In this episode, Sina Djafari shares his e-commerce journey, from the early days of Design Public to the founding of Duoplane. He discusses the challenges of starting a company with a partner and the keys to a successful partnership. Learn about the importance of relationships with manufacturers and vendors and the role of company culture in shaping customer experience and the future of Duoplane.
Sina: Part of what we’re always trying to do is figure out if something feels hard, let’s make it easy. If someone’s getting a bad deal, let’s make that person’s life easier. That’s a big part of why we exist. We exist to make people’s lives easier.
Mandy: Hey, everyone, welcome to our very first episode of the Duoplane podcast, “Navigating Your Skies,” where we’re going to take a deep dive into the ever-evolving world of e-commerce. I’m your host, Mandy Potter, and today on our show, we have an extra special guest, Sina Djafari, CEO and founder of Duoplane. Sina has two decades of experience in e-commerce, starting with his e-commerce brand, Design Public, and then Duoplane, a dropship automation tool for retailers and vendors. Thanks for joining us today, Sina. We’re super happy to have you here.
Sina: Thanks for having me, Mandy. I’m very excited to be the inaugural guest on the podcast.
Mandy: So let’s start from the very beginning. Before being in e-commerce, what did you do? What led you to the e-commerce world? I know you went to school and post-secondary, which I remember has nothing to do with what you’re doing today. But let’s start there.
Sina: Yeah, sure. So my career started in finance, and investment banking, a long time ago. I enjoyed that. It’s great; I learned about many companies, worked with many interesting people, and worked hard, but I probably wouldn’t have repeated that piece. But that was, you know, I loved living in New York, whatever, that was very fun. And then, I went to business school and engineering school, which plays into this a lot because I’ve always tried to get back into engineering. I’m an engineer at heart. I love building things, designing systems, and stuff like that. So after banking, I went back to engineering school but somehow found my way back into finance. I worked as an associate at a venture firm for a couple of years. When that program was over, which was a two-year program, I tried to get back into something engineering and teamed up with a buddy of mine. We were going to design and build modern furniture. That was our thing. We were on that path and ended up just getting into e-commerce instead. We met with many other designers and manufacturers, and to get to know the industry, we started selling their things. It was the early days of e-commerce, and we decided to use that to see what the market wanted and needed. But that turned into the business very quickly, partly because it was successful, partly because it was overwhelmingly a lot of work, and somewhat because we found ourselves enjoying it. And it was one of those things where it wasn’t even so much the industry or anything. We just wanted to build a business from scratch. And so that was Design Public. We ran that for about eight years and sold it to a small private equity group. Then I founded Duoplane shortly after that.
Mandy: So you originally wanted to start building your furniture, but instead, you started working with vendors who already had the product. How did that transpire? Did you ever get into actually making your furniture, or did you solely sell other companies’ stuff?
Sina: I did have a lot of home models of furniture that I was working on in my old apartment. And I kept those for a long time to sort of the vestige of my past. We did not get past the prototyping phase. We were building small prototypes and mostly just doing research, and one day friend of a friend introduced us to a company house in San Francisco at the time. A company in Oakland was kind of in this space and said, “Hey, you should meet a buddy of mine to do what you’re thinking about doing,” and we had lunch with them. And we heard this is a recurring theme as we were doing research. It was a tough business with a high failure rate. So we’re getting a lot of negative advice from people. But he said, “Hey, why don’t you just start selling our stuff?” This is how we got into it. He said, “Listen, I’m happy to; if you want to sort of website or start selling our stuff, I’m happy to ship it directly to your end customer. I think you’ll get to learn a lot and even introduce you to a couple of other manufacturers.” And that’s how we started, literally this one lunch in Oakland. The person gave us a little bit of reality about how hard it was. And then also introduced us to other companies we could talk to. They all had the same message, “Listen, it’s hard, and maybe you should start just selling the product, see, understand kind of what the market is like.” And so, we started with those three manufacturers. As kind of insiders almost that, a friend of friends who was willing to allow us to sell products, it was very early days of e-commerce, and so we focused on building a website and, you know, a shopping cart. We had to do it all by hand, so that’s how we started. It was just that one lunch of someone saying, “Here’s a desk. Like, put it on a website and sell it.”
Mandy: It’s really interesting. So, you essentially met up with him, I’m assuming, to get some advice. He was doing what you wanted, and instead, it turned into you pivoting a little bit. You were exploring what the next step would look like and not building your own furniture business. Instead, you were selling other people’s furniture and generating interest from other companies.
Sina: Yeah, it wasn’t exactly a pivot. We didn’t suddenly say, “Hey, maybe we should do something else.” We still had the idea that we were selling other people’s products so that we could start building our own. It wasn’t until the business took off that we decided that was the business we wanted to be in. It was fun and exciting, and we met lots of interesting people. The business was growing, and it was the early days of e-commerce. It was in the aftermath of the dot-com bust, and there weren’t many companies trying to be e-commerce because it was a bad word or forbidden territory for bigger companies. Google had just come out with AdWords, and everything was cheap. Other people’s websites were built on Flash, so they didn’t think about SEO. Just putting up a website with text and ranking at the top was a natural way. We were learning a lot and enjoying it. I don’t even remember when we abandoned the idea of building our own products, but the business we started took over.
Mandy: It was like being in the right place and time. When you started Design Public back then, there weren’t many companies online, and people were just beginning to understand buying online. Going to a physical store was still the norm. What do you think is the most significant difference between then and now for companies trying to be successful and grow from one million to five million or 10 million in revenue?
Sina: That’s a great question. There were many differences between then and now; it was the right place and time for us back then. During the dot-com bust, real estate was super cheap in San Francisco. We paid only 85 cents per square foot per month for the office space. The onset of things like Google AdWords and SEO made advertising cheap, and many people didn’t understand or take advantage of it. E-commerce was complicated, as there were no Shopify or Magento platforms then. However, a few open-source solutions and Yahoo stores made it somewhat easier to build e-commerce stores. The cloud was also just starting to become a thing. Other friends of mine started companies a year before us had server rooms while we were buying $20-per-month hosting accounts. So, everything was cheap from that perspective, and it was easy to start building something iteratively. As an entrepreneur, I didn’t have many expenses back then, living alone in an apartment and having all the time in the world to work. It’s easier to start a business at some point in your life.
Mandy: So, starting a business at a time when there weren’t many apps to manage your business must have been challenging. Did you use any apps or rely on pen and paper or Microsoft Excel to manage your business?
Sina: Yeah, all of the above. My partner and I both have engineering backgrounds, but my background is more in mechanical engineering. Although I know how to code, my partner didn’t have much technical experience. However, we both learned how to code and used an open-source shopping cart software called OS Commerce, which didn’t do exactly what we wanted, but it was sufficient. We dug into the source code, experimented with trial and error, and added our own code. It was a very rough front-end piece, but for managing ads and our operations, we relied heavily on Excel. I managed all our orders in Excel, which involved a lot of copying and pasting of shipping addresses. It was a tedious and brutal process. Nonetheless, while digging into the code of the shopping cart software, we realized the power of software and how we could modify it to improve our business. My partner started building software to automate marketing, and I built software to automate operations. We learned on the job with very rudimentary tools and pushed ourselves to manage our business more efficiently. Using Quickbooks and Excel to manage the business was an old-school way of doing things and was clearly not going to scale beyond a few orders a day. We hit a breaking point early on and realized that we needed to learn to code and build our own software. This realization saved our business because there wasn’t anything else available at that time.
Mandy: While it would be a good segue to talk about starting a company, I won’t do that quite yet because you’ve mentioned your partner multiple times. In my experience, one of the most challenging aspects of starting a company is finding the right person to start it with. Running a company by yourself is very difficult, as we both can attest to, and finding the right partner is also difficult. For the two companies I started, I founded them with my brother, and there are pros and cons to that decision. However, it ended up having more pros than cons because we have had 30 years of experience learning how to fight since we were kids. We could bring up any issues we had easily, whether it was frustration with the business or with each other, so there was never any resentment built up. Running a company can be stressful, and I attribute our partnership’s success to the fact that we knew how to fight. When people are starting a company, beyond making progress, I believe it is essential to try to find a partner. If you cannot find one, and you can get to a certain level by yourself, that’s great. However, what do you think are some important factors to consider when finding the right partner to start a company with?
Sina: Yeah, I certainly don’t have all the answers on this, and I’ve only ever done it once with a partner, but it is hard, and I think Drew would agree that it was hard. I mean, I think that. And we didn’t really think about it much. I mean, to be honest, we were both in the exact same situation at the same time. He was in a role where he was looking for something else to do. I, at that point, my two years was up at the venture firm. So I wasn’t doing anything. And so, we just met for coffee and chatted, and all of a sudden, next thing, you know, we’re starting a company together, but we didn’t give it much thought. However, I would say that our partnership definitely worked. I mean, it was great.
Sina: I think one of the things that made our partnership work was that we gravitated toward different aspects of the business. Drew was more focused on marketing and growth, while I focused on operations and keeping things running smoothly. This complementary skill set and interest were important for our partnership.
Sina: Another thing that made our partnership successful was the fact that we were always excited to share new developments with each other. We came into the office on Monday mornings eager to show off something new we had created for the business. It wasn’t a competition between us, but more of a desire to impress and help each other. We were very capital-efficient and deliberately bootstrapped the company. We shared the same view on money, which prevented any potential conflict. We were also aligned on basic things, like taking public transportation to save money, which helped us avoid any financial disputes.
Sina: There was always one partner who was a little more head-in-the-clouds and pushing a little bit more. In our case, that was usually Drew. While this could cause tension, it also pushed us to take risks and make progress. Lastly, I believe that disagreements are important in any partnership. Drew and I fought a lot, but we knew how to move past it and find a solution. Being able to disagree and work through problems is crucial in any business partnership.
Mandy: Yeah, definitely. I think the most important aspect of working with someone else is communication and honesty, which are some of our values at Duoplane, which we can talk about later. When partners have different spending habits or work styles that don’t complement each other, it can be challenging. For example, if one partner is seen as lazy while the other feels overworked, it can cause resentment to build up and ultimately damage the partnership. So, as long as you have open communication and honesty, I think it’s possible to have a successful partnership. I had a good segue into another topic, but let’s talk about your experience starting Duoplane while still running Design Public. Can you talk a little bit about the purpose of building Duoplane, what it does, and how it helps you in your day-to-day work at Design Public? Is there anything else you think is important to mention?
Sina: Actually, I didn’t start Duoplane during Design Public. It was actually about a year later, but the seeds were planted. I learned to code and wrote some software to automate the operations of Design Public pretty early on. It was ugly code, just hacked together by an amateur. I started getting more into the idea of learning how to write software and took some classes, read some books, and went to some conferences. I rewrote that software again and again, making it better with each iteration.
Sina: A few years into Design Public, we were probably on version four of this fulfillment automation software that was running the business. We were adding more functionality, more integrations with outside systems, and even a vendor portal. I was really into automating the business and making our team’s lives better. I saw how brutal it could be to work in customer service or operations in e-commerce or any kind of operations role.
Sina: I started thinking that I would love to do this for a bigger audience. I wanted to see if other people could use it too. I wasn’t thinking about the financial opportunity but more about making other people’s lives easier, like how it had made mine. Some of our competitors, who were also friends, were asking about it, and I thought there was a business opportunity.
Sina: We made the company virtual in 2008, which was not really a common practice at that time. My partner, Drew, wanted to live elsewhere, and we decided to make the company virtual. At that point, it became less interesting for me. I was working by myself in an office in the suburbs, and our team was dispersed. We began talking about selling the company since we were not interested in running it, and it was operating independently. We sold the company, and I stayed for a while to assist with the transition.
Sina: However, I believed that the world could use some sort of dropship automation software, so I started contemplating it. I considered what it should look like, what the interface should be, and how I could make it a multi-tenant solution. I thought about it for about six months before I began building anything. I started writing code independently, and then people from my former world started contacting me, expressing their interest in being a customer.
Sina: That spurred me into action, and I began building the product that people would use. It was progressing slowly until two of them informed me they needed it urgently for their launch on March 1st. That pushed me to work even harder, and I had a deadline to meet. People said they could not find anything else to manage their business, and that’s how Duoplane was launched. It came from scratching my own itch, precisely what I required and more for my old role.
Mandy: I’ve heard a lot about the importance of relationships in business, such as relationships with competitors, vendors, and retailers. Looking back at the early days of Design Public, how did you maintain good relationships with manufacturers and vendors? And now, over a decade later, what does a successful drop shipper look like to you?
Sina: I believe that the answer to both questions is the same. It’s crucial to think of the other party as a human being, not just as a company. You need to comprehend what they want and what will make them successful. In the furniture industry, we had numerous opportunities to get to know people personally at trade shows and parties. It was also an industry where everyone was struggling, and we needed to help each other to succeed.
Sina: Design Public was primarily a dropshipping business, which meant we shipped everything directly to the customer. This made life easier for our suppliers, but we also needed to ensure we paid them quickly and created co-marketing opportunities to promote our brands.
Sina: When dealing with retailers, it’s crucial to view it as a partnership where both sides benefit. We asked retailers about their pain points and resolved them, so we could work together more seamlessly. We did not try to negotiate hard or haggle with them. Instead, we aimed to be a better partner and help them achieve their objectives. This mindset was embedded in how we did things and was the whole point of our business.
Mandy: Yeah, so I want to talk about culture, which is one of our key advantages when it comes to competitors. I think that it has a lot to do with what we’re discussing now when it comes to relationships and how we treat others, whether they’re a competitor, customer, or partner. As someone who’s been at this company for a little over a year, I think this initially attracted me to the company. I think Sina and I specifically share many of the same beliefs. And, I would say that for all the staff members in Duoplane, we share the beliefs of fostering a company environment that encourages commitment to our customers, commitment to vendors, commitment to retailers, focusing on collaboration and communication, whether that’s with a vendor, retailer, or even internally with the staff, and having these key values at the forefront of what drives the company. We have spent countless hours, at this point probably hundreds of hours, specifically discussing and creating this culture. So, how do you think this impacts our customers? Or again, we can talk about anyone in this ecosystem and the future of the company and how it differentiates us from other competitors or others in this space who may be building similar software.
Sina: Yes, it’s a significant question. I’ll try to address a part of it. Our values play a critical role in what distinguishes us from our competitors. We always emphasize the importance of wowing the customer. While many companies say that, it genuinely guides everything we do. We always ask ourselves how our actions will add value to the customer, make them happier, and streamline an operations job, which can be daunting at times. We do this not only for our customers but also internally for our staff. Our primary goal is to make people’s lives easier, more fulfilling, and happier in their jobs.
Sina: In terms of how this manifests in our internal culture, we believe that everyone should be doing what they love. In a small company like ours, it’s relatively simple to choose the thing you want to do, and we try to allow people the freedom to do so. We have so many things on our to-do list that knowing where we’re going, we allow our staff to decide what the most useful use of their time is to get things done.
Sina: One of our other main values is being scrappy, which is also crucial for both our customers and us. We believe in being efficient and cost-effective, which is what we strive for in our company and for our customers. We think that things should not be too expensive, should not take six months to implement, and should not be challenging to do. We aim to do more with less, and that’s what we’re trying to create for our customers as well.
Mandy: Yes, I absolutely agree. As you said, we don’t need to go into all of our values, but I do think that this is something that many companies do not invest enough time in. I believe that the only way to be truly successful is to do something that you enjoy and solve an actual problem, a problem that you’re passionate about. I would say that all of our colleagues here at Duoplane are passionate about the solution we provide to our clients. I think that this one piece of advice that I give, even when I mentor other entrepreneurs, is to take the time to think about who you want to be, who you want to serve, and what you want to provide. At the end of the day, it really boils down to, “What good are you doing in this world?” And while solving e-commerce and operations problems may not be solving world hunger, it does resolve day-to-day issues that consume too much time unnecessarily. So I always recommend to anyone listening here who has an existing company or is considering starting one to take the time to think about what their key values are and who they want to be.
Sina: Yes, absolutely. I mean, we’re a relatively small company, and I think we’ve thought about it a lot. I think many companies grow from a few people to many, and the values just emerge. But I entirely agree that it’s critical to consider early on, and while things may change, I think it’s not something you want to happen by accident.
Mandy: Yes, that’s right. Before we end, there’s one thing I’d like to discuss, which is the future of Duoplane. It’s an open-ended question, so feel free to answer however you want. Where do you see Duoplane in the next five years? What’s the company’s number one goal, whether it’s for today or in the next year?
Sina: In terms of where the industry is heading, we’re still in the early stages of a trend toward partnerships between retailers and fulfillment partners. This means that retailers focus on selling and customer experience while relying on third-party providers for warehousing, manufacturing, logistics, and more. Our goal is to enable this trend by becoming the one connection for any transaction where a retailer needs to fulfill something using a third-party fulfillment provider. We want to make it easy for retailers to plug into our platform and have all their orders flow through it without having to rethink every integration or process. The same goes for vendors, who can have their entire retailer ecosystem selling on their behalf with just one connection. Our ultimate goal is to connect everybody in an easy way so that retailers and vendors don’t have to build one-to-one connections with every company they work with.
Mandy: Great. Thank you so much for joining us today. Your insights and wisdom will be very helpful to anyone listening to this conversation. For those listening, you can check out Duoplane.