Greg Finney | Growing a Business Organically

It was a trip around the world that inspired Greg Finney to start his company in the early days of ecommerce. He’s sold modern furniture and contemporary home décor – high-end, quality stuff – since 2003.

He was breaking new ground; there was no roadmap to success. So he learned the business as he grew the business, letting it grow, as he puts it, organically.

He explains what he learned along the way, as well as…

  • Why too many ideas – even great ones – can be dangerous
  • The 3 Ps you need in place for your business to succeed
  • How to survive the administrative growing pains that come after the startup phase
  • The biggest problems in managing remote employees – and the processes to put in place to overcome them
  • And more

Listen now…

Mentioned in This Episode:

Episode Transcript:

Joris Bryon: Hey, this is Joris of the Ecommerce Excellence Podcast and today I’m super excited because I’ll be talking to Greg Finney. Greg is the founder and CEO of 2Modern, and that’s the number two, and then 2Modern is an online store of carefully curated modern furniture, contemporary lighting, and home décor. And he has been running 2Modern since 2003, which in Ecommerce terms is like, he’s been doing this for centuries. So I’m sure this is going to be a very interesting episode. Hi, Greg, welcome to the Ecommerce Excellence Podcast. Super happy to have you here.

Greg Finney: Thank you, Joris. I appreciate you having me as a guest and I’m excited to be here.

Joris Bryon: Cool. Maybe just to start off, can you tell a little bit more about your background. Where did you come from in your career and how did you get started in Ecommerce and how you get to this point?

Greg Finney: Right after I graduated college, the internet just started to really started to take off and I was just blown away with the sharing of information and everything. I came from a creative background and started an interactive agency in San Francisco. We worked with the transition of a lot of larger companies within the Bay area to online and a lot of the branding and the marketing, et cetera. Levi Strauss and Charles Schwab and Stanford and Clorox and quite a few others. It was a lot of fun. I learned a lot along the way.

Throughout the course of that, after probably seven or eight years of doing that, I started to want to do other things than just the larger corporate work and so we started doing some things internally, just creating some companies; Sendomatic was one of them. It was an online invitation announcement company and then 2Modern we started in 2003, and then I started having so much fun doing these other things, I moved on from some of the other businesses and focused the bulk of my attention on 2Modern.

Joris Bryon: What happened to the agency? Did you sell it?

Greg Finney: Yeah, I did. It was certainly… It was a very straight-forward and how I felt to be a pretty easy business model. Here’s the project, this is what’s happening, here’s the scope of it, and then you do the project, and you get paid for it, it’s all good to go or if there is a retainer that’s associated with it, certainly other types of businesses that have a lot more moving parts. I think from my end I have the habits, sometimes, getting bored easily and that’s not a good thing, so keeping myself on my own toes is something that I think I desire and 2Modern certainly has so many different things that are happening, that are going on and so much opportunity that I think, it became more of a magnet for me in terms of my attention.

Joris Bryon: You mentioned Sendomatic. What was that exactly and how did it play out?

Greg Finney: So, Sendomatic… We started that company in 1999, I think. It was really germinated from the fact that we were in the design business and people would say, “Hey, would you mind designing some invitations for a party, or a wedding, or whatever it might be.” I thought, “Gosh, why don’t we just create some of these things online, make them really good looking designs and people could pay $12.99,” or whatever it was, to use the system and it had all sorts of RSVP functionality and all of that.

Then within, probably, after building it for whatever, eight months, or whatever to get it launched, we launched it and right literally, at the same time, within maybe a week, Evite launched and they were totally for free, with an ad model and the whole thing. And they raised 20 or $30 million dollars and it was, “Okay.”

Within a few months they were, I don’t know, this ’99, early 2000 timeframe. Right at the peak of what was going on with some of that stuff and they were about eight other players. So, now there were 10 players all of a sudden in this space within a course of three to four months. I was like, “Boom,” like, “Oh, wow.” And they all raised at least $10 million dollars or more and they all had the same kind of model of this free service with an ad model and I was looking at it, going I don’t know how this is going to work. I don’t see how the landscaping is going to work and I don’t understand how these companies are going to survive without really charging any money whatsoever.

But eventually what happened, of course, is things started to blow up and then investors started to pull their money out of some of these companies and next thing you know it was just Evite and Sendomatic and then that made sense. People could choose to either use the free version with advertisement or use Sendomatic which had better looking designs and better functionality, I think, at the time as well, and pay a nominal fee. It was an actually a pretty attractive business and over time, I sold out of that as a part of my acquisition completely of 2Modern.

Joris Bryon: Why did you choose for modern furniture and contemporary lighting and home décor as products to sell?

Greg Finney: Well, I always really loved design in general and right after college I traveled around the world for about a year and I saw so many wonderful things in many aspects. I saw a lot of things, as well, that went, “Wow, this is neat.” Africa, Bali, India, and Australia, Fiji, I saw those really wonderful stuff that just wasn’t… I had never really seen much of before. And I thought, “Well, God, wouldn’t this be great to have this available to other people?”

I actually bought a lot of things and shipped them back and I gave them away to presents to people and so on and so forth and they all loved it and thought it was the greatest thing. I was actually looking into the import/export businesses. I was like, “Geez, I don’t know how this…” I don’t necessarily like that part of it. But as years passed and the internet started all happening and all that, this is early 2000’s, and at that time it was a lot of DVD’s and books and smaller items being sold online. Larger items really had not been adopted yet as something that was a comfortable purchase for people.

I started with just a few brands. Just to see, “Hey,” these are brands that weren’t immediately accessible within the San Francisco Bay area and I thought let’s go and put these up and see if people across the United States, if they really are attracted to these things that might not be immediately available to them. And if they are willing to buy something without touching it, feeling it, sitting down on it, doing whatever they need to do and the reality was that they were making those purchases. That was really exciting to me because there was… now it unlocked door for so many other areas of design and so many other locations of design. We started working with a lot of other designers in North America, a lot in Europe, and started bringing a lot of these in and being able to tell their stories and get people excited about these things that just weren’t immediately available in a local showroom or whatever it might be. That’s how it really started to take off.

Joris Bryon: Since 2003, you’ve grown steadily, but what do think is two or three keys to grow an Ecommerce business in today’s environment?

Greg Finney: Well, I learned along the way, really. I guess I’m one of those people that sometimes likes to learn the hard way. I think early on getting, probably the right people in place was a key aspect to growth. Versus trying to do it all yourself. In fact, I probably could of done even more of that. But I’ve always believed in growing businesses organically versus just going and taking a bunch of money and rolling the dice and seeing what happens at either totally blows up or it blows up, one of the two.

And for my end, well, let’s just grow the business based upon what it’s able to do on its own and I think that was an important part, at least for me, for being able to grow the business and learn the business along the way because there were a lot of lessons to be learned. I think, when you look at what were some of the key components over there, I think some of these things, that’s why I say I’ve learned along the way because I didn’t actually have all the answers earlier on. I knew a lot about branding and the marketing and that’s good for the design business itself, so I was able to speak to people that were interested in design. I think that was a good thing, but that’s very specific to that type of business.

I think that in general to many different businesses that are out there within Ecommerce, quite frankly, any business but it applies to Ecommerce as well is you have to have a solid plan in place. I mean you have to have something that you look at it, you can have maybe someone else poke holes in it, but you can look at it and really come up with an overall strategic and operational plan that makes sense. That makes sense from a qualitative standpoint and a quantitative standpoint. You can have fun with spreadsheets and look, “Oh, this thing is going to go the moon,” but you have to have it substantiated one way or the other with a plan.

And the second part of it is making sure you have the right people in place and the right partners in place, as well. Again, I’ve learned the hard way on that myself, sometimes. You have one person that you bring in that is someone that requires a lot of hand-holding, they’re not able to do what they say they are able to do, they drop the ball a couple times with important initiatives. That’s far more damaging to the business than having somebody who’s really doing a great job over here. They are going to drag everybody down with them. One bad apple spoils the bunch of philosophy.

On the flip side, if you choose the right people, that includes, not just people that are directly working with you or for you, as an employee, but also the partners that you choose as well. I’ve worked with various groups or agencies in the past where they say they’re going to do all these wonderful things for you and sell you on how great of a job they will do. There are always great case studies, but the next thing you know you get going and you find out that it’s like most of the work is being done by interns or something. By the time you figure out that you aren’t getting the greatest amount of service, sometimes the damage has been done. It’s very important that you choose the right people.

Having a plan, having great people, having the right partners, and from there it’s a matter of focus and execution. Certainly a bad habit can happen for smaller companies where you’re growing, and you’re like, “Oh, let’s do this and let’s do that and let’s do this and let’s do that.” Well, you’re already trying to focus on your strategic operational plan and you’ve got a clear focus of what you’re doing and that alone is going to be challenging enough from a resource, capital resource and human resource, just to execute properly on doing that.

If people in the organization start getting all these other types of ideas and doing these other things or you start coming up with these other ideas, and you’re, “I’m an idea person.” it’s a natural habit for me. The next thing you know I’ve got all these different things going on, and you’re like a jack of all trades, master of none, type of situation. You want to make sure that you stay focused. Do a really good job of what you are trying to do. Then from there, after you complete those things, then start to add additional projects, additional people, and then map out that part of the plan moving forward.

Joris Bryon: I think that’s probably something a lot of people can recognize, especially entrepreneurs. It’s the shiny object syndrome, right, so, you have a plan and you start executing it and then you get distracted by a lot of new things that come up. You read a blog post, you listen to a podcast like this one, or you read a book and you think, “Oh, I should do this as well,” and keep coming up with new ideas, but it’s important to stay on track and focus really well on what you plan and execute it really well.

I really like that because I think that’s something a lot of people suffer from, especially entrepreneurs because entrepreneurs usually have a vision and are creative and come up with new ideas and are inpatient, as well. They want to get stuff done yesterday instead of today or tomorrow. It’s hard to keep that focus and I recognize it myself, as well. I stopped reading blog posts for that reason. Your mind goes from one thing to another. I shifted to taking that time and reading books instead because they keep you a little bit more substance… A little bit more in depth knowledge and that you can actually think about and then implement instead of just jumping from one thing to another with blog posts. Anyway, that’s very personal.

In terms of growing Ecommerce business how… I mean, you’ve been around for a long time now. How has it changed over the years? What’s the difference now compared to 2003 when you just started out?

Greg Finney: Well, it’s far more complex, that’s for sure. I think then it’s like, “Here’s an idea,” and it could be somewhat of a novel idea, which is what I think we did have. I think we had the guts to kind of go after somewhat of a more novel idea in terms of selling higher consideration items online versus what was available at the time.

As time has gone on, and certainly within this business itself, there’s a lot of moving parts, that’s for sure. I mean, it’s one thing to do the design and the branding and all that, “Oh look, it looks great,” and the next thing the phone starts to ring and they say, “Hey, where’s my table?” “Where’s my light?” “Oh, this arrived damaged.” “What do I do with this?” I go, “Oh boy. Well I got to handle that.” And so you’re now adding customer service folks and you got to grow some more of the marketing side and then you’ve got to deal with a lot of the production and data entry stuff and then… A lot of it you can build around you, but as time goes on, new technology is coming out. Things become far more verticalized, as well.

Where people’s positions start going from just general marketers to people that are really in charge of just CRM or really in charge of just marketing attribution or just in charge of email marketing itself or whatever it might be. I think that within that it becomes a little bit more of a challenge too, to want to make sure that you get the right people that have a lot of the right, proper qualifications that also work well with each other.

Team chemistry is a very important aspect of what we do. Certainly integrity is a big part of it as well. So now you have got to check all of these boxes that maybe before it was… Because no one was a huge expert. They were certainly good enough because they had a good background, maybe you worked with them before and then you can plug them into the team because they’re good people and now it’s all good to go. Now you have to have a situation that we need someone who’s very good email marketer who understands this particular marketing platform that we’re on and has a high level of character and integrity and works really well with other people around them.

Okay, ready go.

I sometimes …

Joris Bryon: That should be easy.

Greg Finney: Yeah, right and now you have to do that with different types of positions as well, that are with this. That’s just one avenue of complexity. I think something that’s happened here recently is that there’s become a lot more administrative stuff that follows along with Ecommerce, as well.

There’s state tax liability, which back in the day, that didn’t really exist as much. Now you’ve got to go and file with these different places. Just talking about it doesn’t even sound fun. Because it’s not, but it’s a necessary requirement. I mean, you don’t want to deal with audits and things like that because it’s a very big time consuming type of exercise to go and do that. Now you’re opening yourself to that if you’re not… You have to make sure you’re playing by all the rules and all these different jurisdictions, and so on and so forth.

There’s compliance associated with certain things and you’ve got to always watch your back a little bit because you have… Certainly the bigger you get the more attention you might draw to yourself. With that you’re going to be, from a legal standpoint and all these other areas, you have to make sure that all your I’s are dotted and your T’s are crossed, et cetera.

In general, I think, there’s a high level of complexity today versus where it was towards the more frontier days of Ecommerce.

Joris Bryon: Absolutely. Is there anything you would do differently if you were to start over again?

Greg Finney: Well, certainly, I probably would have listened to more advice from people. I was forged through on my own with a lot of things. I think that if there are people out that have somewhere or another have been there and done that, whether or not it’s in the business that you’re in that is now more online, but can add value from the overall business itself. Business management in general, to give you some tips and some tricks on how to put things into place. And of course on the Ecommerce side specifically with what you are doing is also really helpful as well.

Not to say that, you have to be careful… I want to put an asterisk next to this too because sometimes people are full of ideas and for me personally, ideas are in some regard a little bit of a dime a dozen. Those are the easy parts. It’s the focus and execution that actually getting those ideas implemented is the challenging part. I just want to make sure that everyone’s clear on that. You have to make sure that you’re getting your input from very trusted and vetted sources.

But certainly, be open to that because there’s no reason to be your own guinea pig if you don’t have to be. You can save yourself some time and some money and some hassle if you are open to listening to people who have been there and that have done that and can really offer you some sage advice. Certainly that’s something that earlier on I would’ve probably done more of to capitalize on some ideas earlier and also to avoid some pitfalls that likely could’ve been avoided if I’d listened a little bit more.

Joris Bryon: I should have started this podcast in 2003 when you started out because that’s basically the goal of this podcast, so that you can… Other people can learn from other people’s mistakes and with all the experience and mistakes, but experiences in general.

One thing in particular about your company is you’re running this distributive team. Why did you choose this model and what’s good about it and what makes it hard? I mean, what are challenges as well about running a distributive team? Because people, obviously, it’s one of the… It’s actually the first thing I mentioned, having the right people is super important. Obviously, they’re not all together in an office. Tell me about it.

Greg Finney: It certainly has its own challenges. I mean, I prefer the distributed environment as long as you have the right people in place. So, that’s the caveat there. So, add that to the complexity, I guess, in the sense that you have to have more people that check all of the boxes that would fit for the position that they’re in and work well with other people and all that. But also really feel like they thrive in a more autonomous environment. I think in general people like autonomy. People who are really good at what they’re doing, like to have a certain level of autonomy.

So from our end, making sure that again, if we have the right people in place that are self-motivated, that can manage themselves pretty well, can work within a remote environment utilizing the tools from a technology standpoint to stay on top of what they’re doing, to share what they’re doing with other people, to collaborate with those folks, to provide clarity into what’s going on. That’s where the dots need to be connected to make sure that there’s success that’s happening.

Within a structured environment there are some pros that are associated with that. I think that you get natural amount of collaboration with a lot of face to face and eye to eye things. A lot of great ideas that can come out of there. I think there’s also a lot more accountability that can happen. There’s nothing like looking somebody in the eye and say, “Hey, how come that didn’t get done?” And being able to have that conversation. But at the same time you have a lot of water cooler talk. You have commuting, you have office politics, you have other things that can be really distracting. Meetings about meetings about the meetings you just had. I mean, those types of things can become very counterproductive.

You have to find ways to get more collaboration, make sure that you get more clarity, and make sure you have that accountability in place. What kind of structure can you put into place from a software standpoint, a communication standpoint, and make sure those things are ingrained in the remote culture. Otherwise, you can end up having a situation where most of your time is herding cats. I’ve been there. I’ve done that, but at a certain point you have to start putting those structural improvements in place to make sure you’re capturing the best of the remote environment and leveraging it to your benefit.

Joris Bryon: I think… We were in a distributive team as well, and I think the complications probably the main thing because you have to keep in mind that people that work often just from home. They’re working alone all day. They don’t actually see colleagues or anyone else for that matter. They need unique and based on extra attention to communication and giving feedback because people don’t get any feedback whatsoever. They’ll feel lost and they’ll start doubting themselves. I think that stuff comes more natural and in an office environment, but other than that if you just pay enough attention to communication I think having the distributive team can be great because you can obviously recruit anyone in the world and you’re not restricted to your specific area to find the best talent.

Final question. What’s your number one piece of advice for people looking to accelerate their growth in Ecommerce?

Greg Finney: I would probably dial back to saying make sure that you set yourself up as much as you can to be in control of your own destiny.

I think when we talk about choices and what you need to do. Having a clear plan, having those right people in place, making sure you stay focused and well executed on what’s the biggest primary goals to your success and see if you’re able to at least get one foot in front of the other to where you start to prove the concept out and at that point if you needed to raise capital and you felt like that was the right thing to do for the entity because you need to scale right away, then you can do that or if you’re able to move along and keep your vision in place while you’re maintaining your own control over everything. I think that that’s the most prudent way to go that’s going to be probably the most sustainable and give you the most control and the most choices over time to be the master of your own destiny.

Joris Bryon: Awesome. I think that’s great advice to end this podcast. We could probably go on for hours like this, but I’m running out of time. Just want to make sure people know how they can find you and learn more about you. What’s the best place for people to connect with you?

Greg Finney: Probably say within LinkedIn, Greg Finney, 2Modern within the LinkedIn is probably the easiest way to reach me. I’m also [email protected] That’s also a pretty straight forward way to go too. I’m always happy to give people some advice one way or another.

Thank you for having me.

Joris Bryon: Awesome. Thank you for being here. It’s been fantastic. Thanks Greg.

Greg Finney: Thanks.