Joseph Heller of The/Studio: “Never quit”

Never quit. I instinctively knew this, and I instinctively learned to never listen to people that suggested that I should quit. When we went to raise our $11M Series A, the journey subjected me to over 150 “no”s and 18 months of hard work before that “yes” that made it worth it. Everyone said that […]

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Never quit. I instinctively knew this, and I instinctively learned to never listen to people that suggested that I should quit. When we went to raise our $11M Series A, the journey subjected me to over 150 “no”s and 18 months of hard work before that “yes” that made it worth it. Everyone said that we wouldn’t be able to raise money but hard work and perseverance paid off.

As a part of our series about business leaders who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Joseph Heller.

Joseph Heller is the CEO & Founder of The/Studio Technologies, which operates and Joseph founded The/Studio based on his experience of living in China and working in the consumer products manufacturing sector. The/Studio is a Silicon Valley venture backed startup that is focused on democratizing manufacturing and supply chain for SMBs. makes it easy for companies to make custom manufactured products and helps small retail stores buy inventory directly from factories.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

I’ve always been an entrepreneur since I was in high school, when I started my first business designing websites for small businesses. Later in college, I raised an angel round of funding for a marketplace that allowed artists to sell their products online. This business failed after we were unable to raise more capital during the dotcom bust, but I learned quite a bit. I finished college and went to China for a year to see if there were any cool business opportunities there; while in Asia, I started a business helping large brands and retailers to work with factories in the region where I was living.

After the Great Recession, I realized that the business from larger companies was significantly decreasing while we were getting a ton of inquiries from SMBs. These smaller firms were increasingly interested in working with the same factories in China big brands had used.

This started what has become a lifelong passion: the democratization of business for everyone, starting with a focus on the supply chain. Our thesis is that some aspects of business have already been democratized, like the creation of a business website (Shopify) or the advertising and promotion of your service (Facebook and Instagram). But supply chain and manufacturing remain a very challenging part of business for SMBs and technology has yet to solve these problems.

Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?

Our company has two businesses. enables SMBs to easily manufacture products with factories without having to have any product development or manufacturing experience. Our latest business,, is a wholesale marketplace that allows SMBs to order wholesale inventory directly from factories with no minimum order requirements. In both businesses, small business owners are freed from the burden of navigating and working through language barriers or trust issues. Instead, customers can easily place orders with factories, without any of the hassle generally associated with working with factories.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Well … this wasn’t really funny, but I used to be a very bad manager. I was still in my twenties, was very arrogant and I overcompensated with my lack of knowledge by just being very pushy and difficult to work with. I didn’t know how to communicate with the people on my team, I didn’t know how to properly manage and I didn’t know how to articulate a compelling vision (although in my mind I thought it was very clear). It took everyone hating me to really understand the importance of being an inspiring leader. I’ve really worked over the years on getting the right people on my team and making sure that I’m a supportive and inspiring leader to them.

We all need a little help along the journey. Who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact? This is related to the above question. Previously, everyone I hired was in their twenties. The first “adult” that I hired to help me manage the company was a seasoned manager who led with empathy and charisma. I grew up in a household where my father coerced me through anger and fear — I learned that there was a way to lead with love, care, empathy and you could get even better results.

In today’s parlance, being disruptive is usually a positive adjective. But is disrupting always good? When do we say the converse, that a system or structure has ‘withstood the test of time’? Can you articulate to our readers when disrupting an industry is positive, and when disrupting an industry is ‘not so positive’? Can you share some examples of what you mean? This is a good question that I’ve never really thought about before. You’re right that in Silicon Valley, disruption is always viewed as a good thing. From a capitalist perspective, I think disruption is always good. Disruption means that the current way of doing things is not good enough, which is why it’s facing disruption; the old way of doing things was so bad and inefficient that it became susceptible to disruption.

A great example of this is Uber. In general, the global taxi experience is awful. Taxis in general are a corrupt monopoly that provide poor service at a high price to consumers. And this is why Uber, Lyft and other international ride hailing apps were able to quickly sweep over the taxi industry. They provided a better, more efficient service for less money. Clearly, this was a win for capitalism. Customers won and billions of dollars of value were created for ride hailing apps.

So, from the perspective of a capitalist, I feel that disruption is always a win. But it’s not always a win for society, and I think we need to be very careful about balancing disruption with its negative impacts on society. Uber has totally stripped hard working Americans in the taxi industry of a middle-class income, and in their place are digital serfs that are almost a type of indentured servant to Uber.

Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each. Talk to the customer, never quit, and learn to delegate.

Talk to the customer. Many entrepreneurs fall into the trap of having a good idea and assuming that the market wants to buy your idea. Very, very few of us are Steve Jobs and have the magic ability to know what the market wants. One of my board members once asked me: “are you leading the company as Steve Jobs, where you know what the customer wants — or as Jeff Bezos, where you find out what the customer wants?”

It’s always safer to take the Jeff Bezos approach. As an entrepreneur, the best you can expect is to have a strong instinct that you know what the customer wants. But you should have the humility to go out there and ask customers what they really want to see if you’re right.

For example: is a marketplace that allows SMBs to buy wholesale inventory directly from the factory. Instinctively, everything that I knew about the market and trends told me that there would be a market here. But what I didn’t know was how the product should be shaped to cater to that market — and exactly who would be the customer.

I had a vague idea that there were a lot of small businesses that would want to save money by buying inventory directly from factories. What we ended up finding out was that many more established small businesses already had wholesale relationships. Although we could craft a product offering for them, there was an even more compelling customer: very small businesses that had not yet solved how to reliably buy wholesale products. The product we created was perfect for this customer. Our service was set up in a way that a small business only had to spend $150, and they could buy as little as one piece from an unlimited number of factories, an unheard-of offer from competitors. For these customers, they had no other similar options, and they truly loved what we were doing for them. We would have never found this out by just making assumptions.

Never quit. I instinctively knew this, and I instinctively learned to never listen to people that suggested that I should quit. When we went to raise our $11M Series A, the journey subjected me to over 150 “no”s and 18 months of hard work before that “yes” that made it worth it. Everyone said that we wouldn’t be able to raise money but hard work and perseverance paid off.

Learn to delegate. I used to try to do everything myself, which made me a really bad CEO. It was my brother who saw me suffering, working crazy hours and made a joke that really stuck with me.

I told him I was going to McDonalds to get some coffee at 2AM in the morning. He said, “say hi to the CEO of McDonalds because I’m sure he’s working right now.”

His point: the best organizations have leaders that learn to delegate. I now realize that I have a very specific skillset: motivate people, set the vision for the company and make critical decisions about the direction of the business. For everything else, I have much more talented people on my team to help me out.

Lead generation is one of the most important aspects of any business. Can you share some of the strategies you use to generate good, qualified leads?

The key to lead generation is good data. It’s that simple. If you have good data and a testing mentality, you will learn quickly.

We are sure you aren’t done. How are you going to shake things up next?

The long term vision of our company is to democratize business, as I mentioned earlier. There is a lot of inequality all over the world, and we believe that the great equalizer is everyone having the opportunity to start a business and make a living off of something that they are passionate about and good at.

For us, the start is the supply chain. Once we’ve executed on our vision for, any company or individual will be able to reliably bring a product to market without having to hire or have product design or manufacturing experience. For, any retailer will be able to reliably buy wholesale products directly from the factory and create a business with no risks.

Outside these businesses, we think there are a lot of other problems that we can solve around the notion of democratizing businesses. For example: another huge problem that small businesses face is establishing credit and obtaining capital for their business. We’re gaining insight into this issue as we work with them intimately through The/ and

Do you have a book, podcast, or talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us? Can you explain why it was so resonant with you?

How To Get Rich: One of The World’s Greatest Entrepreneurs Shares His Secrets by Felix Dennis.

I don’t actually like the title (and the book is not really about getting rich), but I read this book at the right time in my career as an entrepreneur. As I alluded to earlier, there was a time where a lot of my staff disliked me and when I did not know how to delegate.

Felix Dennis, on the other hand, was one of the most successful entrepreneurs in the UK. There were four things in his book that really stood out to me:

#1 He treated his staff really well. He knew the value of good relationships with employees. This lesson was amplified by me watching the “adult manager” that I had recently hired in my company.

#2 You have to learn to delegate. Again, this was during a time when I was not properly delegating and I was exhausted constantly. He gave excellent examples of how to solve for that problem.

#3 You shouldn’t chase money. One of the underlying themes in this book is that you should do business because you enjoy it. Eventually, the money will come, but there is a strong element of luck involved in making money. If you just chase money, you won’t have fun and you will probably also not make money. But if you chase what you love, you will enjoy the ride and you may also make money. If you don’t make money, you have at least pursued what you love.

#4 There isn’t one type of entrepreneurial archetype that makes a successful entrepreneur. Some entrepreneurs are experts at their field or are master engineers. Some entrepreneurs have amazing instincts. Other entrepreneurs lead purely through charisma. You need to take the time to learn your special skill, own it and lean into it.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

My favorite life lesson quote is simple: “don’t quit.” Anyone that has been successful is relentless. There is no such thing as success without extreme relentlessness.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Besides COVID, the other huge conversation this year is around equality. Inequality has always existed in the world, but we now live in a world where everything is transparent and people are starting to ask why some people have so much wealth and access and other people have almost nothing.

I truly believe that the only way to create true equality is to give everyone equal ability to create wealth. And that is why we believe our mission to democratize business is so important.

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