In 2007 I interviewed the founder of MOO Richard Moross, at that point they were just entering the US market and had 50 employees.
Now well over 250 employee mark and significantly bigger, I went back to talk to their new COO John Kennedy to try to understand how they’ve been dealing with their incredible growth.
MOO is a design business that believes that everyone should be able to represent themselves or their businesses better through awesome business cards and “mini-cards”.
John Kennedy, MOO
John is the COO of MOO and has previous experience running operations with Green & Blacks chocolate, Wayfair home furnishings and is the only person I’ve met who’s cycled the 6,000 miles from London to Australia.
This week we’re talking to John Kennedy, he’s the CEO of Moo.com. He’s worked in Green & Blacks while it was being bought by Cadbury’s, he was the Managing Director of Wayfair, the home furnishings retailer. He cycled 6,000 miles from London to Australia and now he is the CEO of Moo.com.
This week we’re talking to him about the biggest challenges in growing an organisation at the pace that Moo have been growing. We’re talking about culture, we’re talking about about how to ensure communication is working well inside organisations, we talk a little bit dealing with outsourcing, trust and vision, and he reveals one really interesting point around roles and responsibilities and how they are so important in an organisation that is growing and how you need to define them.
Hope you find this interesting, its certainly an exciting interview to do and I look forward to seeing it in the comments.
DM: Obviously you’ve been here just over a year
JK: I’ve been here a year, and we continue to grow pretty amazingly fast in that time and I think that on a sort of revenue side we’re growing 40-50% per year. And say, we’re now at 270,000 – 275,00 people. I’d say it’s pretty different to how it was before.
DM: That’s a big growth.
JK: I mean, hopefully, you always hope that the growth of the amount of people is exceeded in your time and your revenue side of the business… But, it’s how you take the culture that is there, and it’s easy to be there in a small firm and continue to grow there, across large numbers of people.
We’re about to open our fifth site with our sixth site coming on stream in March, and that’s across the UK and the US. I think possibly the biggest thing that’s happened in the last seven years is the company has gone from being a UK-centric company to a US-centric company.
DM: So seven years ago you had just opened your first US office…
JK: And now we’ll soon have four locations in the US. For different reasons. We have a headquarters for the US side of the business and, in fact, our worldwide marketing is located in Boston, and then we have manufacturing in Providence. We’re looking to open another manufacturing base and we also have our bigger business focus in another office in St. Marina.
So how to keep that culture going…
The offices which are remote from the headquarters, where the majority of the team is – that’s one challenge. And then you’ve got a second challenge, when you’ve got an office that’s 150 and 158 in this building, and how do you keep them in one family and not splitting into different parts.
DM: So what do you think the biggest challenges are? In terms of your plans to continue growing, it’s not going to stop… So how do you see that?
JK: There’s a challenge that you have to move in to get a little more structured and a bit more process-oriented, but you would need to keep the speed. So its getting that balance right, so that people first of all know what’s happening. You have to be much clearer than you were in a 30 or 50 person company – and keep on repeating that through different forms of communication. Some people will read the blogs, some people are better face-to-face, some people will do the cascading through teams. It’s really using all the different levers available to you.
DM: So, you’re also a manufacturing company. From the start, what do you…
JK: Manufacturing definitely has its own culture and standards, and you definitely have to adhere to that. But the one thing that always comes through there, is that as long as there’s a passion for the product, and as long as everyone particularly the last person to touch it before it goes into the market, has that passion… then you should be okay on that. Then of course there are other issues like safety, which of course has to be part of any manufacturing process. But thankfully we’re not in a dangerous process.
DM: And how do you find that balance between process and free will, I guess? Cause the cultures in the US and in the UK are obviously very different.
JK: They’re different, although I think the MOO culture is quite a US “wanna get it done, big high five, yeah, good job!” kind of culture. So there’s those sort of things that are part of a culture where we fit in well. We see that particularly with the new people coming into the business in the US now, they just seem to fit in very well.
One thing we’re doing to keep that balance of processes and that speed is clarity of roles and responsibilities. And I think that’s something that we’ve had to work hard at. That doesn’t always come natural. Especially when you’ve been in this very entrepreneurial and where there’s a gap open up, you still want people to grab that opportunity and run with it.
But if you’ve now got, sort of 20 or 30 people across functional teams, people do really need to know what’s going on and you can’t rely on having coffee chats and informal communication to get things going. So, real clear clarification of roles and responsibilities and people taking on that level of ownership.
DM: You’ve been involved in a lot of different turn-arounds and, looking at your past, this is actually kind of an exceptional organisation where you’ve come in when it hasn’t been going downhill. I mean, you sort of took it from a less ideal situation into a great one. What do you think is the most common issue across those organisations, that one thing that you can pin down?
JK: The pin down is simple focus, and being able to communicate it to a team. And then they know what they’re doing, and the leadership side of that is getting that vision and stepping out of the way. That’s something that, if I take, say Green & Blacks, there was a very core focus on what we were about as a business, driving that and understanding what the market was going for.
I think there’s been quite a difference if I take those two and contrast Green & Blacks with MOO, both companies started by outsourcing production, and that’s a good way to scale up quickly. To work with people who really understand and have passion for the product, but don’t have the marketing and branding skills, and probably new product development skills that you have in this core, high-performance team. And you ally yourself with manufacturers and grow that way. At some point, as has happened with MOO, it becomes sensible to take that manufacturing in-house, from a control and also a cost-profit margin point of view. And then you’re able to grow that piece fast. But even now, we’ll outsource manufacturing to test stuff out and to get going and then we may or may not bring it in. So, partnerships is a really key part of growing companies fast.
DM: And on that subject, again, you’ve had a lot of experience building partnerships. In terms of setting those up, how do you go about ensuring that when you devolve some of that power down, that that happens in a sort of structured way?
JK: I think it’s the culture again, and it’s a culture of trust. Certainly, I can have, you do contracts and that sort of thing but in the end, it’s personal trust. It’s the same whether you’re using the technique inside the company or whether you’re externally working with partners, its the same. You have to be there, you have to be involved in the detail, and I think that’s true certainly in my take, being at the top of the organisation, but also I have to be out there, and listening, and be a part of it. Whilst there’s pressure to do external facing stuff, you also need to be on top of what’s going on in the company. And relationships still matter hugely. So that’s certainly with external and internal as we grow this business.
DM: Would you say the relationships stand on top of actually defining things at a really detailed level, or would you say that the highly detailed level is more important first?
JK: I don’t think its about defining things at a highly detailed level, its defining roles well but then its defining a vision. That’s not necessarily detailed but clear. If you’ve got that trust then people will talk and out of that comes the potential debate conflict, which is good if there’s a trust level. I mean that’s sort of classic management theory which sort of absolutely the case. If you’ve got trust you can deal with the issues. So trust and the vision.
DM: So how do you guys communicate across your five offices and make that happen that the vision and the ethos actually passes through?
JK: Keep trying! As you can see in this office there are a lot of audiovisual television screens around. Telecommunication that way, but also a lot of travel. We are a US-focused company now and that means that I’m over in the US probably 8 times a year now, spending a decent amount of time there to be with the teams and understand the market. And vice versa, it’s about putting in the miles as well.
DM: In terms of that communication, when it does break down, what’s the most common thing you see break down? That people just aren’t dealing with the technology well, that the technology is poorly implemented,…
JK: I’m not sure that the technology can ever really be blamed, it’s the people. You know, it can be the case that flash technology isn’t working, but the telephone is always going to work, and email. We rely on Gmail, and that’s pretty reliable. It’s people either not keeping the others informed and therefore, people who should have been part of the stakehold group are being left out and then it sort of comes back on you that way. I’d say it’s if people don’t understand somebody’s role so they won’t invite them into a conversation…
DM: So it’s about passing the responsibility to the person at the end of the line to know what’s going on… Communication: you’re covering people, strategy, execution, which one of those to you tend to focus on the most? Which one do you find needs the most attention in your organisation or anywhere in the past?
JK: If I understand the question correctly, it’s always the people side that’s going to take more time. The issue isn’t not having time to think, in most people’s jobs it’s that feeling of not stepping back enough. Finding that time to look forward in a fast-moving organisation is always a challenge. With being a classically venture-backed organisation, you don’t have the luxury of research teams. Hopefully we’re getting it right.
It’s a fast-moving market and certainly there are a lot of competitors coming in, particularly in the UK, so yes we’ve got to be sharp.
DM: In terms of those people you bring in, what do you look for when you’re building a team? You have a lot of experience with starting from scratch and pulling large numbers of quite senior people together, that can only cause interesting situations with all sorts of personalities working together. How do you find what is best to make that work?
JK: Fit-in culture is everything. There are a lot of bright people out there which is great. And a lot of people can get very excited about working in start-up and entrepreneurial environments. So that side is not a difficult sell. It’s making sure that they have the same fit in terms of want to get stuff done, want to sort stuff out, and are very team-oriented, and are going to have fun. Part of the joy of this company has been maintaining that sort of attitude, whether its undermining any serious meeting by wearing stupid hats or cracking jokes. We have lunches every Friday as a business, we have lots of cake. We eat 10,000 pounds of cake. Fit definitely feels like the key ingredient. Cause in the end, the bright people will come in, and if they don’t fit, they will leave.
DM: Do you have a test that you work to to uncover if people fit? If I was to start today to build a team of people to help me grow my organisation and I know I need to take that step, to scale up from a £1 million to a £10 million business, what sort of people do I need to look for?
JK: I think if there hasn’t been laughter in the interview, you’re probably missing something. That would be my test. And then there’s also the question of ‘are they a person that enjoys their work?’. That’s a key theme for me. Cause you are asking them to go out of that way, you know there will be times as in any small growing business, that you’re asking people to put in a hell of a lot of hours, so you need commitment.
DM: And then once you find the right people, how do you bring them in? How do you get them indoctrinated and moulded to MOO?
JK: I’m not sure there’s a way other than getting them to experience and work, talk to people and show they understand. We do have a company brand book with some guidelines but that’s a back-up, because it’s all about how people behave. So it’s making sure that they meet people and then calling out their behaviour. I think that is something we are very good at as a business. If someone’s behaviour is great, they get called out positively. And someone who isn’t living the values of MOO will also get called out. I don’t think as a business that, certainly for me, having such an attention to the culture is something that I haven’t experience before and I’m really enjoying that. That’s being put right at the top.
DM: Having experience that, is it something you would focus on in the future and in other organisations?
JK: Yes, I think it’s hugely positive in terms of the team dynamic and it just makes it a much more fun place to work. Understanding what the values are and what negative values you want to change, and being open. That’s something that you hopefully agree on as a team and the individual at the top, the leader… For example, Richard Branson’s company has a lot of that value built into him because he’s kicked off and decided to stay with the business, which is great. And still having him driving that is a huge advantage. I don’t think it’s the only way but it is a huge advantage.
DM: And when you’re dealing with a cultural shift, or you deal with bringing in or imposing culture, how would you deal with people who aren’t in the cultural ideal or where the organisation wants to go?
JK: Mergers are really challenging. I can’t speak from personal experience but from what one understands that’s a very difficult thing. You’re trying to redefine either one or both cultures when you bring two businesses together, and you have to be explicit about what you’re trying to do. Some people will take to it and some people will leave.
When we sold Green & Blacks to Cadbury’s that was a clash of cultures, and it’s trying to still maintain the best parts of the entrepreneurial side and actually, there’s very good reason why the Cadbury’s culture is the culture it is. How do you find that medium between protecting that culture going forward and that’s clearly not a merger of equals, but so you need to define what the new culture can be, within the greater business that you’re now in.
I don’t think there’s a right answer but you need to think and focus and I think it’s very easy for intelligence and new managers to focus on the numbers because they’re very hard and very easy to talk about. But the key thing in culture is the organisational health of the business, is actually what is going to make a difference.
DM: So, stepping away from people and culture, because I think that’s very clear now… MOO is a very technology-driven and technology-based company. It doesn’t necessarily look that way from the outside in terms of the end product comes out as a printed card, but what kind of technology do you guys use beyond sort of the usual? Is there anything specific that you guys use to help? You mentioned that you use HipChat, video conferencing, …
JK: There’s a fair amount of the communication tools that are there, there are some people that are absolute tech-geeks, but if anything the route of the culture of the company is in design, and its technology-enabling design and the democratization of technology that’s helping all businesses. And I think that comes across more strongly than our geek side. The video conferencing is excellent, but it’s more about a bit of style. If you look around the office there’s a combination of wit and some lovely pieces of furniture, without going mad about it.
DM: It’s amazing that that culture is still maintained, when I talked to Richard several years ago he said exactly the same thing, you know: make businesses look their best, made design available to everyone. Things that would be difficult for a small organisation to make that available to everyone.
JK: The fundamental reason we exist is to make design easily available to everyone. That’s what we want to be able to do, to make you look fantastic. It’s such an empowering art, if you make your business cards, and your identity comes through, it gives you as a business a lot of confidence and you can then convince others that you are the right player.