Guest Post

Fearlessly Experimental

by Esther Steinfeld
11/12/2009

I recently took a tour of the very successful and well-known Zappos headquarters. What truly struck me as exceptional was the complete and total transparency under which they operate. The tour guide spoke freely and openly about their 40 percent return rate. They were candid about the phone calls with customers that sometimes last four hours. In spite of extended phone calls and nearly half the items purchased ending up back on warehouse shelves, Zappos does $600 million dollars a year -- after returns. Surely, people thought Tony Hsieh was crazy when he suggested the company offer free shipping back to Zappos. Now, many online shoe companies work hard just to copy the Zappos model. It made me take stock of Blinds.com, where I am the Public Relations Manager. The policies we have in place, even though sometimes risky, help us win customers, gain market share, and increase the likelihood that someone will be a customer for life.

In the world of ecommerce, competition is fierce. Yahoo Stores, eBay, and the like make setting up shop on the Internet easier than ever. To separate yourself from not only the bottom feeders, but from the true contenders who operate on hefty platforms, you must be willing to take risks. Blinds.com went online in 2001, and has since overtaken several competitors to become the #1 online retailer of window treatments. This was not a fluke. This was not luck. There are noticeable similarities between Zappos and Blinds.com, but the main and probably most important similarity is this:

Both companies experiment without the fear of failure.

Experimentation is undervalued and rarely encouraged in the workplace. In fact, most corporations have dense operations guidelines and employees are urged to heed each rule. Yet successful and innovative companies were formed and grown on crazy, experimental ideas, ideas that no one had yet come up with and executed successfully. Experimentation is not just for C-level executives. At Blinds.com, our CEO explicitly asks for experimental ideas every week, and many of those submitted are used. Ideas such as this have saved Blinds.com hundreds of thousands of dollars, and made us an innovator in our field. Our little online video program, which was the first of its kind, now operates out of a full-fledged, in-house video studio and has over 80 original videos under its belt. Experimentation should be encouraged in all employees, down to the lowest level. If you don't encourage employees to express their ideas, they will take their ideas elsewhere. Or worse, you will soon find them your competitors.

In times of stress, it is crucial to be fearlessly experimental. I don't mean risking all your company's cash on a dicey ad campaign that can't be tested before-hand. I don't mean pouring resources into one of Google's new content campaign tests. I mean really, truly brainstorming for some hair-brained, zany, innovative ideas that could make you a lot of money if executed correctly. Be fearless but cautious in your execution, and get your entire team behind your ideas. Test the ideas discreetly and, if they work, don't pull back. Ignore the fact that your competitors are digging their heels in. When the strain lifts, you'll find yourself with a stronger team and a much stronger business. You will be ahead of competitors who were too afraid to take risks when times were tough. Even if you fail, your experiment won't be enough to sink the ship.

Esther Steinfeld is the founder of NotAllCEOsAreJerks.com and the Public Relations Manager for Blinds.com.

  1. Employees can be an organizations greatest strength if you let them. This is a time honored principle that is too easily forgotten or neglected.

    Thanks for the great story and insight.

    Comment by Rodney Johnson — 11/12/2009 @ 8:44 AM

  2. So true! Thanks to your story and many others just like it on find your nerve my tiny company seamstoyou.com is now nearly completely fearless. Many thanks!

    Comment by Sylvia Leinweber — 11/12/2009 @ 10:25 AM

  3. I couldn’t agree more. If you are not moving forward, you are actually falling behind. I have read some of your articles/blogs around the web; I think you and your company have some truly amazing, innovative ideas and a great grasp on what it takes to not only survive, but succeed in a tough business climate.

    Comment by Joe Freedom — 11/12/2009 @ 3:23 PM

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