KM News

5 Things I’ve Learned

by Sebastian Kaufmann June 07, 2018
Read5 Things I’ve Learned

When you turn half a decade, you take stock (and a deep breath). All the triumphs! All the mistakes! Turns out, they’re usually closely linked. We’ve grown a lot since launching in 2009 as a blog on the history and use of materials and craft. Our team has expanded, too. But our vision remains the same. To celebrate KM’s first five years, we asked a few friends and fellow entrepreneurs to tell us five things they’ve learned since launching their ventures. A big thanks to everyone – Amanda Hesser and Merrill Stubbs from Food52, Cameron Weiss of Weiss Watch Co., Ann Marie Gardner at Modern Farmer, Shea and Raan Parton from Apolis and Paul Cunningham of Leather Head – for sharing all the fantastic insights. Here’s to another five!

  1. Not giving up might be the stereotypical tip. But it doesn’t really stop there: Not ever even thinking about giving up is fundamental. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be self-critical. But unless you quickly get back on the “I’m 100% committed” track, you either pivot fast and regain motivation or understand that you’ll ultimately fail.
  2. Fight the temptation to hire people fast: Take as much time as you can with interviews, ask hard questions and let people really know what it’s like working for you. Be honest about what the every day will be like, and make sure they are excited about that. Nothing is worse than realizing you’ve hired the wrong person. You can teach people skills, but you’ll have a hard time trying to change their talents or interests.
  3. When I started Kaufmann Mercantile, online retail sounded like the ideal industry. I saw myself running the site from a beach in Hawaii right after the shop launched. I thought the website would ultimately run on autopilot. Oh boy, I couldn’t have been more wrong. Turns out, you can’t run a company on the side.
  4. Expect to repeat yourself – a lot – and enjoy it. Every day someone asks me what Kaufmann Mercantile is or how we started. Sometimes it feels like being in a rock band and playing the one-hit song over and over again. You better make sure you like that song – otherwise it gets boring fast.
  5. Compartmentalize. Don’t carry the company around with you all the time. When you’re on vacation, on a date or at a party, don’t try to figure out how to improve your company or – even worse – worry you’re not doing enough. Teach your brain to completely switch over into a different mode. So when you get back to work, it feels like you had a mini-vacation – even if you only took a few hours off.

Amanda Hesser and Merrill Stubbs; Food52:

  1. Like a lot of entrepreneurs, we tend to be a little (just a little!) Type A. We had to teach ourselves to let go and to find and cultivate strong leaders to join our management team. In the start-up world, there’s a lot of talk about hiring “rockstars” – this never felt right to us. The word “rockstar” suggests that person’s performance is all about him/her, which is never a good idea in a team setting. Instead, we focus on leaders who will be ambassadors for the brand. To fully trust your employees and allow them to flourish and grow, you have to be confident that they share the same vision you do, as well as the same values. In other words, don’t hire jerks. (We follow this same rule of thumb for investors.)
  2. When you start a business with someone, you are essentially marrying that person. To quote Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, “choose wisely.” The reality is that you will end up spending more time with your co-founder than with your actual spouse/partner. You’d better be able to tolerate that person as a human being, and feel very certain that you’ll work well together. We had a solid working relationship in place when we started Food52, and we were also good friends. Friendship on its own is not enough to make a business partnership work, but it can make it a lot more fun.
  3. We’re big proponents of transparency, and feel strongly that everyone on the team should be able to look under the hood of the business. Team members should know how we make and lose money – so at team meetings, we’ll sometimes take everyone through our company financials and documents like our investor pitch deck. We’ve found that this transparency builds lasting trust and respect across departments, and the unvarnished version of our company tends to naturally filter out less certain team members.
  4. Personal recognition is important. A lot of the best ideas have come from people on our team. One of our engineers inspired the tradition of the Copper Mug: We chose a person on our team as the first “Food52er of the Month” and awarded her a beautiful copper mug to keep on her desk; every six weeks, whoever has the mug chooses the next person to give it to. This way the giver of the mug can publicly embarrass the person they’re passing it onto by showering them with praise in front of the whole company.
  5. From our observations, there are two kinds of entrepreneurs. The first are charismatic showmen, who are going to spread their vision to anyone who’s willing to listen. The second are more reserved – they focus primarily on the internal work of building the business and executing their vision. It’s important to figure out which camp you fall into and be true to that. If you’re constantly fighting your instincts in order to please others, you’ll waste a lot of valuable time. Every time we’ve raised money, rather than expend energy trying to convert the skeptics, we’ve found success (and great investors) by pinpointing the people who get what we’re trying to do and then showing them the evidence of how we’re making it happen.

Cameron Weiss; Weiss Watch Co.:

  1. Failure is just another learning opportunity and leads to experience which leads to success. It might not even be your own failures. There are many different ways of doing things that teach you how to improve, and I have done lots of learning from seeing what did not work.
  2. Things never happen as you plan, but instead of dwelling on disruptions, focus on what you were originally trying to achieve. The first 10 timepieces we created had a major painting error, where an alternate logo and design were used that we didn’t approve. We were able to sell them, and in the end those who purchased the first 10 watches now have a more limited and valuable timepiece. Instead of obsessing about unfixable errors, focus your energy on making sure next time will go off without a hitch.
  3. I have learned that life and work goals are all about the journey of getting there. So set goals and enjoy the time spent reaching them. Sometimes I look back at what I produced and wish I had relished the development process instead of preparing and planning for the future. If you can really try to live in the now, you’ll be able to savor the final product and your success even more.
  4. There’s no time like the present, and if there’s an opportunity for you to begin a business or create something, take it now rather than put it off. There’s never a “good time” to take a risk, so now is perfect. All my studying, training and work at previous jobs prepared me to launch my own brand. However, if I had not set aside the fear of taking a risk, I may have never followed through with my goal of starting a company.
  5. Once you break the rules you can recreate them however you like. Watch companies have stayed relatively consistent in the way they do things for many years. People told us it was impossible to develop the Field Watch and produce it in Los Angeles in the way we wanted. The tricky part was disrupting some of the traditions and creating our own standards.

Ann Marie Gardner; Modern Farmer magazine:

  1. Be prepared not to sleep or eat or have much of a life outside of your business for a couple of years. Seriously, so many people asked me how I stay so thin: “Start a business,” I tell them. It should be a book called The Start-a-Business Diet. I could sell millions of copies…
  2. Get used to the idea that you will make mistakes. I was so determined not to make mistakes. But mistakes are sneaky – you never see them coming! So acknowledge what went wrong and move on – and be super agile, flexible, creative and ready to change direction on a dime. Most of all, trust your gut. It got you this far. Don’t lose sight of the original mission.
  3. Biggest lesson ever: Hire do-ers. Weed out anyone who constantly makes excuses (huge lesson for me there) and those who only always tell you why it can’t be done. Instead, find and hire people who find a way to get it done, have a great work ethic, embrace new ideas and say “Yes, let’s try that. What do we have to lose?” YES! YES! YES!
  4. Don’t ever take “no” for an answer. Don’t do things “the way it’s always been done.” Rather, find new and improved ways to do the things that have always been done.
  5. Surround yourself with the smartest people in your industry who can give you perspective, good advice and the hard truth, and those who will encourage you to keep going (or leave, if that’s the only way forward). There will be many times you will consider folding, walking away or pressing “send” when you shouldn’t. Most important thing of all: Keep your sense of humor and you will always win!

Shea and Raan Parton; Apolis:

  1. There’s a crazy amount of pressure when you start a company to work within an unrealistic time frame. Remember, though, that the health of your business is vital – more important than market shares, press and the like. Stay sustainable. Otherwise, you’ll start making decisions from a vulnerable place.
  2. There are so many opportunities to take short cuts, but beware of moving too fast. Try to make mistakes with the least amount of zeros attached. In other words, make calculated risks. Be content with gradual progress. You can afford to take your time. Burning through cash and asking questions later is not the way to go. The longer road has its benefits.
  3. Hindsight is sweet; you only have one shot to make the right impression. Brand equity is everything and – much like forming a solid friendship – you can’t build trust overnight. Stay loyal to your customers. Be consistent and transparent.
  4. Competitiveness can make you sharper and more discerning, but it can also take you a step backward. We’re really inspired by the idea that businesses can improve people’s lives. Apolis is built around the model of the Global Citizen for this very reason. Participate in a community that is greater than its parts. Align yourself with like-minded people.
  5. In the age of information, when a click of the mouse can lead you to a story on an entrepreneur who’s your age and launched a Fortune 500 company in under three years, it’s hard to not wonder what you’re doing wrong. Remember what you’ve been dreaming about since the beginning rather than chasing the latest trend. Stay true to your vision and surround yourself with people who will remind you of it often.

Paul Cunningham; Leather Head Sports:

  1. Take risks when you know they’re the right ones. Case in point: I quit a secure and prestigious career during the depths of a worldwide economic implosion to pursue some vague idea of starting a business making leather sports balls. It worked.
  2. If you run your business with honesty and integrity, unhappy customers will be rare. However, an unhappy customer can be your best opportunity to earn a vocal advocate. That person represents a priceless opportunity to show people you’re accountable. Accept blame, don’t make excuses, then go above and beyond to make it right. Your unhappy customer will be genuinely surprised and impressed – and will tell everyone how awesome you are.
  3. Allow yourself to form genuine bonds with your team. You spend most of your waking hours together, so make work a place where people look forward to coming to. Appreciate the people who work for you, they give up a lot to be with you. Also, get a shop dog.
  4. Get out in the world and engage with fellow creators. Engage with your suppliers. Engage with your customers. The internet permits us to hide in anonymity. Don’t be that person. Be real, be accessible, show your face. You might meet some pretty cool people along the way. Also, answer your phone, it could be the White House calling.
  5. The greatest and most vast playground is right between your ears. Make time to play inside your own head. Unplug, disconnect and turn off the TV. Creativity and innovation can be found deep within your brain, but you have to make time to explore.

What have you learned since launching a project? Anything we should tackle in our next half-decade? Let us know in the comments below! And check out what we’ve recently curated in our New Arrivals Collection.


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