As we talked, the underlying idea supporting each of his lessons became clear: no one knows the right way to do anything, and mistakes will be made every single day. How quickly and how well you react to those mistakes will determine your success. Here are a few ways to ensure that mistakes will be molded into success.
1. Surround Yourself with the Right People
The first key to success, Tareen points out, is to surround yourself with people who know a lot more about an important aspect of your business than you do. Tareen brought a solid financial background to the table when he started Anthro, so he looked for colleagues who excelled in other areas.
Jeff McCaffrey, VP of Design and Engineering, was one of Anthro’s first employees, thanks to his manufacturing background; he knew how to make things, and thus knew how to manage that side of the business. Cathy Filgas, Tareen’s co-founder, came from the world of publishing and was knowledgeable about distribution channels and marketing; she knew how to manage that aspect of the business. Assemble a group of individuals with unique skills and expertise, who will collectively propel the business toward success.
Moreover, Tareen says, look for individuals who have an intrinsic “gut feeling” about business– those who can recognize mistakes while they’re happening and help detect if you’re off track. If you’re surrounded by people who are eager and willing to point out problems and inefficiencies, those incongruities can be fixed quickly, and often in ways that improve the business.
2. Customers Will Drive You to Success
Another lesson Tareen learned quickly was to be hypersensitive to what customers are saying about you each and every day. Listen to them, keep doing what they like, and stop doing what they don’t like: “Your customers will drive you to success if you’re listening and paying attention,” Tareen says. While that sounds like an easy enough thing to do, beware that you may have to make financial sacrifices in the short term to keep customers happy in the long run.
One of the first times Anthro ran into this challenge was when customers received product that had been damaged during shipping. The typical practice of many companies is to tell the customer that damage is the shipping company’s fault and to take it up with them. But Anthro chose the route that would ultimately benefit the customer: they’d deal with the shipping company, and send the customer a new product immediately.
Such thoughtful action ensures customers that you’re on their side, that you will react in their favor regardless of the circumstances, and that they are the most important aspect of your business. In the end, Tareen says, make it as easy as possible for customers to buy from you. Make their experience a positive one, so that ultimately, they will drive you to success.
3. Cultivate a Positive Corporate Culture
Lastly, Tareen says to be aware of your corporate culture from the very beginning, and work hard to make it a positive one. When Anthro was young, for example, there were some communication issues between the plant and the office, but Tareen and Filgas quickly addressed the problem by implementing a few innovative approaches.
First, they started an internal daily newsletter dubbed the AnthroGonian
to keep everyone abreast of the latest happenings in each department and with employees’ personal lives, which continues to this day.
Next, they installed the Brown Bag Lunch program
as an open forum for employees to voice concerns, and finally, they began Anthro’s shadow program, where one employee shadows another employee for an entire work day.
“The essence of a good corporate culture is excellent communication,” Tareen says, because without established avenues of communication, it’s easy for mistakes to go unnoticed until it’s detrimental to the company. If employees are kept up-to-date with what’s going on in all aspects of the business, they are much more likely to be committed to the success of the company, and want to contribute to it.
Be proactive about fostering a positive, meaningful corporate culture, so that your employees remain excited about and invested in the company’s future.
When it comes down to it, Tareen says candidly, as a business owner– startup or mature company– you don’t know the exact right thing to do, ever. Humans, processes and systems are inherently flawed. No one lives in a glass house nor is anyone infallible. Startups make mistakes every day just like Fortune 500 companies do. It is how you respond to those mistakes that will determine your success.
Birthdays are always a good time to reflect on where you’ve been, where you are and where you’re going. Anthro turns 29 years old this month, and so, in the spirit of looking back, I sat down with co-founder and CEO Shoaib Tareen to talk about lessons learned on the road from start-up to mature company.