008: Barbershop Quartets, Blinds.com, and Being True to Your Core Values with Jay Steinfeld
Jay Steinfeld launched Blinds.com, an e-commerce store, in 1996, eventually selling it to Home Depot in 2014. This bold but measured decision would characterize many of his subsequent career decisions. Listen in to hear Jay discuss how he is always learning, being mentored, and mentoring others, every day of his life – and how you should too!
Key Points + Topics
- [2:40] Jay attended the University of Texas, earning his bachelor’s degree in accounting. He hated accounting but chose to do it because he asked the right questions growing up. He talked to many successful business people and asked what to study to be successful in business. They all said, ‘You’ve got to know the numbers.’ Upon graduating, he got a job at one of the big four accounting firms. Then he got into the Meineke franchise world in their finance department.
- [6:00] While in school, Jay was part of a barbershop quartet. He’s still a part of that same group, the Forty Acre Four, for 50 years now. He learned many life and business skills as part of that group, most importantly, how to be on stage. The ability to get in front of a large group of people and perform has taught him how to successfully give talks and be interviewed on podcasts, even though he’s quite an introvert.
- [8:03] If your employees need more skill at something, you should let them learn about it. Allow them to sit in on meetings from other departments, even if it isn’t their job. That way, they can learn about the whole “chain” of the business rather than just their link. At Blinds.com, many of the meetings were “open” in that they were in the public space amidst all the other departments and workers. This meant, for example, that someone from IT could see the customer service team discussing a challenge, realize it was something easily automated from the technical side, and then make that improvement.
- [9:37] If you want to move up in a company, do not view the path as a ladder. Instead, view yourself as a sponge. Endeavor to absorb all the influence, data, and information from everyone else, making you more valuable. People will want you to be on their team. This may also help the people above you to realize your strengths lie in another arena than the department you were trying to move up within.
- [11:38] A mentor is anyone who systematically helps someone figure out NOT what they should DO but how they should THINK. Everyone who has someone working for them is a mentor. You can’t just give them information and expect them to get better. As a mentor, your job is to help others get better than even they may believe they’re capable of being.
- [14:00] Jay never had an official mentor. His mentors are everyone and everything. Every encounter should teach you something. It’s fun! Then every experience is enlightening, even the bad ones. Another type of mentoring is peer review. Jay was a part of Vistage, a CEO mastermind group. These people were at his level. You’re going to learn from them, from their mistakes and what they did well. Most of the others had already done many of the things he was aiming to do. So why reinvent the wheel? Additionally, they don’t have any skin in the game, so they can be brutally honest and help kick-start one’s thinking about the problem in a new way.
- [17:54] Jay’s keys to success in mentoring others are
- Don’t give them the answers. If you just give someone a solution, that’s no mentoring. You have to ask them questions and teach them how to think about things.
- Listen to discover the root issues. You’ll likely discover the question they’re really searching for answers to isn’t in the words they actually asked you to start.
- Have an open door and an agenda. This will help you know that the mentee is open, willing, and invested in the mentorship.
- [28:57] Mentoring students is a particular relationship, distinct from mentoring a direct report. With students, you only have a few classes and a short amount of time. Additionally, you don’t get to see the results of what you’re teaching them. If you have a growth organization, you want people who are entrepreneurial. Seeing those people go on and thrive and become bigger than what they were is the best of what has been done in my career. Other than seeing your children accomplish something.
- [33:35] Jay broke into the e-Commerce world in the very early days. This seemed risky to many, and despite being risk averse, Jay dove right in. If you go back and look at the total addressable market for selling blinds online, there was none. They made the market. That’s risky. Over the years, they grew their profit, acquired other businesses, and blossomed their profit more and more, just a little at a time. He needed the profit to pay his bills, so he made sure Blinds.com always remained profitable.
- [44:19] It is essential to Jay that his company was value-led. The way he determined his values was not an easy one. After 25 years of marriage, his wife, Naomi, passed away from breast cancer. He had to become more introspective to realize what made him tick. He determined he had 3 (and eventually 4) core values for himself, which became the company’s core values. He realized those were what had gotten them to that point. A core value is what drives you to get out of bed in the morning. What makes you who you are? You have to be very introspective.
Guest + Episode Links
- The University of Texas, BBA in Accounting Program
- Jay Steinfeld
Danny Gavin 00:26
Hello, everyone. I’m Danny Gavin, founder of Optidge and marketing professor and your host of The Digital Marketing Mentor today. Super excited to have Jay Steinfeld here. Jay was the founder and CEO of blinds.com started in 1993 with a fifteen hundred dollar website. Jay sold the company to Home Depot in 2014 and stayed on for six years to continue running the business and joining the Home Depot leadership team. These days, Jay’s title is rewired. He’s an adviser to multiple private CEO’s Holds three board seats. He’s the author of lead from the core of the Four Principles for profit and Prosperity, and he shares my passion of teaching. Jay is a part-time lecturer at Rice University, teaching and Mentoring MBA students interested in the human side of entrepreneurship. Hey Jay, how are you?
Jay Steinfeld 01:14
Good, Danny.. Thanks for having me.
Danny Gavin 01:16
My pleasure. So before we start, I want to tell you a story. So it’s the summer of 2009 There’s this young MBA student and he’s trying to find an internship and eventually he finds one. So he goes to this wonderful company where they sell window shades. And his first couple days that he’s there, he gets to meet with the CEO because the CEO cares. Like, OK, There’s this intern here, I want to sit down with him and what does he want to do and what he just want to accomplish? And there he is for three months, has the most amazing experience. And I’m sure we’ll go into a little bit and you know, he puts together this competitive analysis and he actually gets the opportunity to present in front of the CEO and show his findings and have a discussion. And it changed his world. And not just that, but when this guy graduated from the University of Houston, Jay would send his friends his way. So from this story, I want to thank you, Jay, for being one of my biggest supporters and for doing things that may be at the time, you didn’t realize. I know they’re core to you, but they made a huge difference to me, and I’m sure we’ll get into more of it as we continue our conversation.
Jay Steinfeld 02:29
It’s my pleasure. It’s a great story. You’ve made my day. Thank you.
Danny Gavin 02:34
My pleasure. Thank you for joining me here today. Let’s talk about your the early days, where did you go to school and what did you study?
Jay Steinfeld 02:42
Well I went to UT and was a got my BA in accounting. I knew I hated accounting, so i but I took accounting because in high school I wanted to. I talked to a lot of successful business people, and I asked them, what should I do? What should I? If I want to go into business, what should I study? And almost every one of them said, you’ve got to know the numbers, so study accounting. And I thought, ah, accounting. Oh, it sounds so boring. And it was boring. I hated it, but I did it. And I got a job with one of the big Four. Kpmg at the time, it was the big Eight. Pete Marwick became KPMG and again for a couple of years I did that and then it became a VP of Finance for the national franchise, Meineke Discount mufflers that taught me a lot about scaling and platforms because we weren’t in the muffler business, we were in the franchising business. We would replicate a really good recipe throughout the country. So that was that was great. And then from there I got fired. And need something to do. So I went into the window covering industry and that’s.
Danny Gavin 03:57
The story I didn’t realize that you were fired from Meineke, so.
Jay Steinfeld 04:02
It was horrible. And The funny thing was, although I did cry. That is, I was helping this company GKN from England. By meineke. And because I was in Bonance department running it. I got all the due diligence questions and I saw the org chart post acquisition. And I wasn’t on it, so oh God, this is not going to be good.
Danny Gavin 04:31
So heads up, right?
Jay Steinfeld 04:34
I did get a heads up and I had this big bonus that was that was promised to me. So I thought, oh God, I’m not going to get my bonus. So what I did is I took all the notes and all the conversations that I had with the CEO at the time. And I put them in a safe deposit box before the acquisition. And after I sure enough was fired. The company was not going to pay me my bonus. For what? But i called the CEO and told him I’ve got all the notes in the safe deposit box. He goes, well, how do we know that you didn’t put them there afterwards? I said, well, because I have a US Marshall that came with me after the acquisition and showed that the box was put in, that the documents were added prior to the acquisition. So I got my bonus.
Danny Gavin 05:23
Wow, that was an amazing foresight survival yeah,
Jay Steinfeld 05:31
It’s really survival. And I’m sure that a lot of people can relate to that sort of situation, especially these days with all the layoffs. I mean, it’s brutal. And sometimes you have to. I’m not. Sometimes you should always put yourself 1st and see how you can protect yourself. So getting back to university, you know, I know that you were part of a barbershop quartet and I saw a video recently about it. How do you feel like that experience of traveling across the country, you know, just having really good friends, do you feel like that added to? Like who you are and how you perform business like was there a anything there that kind of changed? Well, that’s a great question. That’s I’ve never been asked that question, but I have been in that same quartet. I’m still in the quartet for 50 years. We started in 1972 at the at UT, the original 40 acres, we were called the 40 acre 4 and I’m still friendly with all the three other guys, whether it was causal to who I am or whether it was just. Part of me, part of my DNA about collaboration and evolving and taking some data, which is sheet music and interpreting it. And working with a coach, a mentor, we had a lot of coaches who would listen and give us tips and we would go through sections and wording and financial. Found balance. And there was all sorts of things that we were learning and we knew nothing. We weren’t professional singers, but we came, we got pretty good. So I would say the ability to be on stage and sing with four people in front of one time, in front of 10.000 thousand, people yeah, that probably taught me how to how to do this podcast or how to stand in front of 10.000 thousand people doing any kind of talk. I mean singing and dancing on stage is definitely going to set you up for some being able to perform even though. I’m an introvert. I get my power by being by myself, not being around people. But I can be an extrovert. And I think if you do a test, they’ll show them about 5050 Wow.
Danny Gavin 07:39
So it just shows you like the activities that you do outside of college or outside of work can really make an impact on a difference. And I guess with raising kids, it’s the same thing like how can we put them into different situations so that they can, you know, kind of be prepared before they go? Into life. So I love that.
Jay Steinfeld 07:58
Yeah, well, you do that with your employees too. You see that they’re there, may be inferior at something or they haven’t enough knowledge about something. So you give them an assignment, a small one, and just help them learn. You let them sit in on other people’s meetings to learn about a topic that has really nothing directly to do with their job, but makes them better because maybe they understand how what they’re doing fits into another department so that they get. An idea of the whole chain as opposed to just a link in the chain.
Danny Gavin 08:31
That’s very deep and I’m just like imagining because I was there. It’s like imagining like a person you know who in from another department, you know maybe from customer service, but hey, they can really grow and let’s bring them into this meeting and just by being there changes them that’s.
Jay Steinfeld 08:46
What we said that you can you can walk in on anyone’s meeting. And most of the meetings were open, they were in open settings so that anybody could just be walking around and hearing these things anyway. So you can see a peretto chart of how they’re prioritizing customer service topics that they’re working on. And if you’re an IT and you see some of the things they’re working on, they didn’t ask you to put to automate something, but you see something and go they’re working on that is so easy to automate. I could do that like with my eyes closed. So they do that. And that happened from time to time. They didn’t have to prioritize it because IT came along and just did it, automated it. So you get all sorts of great information and people become more talented. I’ve always said that if you want to move up in a company, you don’t think of yourself moving up rungs of a ladder, but you think of yourself like a sponge and if you can just absorb like a sponge absorbs water and just gets bigger. If you could absorb data and information and influence from everyone else, you are going to move up because you are now more valuable. The sponge has more data to assimilate, it has more data to make better decisions. And when you can make better decisions, people want you to be on their team and you’re going to move up because you’re not thinking of yourself as that next really improbable rung on a ladder. And if you don’t hit it, then you’re oh, what was me? Start whining because you didn’t get that position. Well, maybe there’s a better position that you weren’t even thinking about that you’re more suited for. And maybe as a leader you think that person that’s actually really good at management of time, maybe that’s your person should be a project manager. Instead of i don’t know, an SEA an SEO person.
Danny Gavin 10:41
Yeah, that picture of a sponge I think is amazing right because we think of a ladder so often. But yeah, and I think we’re going to get more into that of you know, just from the outside and looking at you know part of your successes man that you know the team and the ability to get the right people around you I think was such a such an amazing talent. You know, I think looking back you definitely lived by the sponge and how can I, you know? Create that environment where I’m giving but I’m also receiving.
Jay Steinfeld 11:11
The barbershop quartet was kind of a sponge. It wasn’t like I did that because I thought, well, I can go out and I can make some money being in a barbershop quartet or I can maybe become a professional singer. I just did it because it was fun and I was able to evolve and try new things and. Do all the kinds of things that actually I realized later in life are part of my core DNA?
Danny Gavin 11:35
Alright, so now we’re going to jump into mentorship. So Jay, how would you define a mentor?
Jay Steinfeld 11:41
A mentor is anybody who systematically. Helps somebody else not figure out what they should do, but how they should think. And that means everyone who has somebody working for them is a mentor. It is part of your job description. It is not a program. Well, it can be a program where they say, you know you’re going to mentor Danny in marketing, OK, and then once a month or whatever the time frame is, you get together. And you have this little format and you do that. But you should be doing that with everybody that works for you. Because if you want to move up in the organization, then you’ve got to make the people who are working for you be capable of taking on the job that you’re doing so that you can move up to the next level or a just become a different sponge. And the only way you can do that is by helping people learn how to think. You can’t just give them information and expect them to get better. So when you when you are a mentor and you think of yourself as a leader or as a mentor, then your job is to help other people get better than even they think they’re capable of becoming. And that’s what a mentor is. And if you’re the mentee, well every experience you have. In life, you’re being mentored in some way and you need to be conscious of the fact that you are being mentored, whether that person believes they’re a mentor or not. So if you go into a meeting and it’s facilitated by somebody in the meeting went particularly well, then you think, well, I’m going to be mentored by that person. That person had a great efficient meeting. We got all, we knew what our objectives were, we got it done. So you say, So what went well and you actually become a mentee. That person didn’t realize that they were a mentor of that meeting. So everybody is your mentor, and when you have anyone working with you, even indirectly, people are going to be mentored by you if they’re not a direct report of yours. You were not a direct report of mine, but I mentored you all anyway.
Danny Gavin 13:55
That brings so much light and background. You know, we’ve spoken in the past like, you know, I’m Jay. Did you ever have a most influential mentor? You know, you’ve spoken about how no, you’ve never really had an official mentor. But in a way, you did have lots of mentors, right?
Jay Steinfeld 14:11
Everybody was my mentor. Everybody and everything. If I if I’m driving down the freeway and I look at a billboard, I’m going to look at that and say, what is good about that billboard? What is bad about it? Nobody can read that freaking thing how how? How does how does this big company have a billboard like that? How are they using fonts that are impossible to read? So you learn things like that every encounter. You should be able to learn something from it, and it’s actually fun. Because that means every experience is enlightening. It’s not boring. Even bad meetings. You can learn how not to run your meeting.
Danny Gavin 14:53
I can guess that you didn’t buy billboards when you wrapblinds.com i wanted to. Spell like because our name blinds.com That’s pretty easy to understand what we do. So I mean you could just put blinds.com on a billboard. And I think that would do it now you could also put prices lower than low, low than lowes and Home Depot on it. Although once we became purchased by Home Depot, we were not allowed to do that anymore. But yeah, you know, I did want to do it. Seemed like it would be natural. We never did.
Danny Gavin 15:28
Though, and I remember that you were part of this stage back in the day and I feel like, you know, going to a meeting and learning from other CEO’s was a type of mentorship, a type of bonding. And also kind of, you know, like a thermometer check of like where I’m at, where other people at. Do you want to share a little bit more about that? Experience well,
Jay Steinfeld 15:48
Another type of mentoring is peer review. So a person doesn’t have to be above you quote in the hierarchy to be your mentor. At this stage, just like Y P O and E O, some of those organizations, these are people at your level. And you’re going to learn from them. You’re going to see what mistakes they made, what things they did well. And you’re going to open up and let people know about the frailties that you have in yourself and in the organization and some of the things that you’re trying to do. And most of the people had already done a lot of those things. So why reinvent the wheel? Ask people for advice and you’re going to find in pure groups. You’re going to get really good mentoring 1. Because they’re all smart and they’re all. They’ve all probably been where you’ve been. But two, they don’t have any skin in the game. They can be brutally honest and tell you exactly what they’re thinking. Now they usually don’t have enough information to be able to give you. Really in-depth help, but it gets you. It kicks large to you to be thinking differently than how you might have thought before, so it’s super helpful. I was in this stage for 11 years and I highly recommend it. Right now i’m giving back to this stitch and I’m doing something like a podcast and I’ve done, I think 50 to 100 of them within the last year. Just saying I’ll be there for an hour. Ask me anything you want. And it’s a fireside chat and they’re going great. I really enjoy that. And I don’t get paid as I’m not trying to sell my book and I’m definitely not looking for consulting job. I’m done with that and it great to give back to an organization that really helped me get where I am. It’s very gratifying to do that. It seems to be very well received let’s talk about mentoring others. So you mentioned to me that you’ve got three keys to success when mentoring other people. And as you’ve mentioned right, it’s there shouldn’t be a program. It’s got to be in the DNA of, you know, when you’re in a, in a environment, in an organization. And you’re trying to influence people, So what are the keys to success?
Jay Steinfeld 18:11
It should be structured. It definitely should be structured. And when you ask what are the keys to success, I mean you can you can look at how do you know whether it’s been successful? And you can you can look at things like does the person prepare in advance and give you the agenda in advance or is it the day they’re going, oh, I know I haven’t gotten that agenda yet. Well, that means it’s not a priority for them. And if it’s not a priority, that means you’re not doing a very good job mentoring so you know whether it’s working. By how much the person wants to do it. And how prepared they are to do it. And whether they are then taking those same skills that they’re doing and mentoring their people. That’s how you know it’s working, not whether sales are up or any metrics like that you’re looking at how engaged are they. That’s the thing. Now in terms of if you’re asking the question more like how do you mentor effectively, is that kind of the first thing is you’re not really helping people, you’re not getting, you’re not giving them the answers. That’s the most important thing. You are if a person said for instance and this is an example that happened a couple days ago. I said so which of these covers do you think is the best for this book? Now if I gave them my answer, is that mentoring or is that just giving them my opinion? It’s not mentoring. So a better way to do it is you say, well what do you think is the best cover? And then they’ll tell you and then you say, well, why? Why is that the best coverage? And then you could say something like. Well, why is my opinion worthy of your consideration? If I like it, what difference does that make? Who do you really care about? Who’s going to like it? And they realize, well, who’s my target for this cover? And what are the demographics of that? And what are the types of things for this cover that people would normally see in that target? And what are the most effective? This was for a cover for a book. What are the most effective covers? And they start realizing that they didn’t want an answer, that they just wanted to learn how to think about things. So now they know anytime they’re thinking about something aesthetically, they shouldn’t just be thinking about what other people like, hey, do you like this? Yeah, I like that. What do you think about this? Oh, yeah, it’s great. It’s like. Interviewing candidates. Did you like Danny? Yeah he’s a good guy. Let’s hire him. Come on, that’s not how you hire people. Well, this way, most people hire people. But you have to be substantive and deliberate about what you’re looking for. So I taught that person that you need to be thinking about your target audience and then see what others have done to attract that target audience and what’s work. And then you can set your book in among all the other ones and make sure it stands out from the other covers but doesn’t look so dissimilar. From others in that genre, that it doesn’t even look like a fiction book or a romance book or whatever your book is. Another example was somebody said, So what should I do first? This is a person in the startup at Rice, a smart guy, great business, he goes. So what do you think I should do first? I said, well, tell me. I’m not going to tell them. I mean, I don’t really know anyway. No, I’ll first I’ll say. So what do you think you should prioritize? What’s the most important thing for your business right now? And then they’ll say, well, we need to really figure out our product market fit. We need to figure out who our, who our customer is so that we can start attracting that customer. So well, what did you do today? Well, I was working on supply chain and trying to get my vendor set up and all this stuff I said. So how does that align with what you just told me or your prioritizations? Yeah, well, it doesn’t so well, why do you think you’re doing that? This guy was a supply chain expert. He was doing it because he likes doing that. He wasn’t doing what was prioritized. So what? It wasn’t for me to tell them how they should prioritize. It was for me to help him realize that what he was doing was doing things that were not prioritized. He needed to really think about his prioritization and focus his time on what should be done, not on what he likes to do. I’ve got a lot of examples like that. I can go on and on, but the key is. Help people learn how to think and what that also does. It helps you understand how they think and if the person’s working for you and most of the people you’re going to be mentoring are direct reports of yours. How are you possibly going to increase your own effectiveness and your own elevation within the organization or in some other organization, unless you get people to do the work that you’re doing now? And how are you going to delegate that work to people until you unless you know they’re capable or know that it’s a propensity that they could be capable if given the chance? You do it by mentoring and understanding how people think, and when you learn how people think, you know where they can go. When you learn what people want to do five years from now, you can mentor them to make sure they’re doing the right activities so that they can get to where they want to be, not just where you want to be. So mentoring is just asking a lot of questions and really getting to the root causes. Of things that they don’t even realize was what they were actually asking. You can call it first principles, or root causes or the five wives or whatever it is, but that’s what you need to do as a mentor is not feed them answers never Unless you’re just. You’ve got this deadline and you’ve got to get something done really fast. I mean, there are times when you’re at war and you don’t have time to be mentoring. You just tell people this is what you need to do it now. Don’t ask any questions. There are times like that when you’re at war and when you’re doing things really fast, that that’s what that’s what you do. You don’t mentor. Just tell people what to do and hopefully it’ll work.
Danny Gavin 24:38
It’s fascinating because I feel like, you know, it’s interesting, you know, I’m thinking of myself and in school. When I’m teaching and people, students ask me questions, I often answer with a question because I want to push them in the right direction. And I know sometimes it’s annoying for them. But like, I know that I’ve got to do it. So I’m like, I’m a man. Like, I can imagine that there were. I imagine there were times where, you know, people come to you and Jake and you tell me and like, you’re asking the questions and they might think like, oh, he’s just being difficult, right? But really, like, you’re giving them a blessing. Like, you’re actually giving them over the ability to think and to solve and actually come up with a solution cells it’s interesting how?
Jay Steinfeld 25:17
You can just say, look, I know you might be annoyed by this and I could give you an answer, but I’m not even sure it would be right. I would rather help you figure out how to do this so that the next time it comes up you don’t even have to ask. You already know. And then you can do that with the other people, because your job as a leader or as a teacher is to helping people become better than what they ever believe possible. That’s your job. And you help people do that by asking questions and helping them self discover answers so that they can do this on their own without the need to ask the more independent they are. It’s like we were talking about with your kids before. You want people to be self-directed autonomous, independent, within reason, but still you want people to be able to think for themselves because one day they are going to be by themselves and it’s too late at that point.
Danny Gavin 26:07
So you opened your door to me when I was. In turn, and I know that your door was always open O this concept of open door, anyone coming to me asking things, was that a goal? Was it something that you felt was good business? Like where did that idea come from? Because i feel like that’s not a given in every organization.
Jay Steinfeld 26:27
Well, given is most doors are closed or people say I’ve got an open door policy when their door is actually physically closed. If you talk to my EA and set up a time, here’s here’s something which I think is a really great idea. If somebody says what you tell people right at the beginning is look, I want to hear from you. I want people to speak up because I don’t have all the answers. So if you’ve got something that you want to say, don’t tell them that your door is open. Tell them that you will go to them. Now, it doesn’t work when you’re it’s hybrid, but just say, tell me where, when, when’s a good time for you, and let’s work out of time. I’ll come to your desk and sit down. You can tell me what you want 2 they will be shocked what? You’re gonna you really are gonna hear me? Yeah you said you’ve got something that’s important, that you’ve got an idea. I want to hear it. What does that say? That’s what you do. Now, where did I get that idea? I don’t know all the stuff that I’m telling you right now. I didn’t know any of this when I started. I knew nothing. I said I was a CEO. I had no idea what a CEO was. I knew it was the person in charge of the company, but I didn’t really know the CEO role. So I read a lot. I was through mentorship. I’ve everybody whether it was Jim Collins or Andy Grove or Lazlo Bach of Google, I mean it could be anybody. Just read and if you’re doing a branding study and you don’t know anything about branding, read a lot of books and articles on branding. Talk to branding experts just. Inundate yourself with information on whatever topic it is you need to learn. If you’re really bad at hiring, just learn about hiring. Read books on hiring, and eventually it’ll all start sounding the same to you. Or some of it will cancel each other out. Then you’ve got to decide, oh, that conflicts with that. So what do I do? So just do what’s in your gut and if it works, great. If it doesn’t work, just stop doing it. So it’s trial and error mostly. And a lot of reading and a lot of thinking about it and wondering does that really resonate with me or not?
Danny Gavin 28:48
You’re now a professor and entrepreneur and residence at Rice University. How is it different mentoring and teaching students versus employees and other mentees?
Jay Steinfeld 28:57
Well, at with students, you’ve only got 6 or 7 classes, so you don’t have a lot of time and you don’t really get to see the results of what you’re doing. Yes, they check in every two weeks. But then they’re gone and you really don’t know what happened with a direct report. You watched them, you can talk to people, you are much more you are much more involved in their career and you’re going to see them hopefully evolve over time. And it’s much more gratifying to work with somebody and well there’s a person who was a, you know in our a lot of people know Omar Tariq who is now. Yo cofounder of CART and. Blowing it up, doing amazing. He was in the accounting department. And he was mentored and became CFO and CEO, and we knew he wanted to one day run his own company. And that was great. We helped him get there. It’s when a person says, you know, one day I want to leave and I want to start my own company. Well, if you’re mentoring them, it’s going to be more likely they’re going to stay with you because you’re helping them get to where they want to be. It’s counterintuitive because most people think, oh, the person’s going to leave. I’m not going to invest in them. No, you should invest more. In fact, people who are entrepreneurial are the kind of people in a growth oriented organization that you want, and they’re naturally going to be thriving for things outside of what? You can potentially give them O. That’s cool. You want that, so help them get there. And he got there. He’s there.
Danny Gavin 30:42
I know global custom commerce wasn’t necessarily supposed to be an incubator, but it definitely was some amazing people who came out of that organization.
Jay Steinfeld 30:51
Doing exceptionally well. And really that is, that’s when people say what’s the proudest thing about what you’ve done? It’s all the people that have gone out and have become so much more than what they were when they started. There’s nothing more grand other than your children doing it. I mean, that’s more gratifying, I will say. But other than your children accomplishing something way beyond what you what you thought. Is seeing your employees do that. It’s so good. It’s the, it’s a gift, and it makes you feel like you were consequential, that you did something important, that you had some impact, and not just on that person. But Omer’s got, I think, sixteen hundred. Employees so in effect you’ve affected sixteen hundred people and their families. So when you start thinking about the multiplier effect, there’s probably tens of thousands of people that you’re affecting his customers. His vendors. I don’t know. Eventually there’s going to be a million people, so affecting one person. It’s you really need to be thinking about if you’re worried about whether you’re making an impact or you’re having an effect or does what I’m doing really matter? Just think about the people you’re affecting, and even if you’re not mentoring them, you think you’re mentoring them. You are, because people are watching you and seeing how you’re reacting to things. And they’re going to see whether you’re in a good mood before you even get into the office. They’re going to say, oh, he’s in a bad mood, he looks like he’s serious, go back in to talk to him today. So you’re always, you’re always communicating something and you’re mentoring people as a result of.
Danny Gavin 32:35
That it’s crazy because to think like going back right, 1996 did you ever think that you’d be influencing and helping so many people? Like, I’m sure that wasn’t like on the checklist, right?
Jay Steinfeld 32:45
No well, I wasn’t even thinking about helping people. I was thinking about helping myself and just staying in business. It was about survival. I didn’t think about management and leadership. It was, I was Mike. I was a horrible micromanager. All these things that I’m saying is total enlightenment and a conversion from my former self as to what I am. If you talk to there’s my original two employees and Sharon who still work at Global custom commerce, they’re still there and they started in, I don’t know, 96 maybe somewhere in there 97 They say I made him cry because. Laughing, but it’s sad because I didn’t make them cry. I wasn’t anywhere near as effective as I am now, but. Ok, I learned yes and I think it’s amazing to be able to look back. So talking about going back. You know fatfoundingblinds.com and ecommerce site in the early days. People must have warned you against it, you know? How did you manage your own expectations and risk being such an early adopter?
Jay Steinfeld 33:50
Well, I’m risk averse. I don’t like. High risk. So what I would do is I would just look at every opportunity to say what’s the worst that could happen. And if I could live with that, then I figured, well, there’s nothing to fear. I don’t have to fear this experiment. But I was told it was a hairbrained idea selling blinds online if you if you’re an MBA student and you’re looking at the Tam total addressable market. Or those serviceable addressable markets, Sam or whatever you’re looking at? You’re going to say, you know nobody’s buying blinds online. This is a market that sucks. Don’t do it. There’s no market. Well, we created the market and that’s risky. And I had no ad budget. But how did we do it? Well, because I just. It was just me. I had no employees. I had no overhead. The first website was fifteen hundred then three, thousand dollars and that’s all the money I ever put into it and I didn’t have an ad budget. But I get one sale in a week or two. And that was that was fun. And I learned because I started so early, when the when the when the risk was low because if it if it didn’t work, I’d lost lose 3000$ and some time and some opportunity costs for sure, but. I had time to do it. So I thought about downside risk and I just did it. And eventually I kept my day job selling blinds in a retail store at Lord’s draperies. I was a shop at home decorator. Perfectly suited because I’m a CPA to sell truck draperies and blinds.
Danny Gavin 35:32
Jay Steinfeld 35:34
That natural fit perfect and. I was doing a million and a half dollars in my store. And in five years I was doing a million and a half dollars online. And I was working seven days a week in my store and hardly at all online. Well, what’s wrong with this picture? What’s wrong is I’m not prioritizing my time. Well, I should be doing online all the time. So I didn’t actually take a risk once I went full time online because I was already doing a million and a half dollars and I was with very little time, so I figured I could sell my store. And eventually just do online and I bought a company. At that time I was doing a million and a half. We bought a company in Saint Augustine that was doing 3000000 That was 2006 That worked out. So we were doing 4 and a half, they were doing 3. So give us four and a half million, we went to nine twelve fifteen. Then I bought another company that was doing 18. That brought us to 33 Then we got to 50, just a little at a time. Didn’t try to rush it. Didn’t take an institutional capital either. Which would have caused a lot of pressure to try to grow faster than we could because I needed to make this needed to be a lifestyle, a lifestyle business for me. I needed the money to live. So I needed profit. So we were always profitable because I needed the money. So we never tried to grow beyond being profitable, which is what a lot of investors are realizing. Hey, wouldn’t profitability and positive cash flow be a good idea? Yeah, it is. It was always an imperative step for us. And that’s why when Home Depot and Lowe’s and others came around looking and they saw not only are we growing 2020 25 % every year. But we’re making money and our gross margin is improving. We’ve grown 400 basis points over the last couple of years and improving profitability and growing 2025 %. Well, that’s a business that is something that has a lot of potential and that’s why we were able to sell it and sell it for a very nice price.
Danny Gavin 37:50
Yeah, the journey and thinking through each step and having that freedom to not have people at your back, but making being able to make the decisions and making sure that you’re profitable. I mean, that’s not a luxury that everyone has, but it’s amazing how you’re able to keep those people out and go along that journey.
Jay Steinfeld 38:13
I can’t say that I kept everyone out because we did have some seed investors early and they were opinionated and at some point we found that two of those investors were not aligned with our long term plan of building a company beyond blinds. They just wanted cash. And they didn’t want to put money into technology or new to marketing or into people or to development. They just wanted cash. In fact, I was required to distribute 1/3 of all the profits every month. I was the biggest shareholder, so I actually benefited from that. But I wanted to take that money and put it back into the business. So we bought that. That’s when I did take institutional capital and bought out those two stockholders and two years later we sold it to Home Depot. That was a big mistake.
Danny Gavin 39:06
On their part.
Jay Steinfeld 39:06
Big mistake for them.
Danny Gavin 39:08
But I feel like so interesting bring up those investors. You know, I’ve seen some companies where people. Don’t take investors at all. And I feel like sometimes you need that boost of capital, you know? So what was your mental, emotional and business approach to getting some people? Because this is kind of your baby. And when people invest, it does give them, you know, some room to say things and do things, but sometimes you need it. So how did you kind of manage that?
Jay Steinfeld 39:30
Well, at the beginning I took money because I needed it and there’s no bank that would have given me any money, so I had no choice. But I also own the majority of the stock. I believe at the time I had 60 %. So now I’ve got now diluted myself. 40 % right at the beginning when I had that million and a half and I didn’t even control the company because I set up a board. And I was one board seat of three or four. But effectively, I knew if I did a good job I would continue maintaining control because they needed me. And I was also paranoid that I had to continue to learn and grow because I didn’t want to get kicked out as a lot of founders. End up doing when they take money, especially if it’s institutional capital. So as I understood what the upside was, but I was paranoid that I wouldn’t be able to grow with the company. So I kept reading and studying and using mentorship on both both directions because I had people. As investors. I and A board I had to learn how to not just manage down and across, but manage up. That was a big, a big benefit for me, as it turned out. Because we eventually when we took the institutional capital. I really had to manage up because now we had some serious institutional investors. And we also set up an independent board which was really important. These were smart people that we got as a result of having the institutional capital we had a more structured. Good governance where we had minutes now and we had real board meetings and board decks and they were asking us tough questions. Like a good board should do. And we were building the company and I was learning how to manage up. So when I sold the company at Home Depot, it had now zero percentage ownership. And Home Depot had the keys and could do whatever the heck they wanted to do. I was had been used to doing that. Ever since the beginning of having investors, so it wasn’t that much of a of a shock to me. To have to speak up and the other thing was because we now had all this money from the sale, I didn’t need the job. So I could say whatever I wanted. But I would say that in a way that I really felt was in the best long term interest of us and Home Depot. And usually when you speak to the people, the higher up you go, the more they realize, you know, that really does make sense. So we have very few real conflicts in decision making. Yeah, it was hard. There was a lot of bureaucracy, hierarchy, politics, all that. But come on, get used to it. You’re in the big leagues now that happens, you hit your numbers and you’re going to let you do pretty much whatever you want. So hit your numbers, then hit your numbers, and then hit your numbers, and then you can do what you want but I love how you like had those training wheels early on in order to then deal with those situations that came later and whether you planned that or not, right? Who knows. But the point is that it prepared you and I think a lot of people. Think right? It’s like I’m at the top, you know, I’m dealing down, but like you were able to speak up as well, which is a huge. A huge talent and you know, a certain science of being able to do that successfully as well.
Jay Steinfeld 42:51
So they were receptive to it. Also the CEO, Frank Blake at the time when we when they acquired us, but we say merged when we merged with Home Depot, said, you know, big companies have a habit of just sucking all the life out of a company when they buy them. And we’re no exception. So if we’re going to do something, we do not intend on doing that. But just let us know and then we’ll. Will reconsider what we’re doing. And they did.
Danny Gavin 43:20
You know, for those who know about blinds.com the culture around it is, you know, I don’t know if putting half the value of it, but the bottom line is like if you were to take that baby and take out the culture like the you know, what would be the point?
Jay Steinfeld 43:35
No, there would be no point. There would be no business yeah we.
Danny Gavin 43:39
Would have gotten. We would have just evaporated. It was the culture that actually was the defining difference that we had. That enabled us to disrupt it blinds industry. To disrupt Home Depot and Lowe’s and to disrupt Amazon. We’re now doing over a billion dollars and we started off with like one sale a week, 50$ on hundred and fifty dollars out of my that I sold out of my car. So that’s ridiculous. Even though how that happens. So obviously behind a culture, our values and you make a point in your book and just in general to discuss how your company was value led. Can you give us an example walkthrough about the process of determining those values? Is it a formal process or is it more of an organic and ever evolving thing?
Jay Steinfeld 44:34
In 2002 I’ve been married for 25 years to Naomi. And she passed away from breast cancer. I had to become more introspective and figure out what makes me tick. What am I all about, having done that? I understood that I had two or three core values. Now they evolved to become four as I understood myself better. And those were the core values of the company. To evolve, experiment, express yourself and have fun enjoy. That’s how it happened. I knew that this is what had made us what we were, those values. I didn’t read in a book. To be a successful company, you should have this core value. That’s a goal, that’s a target, that’s an aspirational ideal that makes. That’s fine. If you want to be that, but that’s not a core value is when you wake up in the morning. What drives your behavior? Why do you exist? What is in your DNA that makes you want to do whatever you do? And that’s what we did. We were introspective about who we are and who we were. And then applied it to the company yeah and it makes so much sense because I remember sitting down with, you know, with consultants, like, OK, Now it’s time to put together what are your 5 core values? And it’s like, it’s not as simple as that, right? It does take time. It’s like, OK, I got to live it. I’ve got to breathe it. And then, you know, then I can see what truly makes me tick. You know, recently i’ve been trying for my own agency to put together, you know, our values. And, you know, it’s taking me some time for it to click. But, you know, once it does, it’s like. Now I know what makes me move.
Jay Steinfeld 46:20
One thing you can do though, is there’s a trick that I read somewhere. That if you want to know what your core values are, just think about all the great stuff you’ve done in the past. And put it on a board or something and see what actually helped you get there. And see if there’s a common thread between each one of those high points in your life or high points in your company. And you can usually, if you look at it and you look at it long enough, and you can’t just do this in one or two sessions. You got to think about this like all the time. In the shower, while you’re eating breakfast, while you’re eating lunch, while you’re eating dinner all the time. And then you test it out you go, this is who I think I am, and you talk to people who really know you. And say no, that is not. It’s not who you are. You think you may be that, but you’re not. So you test it with people who you really trust, who will speak up like your spouse, and people who have been working with you a long time that you really trust. And you know they can say whatever they want without any fear. So test it out and keep saying it, and eventually you’re going to realize whether it’s hollow, whether it rings hollow for you or not. And if it does, and I had one core value that I thought was one of mine. To being the pioneer. No, I don’t really want to be a pioneer. I just want to experiment with new things. I don’t care about being a pioneer. I don’t want to be first. I just like doing things that people thought were impossible to do. I like experimenting and I like improving. Even in sports where the Quartet, I would keep working on a on a phrase until we got it right, until the balance was right, until the synchronization was right, where there are facial expressions and stage presence was right. And keep working on it. That’s who we were. So look at what you’ve done, see what resonate, what made that happen. And then you’ll start figuring out what really are your core values, and then test it with other people to see if it resonates with them too.
Danny Gavin 48:28
I love that, and I think that brings us full circle. So before we wrap up, I’d love to talk about your usually do top three, but let’s do top two. What are the top two podcasts that you listen to these days and, you know, you suggest for our listeners.
Jay Steinfeld 48:43
Suggesting for listeners. This is like that book cover. I know what I like to listen to and I know the kind of people are so. It depends on what they what they like or whether they want to just be taken away somewhere or where they really want to learn. I think understanding legalities of what’s going on with politics and with laws that are passing, and I like that. So Preet Bharara has something called Cafe Insider. So I like that. And then there’s a one that’s. It’s kind of controversial, but. It’s called all in. And it’s kind of this brofest in of Silicon Valley, but they’re all really smart guys, very successful investors and they’ve got all different takes and they they’ll fight and argue about things and you’ll learn about things that you don’t even know. We’re topics that you might be interested in and some of it is hard to take, but a lot of it is really fascinating and it’s a it’s a great way to catch on what’s been going on in business and politics and science. Over the last week. So it’s kind of like a news segment for me but people who are just telling you not some diatribe or something that you know either on one side or the other of the political spectrum. This is all sides. So you’re getting all sides of something and i like that. It’s pretty fun. One of my children turned me on to that one and another one listens to it and thinks it’s a crock. But yeah it’s that. Like I said all in that’s. It’s pretty good cool so Jay, what’s your big goal for 2023 well my big goal right now is just to get back playing pickleball. Over the last six months I was getting pretty good. I pulled like 3 muscles in my legs so. It’s like, come on, maybe I need to start stretching. Yeah, of course I need to start stretching a lot more. I’m not 20 years old anymore, so my big goal is to start playing injury free. That’s probably the biggest goal that I’ve got. But you know, I’m on these boards, I’m helping people. I just want to keep making a difference. We’ve we’re just building a house, so we want to get into the House that’s been going on a long time. That would be nice. Other than that, it’s spending more and more time with family, which has been great. We’ve got 7 grandkids and eight another and eighth on the. Way that’s a blessing. Spending time with them is great so. Just make a difference and not get injured.
Danny Gavin 51:17
Well, you’re truly blessed and thank you again for all that you’ve done for me, for all that you’ve done for others and all that you continue to do. Thank you for being a guest on the digital marketing mentor. And thank you listeners for tuning into the digital marketing mentor. We’ll speak with you next time.
Jay Steinfeld 51:32