The world is your oyster, and it is up to you to take chances in life and make things happen. Life is short as Omair Tariq has been reminded by the near-death experiences that have prompted him to go big rather than remain stagnant. His venture, Cart.com has raised funding from top-tier investors like Sebastian Rymarz, Moonshots Capital, Oaks HC/FT, and Clearco.
In this episode you will learn:
- How to look at the positive side of disasters
- Learning to challenge yourself at each turn
- Having the courage to start a business when all the odds seem against you
- The value of good talent and good company culture
- How to handle mergers and acquisitions successfully
For a winning deck, take a look at the pitch deck template created by Silicon Valley legend, Peter Thiel (see it here) that I recently covered. Thiel was the first angel investor in Facebook with a $500K check that turned into more than $1 billion in cash.
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Moreover, I also provided a commentary on a pitch deck from an Uber competitor that has raised over $400 million (see it here).
Remember to unlock for free the pitch deck template that is being used by founders around the world to raise millions below.
About Omair Tariq:
Omair Tariq previously served as the COO and CFO of Blinds.com, which he helped grow and exit to The Home Depot, staying on the lead and e-commerce P&L. He has founded and exited D2C brands and invests in and advises high-growth startups and VC funds.
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Connect with Omair Tariq:
Read the Full Transcription of the Interview:
Alejandro: Alrighty. Hello everyone, and welcome to the DealMakers show. Today we have an incredible founder. His story is remarkable! What he has been able to accomplish is unbelievable, and I think that we’re going to be learning quite a bit from his journey and getting inspired on everything that he has gone through while building this business, before building this business, crazy stories with planes, engines not functioning well—talk about uncertainty, I think that we’re really going to enjoy this. So without further ado, let’s welcome our guest today, Omair Tariq. Welcome to the show.
Omair Tariq: Thanks for having me. I’m excited about the conversation today, and I think it’s going to be fun.
Alejandro: Let’s start with doing a walk through memory lane, Omair. Tell us about your life, being born and raised in Dubai, the Dubai that we don’t know today. It was the Dubai full of deserts.
Omair Tariq: Yeah. I was an ‘80s kid in a country that nobody can recognize. That was the ‘80s kid because around the time I was growing up there, it was a lot more desert and a lot more flat ground than the buildings of exuberance that we see today and what the city has become. What I saw growing up in Dubai was a country that was figuring out what they needed to be when they grow up. They were figuring it out faster than any other country in the world. They have significant amounts of money because of the oil and gas economy, but they knew that they were going to run out of that at some point and needed to have something else for people to look forward to for Dubai to flourish and become a thriving country. Tourism became the agenda for the government of Dubai. We saw during the late ‘80s and early ‘90s that country go from just desert and beautiful beaches to the tallest building in the world and more exuberant malls, and the most wealth may be concentrated in a single zip code in the world. So I saw that evolution right in front of my eyes, and there were streets where I used to ride my bike that were flat grounds and nothing else to then being surrounded by skyscrapers taller than a little boy could see.
Alejandro: No kidding. I think there was a pivotal moment there when you decided that something that was of much interest was astrophysics and applied math, and that got you to travel quite a bit, starting with Pakistan. So how was the experience of going to Pakistan?
Omair Tariq: I grew up wanting to be an astrophysicist at a very early age. I was fascinated with space, much like many of the kids in the ‘80s. The only thing that was maybe different was I found a way with being very good with numbers and physics became my passion and studying it, learning the principles, and understanding how science drives our society today and the society outside of our imagination with something that I grew up with a big fascination for. As I got older, I knew that I needed to—by the way, during this time, Dubai did not have a very good system of undergraduate education, and it was still a country that was very few and far limited options in terms of where you could go to college. I figured that I needed to move out of Dubai and study astrophysics and applied math. I lived a little bit of time in Pakistan and then at Cambridge before I moved to Houston to pursue my passions.
Alejandro: So in Pakistan, you had quite a crazy experience too. Talking about dealing with uncertainty, you were kidnapped there. That’s insane. What is that story? Tell us about it.
Omair Tariq: Yeah. It’s crazy because around the time I moved to Pakistan, it was a very unstable time in the developing country, obviously, in a 34-year-old country that had been born in 1947 when they split from India. We’re surrounded by countries that were also very unstable, so it had a big impact on the actual political climate within the country. Poverty is a thing, and there was a big divide in the haves and have-nots. I was in Pakistan. I was 15 years old when I was in a car with my cousin, and we were stopped at a red light, and the next thing I knew, there was a cold, hard metal object that I’m feeling at my temple. I looked around, and it’s a gun. There are two guys that are screaming at us and saying, “Get into the back seat,” so that they could get into the driver’s front seat. These two guys jumped into the front seat and started driving the car while one guy sits in the back with us and holds us at gunpoint. We’re terrified and not understanding what was going on and why is this happening. We’re like, “Do you want money? You can have money. You can have the car, my cell phone, and whatever else you need, but let us go.” These guys were not planning on just stealing our stuff, but they were actually planning on using our car to go rob other places. So they kept us at gunpoint for what seemed like an eternity and robbed six supermarkets or something. Then one of the supermarkets, one of the guys was armed, and he ended up shooting one of the robbers.
Omair Tariq: That robber comes stumbling down and back into the car. The next thing you know, we’re hauling at what felt like 200 miles an hour. The whole thing was just surreal as it was happening. Then, finally, they take us to an isolated spot. My cousin and I are, obviously, terrified and not sure what our fate was. They’re debating among themselves whether they should let us live or kill us. They decided to kill us. However, the day was not intended for us to die because they actually pulled out a gun and started shooting at us, except the gun wouldn’t work, so thank God for poor-quality weapons during that time.
Omair Tariq: That happened, and we survived, and once they realized their gun wasn’t going to work, and it was going to get messy, they decided to leave us and run away. It was the craziest experience of my life because at 15 years old, most of us are still trying to figure out how we get onto the next cool toy, or how do we make more friends, or whatever. All the sudden, we got to experience a point of inflection in life where your life flashes in front of you in microseconds, and you realize that it’s so fragile. Post-surviving that, it changed me as a person forever because it gave me a completely different aperture on how I looked at life, and what it meant, and how we can’t take it for granted.
Alejandro: Talking about uncertainty, and I guess as a founder now, and as someone who is building something from nothing into something meaningful, there’s a lot of uncertain situations. I’m sure that at 15, you’re already able to process certain things in life. What was that lesson for you to be learned about uncertainty?
Omair Tariq: I think the biggest lesson that I took away from that was: things can always get worse. It’s crazy to think about it, but it puts a sense of optimism in a person’s mind, even when you’re in the midst of really, really terrible problems, financial crisis, or health problems, or family issues, or whatever. When you go through an experience like that, you realize that it can actually get a lot worse. It gives you perspective, and honestly, it trained, at least me at a very early age that 1) you shouldn’t feel entitled for anything in life. 2) Nothing is for granted. 3) It can always get worse. 4) Life is short. Do something with it.
Alejandro: Yeah, no kidding. In your case, you ended up pursuing physics and applied math, and you landed in Cambridge to study. While in college, you started your first company, which was this flea market. What was that concept? What were you doing there?
Omair Tariq: I was actually in Houston pursuing my degree in finance and was trying to make ends meet. I come from a very humble family. My parents did not come from wealth. As I’m hustling in college and trying to make ends meet, and pay for my tuition, and doing odd jobs here and there, I very quickly realized that it wasn’t going to be enough money for me to be able to pay for college and have a life and have anything, to be honest. Much like entrepreneurs that figure stuff out, I just sat down and started to figure out what I needed to do. I was like, “You know what? I’m going to start a business here.” I had no idea what to start and do what, but I knew that I should buy something and sell it for more—Basic 101. “How do I buy something that is not very expensive so that I can sell it for more money. If I buy jewelry from Pakistan or India or some of these other countries, then I could sell it for more money.” Once that was figured out, I was like, “Where should I sell it? Maybe I should open up a shop, but I don’t have money for that. Maybe I should open up a kiosk in the mall, but I don’t have money for that.” The only thing I could do was get a weekend stall at a flea market. So that’s what I did. Even for that, to be honest, I needed $1,000, which I didn’t have. I asked a few people to give me $1,000, and nobody gave me $1,000, but then I asked ten people to give me $100 each, and I was able to get that, which was great. That helped start the flea market business. Fast-forward a few years after starting that, I grew that to a sizable business that had multiple locations, and we ultimately sold it when I was 24 and made more money than I thought I ever would have. I realized, “This is one of the greatest countries in the world where you can come here as a nobody and become a somebody just by putting in the work.”
Alejandro: 100%, and I think as an immigrant, as well myself, I can totally agree with that. For you, once this transaction was done, your wife was pregnant back then, and you realized that healthcare was something important, so you did a little bit of corporate. You ended up landing on this company called Blinds.com, which ended up getting acquired. I’m sure that the acquisition process was because you were there, and you were able to grow the business quite nicely as part of that team. What was that acquisition process like and seeing it more at a different level where you were helping on the operating side?
Omair Tariq: It’s exciting and terrifying at the same time. It’s exciting because you realize that the team has built something valuable enough for a company like Home Depot to want it. Home Depot wasn’t the only company out there that wanted Blinds.com, and it was very, very exciting to see what was happening, but at the same time, it was terrifying because you’re always thinking about, “What if you do something in the process that causes the deal to fall apart? Or what if the deal goes through and it’s not the right cultural fit by being part of the larger company? What happens, even though the dealership team gets to take cash off the table. But none of us wanted to stop working after this, and we wanted to continue to build stuff. So there’s a lot of uncertainty and, again, I would say fear that goes into going through these processes. So many things have to go right for a transaction like that to happen. Right?
Omair Tariq: Not only does your business have to be good, but your team also has to be good, and your ability to translate value to the acquirer has to be good enough. And you have to be able to tell the story the way that the acquirer understands and appreciates the values you’ve created. In all of the million micro-interactions you have with the acquirer, you’re trying to optimize the interactions in such a way that creates the maximum value for your company, something that Jay, who is the founder, had built over many years. It was an interesting experience, and it was a real-life MBA for me when I went through the process of helping Blinds.com go from $20-30 million to hundreds of millions of dollars and then, ultimately, becoming the CFO and COO of the company—then working as part of the HomeDepot.com leadership team and seeing that business go from a couple of billions to tens of billions of dollars. Just going through that J-curve of growth in different sizes and scales, exiting companies, learning how to raise capital, and capitalize the organization in an appropriate way that allows them to sustain and grow their business. You can’t learn that in school, man. It just became a training ground for me to start Cart.com.
Alejandro: Let’s talk about Cart.com because, after the acquisition, you did stay at Home Depot for close to five years. But during this time is when you started to incubate the idea of what would be next. In this case, Cart.com. Tell us about that incubation process and how did you go about bringing Cart.com to life?
Omair Tariq: People talk about ideas like ideas are a lightbulb that just goes on, and all of a sudden, you wake up one day, and you have it. That’s not how it works. Typically, you’re formulating the idea through many, many years of thinking. My co-found, Jim Jacobson, had gone through an interesting journey himself, where he had built a company called Artic Outdoors that went from zero to $236 million in the first year it launched. It was an e-commerce company selling Coors online. He went through the same experience that I did where we knew that in order for you to be successful in e-commerce, it wasn’t about having a great website; it wasn’t about having great marketing; it wasn’t about great fulfillment. It was about how the entire ecosystem comes together to be able to execute on an end-to-end unified vision that allows you to have the best possible experience for your end consumers. Both of us, as we formulated this problem statement, which was succussing e-commerce is all about vertically integrating the end-to-end ecosystem that we needed to execute on e-commerce. We looked around and realized that it didn’t exist. The only company that was providing an end-to-end e-commerce ecosystem was Amazon, where you could send a pallet of products over to Amazon, and Amazon would take care of everything else between fulfillment and marketplace optimization and all the different tools they provided. Amazon went from selling books to being a world-dominant player, owning half of e-commerce because they were providing a fully vertical integrated ecosystem. However, the challenge we found with Amazon was, Amazon is an amazing business, but they don’t let these brands have access to the customer data. They don’t let them have a relationship with the end consumers. They take 30-40% of your sales, and many times, they compete with your product. They have their own products that they launch in the marketplace that compete against your products at times. We were like, “The world needs an Amazon-ecosystem off of Amazon where they’re able to launch a direct-to-consumer business on an end-to-end platform, where someone could do everything and anything e-commerce enablement-related in a single point. The vision and the problem for us were so obvious that we were actually shocked that nobody in the world was doing this. Ten months into running Cart, I realized why nobody else was doing this because it’s really, really hard to do. But it’s not defying the laws of physics, and we’re figuring it out, and I would say we’ve actually figured quite a bit of it out.
Alejandro: Nice. So how do you guys make money at Cart.com?
Omair Tariq: We make money by helping brands make money. The easiest way to think about that is we come in and say, “What part of your e-commerce business do you need help with?” That could be marketing, or online storefront, or your fulfillment operations, or it could be two or three of those things or all of them. As we go through that process, we help these brands identify what their pain points are. Then we say, “Here are the six ways we can help you grow. As you grow, we’ll participate in your growth.” We offer very simplistic GMV-based pricing. In some cases, we offer subscription pricing or project-based pricing depending on what type of work you’re trying to do with us. The key here is that we are focused on making brands successful and as they grow [21:28].
Alejandro: Got it. In you guys’ case, you didn’t do the traditional financing cycle going with live cycles, as they would say, every 18-24 months. You literally, right away, raised the Seed, and then within the same year, Series A, then Series B. It has been insane. How did you guys think about capitalizing the business initially, and how much capital have you guys raised to date?
Omair Tariq: We’ve raised $140 million in less than 12 months. This goes back to my philosophy a little bit, which is: life is too short, which means that you should not take time for granted. Unless there is a reason to go slowly and methodically, we don’t want to. We want to go as fast as possible, as big as possible, and become a dominant player in the world as quickly as possible. We are not intending to and not built to play on the back foot. We play on the front foot. When you’re competing against trillion-dollar companies, you have to capitalize appropriately, and you have to play aggressively; you have to think beyond the box, and you’ve got to be brand obsessed. Part of the reason why we invested so much capital and raised so much capital was, as we talked to these brands, and we found out what their pain points were, and we discovered that they didn’t have the money to invest in that infrastructure, we said, “We will do it on your behalf. We will go make those investments. We will build that infrastructure so that you can use it and grow successfully.” Our process begins with brand obsession, and then it works its way backwards from it. That allows us to play a very aggressive game of which fundraising is just a part.
Alejandro: You keep talking about how life is short, and we’ve got to make the best out of it. One thing that you have an advantage with is that you’ve had multiple life and death situations. In fact, more than a lot of people that I know. When you go to the casino, I’m going to call you because you’re a very lucky guy. Tell us about that lucky experience that you had on a plane, which happened recently that made the board of Cart.com recommend that you not fly or make use of your pilot license again.
Omair Tariq: One could argue I’m lucky. One could argue I’m unlucky. I don’t know. I recently, a couple of years ago, decided to become a pilot because I’ve been fascinated with space and flight and aerodynamics. I was also afraid of heights. I don’t like being afraid of anything. So I said, “I’m going to go learn how to fly a plane, and that’s one way of not being afraid of heights. I learned how to fly a plane and started flying. About six to eight months ago or so, I was flying in beautiful Houston weather that sometimes can turn ugly very quickly. That’s Houston for you. I knew that there was a little bit of a storm coming in. I’m VFR-rates, so I’m always supposed to fly when visual conditions are such that I don’t have to use my instruments to fly. I don’t have the instrument rating to fly, but I know how to use the instruments in case I run into trouble. So I’m flying around, and I see some storm clouds coming in, and I’m like, “Okay, I should probably head back. I turned back towards Houston Executive Airport. That’s where I fly out of in the Katy area. Right around 3 to 3.5 miles west of the Houston Executive Airport, I realized that the cloud ceiling came down from about 1,800 to about 900 feet in what felt like two minutes, but it was probably longer. When you’re coming in for a landing, you’re typically flying at about 1,200 feet, so there was a 300-feet gap in my visibility, so I decided to come down a little bit. As I’m starting to come down, and it’s starting to get cloudy, and it’s starting to rain a little bit, and my visibility is getting really bad, my attitude indicator in the plane stopped working. For those of you that don’t know, an attitude indicator is an instrument that allows you to know if your plan is nose-up or nose-down. The reason it’s important is because when you don’t have a lot of visibility, in four dimensionalities, it’s very hard for you to know if you’re going up or down. Now, you can rely on other things like how fast you’re losing altitude or how fast you’re gaining altitude, but the problem is that by the time you realize that you’re losing altitude, it’s already too late. So the altitude indicator is probably one of the most important instruments maybe outside of the yoke that you use to fly the plane. So I’m flying a little bit blind, and the attitude indicator stops working, and I’m like, “What have I gotten myself into.” Thankfully, your instincts kick in, and I lowered the throttle a little bit and nosedived a little bit so that I could decrease my altitude as quickly as possible. I didn’t want to be in invisibility for longer than two seconds if I had to, so I was able to come down to about 800-850 feet, and I got some visibility and got into the pattern. The pattern is what you get into before you land the plane and land it safely. It was amazing because I was scared, but it was also thrilling that I was able to land it safely, and I had accomplished something that was really hard to do. I keep getting myself into these situations.
Alejandro: That’s incredible. I think that’s a reminder, too, of startups. It’s all about jumping off a cliff, as Reid Hoffman says, and building a plane on the way down. So you were able to land it nicely, and that’s what you guys are doing, too, with Cart. Obviously, the board was not too thrilled, and now you can’t fly that often. But in you guys’ case, for the people that are listening, how big is Cart.com today? Is there anything that you can share with us?
Omair Tariq: We’re a team of about 320 people. We’re going to be closer to 400 by the end of the year, and hopefully, 600-800 people by the end of next year. We have grown at speeds that I don’t think I’ve ever observed before from any company. Today, we have close to 2,700 brands. We are likely going to have close to 5,000 by Q1 of next year. And over a million dollars in GMV flowing through our platform, which is crazy to think about a business that didn’t start very long ago to have been able to amass that kind of scale. We’re very grateful that the most talented people in the world have chosen to come work at Cart and be part of the founding team and the team that builds this business to true world domination in the future, hopefully.
Alejandro: We’re talking about close to a year—a billion in GMV in a year. That’s insane, Omair; I’ve got to tell you. How do you do it? Obviously, you guys have also used the acquisition path. You’ve done how many acquisitions? Seven?
Omair Tariq: We’ve completed seven acquisitions to date. We’re probably going to close on three or four more before the end of the year. We are a very inquisitive company. M&A is a core part of our strategy. It’s exhilarant for us and allows us to execute on this end-to-end capability play much faster than most people can and would.
Alejandro: Why M&A. With M&A, you would typically do it a little bit farther down the line on the life of a company, so why did you think that M&A was a good route to follow?
Omair Tariq: There’s nothing traditional about Cart, the speed at which it has grown, the speed at which it raised capital. So why should M&A not be a part of our company? We said, “There’s no reason for it not to be part of our company.” I think there has been historical precedence set that 70+% of M&A transactions fail, and there’s a lot of content and material and information about that and around that. However, the reality is that there is a new type of M&A that is emerging in the world. McKenzie recently wrote an article about this. It’s called Programmatic M&A, which is you’re not just going out and buying companies because you’re taking out competitors or you’re vertically integrating, but you’re buying companies as part of the very deliberate operating strategy. When you have a very scientific approach to M&A, and it is a core product or strategy, you do it in a way that you honestly can’t afford to have a 70% failure rate there. You find a way of doing it right and having 100% success rate versus a 70% failure rate. That’s what we’re doing. We’ve been able to figure this out because of a very talented team we have in place. We’ve got people that have collectively made close to 50-70 acquisitions, and then they’re creators, and that helps.
Alejandro: Yeah, no kidding. Omair, imagine you go to sleep tonight, and you wake up in a world five years later where the vision of Cart.com is fully realized. What does that world look like?
Omair Tariq: We are the largest company in the world. We are the company that is well-known to operate a culture where people want to come work for us. We are a company where brands come to us because they want to be treated well and be treated fairly. We are a company where brands come to get power back and not be reliant on monolithic giants to be successful in e-commerce or retail. We are globally present and are dominating e-commerce enablement in a way that has never been done before. We are now known as the company that disrupted the disrupters.
Alejandro: That’s amazing. Now, imagine that I was able to take you into a time machine, and I’m bringing you to that moment where you are thinking about giving your notice at the Home Depot and thinking, “You know what? Maybe I’m going to go pursue this thing.” Imagine you had the opportunity to have a chat with that younger Omair, and you were able to give yourself one piece of advice before starting this company. What would that be, and why knowing what you know now?
Omair Tariq: You should have done it sooner, Omair. [Laughter] You waited too long.
Alejandro: That’s amazing.
Omair Tariq: You waited way too long. You were scared and didn’t want uncertainty, even though you had grown up in it. Don’t do that.
Alejandro: That’s amazing. I love it. Well, Omair, this was amazing. For the people that are listening, what is the best way for them to reach out and say hi?
Omair Tariq: Please. I’m on LinkedIn. Just follow me, add me, or message me. I’m very active on LinkedIn, and it’s the one social media channel that I spend a lot of time in. I’m very accessible to people and always willing and happy when I’m able to help younger versions of me or older versions of me, either way. I truly believe that I’ve been very, very lucky and very blessed in having the experience that I’ve had, and I’m never afraid to share that with anybody that needs it.
Alejandro: Amazing. Omair, thank you so much for being on the DealMakers show today.
Omair Tariq: Thank you for having me.
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