Retail, Algorithms, and a Unicorn: Reflections on a Milestone
Developing A Sustainable Culture: Balancing Customer & Employee Priorities
Piyush Lumba, COO CommerceIQ
I am, what you would call, an accidental Chief Operating Officer (COO). It was August 2019, and I was enjoying my first real break in my professional career and really soaking in the beautiful summer in Seattle. I had just left Amazon earlier in the year, after stints in Alexa Shopping and Amazon Logistics. While I learnt a lot at Amazon (and at Microsoft before that for over a decade), building teams and products that impacted millions of consumers , I was looking for something different in my life: I wanted to work at a smaller, more nimble company and I wanted to work on something transformational. Enter CommerceIQ.
I was introduced to Guru Hariharan, CommerceIQ’s CEO, by Scott Jacobson, Managing Director at Madrona Ventures, an investor in CommerceIQ. “Meet Guru – he’s intense, he is working on something bold, and he needs help scaling his business. I have a feeling you will like him”, said Scott. Guru was all that and more. Maybe it was the fact that he was an ex-Amazonian himself, but I found it incredibly easy to talk to him. As I met him and consulted with his leadership team over the next few months, I was struck by CommerceIQ’s approach of using machine learning, analytics and automations to help brands win at the moment of purchase on eCommerce marketplaces like Amazon. I was impressed by the market opportunity and the company’s customer obsession, and I was moved by the team’s humility and their openness at wanting to hear my feedback and thoughts on what they could be doing differently. Energized by my interactions with the team, I accepted to join them as their COO, running product management, customer success and engineering. I joined the company on Jan 8, 2020 – the date is embedded in my head, because it was two days after my family came back from our last real vacation in Thailand prior to Covid shutting the world down.
Over coffee in my first week, Guru asked me to focus on finalizing our product strategy for 2020, and to put in place mechanisms to help us run our business in a more predictable manner. “Easy-peasy”, I thought to myself on that early January day at our South Lake Union offices. I spent the first few weeks getting to know the folks on my team a little better: Prasun and KK who run engineering in India, Surya and Himanshu who run our products out of the Bay Area, Jyoti our Director of HR & Recruiting in India, Adrian who is our awesome VP of Finance, Nick, Dane, Christian and Tod who were key members of my customer success team, Samir , Mike and Jodina from our sales team, and of course, Gerilyn, our fearless executive assistant. I also prioritized meeting our customers, including Gopal Shah at Central Pet and Garden to Steve Daigh at Spectrum Brands, Christy Wilhelmi at Georgia Pacific, Rekha Rao at Colgate Palmolive and Don Brett from NBG Homes. Things started to click in my head, and over the first quarter, working with my team and listening to our customers, we developed our 2020 product roadmap, refined our customer success and engagement models, adopted Amazon’s document culture as our primary communication mechanism inside the company and with our customers, and put together an operating rhythm of weekly, monthly and quarterly syncs on various topics. Q1 breezed by, and things were on a high. “I am having a blast”, I remember recalling at dinner parties. “This thing is super easy!”
Famous last words! Things seemed to go down the proverbial crapper in April, as the magnitude of the Covid pandemic really hit home. Customers were scrambling to re-evaluate their plans, prospects were putting off meetings for good, our employees were adjusting to work from home. Luckily for CommerceIQ, the tailwinds of E-commerce were strong, and after a brief period of adjustment, we found our stride again. We launched new services to help our customers manage the E-commerce tsunami better, we reset goals with the board in a modest manner and we weathered the storm. Q2 business results were strong, and as the leadership team went into our next monthly all-hands meeting in July, we were feeling bullish. However, as we read through our employee survey results that month – it was difficult to stay positive. “Too much work”, “Micromanagement”, “The company mission is just to make money” were some of the most painful pieces of feedback that we read in the pulse survey. The reality hit home. While our employees were excited about the future of the company and our ability to serve our customers, they did not understand or were not very happy with the company culture. For example, many of them construed the leadership team’s penchant for diving deep as micro-management, and they saw our focus on customer acquisition and retention as our focus on just making money. On the other hand, our success with customers was genuinely stretching the team to a breaking point and we were not hiring fast enough. While we had tried to adopt Amazon’s Leadership Principles, it was clear that we had not done enough to make them our own. A negative Glassdoor survey in July 2020 from a disgruntled employee, who left after a short 3 months with us, underlined the fact that we needed to better articulate and enforce our culture to ensure we were assembling the right tribe.
Responding to this feedback, we undertook a few different actions in Q3. First, we discussed all the poll data transparently in both broad all-hands settings, as well as in smaller groups. We implemented additional benefits for employees in the US and India to provide more work-life separation, including no meeting Friday afternoons, and last Friday of the month off on a mandatory basis for the entire company. We invested in additional resources across all functions. We implemented awards during our all-hands with public recognition of projects and leadership principles, accompanied with spot awards . We finalized the company bonus formula for all bonus-eligible employees and rolled it out to the full company in Q3, with clear incentives to help the company exceed its revenue goals for the year. We started a mid-year people review for all US employees and the India management team, to help them think through where they were in their careers.
Next, I partnered with Shannon Anderson from Madrona and Mikaela Kiner and Adrienne Kortas from Reverb to kick-off a Culture project, to define our vision, our values and how we would live these values via employee life cycle mechanisms. Through the end of 2020, we completed two phases of this project i.e. draft definitions of vision and values were created with deep participation across the leadership team, and we led the next layer of the company, specifically including all US team + managers + senior engineers in India through a workshop process – to go deeper into each of the values we had picked as an LT.
We defined our vision as: “We are building the operating system for brands to win in E-commerce.” E-commerce which had been treated as a side-project by consumer brands, was finally becoming a top 5 CEO priority in 2020. Brands that have mostly focused on Amazon as their primary marketplace, are now looking to develop a holistic strategy of growing their Ecommerce presence across other marketplaces such as Walmart, Instacart etc., as well as D2C (Direct to consumer) strategies. With all their ambitions, brands are dealing with fragmented data and a technology architecture that will prevent them from achieving these ambitious goals – each retailer has its own portals, interfaces and information sharing infrastructure, as well as different supply chain infrastructure. “What is needed is a platform that can abstract and normalize the differences of the various retailer marketplaces, so that our brand customers have one unified set of tools to plan, execute, measure and report on their business across these various E-commerce platforms. Just as the PC operating systems like Windows and Macs allowed the development of a rich ecosystem of applications to run seamlessly without having to understand the nuances of supporting subsystems such as display, memory and keyboards, which in turn drove greater consumer adoption – we are building the modern operating system for Ecommerce based on machine learning, analytics and automations, that will allow our brand customers to manage their retail flywheels on all marketplaces in a seamless and consistent manner, without having to worry about the details of every underlying platform.”
The feedback from the team to this vision was positive: They felt that they finally knew the north star for what we were all working towards. They also felt more deeply connected with our values, including new definitions of Customer Obsession (focus on customer transformation and not just serving customers), Ownership (Focus on accountability and trust) and a new value around “Being part of a Winning Team”. In order to start breathing and living these values, we planned initiatives to integrate these into the employee life-cycle including recruiting, onboarding and training, performance management and rewards and recognition. We also kicked off projects to define standard levels, titles and general role expectations across every job family in the company, to help employees and managers better plan career growth.
Fast-forward to Feb 4, 2021. We finished 2020 on a major business high, growing our revenues 260% y-y. We grew our headcount by 60% ending the year with 80 people across US and India. We added marquis consumer logos like Logitech, The Bountiful Company and Henkel to our customer base, while almost doubling revenues from existing customers. While some of the early members of CommerceIQ such as Tim Wilson and Kate Neal moved on, the core team is still intact and thriving! We are planning to double our team size and revenues again in 2021, and we are hiring for additional leadership roles including a CMO, VP of Sales and VP of People and Culture.
We just completed a 2-day virtual Company kick-off meeting where we celebrated our 2020 results, shared our goals for 2021, invested time to get to know each other through silly games and trivia and we introduced our new leaders including Jon Young as VP of CS, Shoubhanik Makur, as a Senior Director of Product, Prashant Singh as Director of Operations, Jenny Moore, as our Director of Advertising Services and Sumi Mukoyama and Kassey Wooten, as Sales Directors. Most importantly, we launched our values to the entire company, spending hours as a team digging into our culture and values, and introducing almost 25 new employees to what we stand for and how we play together as a team. The most gratifying part for me personally was to read the following email from Ankit Kumar, one of our new employees introducing himself to the rest of the company: “I, on a personal note, have a lot of takeaways from the Company Kick-off (CKO). The core values resonate not only in terms of how organisations function but also to personal lives. One can easily align them and get going! Though there were countless jaw-dropping moments in the CKO, I’d like to quote just one of them here – “Just start. Even if you fail, CIQ is there to back you up. If you win, it’s win-win !”. This really got me into thinking how encouraging and supportive CIQ really is. This is the kind of trust that, I believe, makes us a family. A family where others don’t doubt you, they believe in you, in your potential and in your guts. I’m glad to be part of this.“
In conclusion, 2020 was a year of many highs and lows for CommerceIQ and me personally. While our cultural transformation is still underway, the future seems bright. Thirteen months into my role, a few lessons that stuck with me are as follows:
- Customers & employees are both critical stakeholders in building a long-term sustainable business, and while you may need to prioritize one over the other at times, it is critical to achieve a long-term balance between the two for a sustainable business.
- Building a strong culture is not a down-the-road activity. It starts on Day 1. It’s never too early, never too high priority and it’s never enough!
- Vision = why we exist, Values = how we choose to exist.
- And last but not least, when people you trust introduce you to people they describe as “intense”, run, don’t walk to that meeting!
I am truly fortunate to be working in a hot market (E-commerce), in a rocketship of a company with a bold technology vision and with passionate colleagues who are collectively building a company for the long run. For any of you who might have been considering a move to a startup with these characteristics and our values – do it and do it now.
Come join us. Your learning, growth, impact and joy will be unbridled!
We delight in bringing value to our customers, helping them transform and focus on what matters most – even if that means challenging them in order to arrive at the best outcome. Aligned with our long-term vision, we balance developing innovative fast solutions for our customers and building long-term relationships with them.
We hire owners and we trust them to make the best decisions on behalf of our customers and the company. Owners act with full accountability to prioritize and drive outcomes end to end. Owners do not need permission prior to taking action, but owners also know when to ask for help. Owners own successes and failures. Owners never say it’s not my job, and feel comfortable jumping on issues outside their swimlanes when needed.
We do not get stuck in analysis paralysis. We make reversible decisions quickly even with imperfect data. We move fast to capture the advantage of truly unique ideas and test, learn, fail fast, and innovate. We prioritize activity aligned with driving outcomes, and don’t just do stuff for the sake of doing something.
We operate at all levels, stay connected to the details, audit frequently, and are skeptical when metrics and anecdotes differ. No task is beneath us.
We demonstrate a passion for learning and always seek to improve ourselves. We are curious about new possibilities and act to explore them.
Our reputation is built by people who work here. We raise the bar by hiring smart and driven people, who help each of us get better. We value diversity of thought, experiences and backgrounds in our hires. We recognize that leaders at every level have development opportunities, and we set up the foundations for people to get feedback, self-reflect, learn, grow, and succeed at CommerceIQ.
We are building a long-term company and how we work and play together matters. Teams that have fun together and trust each-other make each other stronger, and are capable of persevering through hard times. We do not take trust for granted: we work hard to earn it and even harder to keep it. We value diversity, treat each other with respect, and are always looking for opportunities to help each other solve problems. We win (or fail) together.
Thinking small is a self-fulfilling prophecy. We create and communicate a bold direction that inspires results. We think differently and look around corners for ways to serve our customers. We innovate, we make big bets, we celebrate successes and when things fail – we celebrate those failures as well, learn from them and do better next time.