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Voices: A Route Interview Series Feat. Danny Taing
Danny Taing Brings Bokksu to Life Despite Shortages, Shipping woes, and Pandemic Roller Coaster
Subscription boxes aren’t a new phenomena—but a wildly successful and sought-after subscription box definitely is. After living in Japan, Danny Taing simply couldn’t kick his craving for the snacks he discovered there. So in 2016, he came up with a plan to satiate his own craving while sharing authentic Japanese snacks with the rest of the world. Bokksu was born.
Bokksu takes care and attention to what’s packed inside each box by sourcing snacks from local and well-known makers. With such a unique and thoughtful variety, though, came immense popularity. So much that Taing had to pivot and adapt his brand and logistics on a dime.
Read what Danny had to say about building this tasty subscription box, long-lasting relationships, and a scalable brand (all while enduring the coronavirus pandemic).
Q: What’s one thing you know now that you wish you’d known five years ago?
A: Actually, I started the company around five years ago! The biggest lesson I’ve learned over the last five years is that the early employees in your company are not necessarily the same people that are going to be with you when you hit the next level of scale.
Even if you have some of the same people that did get there, they may not be the ones to be with you for the next level above that. It’s been a totally different ball game every single time we’ve hit each milestone. That’s been a hard lesson because it sometimes requires restructuring, having hard conversations, or making big decisions about hard things. Not getting too emotionally attached is something everybody should be aware of when they’re getting into a company that’s growing.
Q: What does the future of ecommerce look like in your mind?
A: Ecommerce, especially this past year, has accelerated exponentially faster than ever before. It was like 10 years of growth all accelerated into one year. Although that acceleration will slow a bit, once things open up again and people get vaccinated, there’s not going to be a reverse course in any way. It’s only going to keep growing and becoming more dominant. Ecommerce has been dominant and grown by Amazon, but I believe that there’s going to be a lot more players in this space. It’s going to be hard for anybody to compete with Amazon over really simple, basic things like books and electronics.
Companies that are offering experiential things—food subscriptions, things that are different and you can’t as easily find in Amazon—are going to be more of those $10 million businesses. Which potentially might consolidate under some other larger umbrella, but they’re all going to be independent with Shopify or other ecommerce platforms.
Things are going to look very different from how they looked 10 years ago. That’ll be our DTC ecommerce players coming into their own. Shopify has done a really great job of creating some type of competition by creating the space for the rest of us to have a fighting shot against Amazon.
Q: What is your best failure?
A: I’ve definitely had a lot of failures over the last five years. A pretty big one happened in early 2018, which was around two years into running the business. We had been growing very organically and pretty quickly at that point. We went from 1000 subscribers to 3000 subscribers in just one month. Tripling our following was very exciting for the team and we felt like we were onto something and growing something viral.
At the time, I didn’t know that if you grow too quickly and scale too quickly without preparing all of the infrastructure for it, things can start collapsing. In our case, it was our 3PL in Japan that ships directly to all of our customers around the world. They could not keep up with that growth because it was just too sudden. There was no advanced warning and they couldn’t hire people quickly enough to still have scale impact. Orders ended up taking two or three weeks longer than they were supposed to.
Customers complained, we got bad reviews, and our customer service issues grew out of control. We had to do our best at handling refunds or giving comps to make it up to customers—and we sent out a lot of apology emails.
With this growth spurt, I took my first business trip to Japan officially for the company. I have lived in Japan and have been there a lot, but I had never visited for this business. The company finally grew to a size where it made sense to travel there. Instead of only talking strategy in a meeting with them, my team and I rolled up our sleeves in the warehouse to help pack the boxes as well. It was a crazy time.
Fortunately, we’ve learned from that. We’ve still hit scaling issues, but that was one of the most stressful that I could recall. It’s tough to preemptively prepare yourself for that kind of growth. You never know when it’s going to hit.
Q: How have you pivoted strategy during the pandemic?
A: The pandemic has been life-altering for our company and our whole supply chain and logistics. We directly partner with bigger businesses in Japan and source their snacks there. The supply chain crumbled and collapsed last year when COVID-19 was first hitting global shipping lines, and causing them to shut down.
Japan announced suspensions to 200 countries around the world, including the U.S., which is our single largest market. I didn’t even think it would be possible for postal service networks to suspend shipping. The crazy thing is it’s still suspended a year later. There aren’t enough flights to put parcels into. We had to immediately figure out alternate shipping routes, and now we ship using DHL as well as that other 3PL and creating more redundancy.
We now work with two different 3PLs because the first one wasn’t able to keep up with our growth this past year. We actually had really strong growth throughout this whole past year once I figured out that initial shipping issue.
I pivoted strategy as much as I could and did my best to make sure that one single thing couldn’t kill us as a company. Always make sure to keep in mind the thought: what will kill us next? What is the next weak point in the business? All because the pandemic brought us almost to our knees.
Not having that happen again is the most important thing for us in diversifying all of those supply chains and logistics. The growth and logistical aspect went up and down throughout the entire year.
Sales went down initially because everybody was freaking out about the pandemic. When people were quarantined, sales went up and we couldn’t ship to them. It just kept going up and down and we solved the shipping. Now we’re in a relatively more stable position, but it almost feels like anything could happen. You never know what’s coming up.