“We weren’t there to sell blinds. We were there to become better than we ever thought we could be”. This mantra, expressed by Jay Steinfeld, founder of Blinds.com underscores what it looks like when leaders create a sense of real purpose among their people. Jay’s story of grit, honesty and humor is an inspiration to us all.
My first interaction with Jay Steinfeld came when he introduced himself to me as the founder of a fast-growing, just-past-the-startup-stage company, Blinds.com. Discovery Driven Growth, he said, was a book that had really helped him create the practices of experimentation and learning that led to the phenomenal growth of one of the Internet’s earliest success stories. You can drop in on my Friday Fireside Chat with Jay, recorded just about a year ago, at this link. Jay’s new book Lead from the Core: The 4 Principles for Profit and Prosperity is out today! He was kind enough to send along and dedicate a copy for me.
The stories that seldom are told, which means we don’t learn much from them
Most business books, particularly memoirs, look at the past through rose-colored glasses. Uncomfortable, embarrassing or unflattering episodes vanish through the magic of time so that we never learn much about other people’s mistakes.
Jay’s conversations, and his book, are just full of the genuine truth about things that went wrong, and what the outcomes were. He’s also got a lovely way of pointing out that oftentimes, not getting what we thought we wanted, or losing something we thought we wanted, spurs us into an entirely new and better direction. He talks about how wanting to start a business led him to study accounting (which he hated); how getting fired unexpectedly spurred him to look for other options; how intensifying competition led him to unknowingly launch one of the Internet’s earliest direct-to-consumer brands and how deal setbacks actually ended up working out better than the deal he thought he wanted.
Most seriously, he talks about how the death from cancer of his first wife, Naomi, led to a period of introspection and reflection that generated the core values he built his company around.
The story of the company that came to be called Global Custom Commerce is one we can all cheer. Jay and his wife Naomi, after a number of false starts, eventually ran a few franchised decorating shops called Laura’s Draperies. They would go to customers’ homes in vans with samples, measure and advise, and eventually sell and install sets of blinds and drapes.
In 1993, Jay learned about this thing called the “Information Superhighway,” and thought that might be a new way to get the word out about his company’s services, which were under threat from mail order catalog companies. In an early version of what we would recognize as showrooming, those firms would encourage customers to get Jay’s company to do the measuring and design, and then place the actual order with them!
So, for $1,500, Jay launched a minimalist website called Lauras.com, after spending a whole $15 to acquire the URL. Then he heard about a company that was actually selling things on-line (books, as it happens) and thought, “maybe I could sell blinds that way.” So for another $3,000, he started a website with the idea of making the purchase of blinds so easy that it became a “no brainer.” The company NoBrainerBlinds was born, with an accompanying website. In a perfect example of entrepreneurial initiative, he got the post office to deliver mail to his house under the mailing address 1 Brainer Tower (!). That idea came from the NPR radio show Car Talk, whose mailing address was 1 Puzzler Tower (I have to love business inspiration that begins with public radio!).
The goal, and the audacious promise on the web site was something like “the best site in the world for on-line blind orders.” Which was true, because at the time there were no others.
In the early days, the sales process was right out of an entrepreneurial textbook. If a customer called the phone number listed on the website, the store manager at Laura’s would say that the customer service people were busy, and could they call back. She’d then forward to the calls to Jay, who basically lived in his car, who would pull over, and on the kind of cell phone featured in the movie “Wall Street,” help the customer take measurements, discuss options and … eventually … decide to purchase. At the time, web infrastructure was so immature that these customers paid for their orders with physical, mailed checks.
Eventually, the on-line blinds business became successful enough that Jay rented a small office for the team right behind Laura’s. In between was an alley which featured refuse from a Chinese restaurant, a variety of dumpsters and …. Rats. Every day, Jay and the other people working at the company had to navigate the rat-infested passageway to get to work. Despite the unpleasantness and the smell, Jay felt keeping the memory and symbolic significance of those early days would be critical to company culture. Later on, when the company grew big enough to move into “real” offices, they hired a movie set designer to replicate the alley – complete with rats (fortunately rubber ones, not real ones) at the entrance to the company offices.
In 2014, the company had made such a success of its approach that it was acquired by Home Depot, and much to his surprise, Jay stayed for some years to make sure the culture and the talent would thrive in this new environment. He’s now “rewiring” as he puts it, teaching, writing and helping other organizations learn from the mistakes he’s made.
The 4 “E’s
Strong company cultures often rest on a few simple concepts or rules that reinforce and build on one another. In the case of Jay’s company, there are four, each of which begins with an “E” to make it easy to remember.
Evolve Continuously. As Jay puts it in the book, this principle represents the “deliberate intention of improving yourself and everyone and everything within your sphere of influence.” As he told me, with this principle in place and constantly reinforce, it creates a cycle of improvement. You try to help your co-workers, they try to help you, and it creates the conditions for continuous growth. This principle makes me think very much of Carol Dweck’s work on growth mindset, in which every day is an opportunity to grow into something new, despite setbacks.
The company is permeated by this belief, including the presentation of ideas by senior people, in which they honestly say that they aren’t sure they have landed on the right answer and invite feedback.
Experiment without fear of failure. Jay kindly attributes some of the discovery of this principle to my own work. As he says, “It’s essentially how I built the entire company. Making assumptions, testing those assumptions, all with a back-of-the-napkin assessment of what could be, but without a rigid plan to get there. Too ambiguous to know for sure. Exploration was part of the allure.” The idea here is to create high-upside option value opportunities while containing the downside risk. As Jay would tell you himself, he isn’t a risk-taker by nature. Instead, think about developing hypotheses that can be tested quickly and cheaply.
This principle is backed up with great symbolism. In the company’s marketing department are two five-foot tall test tubes filled with marbles. When an employee tries something new out, they drop a clear marble in one of the test tubes. If it works out, they drop a colored marble in the other. As Jay says, proudly, “There are significantly more clear marbles.”
Express Yourself. Jay argues that employees should feel comfortable and empowered to communicate with candor and respect, without fear of judgment. As he points out, people are being paid for their brainpower – why not listen to what they have to say. This is very much in line with Amy Edmondson’s concept of psychological safety, or as she would have said she’d rename it today, “radical candor.”
This is also backed up with symbolism and substance at weekly “SayJay” meetings that Jay holds with the staff, in which they are encouraged to offer perspectives on what is going on at the company and on his decisions. As he says, people need to know that the boss is not always right.
Enjoy the Ride. In a twist on the usual boring corporate values statements, at GCC having fun and finding the humor in even difficult situations is a core part of the corporate culture. As my colleagues Jennifer Aaker and Naomi Bagdonas have found, there is a whole boatload of science behind the idea that workplaces that incorporate humor receive a lot of great benefits from doing so.
As an example, Jay led the entire company in an impromptu performance of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” at one company offsite. In another example, during the pandemic, in one of the “Say Jay” sessions, members of the marketing department pretended to give serious business updates while wrangling unruly kids and upset pets. It acknowledged that for many people the work from home situation was less than ideal, but added a touch of levity as well.
Lessons that others can learn from
Jay’s story has an incredible number of lessons that we can all learn from. Grit and perseverance, leavened with techniques for managing stress and keeping things lighthearted are critical. Allowing for continuous experimentation, honesty, radical candor and personal growth and development are all key. De-risking new ideas by testing them, banishing the fear of failure and making honest conversations possible are incredibly useful.
What I most like about Jay’s story is its authenticity. You can do this – lead in a discovery driven way without losing accountability or yielding to hierarchy. If you’re looking for an example of how to put discovery driven growth to work, this would be a great place to start.
Announcing a new on-line course on Discovery Driven Growth
Uncertainty is here to stay. What’s needed is a disciplined approach to dealing with it.
While my book, Discovery Driven Growth offers a great place to start, colleagues and clients have been asking me whether there are resources I could suggest that would get a lot of people up to speed on the concept, quickly. I have therefore developed a short online course that will get you grounded in the topic. It consists of video explainers, downloadable explainers and templates, a working spreadsheet to model the lifetime value of a project and links to other resources.
In it, you’ll learn how discovery driven planning is different than what you might be used to, how to drive your plans through key checkpoints, how to use a “BareBones” net present value calculator to put some numbers behind your assumptions, how to create a “reverse” income statement, and how to review what you are learning in a psychologically safe way. You’ll also have the opportunity to drop in on an interview I did with Gary Kearns of Mastercard, who credits the approach with driving double-digit growth in its Information Products division.
When you have completed this module, you will be able to:
- Establish success criteria for an uncertain opportunity
- Define and quantify your assumed business model
- Create a ‘reverse’ income statement
- Conduct competitive and market benchmarking analyses
- Document your assumptions in order to test them
- Plan and budget around key checkpoints
To learn more about this course, visit https://learninghub.valize.com/
Finally, keep a lookout for a session that Jay and I are going to be presenting on LinkedIn Live. We’re working on the schedule now.