Confessions of a Recovering Micromanager: Chieh Huang (Transcript)

So not the two-pack of Oreo cookies but the 24-pack and not the 24-pack of toilet paper but the 48-pack — and let’s ship it to you much like a warehouse club would do except they wouldn’t ship it to you.

So that’s what we basically did. We had a really slow printer and what we did was actually say, “OK, this printer is taking forever, man. Let’s scribble something that would delight the customer on the back of these invoices.”

So we’d say, “Hey, keep smiling,” you know? “Hey, you’re awesome,” or, “Hey, enjoy the Doritos,” or, “We love Gatorade, too.” Stuff like that.

And so it started breaking up the monotony of the job as well, because I was picking and packing all of the boxes, and that’s all you basically do for eight, nine, 10, 12 hours a day when you’re sitting in the garage.

And so an interesting thing happened. So we actually started to grow.

And so, you know, over the last — actually just even 36 months after that, we ended up selling hundreds of millions of dollars worth of stuff, and we actually grew really, really quickly.

But during that time, my role started to change, too. So, yes, I was the CEO in the garage; I was picking and packing, doing all the work, but then I graduated to actually managing the people who picked and packed.

And then pretty soon I managed the people who managed the people picking and packing. And even now, I manage the C-staff who manage the departments who manage the people who manage the people picking and packing.

And it is at that point in time, I lost control.

So I thought, OK, we were delighting all of these customers with these notes. They loved them, but I can’t write these notes anymore, so you know what I’m going to do? I’m going to tell these folks how to write these notes. What pen to use, what color to use, what you should write, what font you should use, don’t mess up the margins, this has to be this big, this has to be that big.

And pretty soon this goal of raising morale by breaking up the monotony in the fulfillment center actually became micromanagement, and people started complaining to HR.

It’s like, “Dude, this CEO guy has got to get out of my hair, OK? I know how to write a damn note.”

So it was at that point in time, we said, “OK, you know, we hired these great, wonderful people, let’s give them the mission, that’s ‘delight the customer,’ let’s give them the tool to do so, and that’s these notes — have at it.”

And so what we found was actually pretty startling. Some folks actually took the notes and actually started drawing these really ornate minimurals on them.

When folks ordered diapers, you’d get really fun notes like this: “Say ‘hi’ to the baby for us!” And you know, the next size up, if they bought a bigger size, they’d write, “Growing up so fast.”

And so people really, really took to it. But it was at that time that it also went off the rails a few times.

And so we had someone just writing, “Thx, thx,” all the time, and it’s like, “All right, dude, my boss used to write that to me,” so, let’s not write “Thx” anymore.

But you also had interesting things on the other side. People got a little too creative.

And so, like I said before, we sell everything in bulk: the big packs of diapers, big packs of toilet paper, the big packs of Doritos and Oreo cookies.

We also sell the big packs of contraception, and so — this is getting a little hairy. So we sell the 40-pack of condoms, right? We’re all adults in this room — 40-pack of condoms.

So, someone ordered four 40-packs of condoms. And that’s all they ordered, so, 160 condoms, the packer was like, “I know how to delight the customer. This guy.”

This is what they wrote: [Everyone loves an optimist]

We didn’t know whether to fire him or to promote him, but he’s still there.

So, “Everyone loves an optimist.”

But here is where it went a little bit off the rails and I felt a little bit conflicted in all of this.

And — oh, there’s a really bad typo — so if there was only a red T-E-D on stage that I counted on being here, it wouldn’t be a typo, right?

I promised you I had a really bad sense of humor, and now I’m gratifying that. So I told you.

But I really was conflicted, right? At this point in time, we started doing things that actually weren’t part of our core mission and people started failing at it.

And so, I thought, should we let them fail? Should we continue to let them do this? I don’t know — I didn’t know at that moment.

But I thought this: Is failure really that bad? I’m not saying we should celebrate failure. There’s a lot of talk in Silicon Valley that says, “Let’s celebrate failure.”

No, I don’t know if we would go all the way there, because like, in our board meetings, our board members are never like, “Hey, Chieh, you failed last quarter, keep doing that, buddy, OK?” No one’s ever said that.

If you’re part of an organization like that, give me a call, I want to sit in on that meeting. In private, I don’t think many people celebrate failure, but failure, I posit, is actually pretty necessary for the folks truly in the long-term, for the smart and imaginative people truly trying to fulfill the mission that you give them at hand.

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