I trademarked the term “Citizen Commerce.” These two words capture the idea of our ability to shape the world through the companies we support. I truly believe business has more speed and resources to effect change than any other entity including government, nonprofits, and educational institutions. And businesses are ridiculously easy to influence: we vote with our dollars and with our time and attention. Take those away, and a business will fail. Shower your precious resources on a company and it will thrive. I would like every person to take at least 10% of their disposable income and thoughtfully direct it only to the companies who represent the values and world they want to live in. That might mean supporting a thriving local economy and shops. It might mean solving for sustainability, or supporting underrepresented entrepreneurs like vets or women, or only buying products made in your own country. Individual values are personal, but we all have the same ability to nurture them with our actions. I know this sounds idealistic — but I am not naïve. In building The Grommet I have seen this power in action.
As a part of my series about strong female leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing JULES PIERI is cofounder and CEO of The Grommet, a site that has launched more than three thousand consumer products since 2008. The company’s Citizen Commerce™ movement helps consumers transform purchases into contributions to causes that matter most to them. Pieri started her career as an industrial designer for technology companies and was an executive at Keds, Stride Rite, and Playskool. She was named one of Fortune’s Most Powerful Women Entrepreneurs in 2013 and Goldman Sachs’ 100 Most Interesting Entrepreneurs in 2014. She is an Entrepreneur in Residence at Harvard Business School, and author of the new book HOW WE MAKE STUFF NOW: Turn Ideas into Products That Build Successful Businesses.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I had the classic lightning bolt experience when I was an undergrad. I was walking down the hall of the University of Michigan Art and Architecture building and saw a display case full of exquisitely crafted hand tool concepts — things like power drills. These were hand-built student models made for an industrial design course. I remember thinking “Who gets to do that?” Whatever it was, I immediately understood that this career would combine both business and creating something from nothing — two things I already knew I loved. So I ended up becoming an industrial designer.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
We had a few really scary near-death periods in the first four years of the business. We all had to dig really deep and I was centrally responsible, as the person who needed to bring in capital to keep us alive. At the last — and worst — of these periods we owed $500K in accounts payable on a business that was only doing $1.5M in sales. It was horrific, and I spent time every week deciding who got paid $25 or $50 against what we owed them. An imminent investment fell through and I had a bankruptcy plan sketched out and turned upside down on my desk.
When just about all hope was lost I happened to be reading my Harvard Business School alumni magazine (it was not so fun to see all the success stories when I was sucking so badly.) I learned that the founder of the giant Japanese ecommerce platform Rakuten was a fellow alum. I sent him an email and heard back within minutes. We met three weeks later in New York, and Hiroshi Mikitani decided on the spot to invest in Grommet. After pounding the pavement with U.S. investors for so long it was extremely exciting and gratifying to have one of the leaders of a successful global internet platform immediately understand what we had built, and to dive in to commit capital.
This was during a particularly challenging time in my personal life as my mother was in her final weeks of a three-year battle with colon cancer. While I was negotiating our round with Rakuten, I was in Detroit, staying close to her hospital at the home of my childhood friend. One night I was awakened by a dramatic bolt of lightning and deafening clap of thunder. That event happened at the precise moment when my mother died. And a few minutes later I received the formal letter of intent (to invest) from my negotiating counterparts in Tokyo. To this day I believe my mother went up to heaven and threw around some boulders to help me get my deal done.
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?
When you first start, virtually half of what you do is a mistake because you are figuring everything out for the first time. You just pray that the things you botch up are not fatal.
Before the business even launched, I was accepted into the Springboard program — an intensive incubator to groom a handful of companies for a big investor day pitch. At the first elimination round I presented to an intimidating crowd of pros gathered around a big burnished board table at a fancy New York law firm. At that stage the company name was Daily Grommet and it really just existed in a PowerPoint. After I finished my pitch there was a period for questions and commentary. One person said, “Well the first thing that has to go is that terrible company name.”
I was silently forming my response (don’t be defensive but hold your ground Jules!) when a handsome older woman started explaining why Grommet was a brilliant name: “It’s a humble piece of hardware that protects and helps — that is exactly what this company will be doing for small businesses.” I just quietly stepped back and let this person do the talking. I later learned she was Gerry Laybourne, the founder of Nickelodeon and Oxygen networks. She knows a thing or two about branding and also became an investor and a “godmother” to my company.
I learned to keep my mouth shut when an ally can do more for you than your own efforts could possibly deliver.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Makers tell us, plain and simple, that they would not exist without us (if we did not discover and launch their product.) Because we have assembled an active community of over 3 million people we can make markets for new products. We get love letters. Just pause for a minute. I just said we get love letters — from other business owners! Makers sometimes cry when they tell me what the Grommet community of supporters have done for them. They refer other entrepreneurs and friends who have a product. They take pictures of the giant piles of boxes they are sending out to our customers. They send us baked goods. And oddly, they occasionally try to play matchmaker for our single employees because they develop deep affection and respect for them. In fact, many of our Makers have decades of professional experience and the number one thing I hear from the truly seasoned operators is, “I have been in business for many, many years and have never seen a company with such smart, energetic and caring people. What is your secret?”
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
I am releasing my first book published by McGraw Hill Business. It’s called How We Make Stuff Now and is a guide to turning an idea into a successful consumer products company. After watching 3,000 emerging companies solve the same problems in isolation, I wanted to share all those excellent lessons-learned in a how-to book. I am codifying Grommet’s ten years of authority and knowledge in the hopes that the next generation of Makers can avoid costly mistakes and be even more expertly prepared to succeed.
What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?
I am a big fan of the approach Kim Scott describes in her book Radical Candor. I initially avoided reading it because the title made me worry she was giving people the permission to be assholes. (i.e. the famous Netflix-type “continual 360-degree feedback”) The opposite is true: the entire foundation for her guidance about radical candor is that a boss must actually give a damn and have a solid relationship with a team member before any possibility of effective and honest communication. I am not a particularly emotive or nurturing person but I have learned you can show that you care about an employee in a multitude of ways. I really enjoy that part of being a leader — having their backs and helping people achieve their dreams.
What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team?
You have to find people who can amplify you. Whatever the values, behaviors, and practices you prize — you can only go so far in personally implementing them. Your direct reports have to also drink the Kool-Aid for the things that are inviolate to you. An example in my company is to be rigorous in having weekly one-on-one meetings for each and every employee and boss. We call them “sticky notes” because the goal is for the employee to set the agenda and it should be able to (figuratively) fit on a sticky note — because if you are disciplined about these meetings, no problem or topic should get too out of hand. I expect every manager to be rigorous about these meetings (which are often walks, not sit-downs) because I am so committed to them myself.
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 am especially grateful to two women who came into my life at very different times. First was my junior high Latin teacher Patt Morency. She took me under her wing and let me come into her classroom early every morning while she was ostensibly correcting papers. (I was gratefully escaping the drugs and violence and restless hordes of kids waiting to get inside the school.) But I think she was really showing up to share her life lessons. When I told her I was not happy about the Detroit public high school where I was expected to attend, she encouraged me to apply to an elite private school 45 minutes from my home. It would never have occurred to me. I actually snuck downstairs in my parents’ basement to call and get an application. I ended boarding up at Kingswood/Cranbrook. It was the scariest and most formative thing I ever did, and it set the course for the future bold moves in my life like moving my family to Ireland without a job or any family there when my sons were six, nine and twelve.
The second woman is Meg Whitman. I met her when I was 32 and reported to her in three different companies. From Meg, I learned the importance of being straightforward and clear, how to nurture and celebrate new ideas from anyone in a company, and that laughing makes everything better in a meeting.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
That is the central role of The Grommet: we level the playing field for the little guy. We lost so many of the local and specialty stores that used to be where innovation got its first showcase. Retailers have become too big to take risks on new products. Ironically, a truly groundbreaking product has a hard struggle because no one is searching Amazon or Google for it and small companies cannot really advertise in any meaningful way. Play out a world that is only composed of Amazon and big national chains and you get a world with very little business model or product innovation. You crush small businesses almost at birth. We showed up to fix that.
What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)
1. Have no regrets. I try to never regret things I did not do. This often means walking through fear to do the hard or scary thing — like applying to boarding school or leaving a comfortable job because the learning curve had flattened. Every time you come out on the other side of that fog of fear, you put more bulk on your confidence muscle.
2. Play long ball. With people, with business partnerships. Honestly, I learned that from being a mother. Toddlers are a hot mess and if you tried to “fix” everything wrong with them you would drive them and yourself crazy. I always had a few focal areas for teaching and improving my sons and stuck to them until they were more or less resolved (or I gave up!). I take that long view with people at work and partnerships or projects. I expect even committed and competent people are going to make mistakes and I openly embrace that reality. Mistakes are what happens when people are really striving and learning.
3. Say hello to everyone in the office. When I worked in France there was a tradition of shaking hands to greet your colleagues upon a first encounter on any given day — even if you only saw a person on your way out the door in the evening. There was something about that simple human gesture and eye contact that I appreciated. In Boston a daily handshake would be perceived as insane, but a real greeting still goes a long way.
4. Don’t get too big for your britches. When I left home for boarding school, my extremely humble parents worried they would “lose” me — i.e. my aspirations and education would change my character or make me a snob. Sometimes their fear and insecurities were palpable but I eventually understood that they did not care much about conventional or academic success. They wanted me to be a solid citizen — to carry my weight and care about others. So I try to still remember my roots. Sometimes I do things that are literal expressions of that: like emptying the trash in the office. But mostly I approach everyone as an equal — I truly believe that great work, ideas, and inspiration can come from anyone.
5. Embrace repetition. My particular Meyers Briggs type (INTJ) does not like to say the same thing twice. I had to get over that. A leader must be willing to continually reinforce whatever is important: values, goals, mission, etc. A person might be distracted or still learning the first time you say something and not ready to hear until the second, third, or fourth time.
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. 🙂
I trademarked the term “Citizen Commerce.” These two words capture the idea of our ability to shape the world through the companies we support. I truly believe business has more speed and resources to effect change than any other entity including government, nonprofits, and educational institutions. And businesses are ridiculously easy to influence: we vote with our dollars and with our time and attention. Take those away, and a business will fail. Shower your precious resources on a company and it will thrive.
I would like every person to take at least 10% of their disposable income and thoughtfully direct it only to the companies who represent the values and world they want to live in. That might mean supporting a thriving local economy and shops. It might mean solving for sustainability, or supporting underrepresented entrepreneurs like vets or women, or only buying products made in your own country. Individual values are personal, but we all have the same ability to nurture them with our actions. I know this sounds idealistic — but I am not naïve. In building The Grommet I have seen this power in action.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“It’s easier to ask forgiveness than it is to get permission.” — Rear Admiral Grace Hopper
This quote is represented in huge letters just outside my office. Some say it might be a little risky to exhort a young team to behave this way, but it has worked so far.
Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂
Alexis Ohanian. I really love what he created with his podcast “Business Schooled” and would like to encourage him to keep doing more work in this vein.