Shapers: John Mulliken

Show aired on 29th August 2015

Transcript

Elliot Moss
That was the Oye Com Va from Eliane Elias. A great way to start the Jazz Shapers programme with me, Elliot Moss here on Jazz FM. Thank you so much for joining me. Business and music will collide for you in the next hour as I introduce you to my Business Shaper, someone who is shaping the world of business. He is John Mulliken, the senior vice president of International and Strategic Initiatives, you will find out what they mean from Wayfair. They are a four billion dollar plus value business on the New York Stock Exchange listed over there. He is a fantastic guy. In addition to hearing from him, you will also be hearing some brilliant music from the shapers of jazz, blues and soul and if that isn’t enough, you will be hearing some words of wisdom from our programme partners at Mishcon de Reya, some words of advice specifically for your business. In terms of the music, what are you going to hear? You are going to hear from Stevie Wonder, new music from Jacky Terrasson and this from Marcus Hill.

Marcus Hill with I Remember Summer. We are in a very smooth mood here on Jazz Shapers. John Mulliken is my Business Shaper today. As I said, he has got a fantastic title if nothing else, we will find out I am sure it is a lot more than that – SVP – Senior Vice President of International and Strategic Initiatives of a company called Wayfair. They are on-line retailers of home furnishing which may sound small I hear you say, but actually as I said earlier, it is a business that is worth more than four billion and is listed on the New York Stock Exchange. John, thank you so much for joining me.

John Mulliken
Elliot, thanks so much for having me.

Elliot Moss
He is a New Yorker by the way. Immediately the accent, I like it.

John Mulliken
The accent gives me away, I can’t help it.

Elliot Moss
I was listening to something earlier in the week and they were talking about the Brits abroad in New York and how well they play. It’s the same for a New Yorker here isn’t it? People think you are going to be a certain way? Do people in this country do you think, and we are going to talk about where you are now and what you have been doing and so on, I am just interested on this – do they treat you differently because you have got that accent? I often hear, the story goes that if you know, you are a Londoner in New York or you are a Londoner in America, a British person in America they think you are smart and you can get away with stuff. What’s the corollary over here for a New Yorker?

John Mulliken
I think that if you are an American, if you are a New Yorker in London, everyone thinks you are very gregarious and it is probably true of me so I won’t argue with that. It’s a nice reputation to have.

Elliot Moss
Now tell me a little bit about Wayfair? It is an on-line furnishing business. I said it is worth lots of money and tell me a little bit about your role because you are a bit of a what you would call, what I would call, an intrapreneur. Help me understand that a touch.

John Mulliken
That’s right. So what I have done throughout my career but really here at Wayfair is I have been able to start business, I have been able to start businesses really I have been employee number one. The first guy on the ground. The first guy around the conference table when there is no one else around the conference table. Quite a few times. What that means is that when we set out eyes on a new opportunity, whether it’s a media business or whether it’s starting a flash-sale site, whether it’s starting a new geography, I am one of the first guys in who gets there and really sees what the opportunity is. Figures out how we are going to attack it, how we are going to build a team, gets the first few people there and really sees the business through the first few months and years of taking off. It’s the exciting part. It’s the part where you are not sure what the plan is going to be. It’s the part where you don’t know whether you are going this way or that way, whether you are going to succeed or not and exactly what the plan is so I have been lucky enough to be able to take a number of big problems and right now Europe is one of our biggest areas that we are focussed on, the UK, Germany and some other markets and really you know what we are doing is building a team very rapidly, very very rapidly. I mean the speed of hiring that we are going through is kind of staggering even to me and getting those people on the ground, getting them busy, getting them focussed on the right problems, it’s really exciting.

Elliot Moss
You are going to find out a lot more from my intrapreneur, my Business Shaper, John Mulliken, he is the SVP of International and Strategic Initiatives with Wayfair. Time for some music, this is Jacky Terrasson and it is called Kiff and it is new music from the Berlin-born, New York-based pianist.

The lively Kiff from Jacky Terrasson. John Mulliken is my Business Shaper today and John we were talking about the fact that you are a bit of an intrepreneur, you’ve built businesses inside. Your background is really interesting and I want to get to a specific question but basically just to map it out, you’ve been an economist, you have got an MBA, you have got a BA, you are a well-educated person. You were in a Boston Consultancy Group as a management consultant. You are kind of this unusual beast which is that you can work in a corporate environment but you are more than just the thinker and the strategy; you actually bring markets and businesses to life. Do you think that your background has allowed you to? I mean how has your background allowed you to do both those two things as often people do half of that job, one as a deliverer, the other one is the thinker. You are a bit of both?

John Mulliken
I have been very lucky in my career. When I started out I started out as a management consultant. Really by luck as much as anything and I adored it. But I think as I went on in my career, I realised that it’s, it’s being an inventor, being someone who starts things that really gets me excited and it was tough to bridge that gap. I will be honest, when I first started out as someone who actually had to you know, put the pedal to the metal and decide, make the decision, where is my first ad going to be? What is my first product I am going to offer? What is the site going to look like? You know, who am I going to hire to run advertising for, you know, for my team? When I had to make all those decisions it was, it was a challenge. I had to spend a lot of time thinking about how am I going to be an entrepreneur and it’s funny, I think initially I over thought it. It was…

Elliot Moss
Well you would, you are a management consultant, of course you overthought it, you had to.

John Mulliken
…that was my job.

Elliot Moss
You had to do the diligence, you had to do the analysis but therein lies the real question for me which is that when one thinks of a management consultant, I’ve had a few on the program actually who have then become entrepreneurs, one thinks about people who obviously are very smart and very strategic and very driven by their heads. The entrepreneur, the pure entrepreneurs and some of those that I have interviewed as well, they are much more… they are very intelligent but they are much more kind of streetwise, they have this sense of the deal and they have a sense of passion sometimes. Now you strike me as a passionate person but do you feel – what’s driven your decision making now that you are at Wayfair, now you have created Joss & Main. Is it the heart? Is it the head? Is it a bit of both?

John Mulliken
I think it’s a bit of both. To be very honest, when I started out I had a lot of difficulty shooting from the hip. I had a lot of difficulty being a fast decision maker, being someone who was going to decide without sending someone off to do a lot of analysis exactly you know, what the plan was and it’s been great fun to really challenge myself to do that again and again, to say, ‘alright well you know, now’s the moment, if we waste a week on this decision we are not going to learn anything’ and you know, one of the things we say in technology is you have to not be afraid to fail quickly. You have to not be afraid to fail at all really and you need to get very much used to jumping off cliffs if you will, every day. Just making a decision and running with it, seeing what the market says because in reality when you are working in technology it is all pixels and pixels are quite inexpensive to build compared to if you have to change the menus at thousands of shops, or if you have to go out and train you know, hundreds and thousands of workers on a shop floor. It is really quite inexpensive to switch out the pixels if they were the wrong shade of blue or if they don’t make people happy and don’t make people click on a product that they are interested in buying. So I… it really makes you shift entirely around your view on risk and how you are going to make your decisions because making decisions quickly actually you know, I had to learn to think about this as you pointed out, I had to convince myself that the right thing to do was to act quickly but now that I have, it is second nature and I think I approached it as an exercise and it’s been… I have more fun in my career today than I ever did.

Elliot Moss
Stay with me for more about the benefits of acting quickly and thinking and doing stuff without waiting around for too long with my Business Shaper today, John Mulliken. Latest travel in a couple of minutes and before that some words of wisdom for your burgeoning business from our programme partners at Mishcon de Reya.

You are listening to Jazz Shapers with me, Elliot Moss. Every Saturday I get the chance to meet someone who is shaping the world of business. If you have missed any of those Shapers go into iTunes and you will find a whole host of them over there. If you are on British Airway in the near future, join me because I will be talking to someone over there; FT.com; CityAm.com are also destinations for you. John Mulliken is your destination today. He is my Business Shapers and he is the founder or co-founder of Joss & Main but within that he is actually a big senior important executive and strategic thinker and doer by the way of a business called Wayfair which for those of you that don’t know, many of you won’t know these because as I go and do my explorations I often go ‘wow how big is that company’; this one is a biggy, worth more than four billion, listed on the New York Stock Exchange. It’s called Wayfair and I urge you to go and have a look at some of its brands, one of which is as I said, Joss & Main. They are the furniture people on-line. You were talking about the speed of pixels and the difference between the technology business and other ones and what you do. You mentioned earlier also John that you have built a team and it has grown super-fast. As you’ve had to come to grips with the craft skill of management of a team, not just the pixels, what have you learnt along the way? What do you think you now know as a leader that you didn’t know five years ago?

John Mulliken
I think one of the things that I have had to teach myself is to both trust my gut but also to learn how to act quickly and that means that when you are dealing with the most talented people in the world who really could work anywhere, that you can’t afford to wait when you meet someone who is fantastic, you need to bring them on to the team, you need to give them a lot of power, a lot of choices, a lot of autonomy, a lot of resources. You have to give them a sense of vision, you have to give them a sense of direction and then you need to let them operate and at the same time, if you are hiring as quickly as we are, you know, to give you some sense, when I joined Wayfair five years ago there were a few hundred people, maybe three hundred people. Now there is more than three thousand and you know, growth that size sometimes you do make mistakes and I think one of the things that I’ve learned is that it’s best for everyone if you are really in a performance culture, a place where everybody takes pride in what they do, they are aggressive, they are thoughtful, they love, they just enjoy coming into work every day – if you’ve got someone who is not pulling every ounce of their weight you need to find a way to ask them whether there’s something that needs to change and then if it isn’t going to work out, you need to move very quickly and take care of that because otherwise you know, the team just doesn’t work as well as it is going to and everyone else takes the tone from someone who is not.

Elliot Moss
And I get that, that speed is important and people are obviously the asset as it were but there are other big digital businesses which recently may have been in the press and they’ve been, you know people talking about what a nightmare it was to work there. Where do the values fit it in a fast moving business where it’s all about – especially in the public environment – it’s about the bottom line? How do you hold on to the sense of what’s right, how to treat people? You said you want to give them space but there’s a line isn’t there? You don’t want to get it wrong.

John Mulliken
There is. We’ve really tried to embrace a lot of the things that made us a very strong culture at Wayfair when we were a start-up and as we’ve grown and grown, as I mentioned, we really hold on to agility very dearly and you will hear a lot about agile software development. People sitting in these small groups, we use the phrase ‘a scrum’ which comes from rugby and the idea that people come together and they act as though they are in a tiny company, working on a discreet piece of business so that they can work in a small team and very rapidly roll something out and see what the market thinks about it. Then one of the, you know, and other things that I think we try to do is we really try to make sure that transparency is something we hang on to as we grow. Everyone in the company has access to a lot of data, a lot of information. You can see how business is doing day-to-day, week-to-week. Whether an individual product that we sell, or whether a manufacturer, how they are doing and we do that, we really try to empower everyone to be able to make change happen throughout the business and we try to be flat. It’s one thing that we, you know, we say… a lot of people say they try to be flat but we really try to live it. No one in the business has an office and my boss, the CEO doesn’t have an office, I don’t have an office. A lot of times you will have folks who come into our office, they will attend a meeting and they will say ‘that was an amazing meeting but I couldn’t tell who was in charge’ and I say, ‘well that’s just the point’.

Elliot Moss
And there you go, that is just the point, a new way of doing business. It sounds like it is a good way. Time for some music, this is the man himself, Frank Sinatra with Summer Wind.

That was Frank Sinatra with Summer Wind. John, we have been talking about maintaining the virtues of a start-up and I think you’ve explained really well how you are trying to do that. Do you think it is more and more difficult as you get bigger and bigger and if it is more and more difficult, does that mean you have to be on your toes in terms of the way that you manage and the methodologies that you use to ensure that people still feel part of something? And if that is the case, what’s next?

John Mulliken
So at Wayfair we sell furniture and we sell home furnishings as you mentioned and that’s just hard. It’s harder than slipping a book or something in an envelope and putting it through the mail slot. These things have legs, they come in many, many sizes and shapes and finishes. Things are just more challenging to move around, there’s a lot more of them. I mean one of the, you know, things that I always like to say is that if you look in the US anyway, at paper towels and you look at lighting, paper towels is a seven billion dollar business and so is lighting but there are only maybe you know, I think a handful of brands, a handful of items – there is only fifty items in paper towels so that means a hundred and thirty million dollars per paper towel item. In lighting there is probably about five hundred thousand items and that means there is you know, thirteen thousand dollars per item. As you get bigger you have to sell more of those items and your processes have to be tighter, you have to really be able to make connections so that you can draw an inference from how people are behaving on your site. When you see that someone is interested in a brown sofa, if you try to sell them more brown sofa’s once they have purchased one, you look like a fool but if you sell them a lamp that goes well with that sofa, if you sell them a table that goes well with that sofa, they will be loyalists, they will come back and you need the customer service to work at scale. I mean as you get to the size that we have there are strains, there are certainly you know, it gets more challenging to keep the teams focussed on what’s most important. So we try to keep it as simple as we possibly can, we try to say ‘yes we are focussed on building the business but unless it is right for the customer and unless the customer service is great, unless the price is fantastic, unless they get what they ask for when they asked for it, unless they can find exactly what they want quickly’, it’s just not going to work and so keeping everyone laser focussed and not making it too complicated is one of the big challenges as you move from being truly a start-up to a fairly large company.

Elliot Moss
Final chat with my inventor John plus Stevie Wonder coming up after the latest traffic and travel here on Jazz FM.

That was Stevie Wonder with the fantastic Living For The City, it’s one of John’s and one of mine all-time Stevie Wonder favourites for the record. John, we have talked about a whole bunch of stuff, about you as a human being, your brain, the entrepreneurial traits in you. In the next few years the technology business will continue, the technology worldwide will continue to become the world, the business world. In there, where are you going to shape a path for not just Wayfair but for yourself because there are so many options. I mean, literally anything is possible. You are as you said, a pixel away from doing something different. How are you going to differentiate what you do?

John Mulliken
So I think one of the ways I have always orientated is to pick things that are challenging, that are really hard to do and pixels, you can always build prettier pixels, right, that’s just it. You can always make the screen look like a better image but at the end of the day what we do, the reason why it is so hard is that it actually lives in the physical world. There is nothing that is more tangible, more material than you know, the bed you sleep on, or the sheets or the dining table or you know, the plates that you eat your dinner off of and that’s what we deliver and one of the things that I find so fascinating is the inner connection between how someone interacts with our business as a website and then how they interact with a product when they actually have to unwrap the box at home.

Elliot Moss
Do they have to set the thing up themselves as well?

John Mulliken
It depends.

Elliot Moss
It depends.

John Mulliken
We have some four poster beds that weigh more than a thousand pounds that…

Elliot Moss
That would be tricky to do on your own wouldn’t it?

John Mulliken
…you wouldn’t want to do yourself.

Elliot Moss
Unless you were very strong and had four arms.

John Mulliken
I am rather, I am on the radio so you can’t see.

Elliot Moss
You are robust, rather… John is very robust. But that bit and I mean just from a personal perspective, I always, I kind of want to touch and feel the thing.

John Mulliken
Absolutely.

Elliot Moss
Especially furniture which you live in. I mean, I may just ask, you can tell me the category norm rather than the Wayfair thing, what percentage of stuff gets sent back to be replaced by something that actually works?

John Mulliken
So…

Elliot Moss
Not because it’s not a great piece of furniture, but just because they go ‘oh it doesn’t look quite like I thought it would’.

John Mulliken
In a lot of categories you see that you know, it’s about ten percent. In shoes, you know, companies like Zappos, they get more than thirty percent of their… they’ve really built their business around accepting returns. One of the things I always like to say is that people shouldn’t buy an item of furniture on line unless they want to buy it on line. We save you an enormous amount of hassle. You don’t have to drive around the edge of the city, you don’t have to think about you know, what all the options are, figure out what all the stores are. There are just too many stores.

Elliot Moss
You can’t make them, you don’t get people going driving out saying ‘right you had better come here, you had better buy this bed on line’ I mean but it is… the habits have changed dramatically. They will continue to become… everyone is more comfortable.

John Milliken
Who would have thought that we would stay in a stranger’s home by booking it on our phone or you know, get a taxi.

Elliot Moss
Unusually you were drunk when that happened and these are different things now. There is a business model that has been built on the excitement but you are right, who would have thought, absolutely.

John Milliken
And so as we see it, I mean one of the reasons why I joined this business is because it is relatively under penetrated in fact, you know, more than half of books in the US are sold on line now and under ten percent of furniture and home furnishings are sold on line. And so there is a long way to go and I think that you have to be realistic, in twenty years, is the majority of home furnishings going to be sold on line.

Elliot Moss
What do you think? What do you reckon?

John Mulliken
I doubt it.

Elliot Moss
You still think it is less than fifty percent will be in twenty years will be bought on line? You still think people will be very happy to go to the big store?

John Mulliken
We can build an enormous business and be extremely satisfied with everything that we have done even if the majority isn’t purchased on line.

Elliot Moss
You are very happy with that and I don’t blame you. Listen John it has been a real pleasure to talk to you, thank you so much for your time. Just before I let you go, what is your song choice and why have you chosen it?

John Mulliken
One of my favourite pieces, this is a tough question to answer but one of my favourite pieces was when Art Blakey was playing at the Birdland and there is a song called Wee-Dot and it just starts with this screaming drum solo and rolls into… you just keep thinking it can’t possibly get any more intense, they can’t drive any hard, they can’t possibly play together after this and then it all comes together and it reminds me of starting a business, what it feels like when that intensity is just building and building and building and you think that you know, the coordination can’t possibly happen and then it does and it is just so magic.

Elliot Moss
Great choice and here it is. Thanks again John.

John Mulliken
Thanks Elliot.

Elliot Moss
Wee.Dot from Art Blakey, the song choice of my Business Shaper today, John Mulliken. Intelligent, the ability to be strategic on the one hand and make super-fast decisions on the other hand. Self-aware as he has grown the businesses that he has developed, he really has become clear on his management style and what he needs to do at different times in the businesses evolution. And a man who really understands the world of digital, part of a big empire and growing and I am sure you will be hearing more from him as he develops his next business. Join me again same time, same place: that’s next Saturday morning, 9.00am for another edition of Jazz Shapers. In the meantime stay with us, coming up next it’s Nigel Williams.

John Mulliken is Senior Vice President of International & Strategic Initiatives, Wayfair.

At Wayfair, one of the world’s largest online retailers of home furnishings, John sits on the senior executive team and leads all international business. He splits his time between London and Berlin, as well as traveling to trade fairs around Europe to work with the world’s best designers and manufacturers of home furnishings to source the products Wayfair offers every day. He founded Joss & Main, Wayfair’s curated flash sales site for the home, as well as Wayfair’s media business. Prior to Wayfair, John worked for a decade in strategic management consulting, most recently at The Boston Consulting Group, where he was a leader in the Multi-Channel Retail practice and the Global Center for Consumer Insight. He was lucky to live in the San Francisco area during the first round of dot com businesses, where he built novel e-publishing business at companies like BePress.com.  He has also worked as a research economist at the Federal Reserve Bank and edited a newsletter on superconductivity. Originally from New York City, John earned his M.B.A. from London Business School and holds a B.A. from Reed College. An avid sailor, skier, and Lake District fell walker, John lives with his wife and their two children in Belsize Park, London.

Follow John on twitter @johnmulliken

Listen live at 9am Saturday.

“I think that, if you are a New Yorker in London, everyone thinks you are gregarious – and it is probably true of me.”

“Keeping everyone laser focused and not making it too complicated is the big challenge as you move from being a start-up to a fairly large company.”

“To be very honest, when I started out, I had a lot of difficulty shooting from the hip”

“The speed of hiring that we are going through is kind of staggering, even to me.”

“I have more fun in my career today than I ever did.”

“When you see that someone is interested in a brown sofa, if you try to sell them more brown sofas once they have purchased one, you look like a fool.”

“Folks come into our office and they will say ‘that was an amazing meeting but I couldn’t tell you who was in charge’ – and I will say, ‘well that’s just the point'”

“I was knee deep in spreadsheets and statistical analysis and I thought it was great fun. I am a bit of a nerd.”

“At Wayfair we sell furniture, and that’s just hard. It’s harder than slipping a book or something in an envelope and putting it through the mail slot.”

“I do love inventing. I think I am never going to be able to stop that.”