Thursday, May 24, 2012

Building the tribe: How I fired my best friend and lured a new partner

It's a tough day when you fire your best friend and subtract someone important from your life. But business isn't a popularity contest, and you learn early that success often depends on surrounding yourself with people who reflect your values and vision, and those who can bring something more to the table than just what you know.

The year was 2002, and Stroll was just hitting its stride. We went from nowhere to 50 sales a day. It totally swamped everyone. We didn't have enough people. We didn't have the right systems and everything had to change quickly.

Perhaps no one was more stressed by it all than my best friend, who for the past six months had spent just about every waking hour by my side. We were brothers in arms, sharing the exhilaration of seeing the first few orders come trickling in over the Internet. We weathered the frustration of working ungodly hours around the clock, occasionally putting packing peanuts in a garbage bag to make a nice pillow for another night crashing on the floor in our office.

It wasn't a partnership, per se. He was a good friend. A confidant. But there wasn't any real synergy beyond project management skill and incredible energy. At the time, I had just finished reading Michael Gerber's "The E Myth." In it, he tells how important it is to systematize and optimize business operations. But he also explains why entrepreneurs need to look outside their business to find fresh new ideas and best practices and apply them in order to grow their businesses.

By 2004, it had become painstakingly apparent that while my best friend was a great guy, he wasn't the one. He wasn't going to push me and fuel our growth. And we started to disagree on strategy and the tension was getting palpable. I fired him. While personally it hit me hard, professionally, I understood it was a necessary step.

I was inspired by the book, "Topgrading," and focusing on attracting "A Player" talent. In my friend's place, I recruited a new caliber of professionals to Stroll starting that same year, 2004. This included Ajay Segal, our current COO who began at the company as a Vice President. He had been running a trade publication he founded serving senior executives in the interactive marketing space.

I had met Ajay at a CEO dinner at an industry conference. We had friends in common, and Ajay shared my deep-held quest for all things learning. In his previous role, he gained exposure to the best and brightest minds in interactive marketing, and he collected their wisdom like a young kid collects baseball cards.

He came to me with a wellspring of ideas -- all culled from years of listening to others and executing as a consultant on select projects. We realized immediately that in order to grow the business, we needed to attract other like-minded professionals. But what would bind our tribe? What was that special something that defined our culture, the Stroll culture of hypergrowth?

It was a unique approach. I mean most entrepreneurs hire people according to their needs at any given time. If you need someone to run a warehouse, you look for someone who has run a warehouse before (and hopefully has done it well).

And while experience is important, so too is this notion of shared values. Our primary value is hypergrowth. We don't create or build new products. Rather, we are focused on taking that which is in place and growing it by triple-digit numbers.

So Ajay and I needed to find individuals who would be bound by that mission. They needed to understand the core principles of our desire and drive, and our intrinsic impatience. We're never satisfied. While most days at Stroll are extraordinarily good in terms of sales, we still believe that tomorrow could be even better, if we constantly optimize the business and compound our effectiveness over time.

So we determined that in order to attract the right people, the ones who shared our love of growth, we needed a common vernacular, a framework we could use to select the right people and then inculcate them to our way of running a business. What are those core values? There are five, which I plan to share with you in an upcoming post.

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