We talked to Neal Panamdanam of ZebraBlinds about the sales of blinds, shades, shutters & drapery during the pandemic.
First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Neal Panamdanam: We are doing quite well, all things considered. The pandemic has made us rethink how to go about our day to day life; shopping for the essentials is a planned weekly trip, we don’t interact with a lot of people in public who are currently out of our social circle, and the new normal has been to try and stay isolated, especially during spikes in Covid-19 cases. Toronto is currently on its second lockdown of the year, and I am certain we will see more lockdowns to come until a large portion of the population is vaccinated. This is the new normal for now, at least. At this point, I am just happy that my family, my coworkers, and my colleagues, have been able to stay safe, healthy, and relatively problem-free through the pandemic.
Tell us about you, your career, how you joined ZebraBlinds.
Neal Panamdanam: I am in my late 20s and kind of a nerd and tech enthusiast. I’ve been playing with computers, phones, software, you name it, for as long as I could and started when I was in grade 8, really got to experiment with it as I got older, and even now, I still build computers or repair broken devices as a hobby.
I was thrown into the entrepreneurship world at a fairly young age to assist my family. When most people my age were in college or university, I was on the other side of the world, getting the raw experience of managing employees who were twice my age and considered me a greenhorn. It was definitely a challenging time, but it also supercharged my growth, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
I moved back to Canada a few years ago, looking for my next new venture and opportunity. Home automation wasn’t as convenient and popular as it is now, but I was really confident it would be the next major tech market. I then took over as COO and CTO of ZebraBlinds, a brand my father owned, to really focus the business on new technology and bring affordable custom smart home automation to the mass market.
How does ZebraBlinds innovate?
Neal Panamdanam: We innovate in two areas that I like to call customer-centric and IT-centric.
When it comes to customer-centric, at ZebraBlinds, we currently focus on three goals, memorable customer service, quality products, and affordable products; all three are interconnected and cannot exist without the other. Customer service is the key to any successful venture, and if the service provided is memorable, you have yourself a lifelong customer who will always recommend Zebra. With this in mind, we focused on the products and partnered with various manufacturers who pass our strict QC requirements and have come up with various strategies to lower the price of delivered goods to the customer. If the quality was low or the price too high, memorable customer service would only get you so far. The combination of the three leads to a better customer experience and increased revenue year over year since implementation.
When it comes to home automation, we are quick at adopting new technologies. We have a team whose main job is to simply play around with new devices, see how we can integrate it with our current offerings, and see how they work with various home automation ecosystems. This gives us far better insight than simply how our products work, and more importantly, how does it work with everything else a consumer would have. The same team also identifies partners in home automation that we can work with to get more of our devices working with smart homes and, overall, driving the cost down for custom smart home devices. This goes back to increasing customer satisfaction and the overall value a customer receives from communicating with our team.
The IT-centric part of the equation is our site, its infrastructure, and the team that solely exists for it. E-commerce is a competitive space, even in niche environments such as ours. We need to innovate on everything from how quickly pages load to how easy it is for customers to order products that are so massively complicated as ours, especially since they are custom made. Over the past few years, we’ve developed our unique optimization techniques, methods, and procedures, which we expand daily to keep the web experience up and offer the same services to other e-commerce ventures. However, that is strictly on a referral basis only for now. We have seen anywhere between 30 – 200% growth annually among our clients from our efforts to create a better web e-commerce experience. We are currently working on an all-new customer experience, which should be pretty mind-blowing; however, I can’t reveal the details until it’s released.
How the coronavirus pandemic affects your business, and how are you coping?
Neal Panamdanam: As with most industries and businesses, we see the many changes and effects of the pandemic. We are thankfully still growing, although at a reduced rate compared to the pre-pandemic expectations. However, it is better than we expected it to be. Back in November and towards the end of December, when reports started arising of Covid-19 spreading worldwide and seeing the effects in countries such as Italy, we created two growth expectations and operational plans for the year just in case. It made sure we were better prepared when the pandemic and lockdowns inevitably hit North America.
Did you have to make difficult choices, and what are the lessons learned?
Neal Panamdanam: Thankfully, we haven’t had to make life-altering choices for our employees and have been able to avoid layoffs or reduced working hours or pay reductions. We understand the impact this would have on our employees and will do everything necessary to prevent it. That said, we have had to make some difficult choices for cost-saving measures such as cutting back on R&D when it comes to our physical products and rescind job offers that were otherwise issued before the pandemic. We hope to make up for these in 2021 since we have a better idea of business expectations now.
How do you deal with stress and anxiety?
Neal Panamdanam: I like to approach this a bit differently. Rather than “deal” with stress and anxiety, I’ve come to learn it’s going to be a part of your day to day life, especially as my responsibilities grow. It’s more about identifying how to live with it and not letting it take over. I remember when I first started back in 2010, I had a constant fear of making the wrong decision and how I would handle the consequences and the only answer to that is experience. Until you gain the experience, you will make mistakes and constantly fall; that’s just how it is, and the sooner you realize that it’s ok to make mistakes, the less stress and anxiety impact you.
Past that, I realized I need a work-life balance and focus some time on things I want to do and some time to relax and focus on my hobbies or potentially not do anything. In the time I take for myself, I do things ranging from reading, coding for personal projects, playing the piano, exercising, tinkering with computer and phone hardware and software, and either board games or video games with a group of close-knit friends. A work-life balance very easily changes stress from something that I deal with to something that’s just there, and any frustrations that may arise from it fuels my constant need to grow further.
Who are your competitors? And how do you plan to stay in the game?
Neal Panamdanam: In our space, we have a few legitimate competitors, but at the same time, we see many small ventures come and go yearly. Most of the smaller ventures fail due to a lack of vision on where they want to go and a lack of understanding of the complexity and amount of work required to compete in our space.
We will grow in our space due to the customer-centric and IT-centric approach I mentioned earlier. It lets us diversify what we have on the table fairly easily and expand further as we identify new areas of ingress. We’ve already identified new areas of growth that we are actively focused on, and the results of these actions are expected to be visible sometime soon.
Your final thoughts?
Neal Panamdanam: Dream bigger than big, dream massive. That’s what my dad and mom taught me, and it’s been the biggest driving force in my career. You need to dream massive if you hope to achieve even a small portion of it. Secondly, anyone can do this; doesn’t matter if you are an introvert, an extrovert, or somewhere in between. Be confident, and if you are an introvert like me, start by acting confident. Eventually, it just becomes a part of who you are. Don’t confuse arrogance with confidence either since that’s a recipe for disaster. Don’t let education be a barrier, we’re in the age of the internet. If you don’t have the knowledge for what you want to do, look it up and learn; the resources are freely available. Finally, be kind, be understanding, be empathetic, be human.