Maria Haggerty on seeing eCommerce as the future and launching Dotcom
Describe your business in a few words?
Dotcom is a premier provider of fulfillment and distribution services, fueling fast growth for B2C and B2B eCommerce and multichannel brands.
What made you take the leap to start your own business?
While serving as controller and CFO at a company that specialized in video distribution, my eventual business partner and I developed a strong background in the manufacturing and distribution part of the business. We saw eCommerce was the future. In those early days, people were just beginning to buy online but sellers were struggling to connect the fulfillment and distribution pieces of their business. We saw the opportunity in that and knew we had the unique skill set to run with it.
What was your background prior to starting your own business?
I began my career as a CPA at Arthur Andersen and was the CFO of GoodTimes Home Video prior to founding Dotcom.
Did you always know you wanted to be an entrepreneur?
It was very early on in life that I laid the foundation that taught me that I could do anything—especially if I was told I couldn’t. Instead of finishing high school, I decided to leave New York and go to Florida. Everyone told me a 16-year-old couldn’t live on her own, which is good advice for a lot of young girls, but it wasn’t for me. I got a waitressing job, an apartment, a driver’s license and a car. Everyone told me I’d be a waitress for the rest of my life, so what did I do? I got my GED, went to college, graduated with honors, became a CPA, and started my own business in an unproven industry. So I think it’s fair to say I’ve always had an entrepreneurial (and rebellious) spirit!
Take us back to when you first launched your business, what was your marketing strategy to get the word out and did it go as planned?
In hindsight I’m not sure it was much of a marketing strategy. We did engage a marketing firm to help us develop our logo, letterhead, and our 1-pager, but that was the extent of our “marketing plan” per se. We instead used the relationships that we had built over the years to attract clients, and it was those relationships that landed us our first major account, Kenneth Cole. It was years before we grew up enough to have a real marketing strategy.
We always learn the most from our mistakes, share a time with us that you made a mistake or had a challenging time in business and what you learned from it?
We’d just purchased all the machinery for Dotcom and the paint on the walls of our 250,000 square foot building was barely dry when the dotcom bubble burst. The few clients we had went under. So did our stock portfolios, which were securing the business. It was the ultimate bootstrapping operation. I learned that every obstacle presents an opportunity. eCommerce wasn’t ready for us, so we had to figure out how to survive until the timing synced up. We pivoted to what we knew—a proven B2B model—and it saved us. It taught me to always have a backup plan and to diversify your offerings.
What is the accomplishment you are the most proud of to date?
Personally, my two daughters are by far and without question my biggest source of pride. In business, I’ll always be proud of the maneuvering we pulled off to keep Dotcom in business when we launched. When we started Dotcom, we had an eCommerce B2C model. That turned out to be a mistake when the dotcom bubble burst right after we opened our doors. Luckily, we’d participated in building distribution plans for B2B in the past, had developed POS distribution systems, and had even won Walmart’s Vendor of the Year a few times, so we knew how to make the switch to a proven B2B model. It was an important move and one I’m proud of because it almost certainly would have been easier to just let it go, especially since I had a young family, and a solid career with great connections and references to fall back on. But I knew with such clarity what I wanted for my company, and how it would contribute to the future of eCommerce, so I couldn’t. And I’m so glad I didn’t. It taught me that my determination truly knew no bounds, and it still doesn’t. One of my all-time favorite sayings is, “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” and, indeed, today, having a multi-channel offering has made us much stronger.
When hiring for your team, what is your go-to interview question? Please share any hiring tips you can share from your experience?
Tell me who you are off paper. I can usually tell from the resume whether a person has the technical skills to get the job done. What I am really looking for is the cultural fit. If a person is a rocket scientist but doesn’t know how to play well with others, that’s a huge red flag. I can usually glean how passionate a person is – about work, about their family/personal life , about their hobbies. I find that well balanced people make the best employees, especially when the pressure builds. I think it’s relatively easy to access skills and much harder to access demeanor. I often surprise the team with how much I learn about the person as opposed to the employee, which to me is key. We spend more hours a day with our colleagues than we do with our families. It’s important for me to build a collaborative team that gets joy from solving challenges together.
How has your business or industry been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic?
As an essential business during Covid-19, I felt like I was reliving my history a little bit, having to redesign the business overnight to safeguard my people and my business. But those early experiences helped shape Dotcom’s nimble business approach, which helped put us on the track to come out stronger on the other side. It’s no secret that the eCommerce industry has seen unprecedented growth since the emergence of COVID-19. As a third-party fulfillment company specializing in eCommerce, we’re on the solutions end of this “death of retail” scenario, so our demand has skyrocketed. Businesses know we can get their orders out. We’ve had real challenges to contend with, but this situation has led to business opportunities that wouldn’t have otherwise existed.
What’s next for your business? What can we expect to see over the next few years?
As challenging as 2020 was, the fallout from the pandemic provided key learnings surrounding the growth of eCommerce—namely, the shift from retail/wholesale to eCommerce. We’re using that data to drive efficiency in our facility, not only by investing in technology solutions that accommodate our clients’ growing eCommerce needs, like AI-based inventory slotting, but also workforce planning technology. Fulfillment is a labor-intensive business, and because everyone is competing in the same labor pool, there is immense upward pricing pressure in the labor market in this and adjacent industries. We’re working to assist workers in becoming more efficient in their job functions by expanding Dotcom’s investment in labor and labor management solutions. This includes things like prompting more engagement with warehouse employees, providing warehouse staff with tools that enable scheduling flexibility, hiring top performers from agencies, and retraining or providing extra training for low performers.
What is the biggest lesson you have learned in 2020?
That there is no such thing as good or bad, it’s really what you make of it. When the pandemic was first declared my life and my business seemed like it would be in an upheaval. Would we need to close our doors? How would I see my girls? My trip to Italy was cancelled. However Each passing day came with challenges that we were overcoming. I learned that our business was essential, so we were able to work, albeit in new ways.
What do you know now that you wish you knew when you were first starting your business?
What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger! If you can’t make enough money to survive doing what you’re doing, leverage your skill sets, relationships, space—any resources you have—to secure a solid foundation.
How have you managed to stay grounded this year?
Well, I love to travel, so not being able to do that has literally kept me grounded! But two of my passions are cooking and photography, so I’ve loved exploring both of those things when I do find some free time. Living on Long Island, I’m also fortunate to be able to spend time walking on the beach and staying connected to nature, which I’ve found to be stabilizing. Most recently, I’ve added a puppy to my family and she is encouraging me to get outside even more.
Do you believe in work/life balance? What are some of your best tips?
I absolutely believe in work life balance. But I see it a bit differently. From my perspective, in order for your life to be in balance, it must constantly be out of balance, somewhat like a seesaw. For me, when I was raising my daughters, my number one rule was when I was with them, I was with them. I was not on my phone, computer, etc. They had my undivided attention. When I was at the office, I often lost track of what was happening at home. I was 100% Mom at home, and 100% CEO at the office. Today, my girls are adults and I’m working from home, so the balance is different, but the same principle applies. When I am not working, I am not working, and when I am, I am 100% engaged. It’s hard to always be out of balance, but once you get the hang of it, you can let the nagging guilt go, and just be good at the job you are doing at the moment—mom, daughter, friend, CEO etc.
What’s something our audience would be surprised to learn about you?
I think the most surprising fun fact about me is that I ran away from home when I was 16, as I mentioned earlier. Another one is that, for years, I commuted from Long Island, NY to Edison, NJ. Seventy fun-filled miles each way! I used that time to learn Italian, and that has become such an important part of my life. I traveled to Italy often pre-pandemic, and look forward to returning again post-pandemic. As a result, I’ve made a lot of friends who have become family, both in Italy and New York. My favorite thing that resulted from these friendships was that I introduced one of my Italian friends to my former assistant and mentee, who became a dear friend over the years; they married and just last week my Italian friend became a US citizen…all because of my long commute!
What are your top 3 tips to stay productive each day?
Approach everything with possibility. I find it very tiresome when people say, “I don’t like this. This doesn’t work.” That’s totally unproductive. Open up your mind to how you can as opposed to how you can’t. You have to create that mindset to be successful. If you believe you can, you’re probably right.
Maintain a positive attitude. Ninety-nine percent the time, what you can or cannot do is a choice.
Think holistically. Grand gestures very rarely succeed. The things that are usually successful are baby steps that add up over time to make a big impact.
What does being an Entreprenista mean to you?
Being an Entreprenista means leading by example, owning opportunities & recognizing that you rise by lifting others. Dotcom is here to provide support & guidance on eCommerce operations, especially now when so many are unexpectedly navigating this competitive, evolving sector.