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How serial tech entrepreneur Ali Asaria is tackling the biggest challenge of his career

“Now more than ever, we need to be quick to respond to our customers’ needs.”

How serial tech entrepreneur Ali Asaria is tackling the biggest challenge of his career

Ali Asaria is a serial entrepreneur who has spent his career building technology that improves our day-to-day lives. In recent years, however, the former Blackberry engineer has set his sights on disrupting the world of technology by combining his love for innovation with his commitment to philanthropy. Two years ago, the CEO and founder of Tulip Retail, a mobile platform for retail stores that improves in-store experiences for shoppers, pledged to give 80 per cent of his shares in the company to a charitable trust overseen by his employees. The inspirational move means that if Tulip — which has raised more than $51 million since launching — goes public, the majority of his shares would ultimately go to charity.

Now, during the pandemic, Asaria is facing the biggest challenge of his career: helping store owners reimagine how retail can work. Here, he talks about how values-based work culture is now more important than ever, how the pandemic will change the we shop and what has been the silver lining he’s found during this crisis.

 

What piece of advice influenced the way you approach business?

My grandfather, who was also an entrepreneur, would always tell me nothing is free in this world. It took me a long time to understand what he meant, but I realized he was trying to teach me that there’s an underlying cost to everything. I try to think about all the implications and effects our startup and products can have on the world.

 

What advice did you ignore?

One of the first investors I had at my first startup, Well.ca, recommended I change my name so it was more “typically Canadian.” I’m proud that I was able to stick with who I am and still have success.

 

Well.ca became one of Canada’s most successful e-commerce sites. What was its secret?

We focused on the cultural aspects of what kind of company we wanted to be. We set really strong value-based goals, so that through all the ups and downs that happen in the startup world, we were able to return to these values. That’s what kept us successful and true. But it was a 10-year journey to get to where we are now. We ran out of money more than six times and didn’t make payroll sometimes. There were times when we were sleeping on the office floor because that was the only way we could make it to the next day. That made us all really strong — it gave us the grit to keep going.

 

After everything you put into Well.ca, was it difficult to sell it?

Honestly, this is the hardest decision to make. As an entrepreneur, you become addicted to your business. But it’s one of the things I’m most proud of — it’s now bigger than it could have been if we had been leading it.

 

What made you jump back into another startup?

The founding team of Tulip was actually composed of the core engineering team behind Well.ca. The real eureka moment for us was that we wanted to do something new together — we loved working together so much that the company actually started as a team without an idea. We knew retail really well so that’s where we focused.

 

How will AI affect the way we shop?

At Tulip, before COVID, we realized stores matter to customers — customers actually want to go into physical retail spaces and shop in person. When we’re not in lockdown, stores can end up being these experience centres. I’m excited about this idea of enabling store associates and customers to come together and really transform that experience to make it feel more personal and more intimate. We’ve focused our whole company on this idea that really great technology and artificial intelligence can make people better at their jobs — rather than replace them. Basically, we’re trying to build the best software possible to unlock the human potential in front-line workers.

 

COVID-19 has disrupted every facet of society. How do you think it might affect the way we shop in the long term?

The world changed overnight: my parents now shop on Amazon and Instacart; they didn’t even have accounts before. The lockdown during COVID-19 made everyday people experience what it feels like to have everything delivered, to never have to go to a store again. As a result, many will keep avoiding stores that are a chore to shop at. On the other hand, people are craving the ability to shop at stores that are experiential, fun and social.This means that retailers will have to adapt faster than ever predicted. They will all need to improve their online presence and support the ability to do things like curbside pickup. More importantly, they will need to change the way their stores work to be a lot more interesting and connected.

 

You have pledged to give 80 percent of your shares of Tulip to a charitable trust overseen by your employees when it goes public. What was your inspiration?

We care a lot about building a company that truly makes a contribution to the community, while also treating people equitably. We didn’t want to build something where only a few people were rewarded. The Tulip Foundation is a recognition of the fact that, if Tulip does well, employees who contributed to that success will have the ability to share in how the gains from that success are distributed. 

 

How are you managing through the crisis? And what kind of support would you like to see from various levels of government?

Like all other companies, we’ve implemented a number of business continuity initiatives to manage through the crisis with a focus on the health and safety of our associates.

The Canadian government has been very supportive of businesses of all sizes. We’re currently working with various government agencies, such as BDC and EDC, on their recent initiatives they’ve introduced to support businesses. We recognize that things are constantly changing, and executing these programs take time and resources.

 

Work culture is so important to Tulip — what has heartened you during this crisis?

What I’m most proud of is how we’ve come together as a team to support not only each other, but also our customers, during the pandemic. At Tulip, we’ve always had a collaborative culture. However, now there’s a greater sense of urgency to work together as things are moving at a much faster speed. Now more than ever, we have to be quick to respond to our customers’ needs. The cross-functional teams across sales, product, design, customer and marketing are all working closely to identify priorities, implement shorter development cycles, and create new revenue streams.

 

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.