Staples Exec on Building up the Retailers’ Digital Muscles

By Stephen Ellison |  May 13, 2015

When he joined Staples as its Executive Vice President of Global E-Commerce in 2013, Faisal Masud was surprised how much of its technology development the $22 billion office supplies retailer outsourced. Since then, he has embarked on a campaign to build up the company’s digital muscles — both through attracting new talent and by acquiring small startups. The acquisitions have enabled Staples to create a network of innovation and software development labs around the U.S. and Canada with their own distinct culture.

Masud’s bottom-line objective, he says, is to provide a world-class experience for Staples customers across all platforms – whether they’re using a mobile device or they’re in a store.

Bringing in What Had Been Outsourced

“We’re building a lot of our own mobile apps, a recommendations engine, [and focusing on] automating and personalizing emails and search” so that they are more relevant to shoppers, explains Masud, a veteran of, eBay, and Groupon. “A lot of those components are being brought back in, where before they were completely outsourced,” Masud says. “We’ve made three acquisitions in the last two years, all three [of them] technology acquisitions that Staples never had in the past.”

For example, in April, Staples bought Makr, a Brooklyn, N.Y.-based mobile app for designing logos, signage, and other custom print materials. Makr runs on iOS devices, and it enables small businesses to develop a brand on a phone or tablet, in minutes. The app augments Staples’ print-on-demand services, Masud says.

The company also acquired Vancouver, B.C.-based PNI Digital Media in 2014, which focused on customized print products, and San Mateo, Calif.-based Runa in 2013, which developed software for personalizing the e-commerce experience. Both locations have been added to the network of innovation and development labs that Masud oversees.

Later this year, Staples’ digital print-on-demand services will no longer be dependent on third-party vendors. Makr and PNI will help power all those services in-house – documents, photos, business cards and all else print-related – and that’s a significant step, Masud says.

Some of the other digital initiatives realized under Masud’s leadership include making it easier for customers to order online, pay online, and pick up products at the store; introducing an iPad app, above; and integrating the Staples rewards program, which had been disconnected from the overall customer program. Masud reports to Demos Parneros, president of Staples’ North American stores and online, and he is based at the company’s Seattle outpost, the Staples Development Lab.

Staples’ Network of Labs

Each of Staples four development labs has its own function, Masud says:

  • Seattle, pictured below, is the hub for search development and quality assurance for mobile services. “There’s a lot of startup activity here, too,” Masud says, “so it really helps us stay close to the next generation of what small businesses want.” Staples’ copy and print business leadership also is based there.
  • San Mateo is primarily focused on personalization and data mining. The software developers and data scientists there build a lot of the personalization and recommendations functionality on
  • Vancouver essentially is the backbone for print-on-demand.
  • Cambridge is a mix of several functions, including kiosk technology and mobile software development.

“If you just look at these four sites,” Masud says, “you’re talking about hundreds [of people] in engineering talent and product-line talent that we’ve brought in just over the last few years.”

New Approach to Hiring

Staples also has made big strides in identifying and hiring technical talent. “A lot of the hiring was brute force, in terms of tapping my own network from my past life, both in Seattle and the Bay Area,” says Masud. “We put in a significant amount of effort into revising our pay structure, and creating attractive roles with a long runway for the right talent.” Staples headquarters are located in the suburbs of Boston, so planting new labs in other tech-rich regions has helped Staples broaden its talent base.

Masud acknowledges the difficulty of hiring designers and software developers who are also being wooed by well-funded startups. “You have to go to the talent and make sure you compensate them well, and you also have to show them the vision of where you’re going,” says Masud. “I had to dig into my own personal network and change a lot of structure here in terms of how we bring them in, where do they work, how virtual are they, and how do we compensate them. There’s been drastic change in function and how we operate.”

And working actively with the startup community and with venture capitalists in Silicon Valley, Seattle, and Boston is an important part of Masud’s strategy. At any given time, he’s in conversation with 20 to 30 startups, listening to new ideas that speak to Staples’ objectives. Startups either make presentations at the company offices or are sought out at various industry events, he says, and if an opportunity makes sense, his team moves fast on both partnerships and acquisitions.

A Future Post-Paper

Masud sees himself as the strategic leader and thinker for the digitization of Staples. Even though the company can boast of being the #4 online retailer, in terms of overall sales, the products and services it offers may change dramatically. (Only Amazon, Apple, and Walmart are bigger.) Staples announced in February a $6.3 billion acquisition of rival Office Depot — though that merger hasn’t yet been approved by federal authorities.

“As you can imagine, there’s going to be less paper, less ink, fewer printers 10 years from now,” Masud says. “So my goal is to ensure that we have a very clear line of sight to where we will be.”