This week we’re talking to Toronto-based founder Bram Warshafsky, the man behind Shelfgram. Bram previously co-founded 5Crowd with his business partner Rachel Zimmer, both of whom I had the chance to meet at an industry event a few years ago.
I had heard of Bram and Rachel years before formally meeting them — they won the Canada’s Next Top Ad Exec competition when it was in its fourth year. At the time I remember reading their story in a student publication and thinking to myself “jeez, they sound like really smart people and have a very bright future ahead of them”. And of course I was right 😀
Bram has established himself as a successful intrapreneur and entrepreneur since those formidable years as a high achieving student. I’ve really enjoyed tracking his many achievements, and learning from them through osmosis. I always look forward to a coffee chat with him because I know I’m going to leave with something new to think about. That’s why I’m eager to share our latest conversation here on Fire Ant. I invite you to read the interview below to learn about his new company, and what he thinks are the secrets to his success.
When I think of Bram, I think of both an intrapreneur and entrepreneur. You’ve demonstrated an ability to succeed with both titles. Do you have a preference for one vs. the other based on your past experiences?
I think it’s important to be comfortable in either role because doing one often leads to the other. So many start-ups begin as an innovation project within a larger organization, only to be spun-off by a few entrepreneurial employees looking to move the project forward at venture speed. However, once those founders grow the company and successfully exit, the most likely situation is that they’ll need to stay on with the acquirer for some period of time within an intrapreneurial capacity.
I’ve definitely been fortunate to have benefited from experiences on both sides and don’t have a strong preference. Mostly I just like leveraging new technologies to work on big problems with awesome people.
You left Sgsco late last year as VP of Innovation to start your second company — Shelfgram. What called you back to entrepreneurship?
I started my career doing brand management in consumer packaged goods and always wished I had a tool like Shelfgram — the company I’m currently building — to help me do my job better. Over the last few years, I decided to learn how to code so that I could build it.
With respect to what called me back to entrepreneurship, I was looking forward to the next big challenge and building an enterprise SaaS company from scratch seemed like a good one!
Tell us about Shelfgram. What’s the elevator pitch?
Packaged goods brands struggle to understand what the competition is doing in-store, solve inconsistencies across in-store presentation, and verify the execution of store programs. Shelfgram is a repository of shelf and product images supplied by the industry, consumers, and data fulfillment partners that lets users browse the aisles of over 2,000 retailers globally from wherever they are. With Shelfgram, teams can find actionable shopper insights, monitor in-store promotions, and spot retail trends before they become trends.
You couldn’t have predicted the pandemic but the circumstances have certainly created the perfect storm given the nature of the problems that Shelfgram solves for. What’s getting you excited about your approach based on how brands and retailers are responding?
It’s been pretty crazy. We just so happened to be working on a virtual store check platform when Covid hit so we acquired a ton of enterprise users in that first week as companies were forced into a rushed digital transformation and field sales teams were all working from home.
Retailers are rapidly evolving the shopping experience and with many categories coping with historical demand levels, in-store execution has become even more important. A handful of industry leaders are now using our software to understand the ground truth of what’s happening across their business in-store. More than anything, it’s been great to get product feedback from customers and incorporate it into the roadmap.
How do you think Shelfgram plays to key retail and digital commerce trends in the post-covid world?
The transformation and reinvention of the retail industry was already a mega trend in the pre-Covid world but now it’s all just accelerating. I’m reminded of that Warren Buffet quote: “Only when the tide goes out do you discover who’s been swimming naked.”
We can expect the growing focus on experiential retail to continue as the shopper places even more of a premium on the experience. This aligns well with what we’re building because Shelfgram is a qualitative retail analytics platform. Large companies have easy access to quantitative data. In fact, their problem is that they have too much data to know what to do with! However, getting a qualitative perspective on what’s happening in store — especially at scale — is both really important and really hard, and that’s where we’re focused.
As a technologist and big picture thinker, what other technology trends are you expecting to see take off post-Covid?
I’m always hesitant to give my thoughts in this area because the accuracy of predicting technology trends can be comically bad and the internet tends to have a very long memory. I believe it’s important to preface that at this stage, what the “new normal” looks like post-Covid is still anyone’s guess. I do have a few friends though in academia that seem to think a large transformation is already happening. EdTech has been brewing for some time but new social distancing norms have created a large-scale experiment that might prove the digital education thesis. I recently took Harvard’s CS50 class online and it was a great experience. I wouldn’t be surprised to see education unbundle with students curating their own curricula, enabled by access to the world’s best faculty and content from their discipline.
I know you to be a very thoughtful entrepreneur. What are some key early lessons that building companies and teams has taught you? What would you tell yourself if you were to go back in time and speak with 22-year-old Bram?
Probably the biggest lesson I’ve learned is that you need to be crazy passionate about the problem you’re solving. It’s critical for a number of reasons ranging from seeding the company’s culture to guiding the vision but most of all, it helps you survive the inevitable WFIO moments (we’re f*cked, it’s over) along the way. It’s in those darker times that it can be really tempting to go back to your day job. The only way I’ve seen founders get through it is by channeling raw passion.
On a lighter note, one of the best pieces of advice I got early on from another entrepreneur was to take lots of pictures. Starting a company is super hard but it’s also an incredible experience that you’ll want to remember. Looking back, I still wish I had taken more photos!
I was speaking with another founder recently who was sharing his struggles with staying motivated during these difficult times. As someone with a very high level of internal motivation who is also building a company right now, do you have any advice for him and others like him?
It’s totally normal to have ups and downs with big swings between them. I’ve found that taking a walk, making lists, and calling other entrepreneurs never hurts.
You’ve done so many great things in such a short period of time. Any regrets when you look back at your career so far?
No doubt I’ve made many painful mistakes over my career and I definitely have the scar tissue to show for it. There are countless things I would have done differently with the benefit of hindsight, but I feel like once the lesson is learned, it’s not too productive to dwell on regret. There are a bunch of people I’ve worked with though that I greatly admire and I’ve often reflected that I should try harder to find a way to keep working together. That’s one thing I’m hoping to do with Shelfgram as the company grows.
What’s one video, book, or other resource that you’d like to leave our readers with which is currently inspiring how you’re thinking about, and building, your company?
I’m a big fan of Cal Newport’s “Deep Work”. The central idea is that inbox management, meetings about meetings, and group chat notifications are not good ways to get ahead in today’s information economy. Knowledge workers need to carve out time to get into flow state and push their cognitive capabilities to their limit.
While I still succumb to many attention traps, I’ve removed almost all ‘notifications’ from my professional life and have restructured my calendar to be more intentional and explicit with the kind of work I want to get done. At Shelfgram, we want to produce work that’s exceptional and meaningful — integrating deep work strategies into the company is key.
This interview was edited for clarity.
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