By Sarah Kelsey
The COVID-19 pandemic has forever changed the way we do many things — how we shop is one of them. Because of city and province-wide lockdowns and restrictions, many retailers have had to rapidly pivot to e-commerce and the online world — a strategy that can be quite costly if implemented incorrectly.
“We’re now in a situation where most retailers don’t know how to digitize, and they are lacking the staff to help guide them,” Karen Wong says. “It’s a very different thing to sell online. You find customers differently — it’s about SEO, online presence. It’s about digital marketing. Profits can get eaten up by shipping — something most retailers do at a great loss to their bottom line. It’s not as simple as it looks.”
If Karen sounds like she knows what she’s talking about, that’s because she does. She is the CEO and co-founder of TAKU Labs, a transformative point-of-sale (POS) software company that allows brick-and-mortar shop owners to open up online with next to no effort. The software can help an entrepreneur track everything from sales to customer data all while offering an accurate real-time view of inventory so consumers know exactly what is available to purchase when.
Essentially, it’s a game changer for store owners who are now being forced onto the World Wide Web.
“Retailers can get online in two weeks,” she says. “They upload their product information once, or we can help them do it, and then after that the retail experience is seamless. No more inventory issues, no more sales issues — retailers know exactly what is available when. The customer experience is vastly improved.”
“By the end of everything, I was flying every week and I was working non-stop. The experiences I had were great. I did well, but I was burnt out.”
POS and managing a tech startup wasn’t something Karen ever imagined she’d end up doing when she graduated university.
“I graduated with a B.A. and no real work experience, so I started doing admin work at Husky. There, I found out I really liked marketing.”
She made the leap to CPG and worked her way through an MBA part-time. She tried her hand at running a wholesale home decor company (“I did everything I shouldn’t have done!”) and even moved to Asia for eight years where she worked in manufacturing and operations and eventually opened up her own retail business in Taiwan.
“By the end of everything, I was flying every week and I was working non-stop. The experiences I had were great. I did well, but I was burnt out,” Karen says. So she returned to Canada.
That’s when lightning struck.
At every turn in Karen’s career, she found she was forced to work with disconnected systems to accomplish a variety of retail-based tasks. “There was a tool for marketing, another for sales, another for operations,” she said. “Nothing spoke to each other. Nothing was integrated. Nothing was simple.”
Karen realized a system that could amalgamate all of these features could change the retail landscape. One purchase of a languishing company that offered the basics of this service and 5,000 customers later, and she had the beginnings of what would eventually become TAKU.
“My journey to become an entrepreneur… I would say it was no less risky than working at a big corporation today,” Karen says, alluding to the tenuous nature of employment during a recession. “But I wasn’t afraid of failure. In fact, you can’t be afraid of failing in this line of business. You have to adopt a mindset that it’s absolutely key to growing and learning, because once you make a mistake it’s unlikely you’ll make it again. It’s the most expensive training school you’ll ever have.”
“I know what that opportunity feels like. I was my clientele. Support is everything, and that’s what makes what I do rewarding.”
She notes building her business over the past few years has been possible because of the support network she’s built, including a key relationship with ventureLAB, a leading technology hub in York Region.
Since joining ventureLAB in 2018, Karen has relied on ventureLAB for everything from sourcing funding to explaining “Silicon Valley lingo” in a way that was understandable. As a member of ventureLAB’s Innovation Space, TAKU also has access to exclusive collaboration and networking, as well as opportunities to showcase their product. TAKU was even selected by ventureLAB’s partner Digital Main Street for their community collaboration program, something that enabled Karen to bring select retailers online for free.
“ventureLAB has been incredibly supportive,” she says. “One of the biggest challenges for women in the tech space is there aren’t a lot of mentors. At ventureLAB, there’s a heavy emphasis on the practical and tactical tools you need to be a founder and woman in tech. I always tell people in this industry to do their research and find an organization you can lean on like I have with them.”
Karen’s other big piece of advice for entrepreneurs is to find a partner who can help lighten the startup load.
“No one knows everything, so unless you have a partner who can challenge you and push you, you’ll end up being an entrepreneur that works in a vacuum, and that’s not really valuable,” she says, noting many big organizations (even Google) won’t work with a company if they’re not headed by two or more people. “You have to have someone at an equivalent level challenge you and your assumptions.”
When discussing where TAKU goes next, Karen says it’s all about expanding the business to help retailers thrive and grow in a post-COVID world. Most of her current clients are medium-sized, multi-sector yet still independent outlets like cafes, pet food stores, grocers, antique shops, and specialty sellers like Kawartha Dairy.
“A lot of our customers have said it’s been incredible to have the ability to go home and work on the store from there — they can update product pricing or add inventory from home as opposed to only in the physical store,” she says. “It’s helped bring balance to their life — that’s particularly true for women — all while expanding and scaling their business. I know what that opportunity feels like. I was my clientele. Support is everything, and that’s what makes what I do rewarding.”