the bin and ends up in landfill for hundreds of years. So that’s where we’ve decided to focus our energy.
Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause?
[Anaita] You only know about a problem when you’re exposed to it first hand. The idea of Hero Packaging was created while we were running our first e-commerce retail business, where we were shipping over 80–100 products a day…in plastic. When we would see our customers unboxing our packages, we started to feel incredibly horrified at the amount of waste we were creating (and we were just one business!). The real cherry on top of the plastic pie, was when our two girls were in our office during school holidays and were sitting amongst a pile of plastic, playing with the bubble wrap. We knew there had to be something better.
Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest it. They don’t get up and just do it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and do it? What was that final trigger?
[Anaita] There is usually no final trigger with me. If I think something is a good idea, I’ll just do it. I don’t really think too much about it, I’d prefer to just give it a go, have it fail really quickly and then change what I’m doing if it’s not working. In terms of an ‘aha’ moment, it really was when I saw that pile of 80 plastic packages sitting in my office and realising that within a few days, all of the external packaging would be in the bin. I started my research immediately, spoke to dozens of factories, sampled products and within six months Hero Packaging was up and running.
[Vik] I guess the other ‘aha’ moment was when we set up a landing page on the website offering free samples to anyone who signed up. We expected 5–10 enquiries to come through, but received over a thousand signups within a week. That’s when we knew that we were on to a product that was needed in Australia.
Many people don’t know the steps to take to start a new organization. But you did. What are some of the things or steps you took to get your project started?
[Anaita} The first step was testing the idea. We did this through offering free samples and getting business owners to sign up to our mailing list. I have seen many business owners start a business that they are so excited about only to realise that there is no demand for the product.
We then set up all our channels — our website, social media and ads platforms and immediately used paid ads to get traffic to the website.
The most important factor of all was to keep customers happy, so in our early days, we made sure to personally email every customer and build a relationship with them. This helped us to understand what they were specifically looking for and improve our products and processes.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?
[Vik] We actually started the business on our dining table and packed orders while our kids ate dinner. At that point, we never realised the real potential of the business. Within a few weeks, our orders tripled and within a month, we moved operations to our garage and hired a casual employee to pack our orders. A few months after that, we were in a warehouse with a dedicated fulfilment team. What started as a solution to our business problem turned into a fast-scaling company within a few months!
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson or take away you learned from that?
[Anaita and Vik] If you’re going to offer something for free, place a cap on the number! We didn’t and it certainly wasn’t funny at the time and we’re lucky it worked out well for us, so we can laugh about it now. When we started offering free samples we thought that we may get five to ten people signing up. We budgeted for that. We ended up with over a thousand in a week and thought ‘oh crap’! We also didn’t have any terms and conditions as to who could receive the free samples, so we ended up having to send the free samples internationally too — it ended up costing us about $10,000 in shipping!
None of us can be successful without some help along the way. Did you have mentors or cheerleaders who helped you to succeed? Can you tell us a story about their influence?
[Anaita] I’ve never had a business mentor but when it comes to cheerleaders, Vik has definitely been my biggest cheerleader. Before Vik left his full time role and joined the business he was always really supportive of my ideas and never told me that I couldn’t do something. For me that was really important to have someone like him in my corner as I like to take a lot of calculated risks. To have someone say ‘ok lets make it work’ is really important.
[Vik] I think Anaita and I are a good balance as Anaita is more of a risk-taker and I’m probably a bit more risk averse. So, without Anaita we wouldn’t be pushing ahead and be where we are now and I guess without me the wheels may start to fall off over time. Anaita has a good track record in business so it’s hard to say no to her ideas — my job is to work out how to make them happen.
[Anaita] In terms of mentors, we don’t have any business mentors as yet. I consume a lot of information everyday through podcasts, videos, and books. With the power of social media and online learning platforms, I am able to learn from business people and entrepreneurs from around the world.
Are there three things the community, society, or politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
[Vik and Anaita] Definitely! All of the above can help to address the root of the problem. In terms of community, I think it’s up to the wider community to understand more in depth the requirements around how to dispose of different products. I think that’s a really key issue. Unfortunately it can be complex and households generally have the best intentions but some don’t seem to care and will put plastic that is perfectly recyclable in their waste bin. The community can better help by properly recycling what can be recycled and having the dedicated bins in their home to dispose of the different waste products.
There are also the added complexities now of compostable products with thin/soft plastics. But we think education around disposing of waste correctly would be really effective if it was carried out in a consistent manner across schools, so kids learn the correct product disposal methods when they’re young.
In regards to local councils, education, information and facilities available vary from one council to another. For example, the only councils that offer composting in the organics bin are the councils that don’t have good landfill infrastructure in close proximity to that suburb, so they need residents to compost more at home. If councils could focus more on community education and give residents tools to help them dispose of their waste correctly, it makes life easier. If people have to go out of their way to self educate and purchase items to be more sustainable, it’s usually put in the “too hard” basket.
In regards to government, it would help if the federal government stopped saying it’s a state governments issue and for the state governments to stop saying it’s a local government issue. It’s very fragmented at this point, it would help if there was a single overarching national waste goal which then filtered down to the states and territories, which then filtered down to the local government areas. For example, some states are eliminating single use plastic but others aren’t. Policy changes are happening in pockets and it’s not consistent across the country.
How would you articulate how a business can become more profitable by being more sustainable and more environmentally conscious? Can you share a story or example?
[Vik] When it comes to becoming more profitable by being more sustainable, the key thing is less is more. Meaning reduce what you’re producing and putting out into the environment. Stop using marketing pamphlets, use less packaging and use smaller boxes for shipping. Reducing packaging and shipping materials reduces costs and is better for the environment. Having packaging that is fit for purpose is such an easy way to save costs and it’s sustainability at its core.
[Anaita] Businesses can’t just be ‘sustainable’ on the surface or for marketing purposes, customers will see right through that. It needs to be one of the businesses values and they need to be genuinely interested and focused on sustainability in how it operates, because at the end of the day that’s what’s going to make them the market leader. By focusing on sustainability, brands can build huge amounts of consumer sentiment and loyal customers.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
- We would have loved to have more information, guidance and mentorship around how to fund an exponentially growing business and also scaling a business.
- Don’t worry when people try to copy you. When we started to grow, we were seeing new people popping up and copying what we were doing. They were copying content and text from our website and we were really worried about it initially. But our story shone through and the difference became apparent between those startups who were just in it for the money and us. If you’ve got a really strong story, if you really do come from a good place when you’re starting a business and you’re doing original things that no-one is doing, then you don’t need to worry about people coming in and copying you.
- Hire people that are way more experienced that you. Previously I made the mistake of hiring people in roles where I thought I was the expert, for example a social media intern. It’s better to hire people that know more than you and put them in that position. It makes your life easier, it makes the business better and it allows you to disconnect emotionally as they do the work properly as opposed to us doing it from an emotional standpoint.
- Knowing the right time to hire staff. We wish someone had told us how to recognise when it’s the right time to hire staff. Rather than taking a leap of faith and worrying that there was enough money to cover wages each week. Now that we’ve hired more staff we see the benefit of putting people in the right areas. We quickly saw the benefits and we potentially could have done it sooner.
- Be honest and transparent about your mistakes, instead of covering it up. We recently learnt this as we had a bad batch of mailers that were faulty and we made an announcement last week to say we were sorry and gave the details of what happened. The response that we got from being honest and transparent was really positive and we were able to get back the lost customers. We also gained trust back from some customers that hadn’t bought from us for a while. So being open and honest when you make a mistake is much better than sweeping it under the rug.
If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?
[Anaita] That it is inevitable that climate change has started and they need to make an impact within the next 10 years. Everyone needs to work together, otherwise there isn’t going to be a proper planet to live on. Our natural resources are going to be completely eliminated. It’s no longer a case of should you or should you not, it’s now how to do it. I don’t believe it should ever be a question of schools or when discussing climate change with friends that you ‘believe’ in climate change. It’s now a fact that we are living in a precarious time where if we don’t work on fixing it now, our environment is not going to cope and recover.
So if I could tell other young people one thing, it is that every decision they make going forward, whether it is what they study, where they work or what they do socially, they need to have social and environmental impact in mind.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Listen, smile, agree — then do whatever the **** you were gonna to do anyway — Robert Downey Jr. [Anaita] Everyone, especially my parents, when I told them that I was starting a business, they said “no”. So I said “ok Mum” and started it in the background and didn’t tell anyone until it became successful. That’s when I made it known that I had a business. I listened, smiled, agreed and then did it anyway. So we tend to live by that quote, because we know what is right for our business life and for our family life and no matter what anyone says we block it out and focus on what we know works.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. :-)
If we had to pick just one person it’s David Attinborough, for his knowledge on our planet and his life experiences. It would be such an interesting conversation!
How can our readers follow you online?
Readers can follow us on Instagram @hero.packaging and they can purchase our products on our website which is heropackaging.com.au