Jane Says: Julep CEO on Leadership, Growing Pains, Community, Family
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before they said we weren’t responsive, but we have since fixed it. The last thing we are is unresponsive. We are a social media company so we were responding to customers on social media. And I think the Better Business Bureau is better suited for physical, small retail. It was just a mismatch of where to go for help. We’re responding instantaneously all the time on Facebook and Twitter, and on phones and e-mail.
We had a slight uptick. Hey, we were busy and growing and I think the customers who went to the BBB, were just, we didn’t see their feedback, otherwise for sure we would have responded.
X: Some of the complaints appear to stem from people misunderstanding the subscription model. Broadly speaking, we encounter a lot of startups that are doing monthly, product-X-in-a-box type businesses. What are some things you’ve learned about the challenges of running that smoothly?
JP: Long before Birchbox or Shoe Dazzle or whatever, we had subscription in our parlors. And it was something people have loved and we still have it. We started that in 2009. It’s not new to us.
Three months ago was the first time we ever had any issues like this come up. From a systems perspective, people need to call to cancel [a subscription], because we don’t have an online way to cancel. It works really great when you can answer the phone. And it doesn’t work great when you’re overwhelmed and people have long wait times. So that’s totally unacceptable. It was a growing pain that we’ve fixed.
X: Julep produces lots of new products each year. What are some of the ways you’ve found to do that efficiently from a production process point of view?
JP: It’s a lot of details to stay on top of for sure. I think it boils down to great, cross-functional communication. The people we hire at Julep have to be able to work really well with other people, and anticipate issues that might come up and get everybody on the same page so that when a supplier is late there isn’t pandemonium and chaos, but we have a contingency plan in place. I think it really is a cultural issue around how you communicate and are prepared to deal with the inevitable issues that come up when you’re dealing with the physical world.
We get to have the best of both, but we also have the challenges of both. Hey, software doesn’t melt when you have it hot out on the dock, but also, nail polish doesn’t freeze. Lipstick doesn’t suddenly not advance a screen because there’s too many people on it. So we’ve got the upside and the challenges of both.
Because we trust in the input and the collaboration that we have, we’re not paralyzed by the need to do more market research, or the need to get all of this exactly right.
We want the product to be exactly right, obviously. There are some places you don’t compromise. But a lot of the time, when traditional companies are launching new products, the holdup is not making the product better. The holdup is about senior executives not sure about whether to launch it, or creating the perfect marketing campaign and getting Jennifer Aniston to some photo-shoot location, and all of the work that it takes to launch a multimillion-dollar global advertising campaign. And it’s great when you don’t have to invest the time or money to do that, because you have a community.
X: Have you started to reach the upper limits of how many new products you can launch in a year, either based on the size of the organization, or what is right for the market?
JP: I don’t think we’re trying to launch more and more new products. We’re doing around 300 a year, and that feels about right for us. When we look at our top 10 percent of customers, they’ve bought over 600 different SKUs from us in a five-month period. So the variety matters to our customers, and the newness and innovation matters, so it’s really customer-driven.
We always say we want to be that boyfriend we never had, who was anticipating our needs before we even knew we had them. It’s really focused on the customer. It’s whatever she wants in terms of attention. If she wanted 1,000 [new products] a year, I would try to make it happen and could organize the company to do that. I think that’s too much for her to process.
X: There are some pretty huge names among your investors, including Jay-Z and Beyonce and Will Smith and Jada Pinkett-Smith, through their investment vehicle. What’s it like to work with celebrity investors? Do they provide any kind of brand-promotion assets or other assets that are important to your customers that traditional Silicon Valley or Seattle VCs just don’t have?
JP: It’s always great for us in our category to work with really creative people who look at things differently—to have super-analytic people who run crazy spreadsheets, but also to have the creative, from-the-gut people. That’s the interesting thing about e-commerce. It’s such a combination of gut and creativity with A/B testing and data and planning.
Thus far, as a smaller company, it’s really just been about the ideas and mentorship. I think we’re just growing to the space where we might be able to work together more on a business-partnership perspective. We didn’t want to be a celebrity brand. We wanted to build our own brand. But it’s exciting to be big enough where now we feel like we could work with folks in a collaborative way. We’re now big enough to collaborate.
X: As you are finishing your seventh year in business, with some 240 employees, some $56 million in capital raised, do you still consider this a startup?
JP: Absolutely. Oh my gosh. The rate of change that we’re going through is so significant. It’s really about the growth rate that defines that stage. When a toddler is growing really rapidly, they’re super awkward and they trip all the time because they’re not used to their body. We’re at this stage, where we just figured out this thing called crawling and then walking and then running and then your body keeps changing and you’re tripping again. I think that’s what defines a startup more than anything else. So you could be really big, but if you’re continuing to double every year, then the culture and the way that you work together is very different.
X: Why is Seattle the right place to build this business?
JP: Seattle has a great mix of retail and technology. I think about amazing companies like Starbucks, Nordstrom, and Costco, that are so customer-focused, and then great technology companies like Amazon, Zillow, Microsoft. I don’t know of anywhere else that has the intersection of retail and technology the same way Seattle does.
X: You said in an interview this summer that you expected to care less about work after becoming a parent, but actually you were reinvigorated—more determined to create a work experience that was as compelling as your home experience. I think the stereotype is that startups are pursued by the young or unattached who can throw their whole lives into building something from scratch without concern for the collateral damage to family and other priorities. What are some practical ways you’ve been able to devote yourself to this business and also protect time with your family?
JP: I think it helped to have worked around the clock when I was younger. I don’t know that when I worked 18 hours a day in the office that they were all super-productive hours. So one thing about both me and my co-founder being parents is that we’re incredibly efficient during the day. There is no tolerance for taking up people’s time with inefficient conversation.
The more we’re growing as a company, that requires leadership and communication. That’s the kind of stuff you figure out so much more about yourself as a parent. If we do all of these things the baby will sleep. And then they start crawling out of their crib, or they start walking and then all of those lessons, totally not useful, and now I’ve got to start again. I think that’s really true of startup life as well. Just when you get the hang of it, it all changes.
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