Women Of The C-Suite: “There is much more possibility in each of us than we imagine” With Julia Olson, CEO of Treehut

…the understanding and belief that there is so much more possibility in each of us than we imagine. It’s not easy and we can feel like…

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…the understanding and belief that there is so much more possibility in each of us than we imagine. It’s not easy and we can feel like we’re giving up so much to achieve our goals in the short term. The reality is, it’s a long path and there are struggles. We’ll all be working for something, why not dream big and work towards  that?

I had the pleasure of interviewing Julia Olson, Founder and CEO of Treehut accessories and watches. Olson is a scientist by training and entrepreneur by trade. Now, she brings joy to hundreds of thousands of consumers with her nature-inspired watches and accessories workshop in San Francisco.

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

It all started as an escape plan. My husband, Joh, and I were both working in the corporate world, doing well for ourselves, but always daydreaming about leaving it all behind to chase an adventure. It wasn’t until a trip to Bali that we understood what that adventure could be…

If you’ve been to Bali, you know there is a certain spontaneity in the adventures of daily life. (And, if you haven’t, GO!) Everything is rooted in family, community, and nature — exactly the way we think life should be. Luxury brands aren’t a thing in Bali. Instead, the simple traditions of woodworking, craftsmanship, and a deep appreciation for natural materials compliment the beauty of the place and its people. We returned there many times, and each time we felt compelled to find a way to stay.

As it turned out, uprooting ourselves and leaving our family and friends behind wasn’t so easy to do. My mother was living with us at the time, and as much as we loved Bali, San Francisco was home. So, instead of moving to Bali, we decided to bring Bali to us, in whatever small way we could.

We set out to recreate what we love about Bali, but accidentally created something more than that — a family, a home, and the privilege of sharing our passion with our team, customers, and the ones we love.

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

Those early days weren’t without their challenges. Our entire company operated within the 700 sq. ft house we lived in at the time. I engraved the watches myself using borrowed tools while Joh biked back-and-forth to the post office with shipments. The marketing team worked out of my Mom’s bedroom. It was cozy and crazy, and by far the most challenging time of our lives, but slowly we began to feel the spirit of what we loved about Bali take shape in our little company….and that was worth it.

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?

I remember the last three-and-a-half years so clearly: we started our business in our 700 sq. ft San Francisco home with Joh, my Mom, Cha-Cha, our 3-legged dog, and I struggling to balance our living and business space. We borrowed machinery from a local tech shop at 4 am to cut dials for our watches, Joh biked like a madman in traffic to make sure deliveries made it to the post office before the cut off, and somewhere in that same time I had my first child — it’s been a whirlwind.

The most prevalent lesson learned from that time is not hiring more experienced people around us sooner. We did it all ourselves, and I’m proud of that. At the same time, there’s no reason I needed to be answering customer service calls while pregnant, or packaging product for shipments while thinking through our Q4 planning. In retrospect, it’s quite comical to think of the circus-act qualities of the early days. Now, we’ve learned to trust and depend on our team members, and they make the company what it is today, always bringing forward ideas for improvement and ways to delight our customers even more.

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

We root ourselves in the art and design and we are surrounded by the natural beauty created by artisans with the same incredible mindset. The thoughtful, handmade touches, the beauty of the craft, the joy exuding from ourselves and our team as they design and create deeply affects us, and it shows in our products. Our products are more than watches, but the creation of a moment, a cherished memory, and a marker in someone’s life.

The joy, laughter, and the love that we experience in creating something especially for our customers shines through. This is our story every day when we walk in the workshop and see our team members creating a new design or quality-testing products before they ship.

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

We started with the vision of being able to create gifts, so personal, that they could show the deep, loving essence of the bond with your loved one (read: the perfect gift for that impossible person on your list). We started with curated wooden watches. With no two exotic, reclaimed wood grains alike, we also wanted to give our patrons the power to add special color details and intimate engravings, making the piece a truly one-of-a-kind memory to share and cherish forever. We work diligently to create products that bring people closer to their loved ones, nature and even themselves.

We continue that work today, venturing into jewelry, leather goods, and potentially even home goods in the future.

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

As women, we are expected to be soft, considerate of others, and at times, even doubt ourselves. As a business leader, you need to be forthright, persistent, dare I say it?… a little rude! Ultimately, be honest with yourself and your team. When your business and your reputation are on the line, it’s not about making everyone happy all the time, it’s about achieving long-term goals. Sometimes, this may affect the “short-term happiness” of your team, but at the end of day the maximum job satisfaction comes from results and improving with constructive feedback. Don’t be afraid to speak up and stand up for yourself and your company’s best interest.

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

As above: trust and verify. Weekly check-ins and impromptu chats around the office are two important tactics for my management style. We don’t project manage tightly but we do review the accomplishments of the week, create a plan for the week ahead, and I take the responsibility for quickly removing barriers my team members face.

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 wouldn’t be here without my mom. She taught me to be independent and strong and take my own path in life. After my MBA at UCLA Anderson School of Management, I worked for a large investment fund. I realized pretty quickly, that wasn’t my long-term path. Then I worked with a family member on building out a new line of business for their successful company. My mom took me aside one afternoon and said: “isn’t it time for you to build something yourself instead of helping others realize their dreams?” I took that advice and here we are today.

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

I am always in pursuit of ways to do even more to impact the world. The top few are supporting our team members to grow and learn, as well as creating products we know bring joy and connection into the world. Last year we traveled for weeks to find the perfect gold chains and raw stones for our new jewelry line. Most makers work with middlemen, which limits their creativity, and raises prices, too. It feels good to know we are creating products our customers love and really cherish, that are also unique and impossible to find in the places they usually shop.

What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience” and why? 

1. Trust and verify

2. Listen to your team’s ideas

3. Communicate in person often

4. Help others grow by giving them tasks they’ll need to stretch to accomplish

5. It is my responsibility to set the tone and culture of the company

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. 🙂

The understanding and belief that there is so much more possibility in each of us than we imagine. It’s not easy and we can feel like we’re giving up so much to achieve our goals in the short term. The reality is, it’s a long path and there are struggles. We’ll all be working for something, why not dream big and work towards that?

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

We draw inspiration from the engravings customers add to their watches. One custom order that came in included a quote that resonated and stuck with me to this day — “we love because it’s the only true adventure.” It turns out this is from Nikki Giovanni, a contemporary American poet. Her work has an effortless depth and authenticity. This particular quote stands out, because falling in love with our customers, our craft and our business has led us to where we are today.

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 🙂.

I admire Richard Branson for his drive to create and support success in others, listening to their good ideas and growing his companies by keeping high expectations and holding people accountable, while making it clear he trusts and depends on them.

Originally published at medium.com

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