In this ongoing series, we ask executives, entrepreneurs and business leaders about mistakes that
have shaped their business philosophy.



Co-founder and CEO, Greetabl


Background:  

Launched out of St. Louis, Greetabl is an online shop that offers a collection of small gifts, packaged in colorfully patterned boxes that double as greeting cards ready to be customized and delivered directly to the recipient. Boxes can be personalized with photos and messages, and available gifts include everything from candies to candles to miniature music boxes that play “Happy Birthday.”

The Mistake:

Getting distracted by too many different business opportunities.

In the early days of founding Greetabl, we were completely scattered. We lacked focus. The next shiny object that walked into the room, we would be all over. That ended up costing us a lot of time running down these different tracks that ultimately didn’t reach anything productive other than our own learning.

There was a situation with a Fortune 100 company. They were interested in working with us and we ultimately did a deal. But it took a long time to get to that point. It was maybe our third or fourth meeting. They had four or five people at this meeting. We had three. We were having a productive conversation, but we weren’t really moving the ball forward. So I stopped the meeting and said, “Do you guys realize we have our entire company in this meeting?” It was kind of drawing a line in the sand and saying, “We need to keep going here.”

I don’t want to seem anti-corporate, because I’m certainly not. But they were kind of looking for reasons to get out of the office and all we wanted to do was get back to the office. Even a scenario that ended up being productive from a business standpoint was somewhat detrimental from a bigger-picture standpoint because it took our eye off the ball in such a big way.

The next shiny object that walked into the room, we would be all over.

The Lesson:

At a pivotal point, we realized there was a kernel of something interesting in what we were offering. We really drilled down and came up with this really specific kind of target customer and shifted everything else down to focus on this one segment of the market. In May 2015, we put a flag in the ground and started saying no to anything that wasn’t exactly our focus.

Learning to say no is probably one of the most important things we figured out. It seems like such a simple thing, but it allowed us as a small company to go deep into one area and create something that really resonates with our customer. Our ideal customer is a young woman in her 20s or 30s. She’s very social. She’s very close with her family. She’s got friends all over the country and loves showing them how much she cares. She sends more than 20 gifts a year and, when she does, it’s really important the gift is beautiful and personal. Because of the demands on her time, it also has to be convenient. So we’ve worked to create something that’s beautiful, personal and painless.

Looking back on that phase when we were saying yes to anything that came along, I think there’s some value to having that attitude early in a startup. But that phase can’t last forever. You ultimately have to decide what you want to do and what your own rules are. Of course, that can change over time, but you really have to narrow it down.

As we got laser-focused, we decided what we wanted to do. We started saying no to anything that didn’t fit with that. Now we say, “Here’s how we can work with you.” Setting parameters and learning when to say no saves time. It’s more aligned with our mission and it’s ultimately more profitable for us. It’s really just taking the time to decide what you’re focused on and having the confidence to say no to things that don’t fit within that. In our experience, it ends up being kind of a win-win for everyone involved.

Greetabl is on Twitter at @greetabl and Joe Fischer is at @TheJoeFischer.

Photo courtesy of Joe Fischer.

Do you have a good story you’d like to share, or know someone we should feature? Email cberman@crain.com.

And be sure to sign up for your local newsletter from Crain’s St. Louis.