Tips From The Top: One On One With Jeff Abrams

I recently spoke to Jeff Abrams, founder of Rails, about his journey and best advice

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Adam: Thanks again for taking the time to share your story and your advice. First things first, though, I am sure readers would love to learn more about you. What is something about you that would surprise people? 

Jeff: I started my career working in TV animation, focusing on marketing for children’s TV shows and merchandise. It was an interesting place to learn about customer relationships and brand messaging, but surprisingly many of the key principles have carried over into the fashion space.

Adam: How did you get here? What experiences, failures, setbacks or challenges have been most instrumental to your growth? 

Jeff: The early days of Rails were filled with trial and error, unexpected developments, and setbacks that could have impeded my drive to succeed.  My first big order of 3000 units was stolen from a truck almost immediately after it was picked up.  A critical early production run of my hero product was damaged and I had to fly to halfway across the world to hand repair every unit.

What I realized early on is that maintaining my composure under pressure has been the best approach to any circumstance.  Those early setbacks taught me that it is better to get working on a resolution than to ruminate in a disappointment.  Thoughtful problem solving will always lead to better outcomes, and a company culture that can handle adversity.

Adam: In your experience, what are the defining qualities of an effective leader? How can leaders and aspiring leaders take their leadership skills to the next level? 

Jeff: There is no blueprint to creating a successful business.  You need to trust your intuition, be thick skinned and resilient, and continually find ways to innovate.  You need to have emotional intelligence to appreciate your customer, your staff, and understand that building personal connections is as important as driving financial performance.  And have a sense of humor! It helps to set a more approachable workplace.

Navigating from an upstart business to one with a more formal organizational structure requires a different mindset.  It becomes less about the actual “doing”, than the communication and encouragement to keep your team motivated and driving forward.  It is important to set company goals and individual goals, and then set about a plan to achieve them.  Let your team know how you are progressing toward these objectives and have open dialogue about how the company can improve.

Adam: What are your three best tips applicable to entrepreneurs and executives?

Jeff: Make good decisions quickly.  Don’t belabor the possible outcomes, or procrastinate out of fear. Evaluate the circumstances, trust your intuition, and go for it.

Be ready to pivot. It’s important to maintain your company’s momentum with sound decision making, but in a rapidly changing marketplace, be prepared to change course if necessary.  Admitting you were wrong is ok, but don’t ride a poor decision indefinitely.

Build a great team with lasting bonds. In the early days every entrepreneur will need to be intern, creative lead, chief financial officer, sales person, and shipper.  But it will be critical to build a talented team who deeply believes in the company mission, culture, and vision.

Adam: What is your best advice on building, leading and managing teams? 

Jeff: I always seek to hire people who genuinely love the function of their role.  It is so much easier to create a collaborative, dynamic, and engaged staff when work and life intersect, and when there is passion in the office.  Building trust with new hires takes time, particularly in critical roles that may define the future success of a business.  But cultivating an operational framework that gives guidelines for performance, but allows employees to create, ideate, and craft their own strategies, has allowed us to flourish.

Teach employees to be entrepreneurs of their space.  Let them understand their impact to the business no matter where they work within the company.  If they see ways we can improve, we don’t set up a lot of red tape to get things done.  We are constantly improving, and it is based on the collective input of our employees.

Most importantly, lead by example, particularly in times of challenge.  I have always tried to set an example of hard work and dedication by being present, engaged, enthusiastic, and connected to all of our teams.  We are truly a family, and that will continue to be part of our DNA no matter how big our organization becomes. 

Adam: What is the single best piece of advice you have ever received? 

Jeff: “It’s ok to turn down an order.”  Many entrepreneurs, particularly after they bring on investors, are driven by topline revenue, profit, and a demand to continue growing key metrics, sometimes at all costs.  Often this can lead to making business decisions, and placing your brand in locations that may not be the right fit.  If you show that you don’t value your own brand, neither will the consumer.  

Adam: What is one thing everyone should do to pay it forward? 

Jeff: When I began in the business I had no mentor.  Everything was trial and error, and learning through on the job experience.  I think it is important to connect with young entrepreneurs who are just starting out, and need guidance or encouragement.  There is something special about discovering your own path, but having a mentor to rely on can be helpful along the way.

Adam: What are your hobbies and how have they shaped you as a leader? 

Jeff: I grew up playing sports, and the focus and perseverance of fighting through adversity when you might want to quit are critical for any leader.  You need to have a drive for personal achievement, not merely for the accolades or the financial gain, but for the journey in itself.  To say you committed to doing something great and you gave your all to get there. 

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