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AJ Patel of HighKey: “Focus on effective communication”

Focus on effective communication. An important piece to leading a thriving organization is being able to articulate and listen to what your team tells you. That starts with creating an atmosphere that empowers and encourages everyone on your team to speak up and challenge the status quo across departments. It thrives when every team member […]

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Focus on effective communication. An important piece to leading a thriving organization is being able to articulate and listen to what your team tells you. That starts with creating an atmosphere that empowers and encourages everyone on your team to speak up and challenge the status quo across departments. It thrives when every team member embraces this mentality and remains open-minded. That starts at the top. I thrive on mentoring and encouraging my employees, but to do that I have to invest time in building a trusting and supportive relationship with each of them. I learned early in my career that leading a great company requires not only good ideas but people that can help you grow those ideas and to make a company functional, effective communication is a critical point.


As part of my series about the “How To Take Your Company From Good To Great”, I had the pleasure of interviewing AJ Patel.

After selling his first business in high school to pay for college, HighKey Co-Founder AJ Patel developed an insatiable desire to be a successful entrepreneur. This love of business continued to develop throughout college which led him to trying his hand at a variety of different industries from internet companies to real estate. HighKey is AJ’s most recent venture. His never-ending drive to be the best has driven HighKey’s Chocolate Chip Mini Cookies to continue to be the #1 best-selling chocolate chip cookie on Amazon.


Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

To quote the great philosopher Drake, “started from the bottom, now we’re here.”

I’ve had to work hard with very little and fail a lot to get where I am. I didn’t get any handouts. Not to brag or sound bitter, but a lot of people who say they’re self-made are kidding themselves.

I grew up in India and my family was very broke when I was young. My mother started her own business to try and support us, but it didn’t take off. Somehow, my dad and her saved up enough money to get us to the U.S. but again, we struggled. I was 10 years old. I was living with relatives in the middle of nowhere in Arkansas. Aside from my family, I feel fairly confident saying we were the only Indian people in the whole town. It was challenging to make friends and fit in.

Eventually, we were able to get our own place and move to Orlando but it’s not like my mom’s company took off and became this runaway success. It paid the bills, it put food on the table.

By all accounts, my parents provided more opportunity for me than they had growing up but the biggest gifts they gave me were their continuous support and inspiration to never give up.

They’re why I decided at a young age that I wanted to be an entrepreneur. I started and sold my first web-hosting business when I was in high school. The profits paid for me to go to college. I’ve been my own boss ever since. That’s not to say that every business since high school has been a slam dunk, but I’ve never given up even after losing it all. The fun and the fear of being an entrepreneur is in building a business from scratch and you either flourish in that fire or you burn out.

Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?

Even in college, I was my own boss. I dabbled in several other internet-based ventures as well as gaming, staffing and real estate. By the time I graduated, I had saved up six-figures and decided to commit myself to entrepreneurship full-time.

I invested every penny into scaling and growing different businesses and I failed at all of them. Within three years, I had lost everything I had.

I didn’t have any other choice than to take a job working for someone else while I tried to build up my savings and a new business from scratch, again. No offense to my former employers but that was never in my plan. I lived with my parents and worked after hours so I could get back out on my own as soon as possible. It was the longest two years of my life, but I kept grinding and I never lost hope.

I knew that failing did not make me a failure. I had been successful before and I would be successful again. I just had to continue learning and trying new things.

Like everyone, I had my moments of fear and self-doubt but pushed through them with the encouragement I got from my parents. They never gave up on me and were living proof that success doesn’t come without challenges.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?

Well, I’ve made lots of mistakes along the way and have learned Iessons from all of them. I don’t know how funny it is, but one of the most significant mistakes I made at the beginning of my career was thinking that the only way to get things done right was to do them myself. To be completely honest, I was a bit of a bully. For almost a year, I spent 18 hours a day holed up in my bedroom trying to work out every detail, put out every fire, and face every challenge on my own. I finally realized that I was working “in” my business and not “on” my business. I couldn’t see the forest through the trees. I was so involved in the details and problems in the business that I didn’t look at the situation as a whole and I started to burn out. So basically, I fired myself and I started hiring people who were more capable than me so I could switch gears to working on my business and not being so mired in the details. I’ve used this experience to help me think more strategically, find efficiencies, keep perspective, prevent myself from being overwhelmed, and to work through day-to-day challenges.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

Anyone who knows me knows that I don’t approach things the same way as many other people and I never settle for just “good”. For starters, our products taste amazing. I love junk food as much as the next person but it’s absolute garbage for your health. I’ve tried a lot of better-for-you options and to be honest, they’re disgusting. I’m really picky and have tried and approved every product we launch. Our Chocolate Chip Mini Cookies are the #1 selling chocolate chip cookie on Amazon for a reason. They legit taste as good as the original versions people grew up with and love and that’s why we get compared to them in so many reviews.

Those standout products are the result of a standout team of overachieves across departments, including, of course, our culinary wizards. We’ve been told by a variety of industry experts that what we’re doing is insane or impossible. We get a lot of joy from saying, “we did the impossible, we’ll send you a box!”

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

Start with finding something that you are passionate about and have a vested interest in. Your journey is going to be filled with ups and downs and tears and celebrations, so being excited about your work is going to make the journey more enjoyable.

Another super important aspect of avoiding burnout is to build a leadership team that’s capable, supportive and keeps you honest. Ultimately, you need your business to be a well-oiled machine so you can go on vacation for a couple weeks and know that things will continue thrive in your absence.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

Much of my strength and perseverance stems from the support of my mother. She taught me the art of resilience and was always there telling me to pick myself up and keep moving forward when things didn’t go quite how I’d planned. We first moved to the US because she was determined to make it as an entrepreneur and almost 30 years later, her clothing business is still going strong. Ultimately, she was the inspiration and source of encouragement that helped me make the leap from corporate America to full-time entrepreneurship.

Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. The title of this series is “How to take your company from good to great”. Let’s start with defining our terms. How would you define a “good” company, what does that look like? How would you define a “great” company, what does that look like?

Describing a company as “good” is a bit subjective. I might label a company “good” if it is functioning smoothly and meeting goals. I have high standards though and for me, just barely making your goals has never been enough. I don’t want to live paycheck-to-paycheck and I don’t want to just meet my business goals: I want to exceed them.

For me, a “great” company is growing like gangbusters and exceeding expectations. You’ve got the right talent in the right positions, there is a solid sense of camaraderie, and you are confident your team can stay ahead of the curve and resolve issues as they come up even in your absence.

Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to lead a company from Good to Great? Please share a story or an example for each.

  • Self-awareness is key. Inmy early years as an entrepreneur, I had low to no self-awareness. I can laugh about it now, but I really didn’t understand what my leadership style was and how it would impact people around me. I went from being my own boss to managing a team, so it was a huge learning curve for me. It was helpful for me hire a mindfulness coach who helped me to recognize my strengths and weaknesses and become a more empowering and compassionate leader. I’m not and will never be Mother Theresa so I’ve also made an effort to surround myself with a team of leaders who have strengths in the areas that I don’t.
  • Focus on effective communication. An important piece to leading a thriving organization is being able to articulate and listen to what your team tells you. That starts with creating an atmosphere that empowers and encourages everyone on your team to speak up and challenge the status quo across departments. It thrives when every team member embraces this mentality and remains open-minded. That starts at the top. I thrive on mentoring and encouraging my employees, but to do that I have to invest time in building a trusting and supportive relationship with each of them. I learned early in my career that leading a great company requires not only good ideas but people that can help you grow those ideas and to make a company functional, effective communication is a critical point.
  • Surround yourself with great talent. If you’re the smartest person in the room, you’re either doomed to fail, delusional or possibly both. There’s no way you can be an expert at everything and that doesn’t make you any less capable as a leader and business owner. You need to build an executive team that can help strengthen your gaps and weaknesses. Find players in the field, people that have been on the journey and have tasted success on a similar path that you are trying to achieve and learn from their experience. A winning team has a roster of great players.
  • Take action and risks! On the roadmap to success, failing isn’t optional. If you’re doing things right, you will continue to fail and in doing so, you will continue to learn. I’ve often said, “you don’t know, what you don’t know.” The main thing is once you know better, avoid making the same mistake twice.
  • Stay ahead of the technology curve. Doesn’t Apple come out with a new iPhone every 5 minutes? Technology and consumer behavior are changing constantly, and the pace of innovation is faster than ever. You can’t afford to stay in the mindset of doing things how they have always been done and you can’t be afraid to try something new to scale your business. If you’re complacent with the technology you currently have or use, the opportunity window may close, and your business may be on the path to a slow death.

Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. Can you help articulate for our readers a few reasons why a business should consider becoming a purpose driven business, or consider having a social impact angle?

Generally, a purpose-driven business is one that has a bigger purpose in mind than just selling its product or service. The purpose is integrated into the core business principles and strategy and can be dedicated to serving a humanitarian cause or based on a unifying belief and vision for the brand. Having a clearly defined purpose helps attract and retain the right customers and employees. Everyone knows they’re buying into something greater than just a product. When you get that buy-in, everything follows from brand loyalty to brand growth.

For Apple, its “think different.” This purpose is something that Steve Jobs lived out through his leadership and business strategy. Apple has continued to grow and succeed because its employees move quickly and continue to innovate and because its customers because its customers enjoy and quickly embrace these innovations.

What would you advise to a business leader who initially went through years of successive growth, but has now reached a standstill? From your experience do you have any general advice about how to boost growth and “restart their engines”?

If your growth has stalled, it is time to get out and get back in the game and try something new. You can try rolling out a new service or product, launching a new marketing campaign, restructuring your team, or appealing to a new audience. Businesses don’t continue to evolve and grow unless you do. I like the example of Slack. Its founders were dead set on building a huge, multi-player online game. They raised millions in funding to develop the game and in the process of doing so, created a tool to improve internal communications and collaboration across the team. The game the founders built didn’t take off and become successful but the communications tool they built has a valuation of more than $1 billion and it’s rumored the company will be acquired by Salesforce. Had the founders not been able to adapt and pivot their business from an online game to a SaaS, they would have missed out on the huge business opportunity.

Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?

In order to survive, every company’s products and services have to change or evolve naturally over time. Look at Blockbuster and Netflix. The difference with what is happening now is that the world, and how the world does business, changed so drastically practically overnight. Many companies are still trying to figure out how to stay afloat. We don’t know when or if things will ever go back to normal and how this pandemic will change the course of business forever. When we first started talked and revisiting our business plan this year, we knew we had to make sure our cash position remained strong. We also knew we had to make sure we had a strong supply chain in place to manage any potential disruptions to work productivity and product supply. We have premium products, and we weren’t sure if consumer demand would go up or down during quarantine and we needed to be prepared for both. Our business model is primarily direct-to-consumer and since people have been shopping online more now than ever, we’ve been able to see continued, exponential growth year-over-year since 2019.

On the other side of the business, we planned for 2020 to be a big year for us with our retail growth strategy. Expo West, the biggest CPG show in the country, was canceled just weeks out and was supposed to a be pivotal time for us and lots of brands in the natural space to get new leads for retail expansion. We built out a “virtual” tradeshow booth for retailers to book Zoom meetings with our sales team. We had to be patient as retailers took more time to evaluate consumer purchasing behavior and decide which new brands to invest into bringing to their shelves. When we debuted our Mini Cookies in Target and Whole Foods for the first time this year, we also had to adapt and develop digital-only strategies to drive in-store trial and velocity, since we couldn’t do more traditional strategies like in-store sampling.

In your experience, which aspect of running a company tends to be most underestimated? Can you explain or give an example?

You have to hire people the right people for the right roles and build a strong company culture. Some leaders just want to go with talent from big companies that look great on paper but aren’t the right cultural fit. There are plenty of talented and hard-working people out there and a resume should just be a precursor to getting someone in the door for an interview. Being qualified for a job is one thing, being cut out for a job is another. When you evaluate for talent and for attitude you can achieve a thriving culture and successful company. You can teach skills and gain additional expertise over time. A negative attitude is almost always going to remain a negative attitude.

As you know, “conversion” means to convert a visit into a sale. In your experience, what are the best strategies a business should use to increase conversion rates?

Two things. For starters, you need to showcase the value your product has to offer your target consumer. Why the heck should they buy what you’re selling? This could be selling someone on unique value proposition of your product — particularly if you’re at premium price point or in a competitive category — or a brand value and guiding belief. “Just do it” isn’t selling a Nike shoe, it’s selling a lifestyle.

Secondly, what can you do to incentivize them to change their current behavior or attitudes? In-store discounts and sampling are time-honored conversion tactics for food products because it allows people to try something new for little to no cost. For the same reason, we offer all new customers at HighKey.com, one-time discounts towards their first purchase. We also have found consumer reviews and testimonials to be incredibly helpful in driving conversions as word-of-mouth is and will always be the most influential way to create change.

Of course, the main way to increase conversion rates is to create a trusted and beloved brand. Can you share a few ways that a business can earn a reputation as a trusted and beloved brand?

Everyone says this but I can’t stress enough how important it is to always put the customer first. That is easy to say but it’s harder to do and even harder to do well. It starts with trying to make things right if a customer is unsatisfied, but you have to look at customer feedback and concerns at the macro level as well.

We respond to all customer inquiries as quickly and efficiently as possible. We meticulously track all customer feedback. We use this feedback to inform where we can continue to improve and even what products we create next. Sometimes, it’s as simple as just changing the way something is worded on a product page so it’s less confusing to a consumer. Other times, it’s improving our user experience on our website. There is so much value to be had in establishing and maintaining great relationships with every customer or potential customer.

Beyond proactive outreach to our customer care team, we also interact and engage with a huge network of consumers and influencers through our social media networks. If someone mentions or tags us in a social media post, we respond. If someone sends us a direct messages or comments on a post through social media, we respond. Even if it’s as simple as liking their message, we know it makes a world of difference to people and making them feel appreciated and heard.

Great customer service and great customer experience are essential to build a beloved brand and essential to be successful in general. In your experience what are a few of the most important things a business leader should know in order to create a Wow! Customer Experience?

Remember what it’s like to be the customer. What things have companies done or said to you that stood out?

It starts with simply listening to what the customer is saying and actively responding. Address them personally, word your response in a way that shows you’ve listened and understood the question or concern they have. Don’t just send some bland and canned response.

Be honest. Be patient. Be kind. Be forthright and make it right if someone is unhappy. Actions always speak louder than words. It’s one thing to tell a customer you’ve heard them. It’s another thing to show them.

Beyond that, pay attention to what the customer is or isn’t saying. Is there a way you can offer them more than they’re expecting or asking for? What about surprising and delighting them on a special occasion or out of the blue? The more personal and tailored to an individual these surprises are, the more they will resonate and create that “Wow!” experience.

What are your thoughts about how a company should be engaged on Social Media? For example, the advisory firm EisnerAmper conducted of United States corporate boards, and directors reported that one of their most pressing concerns was reputational risk as a result of social media. Do you share this concern? We’d love to hear your thoughts about this.

Social media is an invaluable tool for our business as it’s a direct line to our customer base. It’s a great resource for us and it’s the best way to communicate with our community. We’re more likely to receive feedback on Facebook than we are through email or a phone call, so it makes us more accessible and available. Reputation management having a strong, and strategic communications team in place. Your team can learn so much about its customer base and beyond based on the conservations happening on social media, whether they’re related to your brand or not. These insights can flag up any potential concerns or areas for additional sensitivity sooner rather than later. Additionally, having a strategic team in place ensures all the messaging you’re sending out on social media at any given time is aligned with the company’s values and beliefs.

What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs & founders make when they start a business? What can be done to avoid those errors?

I’ve seen lots of leaders who have what I call “delusional confidence” and have a “my way or the highway” type attitude. There are also those leaders who are dishonest about their strengths and weaknesses, which ends up reflecting on their business. It is important to be honest with yourself, to be able to listen to and simmer on the ideas of others, and to assess what they are saying and why. It goes back to self-awareness, you really can’t do it all, so don’t believe in your own bullshit. Prioritize the talent you have and surround yourself with people who are smarter than you in every aspect of the business. As a CEO, you should be able to work on your business at 30,000 feet and not get caught in the weeds.

Thank you for all of that. We are nearly done. You are a person of great influence. If you could start 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.

I’d like people to know that they don’t need to wait for the perfect opportunity or permission to pursue the goals they have or become the person they want to be — even if it scares them. At any given time, regardless of position in life or circumstance, we can choose to change. To take a risk and veer off the current path we’re on. To become a better version of ourselves. To push ourselves outside the boundaries of what we ever dreamed possible. There are plenty of things that are finite in life, but growth is not one of them.

I’ve lived out this belief in everything I do personally and professionally, and I’d be satisfied in knowing I have influenced at least one person to adopt the same mentality. Maybe if I get lucky enough, I’ll get to a deliver a TED talk one day to share my personal journey with more people and inspire them as well.

How can our readers further follow you online?

LinkedIn

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this!


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