What I Learned About Startups from Working Retail

It seems like a lifetime since I have been out of the retail industry.  Around this time of year, I always think of those who have to work through the holidays while most of us are able to enjoy time off with our friends and family.

The truth is, the time between Christmas and New Year’s Day is often the worst. The sales start trickling back as returns while stores are working feverishly to meet their year-end goals. Meanwhile, customers seem a lot less excited about returning gifts than the anticipation of giving them.

This year, as I was reflecting back on what a wild, crazy, and mostly lucky ride I’ve been on for the last decade, I realized several of the first business principles in which I now believe were actually born during those days in retail as I was working to put myself through college.

First and foremost, I learned that, as in all businesses, success depends on an entire team and culture starts with the hiring process.  Today, the staff we hired looks like this:

  • 1 doctor
  • 1 dentist
  • 1 Navy member
  • 1 special-needs teacher
  • 3 accountants (all with master’s degrees)
  • 3 team-members still working together, with 1 a Sr. Product Manager
  • 85% college graduation rate
  • 0 remaining in retail

I wish I could take credit for these numbers, but the truth is we hired people that had the determination to succeed long before they joined our team.  However, I realized during that time that I loved mentoring those who were going through big changes or making big decisions in their lives.

“The customer is always right,” is a phrase uttered throughout every service industry.  While I don’t believe this is the case for every interaction (and I’ve seen some bad ones), I do think it is correct from a macro perspective.

Fossil had built a reputation for trendy watches with a wide selection at a reasonable price.  Additionally, they’d built a vintage brand with a distinctly American feel.

For reasons, I still don’t quite understand, we pivoted to a streamlined selection and began to raise price points rather dramatically.  Customer purchasing decisions for Fossil were driven by brand, selection, and value.  All of which were drastically changed in the span of a year, decisions which our team had warned HQ against.

Enter Shinola: a watch company that has sold itself as a catalyst for the rebirth of Detroit, making a variety of durable goods at the higher price point Fossil so badly desired.  It wasn’t about price, customers wanted a product they valued from a brand that felt authentic.

The lesson: listen to your sales teams. They are the front lines of your business and interact with the customer every day. It’s possible they could be the key to raising prices while still winning the market.

Lastly, I learned that execution and operations matter.  More importantly, execution and operations often go unnoticed until they are being done poorly.

In retail, that may mean things like inventory being unorganized or poor scheduling leading to missed sales.

In early stage startups, that may mean poor product organization leading missed deadlines, bad database design making effective accounting and marketing almost impossible, or strategic meetings that lead to nowhere.

My time in retail was a necessary grind to help me accomplish a life goal.  However, looking back, I took many good lessons that helped me set the foundation for a few key business values which have served me well so far.

Finally, if you’re working in the service industries this holiday season, thank you for putting up with all of us and enjoy the well-deserved break after inventory in January.