Joy Gendusa on why a leader needs to create a zero tolerance zone for office politics

Create a zero tolerance zone for office politics. There’s nothing worse than a toxic work environment. I worked at my share of companies where office politics and negative chatter ran rampant. Super not fun. From that, I decided that PostcardMania would be different from day one. Now, with 243 staff I am happy to brag […]

Create a zero tolerance zone for office politics. There’s nothing worse than a toxic work environment. I worked at my share of companies where office politics and negative chatter ran rampant. Super not fun. From that, I decided that PostcardMania would be different from day one. Now, with 243 staff I am happy to brag that we have a pretty zen work environment with only supportive, caring people that appreciate it.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Joy Gendusa. Joy is the founder and CEO of PostcardMania, a marketing company that specializes in lead generation for businesses of all sizes. Joy grew her business from a small startup in 1998 to a $58 million enterprise employing 245 staff using only a phone, a computer and her own marketing savvy — that means no financial backing or injections of any kind. Today, Joy is an accomplished keynote speaker and marketing educator, having helped more than 82,000 small businesses in over 350 industries since PostcardMania’s founding in 1998.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

My company, PostcardMania, was actually borne out of a terrible customer service experience. Back then, around 1998, I had a small graphic design firm and I brokered printing for my clients. Here’s the story…

So, it’s 1998, and I decided to send out postcards to market my design services to local businesses. One printer was offering 5,000 postcards for $425. That was a STEAL back in the day! Everything seemed fine… until I got my proof back from the printer (on a CD from FedEx because the internet wasn’t a thing yet). I was horrified. This company put THEIR phone number on MY postcard. Here I was, the owner of a tiny graphic design firm that also brokered printing, and this printer had put their phone number on my postcard — without my permission — so they could market their services to MY list.

Obviously, this was a huge conflict of interest, because now my potential leads would see their phone number and maybe even call them instead. So I called this printer immediately and kindly requested that they remove their phone number from my postcard. After going back and forth with my customer service rep and then the manager, I finally got their phone number off my postcard without being charged. However: they warned me that next time it would be $50 to remove their number. $50!

I hung up the phone, and decided right then and there — I’m going to start my OWN postcard company, we’re going to call it PostcardMania, and we aren’t going to put our phone number on our clients’ postcards and then make them pay to take it off! I stuck my head out of my office to tell the good news to my then-tiny team of five. Granted, my announcement was met with blank stares, but the name stuck. Twenty years and over $50 million in annual revenue later, it turned out to be a pretty good idea!

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

I think what’s most interesting (well, to me anyway) is that my 3 top executives all came to me with ZERO executive experience. In fact, for 2 of them, it was their first “real job” out of school! Those 2 are now my president and CMO.

As a leader, I feel like it’s my job to get my staff thinking for themselves so that they take ownership for their positions and tasks. I, too, was pretty green, with no formal education at all. I mean, I dropped out of high school!

So the interesting parts are:

a) You don’t HAVE to have a college degree or a masters in business to be a kick-ass executive, and

b) Someone CAN be born with an innate ability to lead.

Prior to PostcardMania, I really only had odd jobs here and there, from waiting tables to selling vacation packages from a phone room. But all of those experiences led me here and informed the leadership style I have — but no, I really never saw all of this happening. Nearly $50 million in revenue and 245 staff?! In my wildest dreams! But it’s real, and it can happen even if you don’t have an MBA.

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?

Funny?? Hah! None of them seemed funny at the time! But in hindsight, there were a few… And the mistake we learned the most was trusting a vendor. We believed what he said. We were pretty green at the time.

We weren’t yet printing in-house and we had just switched print vendors because we were promised MUCH better service and lower prices.That’s the funny part — because it was utter BS!

So, business as usual, right? We took orders, designed the postcards, and sent them off to this new vendor. We should have had all the orders back in 3 business days. Well, 3 weeks later we’re still hemming and hawing to our clients about where their postcards are. This guy, Ray (yeah, YOU, Ray — you know who you are) would tell us, “I promise you’ll have all the orders tomorrow.” And then we’d pass that along to our own clients.

Turns out, Ray’s press was down with no fix in sight — SO HE WENT FISHING. Literally! FISHING! Meanwhile, we were squirming!!

It was a huge lesson, but we’re able to laugh about it now.

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

Stick with me on this, because I’m not bragging at all — but after PostcardMania opened, there were a lot of other printers out there who started copying our business model. We ticked off a lot of “firsts” in our early days — PostcardMania was the first postcard marketing/printing company to promote and sell directly to small businesses (there was one postcard specific company back then but they only sold to the trade, as in other printers, design firms, and ad agencies), the first to offer in-house mailing services and the first firm to give away marketing advice for free. That’s a biggie… we were blogging before the word was invented and even before the world ran on the internet. Everything I learned about my own small business, I wrote about it — and published it on our website — not to get found by search engines (SEO didn’t even exist yet) but to genuinely help small business.

But after our competitors adopted the same practices and those practices became industry standards, I had to find a new way for PostcardMania to stand out.

I thought — what is the #1 thing that people HATE about promoting their businesses, and what can I do to reduce this pain or anxiety for them?

The answer was pretty simple. People hate that marketing isn’t guaranteed to work, and that it can seem like a bit of a crap shoot. To put it even more simply: they hate spending money on marketing and getting no return. A giant waste of money!!

So I wanted PostcardMania to be different. And it took a lot of work.

I hired a Results Manager (a brand new, full-time, 40-hour-a-week position), and their sole responsibility was…

  • To find successful direct mail campaigns among our clientele
  • Catalog every important aspect of that campaign (like the mailing list, how often/to whom they mailed, what they offered, etc)
  • Analyze that data to find significant commonalities among successful campaigns (for example, 62% of our successful dental campaigns feature 2 or more discounted offers and “free whitening” garners the best response by far)
  • Share that data with PostcardMania’s consultants, designers, prospects, clients — basically everyone!

Today, I’m happy to say that we’re the only marketing company that bases our campaigns off of the experiences and successes of our 82,401 (and counting!) clients.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

Yes! We are always working on lots of new things, but right now I am most excited about our expansion into franchise marketing. (Right now, we sell mostly to independent businesses directly.) We are building a terrific platform for franchisees to be able to order marketing services online with just a few clicks.

What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?

The biggest, most important piece of advice that I can give to female leaders is also the HARDEST thing for my own executives to do, and when I tell entrepreneurs to do this, they usually just stare back at me in response.

So what is it?

Grant your juniors autonomy.

If they’ve proven themselves to be totally willing to learn and have an innate desire to do their best and improve, then let them own their position. Sure, you can stick close and guide them, but grant them ownership.

When you put your trust in a reliable, honest staff member, 99% of the time — and I’m talking from 20+ years experience as the owner and “big boss” — they are going to do everything they can to avoid disappointing you. I would put money on it.

Besides, even if you are smarter and more clever, you can never do your job AND theirs better than someone who is driven to perform well. So relax, let your juniors and middle managers make mistakes and learn from them (within reason).

Of course, senior to this, you’ll need to make sure that you’re hiring great people who actually have an innate desire do their best — and I can virtually guarantee you will be pleasantly surprised by the results.

And here is another quick piece of advice that I can’t go without mentioning…

As women, I think that (more often than not) we are better equipped to speak up and acknowledge a team member’s good work when we see it — and we should!

Acknowledging someone’s effort is not only NICE and fair when it’s deserved, but it emboldens them to do more and do better in the future. People crave recognition, especially from those they respect. Be generous with your workplace acknowledgements, and you will likely find your juniors more generous with the effort they give to you.

What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team?

I adopted an unusual policy early on in PostcardMania’s history that I think as made a huge difference in our continued success.

The policy: NO office politics or negative chatter is permitted. This is a ZERO-tolerance policy.

In a nutshell, this policy prevents team members from becoming clique-y and hierarchical by discussing negative things about their coworkers or their workplace.

I think that kind of behavior can literally POISON a working environment. I’ve seen it happen! You end up chasing away people who are potentially your best players and propping up a system of negativity that continually feeds on itself. Eventually, the only solution is to clean house, and that can set your production back months — and that’s a sunny outlook.

So my advice is to adopt a policy similar to this, that will cleanse your workspace. As a result, you’ll find yourself surrounded by a team that focuses on work and hitting targets — and not the ugly, immature stuff that can fester in an unchecked workplace.

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 about that?

I could not be where I am today without Melissa Bradshaw, the president of PostcardMania. She has been with me and PostcardMania from virtually the beginning, when we were a tiny boutique firm with only 4 other staff.

She was only 19 when she started! She started as my personal assistant, and basically held and piloted every position within PostcardMania as the company boomed and expanded. (We were doing over $35 million within 10 years!)

Melissa was vital and indispensable back then — and the same is true 20 years later.

Back then, she picked up my dry cleaning and drove my kids to school when I was working 14-hour days. Shortly after, she was a customer service rep, then a customer service manager, then VP of the entire area. Then she piloted a new division — our quality control department. Then, she oversaw all operations. And today, she is all of that combined and rolled up into my #1 in charge.

Her value is beyond any telling of it, and PostcardMania would not be the same company today without her.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

I try to give back when and where I can, because the universe will return what you put into it. Being a good and positive force in the world is important, I think.

At PostcardMania, we try to stay involved in the community and bring goodness and goodwill into the world. For example, every month, we hold a raffle that benefits a local nonprofit dedicated to improving literacy rates for low-income neighborhoods. And just a week or two ago, we held a “rummage sale” full of items donated by staff, shopped by staff, with the proceeds going to staff family members in need.

On a regular basis we donate postcard design, print and mailing services to nonprofits all over the U.S., because I know firsthand how hard it is to fundraise for a charity. So many good people are out there working hard at these charities just to help the less fortunate — the least we can do is assist with their promotional efforts free of charge.

Those are just a few examples!

What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. Trust your gut when it really speaks to you. PostcardMania was actually borne out of a terrible customer service experience, because I knew the industry and I knew that I could do way better. At the time, I already owned a small business — a boutique graphic design firm that occasionally brokered printing to clients — so starting another business was a big risk. But I knew it could be much bigger and more successful, so I followed through, and last year PostcardMania did $49 million in revenue. This year we’ll be closer to 60 million!
  2. Be flattered by imitators and keep evolving. I’m not bragging when I say that PostcardMania really revolutionized the direct mail marketing industry. We were the first to sell directly to small businesses, the first to include mailing services and the first to offer FREE marketing advice before inbound/content marketing was a thing. These things eventually became industry-standard practices, but since they’re so much better for the consumer, can I really be mad? Nope! So I just had to push harder and further to differentiate my business. Today, I’m happy to say that PostcardMania is the only marketing company that bases our campaigns off of the experiences and successes of our 82,401 (and counting!) clients.
  3. Don’t be an egomaniac! Recognize when people are smarter than you, give them credit for it and listen to them. I couldn’t be where I am today if I hadn’t granted autonomy to the people around me — especially my senior execs — which let them flourish and, to be honest, surpass my own expertise. You can’t be everything to everyone, so don’t even try!
  4. Create a zero tolerance zone for office politics. There’s nothing worse than a toxic work environment. I worked at my share of companies where office politics and negative chatter ran rampant. Super not fun. From that, I decided that PostcardMania would be different from day one. Now, with 243 staff I am happy to brag that we have a pretty zen work environment with only supportive, caring people that appreciate it.
  5. Be adaptable. Yes, PostcardMania started as a direct mail company, but more than that, I wanted to help business owners win at marketing. Postcards are STILL one of the best ways to generate leads and revenue (across all industries targeting raw prospects, postcards garner a 2.9% response rate, which is better than display, paid search and social media COMBINED) — but let’s be honest. You can’t ignore the internet and its reach. That’s why we’ve adapted and now offer fully integrated online and offline marketing campaigns. This program, called Everywhere Small Business, makes a cohesive, branded campaign easy, with your core marketing message echoed in mailboxes, on Google’s network and on Facebook and Instagram. It’s been a huge success and crushed first quarter expectations by 243%. I mean, if you can’t beat ‘em…

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. 🙂

Oh, great question! Without a doubt, my movement would inspire people to want to learn more — to reach for knowledge and think for themselves. We are all incredible beings with so much potential, and the way to fulfill that potential is to learn, to always ask, “Why?” or “How?” or better yet — “Why NOT?”

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

“Never regret yesterday. Life is in you today, and you make your tomorrow.” — L. Ron Hubbard

How can our readers follow you on social media?

I’m most active on Facebook, so follow me there!

I can’t accept many more friends due to Facebook’s limit, so please don’t be offended. But all of my posts are public anyway, so I encourage you to just follow me. I read and reply to all of my comments anyway, so it will be just like we’re friends.

Thank you so much for these inspiring insights!

This story is published in The Startup, Medium’s largest entrepreneurship publication followed by +429,678 people.

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