Growing up, Ali Asaria didn’t like the sound of being an entrepreneur. He wanted to grow up to be an engineer and build things, and thought that entrepreneurship was a weird sounding word and was for boring business-y people. But he soon learned that his desire to build things would lead him down that path. “I wanted to solve this ecommerce problem and the software that runs it, and the only way to do that was to create a ‘business’,” he says. “Business for me is a way to do the thing that I love: building things that make people happy.”
While he didn’t follow in his father’s footsteps to become a pharmacist, he did incorporate that industry into his business venture. “I was making websites in 2007-2008 so I asked my dad if I could try selling some of his products online,” he says. “I had no idea what I was getting into at the time, but people were buying a lot of things like sunscreen and makeup.” That site eventually became Well.ca, a Canadian online health and beauty store with over 25,000 products and free shipping across the country. The company was named as one of Profit Magazine’s Hot 50 companies in 2009, and closed a round of private funding in July 2009 worth $1.1 million.
When he was first getting started Asaria’s biggest problem was being taken seriously by both suppliers and investors. “It’s hard to be taken seriously when you have never done anything in this realm before,” he says. A second problem was determining the best way of going about shipping hundreds of packages every day. Another challenge is an ongoing one – finding great people to hire. “We have to work hard to find the best people that understand our unique business model but also reflect and enhance our unique culture,” he says. “I spend the majority of my time trying to find the very best people to join our team.”
Some might consider the company’s headquarters to be a challenge – it’s located in Guelph, Ontario, a small town outside of Toronto. But Asaria says there are advantages to working in a small town. “Being located in Guelph, Ontario is the best thing in the world! We’re all about being nice and friendly – and Guelph is naturally like this,” he says. “For business, sometimes I find it’s better to be away from the noise of a busy place like Toronto because it makes us focus on our own business more. It’s less distracting here.” That being said, the team just opened a Toronto satellite office to support partnerships and marketing efforts.
Even though they’re expanding in size and location, Asaria says it’s really important that they keep a startup culture at the company. “This has been a big challenge for us as we continue to grow. Our goofy, innovative start-up atmosphere is something that comes from the employees,” he says. Their Catered Monday lunches help keep a sense of community, and they still have dress-up days, coffee houses, an indoor basketball court, and a yoga club.
Asaria’s advice for new entrepreneurs is simple: figure out what you really want and keep returning to that. “Starting a company takes a lot of work: it can take all your time, and it can sap all your self-confidence. It’s easy to work 60 hours a week and forget who you are and what you really want,” he says. “Many successful entrepreneurs will tell you that they’re not happy. Spending time thinking about what you really want might be the most important thing you can do.”
What Asaria really wants is for Well.ca to be the biggest e-commerce company in Canada with a focus on service. They’ll be making a number of big announcements in the near future to help them get there. “We’re going to be launching several new categories, we’re going to improve our software, and we’ll be making a number of goofy videos of us having eating contests,” he says. At least it seems like the fun startup culture at Well.ca is there to stay.