This article is part of High Alpha’s CEO Spotlight series. We regularly sit down with High Alpha portfolio CEOs and leaders to dig into their business, team, and story. You’ll get an inside look at the companies in our portfolio and their incredible leaders and teams.
On September 28th, High Alpha Studio company Humankind announced its official launch. The digital concierge platform enables e-commerce brands and retailers to connect their product experts with online shoppers through scalable, 1:1 conversations via SMS.
Humankind is led by Co-Founder and CEO David Weissman, an experienced e-commerce entrepreneur and former leader at Target, Dermstore, and GSI Commerce. With over 22 years of e-commerce experience, Weissman has consulted for some of the world’s leading brands, including Burberry, Ralph Lauren, Adidas, Quicksilver, Beautycounter, and Petsmart.
We recently had the opportunity to sit down with David, to talk more about the company, his background, and the lessons he’s learned along the way.
In a few sentences, tell us about Humankind and what you do.
We enable brands and retailers to launch long-term, 1:1 personalized engagements between brand experts and consumers. The primary communication happens through SMS, so we like to call it an H-commerce platform…“H” is for humans. Whereas e-commerce is for do-it-yourself shoppers, H-commerce is a brand new sales channel that offers consumers a more engaged, concierge way to shop.
Tell us a little bit about your background. How did you get into the e-commerce space and eventually into the tech space as well?
I’ve been doing e-commerce for 22 years. So when I started in e-commerce, I didn’t have any experience but neither did anyone else. At the time, I was a very average TV producer, and a business that was building e-commerce solutions for media companies needed someone who had relationships and understood that world. They didn’t look for anyone with e-commerce experience back then because nobody did. I made the career switch and never looked back.
I’ve spent my career across the broad spectrum of e-cmmerce, including B2B, and B2B2C, and with a healthy dose of consumer experiences, I started Humankind, which is kind of my own personal journey and amalgamation of all my learnings and experiences. I wasn’t looking to be an entrepreneur, per se, but I felt like the idea presented itself and, fairly intoxicatingly, pulled me into it.
What was your “a-ha” moment?
I got hired by Target in 2014, and originally, when I got recruited, I didn’t even take the interview because I felt like it was way too big of a company, and I wanted something much more entrepreneurial. But the recruiter actually said that’s why they were looking for people like me. A $73 billion dollar company wants to be more like me? It was the nicest thing anyone’s ever said to me.
So I met with the CEO and executive team in Minneapolis and told them I would be interested if I could be entrepreneurial, meaning start companies, buy companies, and innovate and their response was “that’s exactly why we want to hire you, no other candidate has asked us that. As part of my role I ended up taking over an acquisition, Target had just made, a DTC skincare business called Dermstore.
On my second day, I’m interviewing all the employees, and there was a junior marketer who came into my office. I had never worked in the skincare industry, and she said to me — I’ll never forget it — that nobody knows what the heck they’re doing in skincare. The whole industry knows its guesswork, and so do consumers.
I knew we could do better. My entrepreneurial brain kicked in alongside my passion for customer experience. And that’s sort of how the seed of the original idea formed.
I later left Target to start my own DTC business in the skincare space where I did nothing but use the H-commerce idea of selling online through product experts. When you look at where we are with Humankind, we’re able to bring that capability to other brands and retailers because I was, essentially, the first client. Through almost 3 years and millions of interactions, I worked out a ton of bugs. I got all my bad hypotheses correct and figured out the optimal experience. And then at some point, it became this “a-ha” — why am I building a skincare brand in addition to this whole new way to shop? Let me take these learnings and build a B2B SaaS business for other brands and retailers.
Tell me more about your conviction around this idea of H-commerce and customer experience in e-commerce.
E-commerce today is completely do-it-yourself. But when you’re shopping in certain categories or for specific use cases, you can be completely under-qualified or might just not have the energy to research everything you need to know before buying the product. The in-store experience is better, but it’s still very high-level.
There hasn’t been much innovation in customer experience in e-commerce in 20 years. It’s gotten more standardized, and yes, there are more capabilities but these tools are underneath the hood and not noticeable by customers. Everyone talks about personalization. But as a consumer…I’m like, I’ve never seen it. What is it? Okay, you might be showing me more relevant products. But the four products that are showing up on Nordstrom’s homepage don’t register as an improved customer experience, they’re implicit to the user.
Well, why not something more explicit, something that blows them away with an amazing customer experience? That’s been my passion. I found a wedge with my DTC company, tested it out, and consumers freaking loved it. The company sold white-labeled products. They weren’t the best. But we had a 4.93 star rating and thousands of the greatest reviews I’ve ever seen in my life. Again, I’ve worked in e-commerce with brands like Burberry, Ralph Lauren, Quicksilver, Adidas…amazing brands. And I never saw anything close to this.
That’s when I knew I had something special.
Did you always want to be an entrepreneur?
It’s always been in my blood. In my first career in television, I made a pilot and tried to pitch it to MTV when I was 23. So that was kind of entrepreneurial. I really had no idea what I was doing but I’ve always had this, “I can do it” attitude in me, somewhat of a chip on my shoulder.
After 22 years of e-commerce, I’ve been at all stages of startups. So while I never thought, “I want to be an entrepreneur,” I was attracted to the “I can get it done with blood, sweat, and tears” mentality. It’s the intellectual stimulation of figuring it out on the fly, putting a ton of energy and heart into it…that’s what I’m attracted to and that obviously exists in the startup, entrepreneurial world.
Humankind just officially launched. Any key learnings?
You really have to do your best as a startup founder not to overbuild your technology. It’s actually hard to hold it back because you really want to wait until you can see and learn from your end-users and clients to inform what’s going to move the needle…and it’s sometimes really hard not to over-engineer and overthink it.
I see it amongst my friends. I don’t think we did it here, and that’s probably because I made that mistake with my last business. So I did it once, and I could avoid doing it again. That’s one of the learnings — be cautious with the impulse to over-build.
And then the second biggest learning is, how can you not only provide the solution for a use case, but also a solution for the demand that drives that use case. If you can do that, you’ve got a better business. So if you can solve both sides of the equation — help with the demand and help with the solution to the demand, then you’re setting your clients and your business up for success.
What are you most excited about in your product roadmap?
This is kind of a timely thing, but at a high level, we’ve been very successful at quickly building a killer product and getting clients signed and going. We’re now shifting to what I call “IPO” or “influencing positive outcomes” and really focusing on our existing clients, actually we’re obsessing over them, and making sure they crush it, especially because we’re in a good place with leads and pipeline. I’ve got years of experience being an e-commerce operator, so I have that unique advantage and I know how brands and retailers tick
So I’m really excited about that.
Another thing is that it’s common for software to price based on seats or users in the platform. Immediately, we were like no, no, no. no. That would completely make our interests misaligned with our clients because our whole thing is that we want to make humans more scalable. So our mission is going to be making the platform easier to use and more scalable through technology. There are all kinds of NLP, ML, and AI that we have on the horizon so that humans can use their EQ, be their trustworthy selves and free up their time to be humans while the technology takes a lot of the admin work off their shoulders.
Last question — any mentors or inspiration you’d like to share that’s significantly impacted your journey?
Early in my career, I spent 10 years at GSI commerce, which has since morphed into what’s called Kynetic, a well-known technology company headed by Michael Rubin. Those were my formative years where I learned the power of relationships in business.
The name Humankind is also very intentional and on-brand for me and my journey. I think my strength in relationship selling comes from the idea that the business is an online, relationship-focused experience. So the name Humankind is very thoughtful and a conscious decision we made to lean into the idea of bringing humans together.
Lastly, the pandemic definitely accelerated our desire to grow trustworthy relationships. And some of the folks I worked for at GSI taught me a lot about relationships and the power of them — some of my best friends today were my clients 15 years ago, and they have enough to be upset about with me…with early technology and lots of holes. But I got through it because of the relationships I was able to make. To them, I was like their Humankind expert. I’m going to be your guide, I’m going to take care of you. So that theme was continued with Humankind, and I really give a lot of credit to the early leadership at GSI who taught me that.
Anything else you’d like to add?
This is a modern sales channel. There hasn’t been a new sales channel in retail since…e-commerce. And now, we’re using the term “H-commerce”. We believe we’re creating a new way to buy, and leading the charge of using technology to create better experiences that consumers will recognize and feel good about.
If people are interested in learning more about Humankind or joining your team, where should they go for more information?
If you’re interested in using Humankind or if you’d like to join our team, head to our website: gethumankind.com