The early days of a startup are a singularly unique experience. You are bringing something new into the world, no one knows who you are, and no one cares. It is obvious quickly how difficult it is to gain traction and become relevant. When we started Simple Modern in 2015, the hydration market was full of established, well-run, strong brands. During the first couple of years, I was repeatedly asked questions like, “Aren’t you just selling a knockoff?” and “Why would anyone want to buy your product over the other options that already exist?”
Also, money is always scarce. Every startup that I have been a part of has been bootstrapped. While I am partial to this funding method, it all but guarantees that money will be tight for at least the first few years. Our foundering team did not draw any salary until the company was almost a year old. Our office in the early days was an upstairs room in my house or the local Panera Bread. We scrounged for ways to do things less expensively and conserved the limited resources we did have for inventory purchases. In contrast, during our first year of operation, two of our hydration competitors were bought by large corporations for sums approaching half a billion dollars each. After a couple of years, we swallowed hard and invested the money to attend the International Home and Housewares trade show. The day before the show was used by exhibitors for booth setup. While we admired the 6 figure displays that other competing brands had created for the show, we sheepishly set up shelving that we had purchased at IKEA. At one point, we watched employees from a competitor walk by our booth, literally pointing and laughing at us.
Ironically, the difficulty of building a startup is also an important part of why the experience is so rewarding. Without the advantages our competitors enjoyed, we had to think creatively. We compensated for our relative lack of resources with sweat equity. There were long days and nights, but in the process, our early team bonded deeply. We developed a tenacious underdog mentality and a correspondingly big chip on our shoulders. I saw growth in my personal character and humility as my role called me to help lead us through challenging situations. As the business grew, it filled us with immense gratitude because we knew how difficult it had been to accomplish. When we talked about the future, it felt like a big place full of possibility and promise. The early days were an incubator of relational, personal, and professional growth for all of us.
My experience had taught me about the emotions behind running a startup. Before I co-founded Simple Modern, I had been a part of starting and scaling several e-commerce businesses. As a company grows, it is easy to focus on the future not yet obtained instead of enjoying the present. I would often spend my time thinking about acquiring the next group of customers, improving our processes to reduce chaos, implementing the latest technology, and achieving greater stability. As a result, I consistently had a feeling of wanting to graduate to the next phase. But when I looked back on those years, I realized that it was truly the process and not the destination that I had enjoyed. The clip below from The Office sums it up perfectly:
Because Simple Modern was not my first rodeo, I made a conscious effort to live in the present. Those early days were some of the best days of my life.
I vividly remember taking my son to Disney World for the first time in the spring of 2016. Simple Modern had just started selling water bottles the week before we left for our vacation. During our trip, I was struck by the number of water bottles and tumblers in the park. I began to take mental notes about the brands and types of water bottled I spotted the most frequently. When I returned, I set up a Slack channel called #inthewild where our team could post pictures when we spotted others using our products. Early on, I was surprised at how infrequently we posted on the channel. It turns out that you need to sell a LOT of products before you start to see them organically.
We were fortunate that Simple Modern quickly experienced product/market fit. As we released products, we saw our sales and brand presence continue to increase. A little after the company’s 2nd birthday, Target offered Simple Modern nationwide distribution. When my family revisited Disney World in the summer of 2019, I usually spotted several of our products each day. Not only were we successfully selling more units, but our brand was beginning to really resonate with customers. People loved our combination of premium quality, affordable prices, and dedication to generosity.
As our sales and customer base grew, everything else followed suit. We moved into our first office in May 2017, and by mid-2018, we had already begun looking at options for a larger office. The team also continued to grow. From our initial core team of 10, we slowly grew to 15. We had a strongly ingrained “slow to hire” mentality, but by the time we made our next batch of hires, it was obvious we had waited too long. After months of not hiring, we hired 5 people during one particularly hectic week in Fall 2019. The new reality was also impacting the company’s bank account. For the first time, it felt like we had a little financial breathing room. Although our circumstances had changed, things still felt very much like a startup. There were very few established processes, and most core leaders still wore several different hats out of necessity. At times, chaos reigned as we sprinted to keep up with our growth. I reminded my teammates to soak in the experience. I would say things like, “Even though things feel stressful and crazy right now, don’t be in a hurry to get to the next phase. In the future, you will remember these days and wish you could experience them again.”
The End of the Beginning
As we have been building Simple Modern, I have been squarely in the season of raising young children. When we founded the company, my son was four, and my daughter was not quite one. The experience of being a father has been one of the most enjoyable highlights of my life. Recently my wife and I cleaned out some old toys, and I was struck with a pang of sadness and nostalgia. I looked at toys that my children had once adored and thought about playtimes gone by. It was a poignant reminder that my kids are growing up. Someday soon, they will no longer be children. I have always been aware that is happening, but that moment underscored a gradual transition happening every day.
My work life has been filled with signs of transition as well. Last year our team moved into an incredible office that could serve as the company headquarters for years to come. We have grown from 3 co-founders to 45 amazing full-time teammates in just a little over 5 years. We now serve millions of customers worldwide and have the privilege to partner with some of the world’s leading retailers.
Last week our company experienced another significant milestone. The fifth person to join our team transitioned to his next adventure. He was a great teammate and friend. He had accomplished everything that he wanted to achieve with Simple Modern, and he is leaving on great terms with everyone. I am excited for his entire family as they will now live close to both sets of grandparents. Personally, it was a sobering experience for me. His transition was a concrete reminder that Simple Modern is no longer in its infancy. I realized that it was just like watching my kids grow up, it has been happening gradually all along, but this moment highlighted that we are at the end of a season. As I reflected on this reality, I was reminded of Winston Churchill’s words:
“Now, this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”
I think our company has a tremendous future. I’m encouraged by the products we are developing, the customers we get to serve, and the opportunities to give generously that the business provides. We have the most talented team that I have ever had the opportunity to work with, and it seems obvious to me that there are decades of growth and expansion in front of Simple Modern. At the same time, it feels right to reflect at the close of a chapter in our story. The main question I am asking myself is, “As our company continues to grow, what should never change?”
Always Day 1
Over the last 25+ years, Amazon has grown from a garage startup to perhaps the most significant company in the world. As it grew, one of the attitudes that Jeff Bezos consistently championed was a “Day One” mindset. “Day One” thinking acknowledges that although the internet has made a tremendous impact on our lives and our society over the last 30 years, we are still at the very beginning of its story. As Amazon grew, Bezos wanted the focus to lie on the vast possibility ahead instead of how much Amazon had accomplished and grown. When asked what “Day 2” is at Amazon Bezos said this:
“Day 2 is stasis. Followed by irrelevance. Followed by excruciating, painful decline. Followed by death. And that is why it is always Day 1.
I’m interested in the question, how do you fend off Day 2? What are the techniques and tactics? How do you keep the vitality of Day 1, even inside a large organization?”
This way of thinking has helped Amazon stay innovative, agile, and creative even as they have scaled to a behemoth company with almost a million workers.
It is still Day One at Simple Modern. We have come a long way from the plucky startup that we founded 6 years ago, but we have just begun to scratch the surface of the impact that I believe we are destined to make. We started Simple Modern based on the belief that there is a better form of capitalism. We believe that so strongly that our company mission statement is “We Exist to Give Generously.” As we experience a growing company’s changing seasons, my goal is to keep a startup spirit and commitment to generosity central in everything we do.
When I am 80 (if I get that long), what will I remember about the last few years? More than anything else, I will remember the relationships. The singular best part about Simple Modern is being surrounded by people that I deeply respect and enjoy. Being a startup CEO has helped me to grow immensly as a person. I have learned that career success pales compared to relational connection, and I have seen just how many weaknesses I have. I need to be challenged and loved by others who are for me. When I was younger, I thought the goal of leadership was to build organizations. Over time I realized a simple fact – in life, we are all passing through. Every person who works at Simple Modern will someday exit, even me. Organizations are simply containers that we pass through over the course of our life. I believe that what defines great organizations is that they help the people who pass through them flourish. As the chapter turns, I am thankful to have been a part of creating an organization that puts people first.
Here are some questions for refelection on this subject:
“What is an area of my life where I am in a hurry to graduate to the next phase? How is that impacting my ability to learn from and enjoy the experience today?”
“What will I remember about this season of life when I am 80? What are the areas that I am investing my time, money, or effort that will not matter to me when I look back on my life?”
“Where am I experiencing grief from a difficult transition? Who can I process these feelings with?”
“Am I taking regular time to reflect and express gratitude, or am I overly focused on the future?”
“Where am I scared to transition to the next season even though it is time?”