I had the pleasure of interviewing Sam Kliger, Founder and CEO of KWI, a pioneer of cloud technology for specialty retailers. KWI provides companies with a unified commerce solution for point of sale, merchandising, eCommerce, CRM and loss prevention to create a holistic customer experience— both online and off. KWI counts leading fashion brands and retailers as customers including Bandier, Blue Mercury, Dylan’s Candy Bar, Hatch, NARS, Stance, Il Makiage and many more.
Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
In the summer of 1985 I was working as a waiter at the Lido Beach Hotel in New York. A Benetton opened in Cedarhurst and it was wildly popular. I wanted to go and buy myself one of the infamous rugby shirts. I had a short window of free time between lunch and dinner service, so I went to check it out. When I went to purchase the shirt, I waited on an incredulously long line. The woman who ran the store, Edie Markowitz, was writing receipts by hand. I kept looking at my watch because I had to get back to work, and my frustration grew.
When I finally got to the front of the line, I asked her, “Don’t you guys have a computer system?” After Edie confirmed my suspicions and said that they needed a better system, I told her “I will build you one.” That’s how I got my first customer. I was 19 years old.
Necessity is the mother of invention. I walked into a store and saw a problem that needed to be fixed, and I knew I could figure out how to create the solution. Previously, I had written data systems for two small businesses in Queens and created a database for an alarm company.
Because of my experience of waiting on that excruciatingly long line, feeling anxious because I had to get back to work, I realized that retailers must provide their customers with a good shopping experience. Otherwise they will go elsewhere. So I began to build a POS company to help retailers solve this pain point.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
We were the first company to create a retail cloud technology company. I was inspired by ADP, the payroll company that was really the leader in the space. I thought if ADP could do payroll for many retailers, why couldn’t I do POS systems in the same light and that idea is what morphed us into the first cloud technology company in 1986. Again, it started with Benetton, which began as a software-building relationship and later turned into them outsourcing the system to us and managing it for them. Remember this was 14 years before the Internet!
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I was 21 and almost walked away from a lifelong customer. My biggest client at that point was Benetton, a popular brand who had just entered the world of retail. Now nearly every brand has its own store, but back then, brands had no idea what it was like to own a retail store. It’s very different when you’re dealing with customers walking into your store versus being a clothing company. They had no interest in the ugly world of retail and trusted me implicitly. We had a great working relationship, I could do no wrong, there was low pressure.
Then I get a call from Amy Wall, a well-known Merchandising Exec from Kenneth Cole. She said, if your system is good enough for Benetton it’s good enough for us. Amy was demanding and I knew would only expect the best, as she should. I wasn’t sure I would be successful meeting Kenneth Cole’s expectations. I nearly walked away from the deal.
Then I stopped to think. Customers at the hotel where I worked were so picky. I realized you’re going to encounter all kinds of customers in your life. If I could make Amy Wall happy, I can make any retail exec happy. So I went for it. I learned that not all of your clients are going to treat you the same way or have the same expectations. I reminded myself that software is about solving people’s problems, and if I could solve her long list of problems, I could solve anyone’s problems. This led to a long business relationship with Amy at other companies.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Our value — our caring and how we do business with our customers. I am a firm believer that a software company needs to view themselves as a partner, not as a licenser. It’s caring about the customer first, recognizing that it’s relationships that grow businesses.
Engineers are very binary. Most deliver exactly what the client has asked for, even if it’s not the best strategy. Our job is to figure out what they want even though they might be asking for something else. Our company has bridged the gap between IT and client services. Your success is dependent on if the customer is happy.
In 2003, many retailers were still on dial-up using modems for their POS systems. We had one client who we set up dozens of stores for. Their CEO was a demanding man who would often give us instructions to open a new store with 45 days notice. I would send two technicians with the new registers, load our software on them, test them, and train their staff in a week’s time.
One store opening in Perrysburg, Ohio didn’t go as smoothly. We followed the same process but as soon as we left, I got a call from the CEO that the registers were corrupted and didn’t work. We created 2 new hard drives, sent them overnight with a technician. Again, they didn’t work. Now he’s furious. I realize we are about to get fired from this big client. I grabbed 2 hard drives myself, drove to LaGuardia, and hopped on the first plane to Ohio. It turned out, one of the employees at the store had been checking her AOL email on the registers, which gave the system a virus.
The CEO appreciated the fact that I personally got up, flew to the airport to fix this. I went because I cared. I solved their problem, and even though it was their fault, I never pointed fingers. He wound up becoming our largest customer and drove the development of Cloud 9.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
Don’t take your customer for granted. Remember why you’re doing this: to help the customer. Amazon is reliable, fast, easy. They’re trying to make life easier for their customers. That’s why they succeed. No matter how big or small you are, always put the client first and focus on your values as much as you focus on performance.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
Eight years ago a business associate tells me to join him down in Florida for a Jack Welch educational seminar. It was expensive, I had no free time — I really didn’t want to go. My colleague convinced me to do it and it changed my life and my company.
Jack, one of the most successful CEOs in history, stresses the importance of candor. There is a real lack of candor in most companies. People are honest, but they’re not candid. They’re afraid to challenge others’ opinions publicly; they’re afraid to ask for feedback. Based on my experience at the workshop, I’ve created a culture of candor that I believe has allowed us to succeed.
Are you working on any exciting projects now?
To date, 99 percent of our customers and stores were based in North America, but we have just expanded to more global locations and will continue to do so. We’ve launched our 5.0 product and are working with bigger companies than we ever have before.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
My wife and I lost our first child to a genetic disease. We are dedicated to our charity work to support medical research for gene therapy.
Can you share 5 examples of how retail companies will be adjusting over the next five years to the new ways that consumers like to shop?
1) Unified commerce. There’s a head of digital and head of retail. Why is that? You have to give the people what they want. They want a seamless experience between in-store shopping and online shopping. How many companies gladly accept returns that you bought online? Why is this not a widespread policy?
2) Recognizing the importance of local merchandise. Why does every single store in the world, from a brand, look the same? If I visit Melbourne, Australia, the Prada store there looks identical to (with the same products) as the store in Manhattan. Is that going to compel me as a visitor to shop there? Customers want unique goods curated for their local area. Louis Vuitton once had a bag you could only get in St. Barths. It sold out in minutes. Why? It was different. It was the St. Barths version. And it had that exclusive, local feel.
3) Unique store experiences. You have to make it exciting to shop in store, otherwise they’re going to shop online. Whether that’s in-store events, personalization offerings, or custom tech, focus on ways to attract customers. How can you make their lives easier too? Buy online pick up in store helps. But what other problems can you solve for your customer? If you can provide excellent customer service they will come back.
4) Limited stock. Kith is one of the most innovative retail companies right now. One of their genius moves is to launch limited edition design collabs. It’s unique, it’s fleeting, it creates a sense of urgency. That’s why there’s a line outside Supreme ever single day.
5) A better checkout experience. Most retailers don’t understand the tech investment that’s required to deliver an awesome customer experience. Everyone cites Apple as the leaders in the handheld checkout experience, but Hertz was paving the way long before that. They realized counters created a distraction — why not process the check out where your customers are, right by their car.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
A push for good food (aka the farm to table movement). Food is at the root of all we do as humans. You have a meal with someone, it’s intimate, it’s personal. You gain their trust. The food we are ingesting in our bodies is harmful. Manufactured food is an important subject that most people are uneducated about.
Some retailers like Patagonia have begun to put labels on their products in the same way as a box of crackers; where does the wool come from, the cotton come from? Knowing what we are eating and wearing is something very important to me.
Sam, thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspiring