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THE WAY I WORK

The Way I Work: Zulily's Darrell Cavens

"Two things draw the most anxiety from employees: their paycheck and their seat. Don't screw up either."
You Look Fabulous: Darrell Cavens (center) drops in on a shoot at one of Zulily’s 35 photo studios.

Courtesy Company

Going, Going, Gone Zulily puts on 50 sales -mostly toys and clothing for kids- daily. Some items sell out before the West Coast is even awake.

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Half of Darrell Cavens's 700 employees have been with Zulily for less than a year. And a year from now, the same dynamic will probably be in place--though who knows what the head count will be at a company that at presstime had 160 open positions? Managing growth is the defining challenge at Zulily, a daily-deals site for moms and kids. Membership is up to 10 million, and though the company won't talk about revenue, a recent round of funding ($85 million, led by Andreessen Horowitz) valued it at more than $1 billion. Those 700 employees are spread out among the Seattle headquarters and offices in London; Reno, Nevada; and Columbus, Ohio. Cavens, a 40-year-old father of two, founded the company in 2009 with Mark Vadon, his former boss at the online diamond seller Blue Nile. 

We talk a lot about scratching out mediocrity. Zulily can’t be good enough. It’s got to be great. We’re publishing a new version of the site every single day. It can’t be just another Tuesday. And that means a lot of volume and interesting editorial curation. We host 50 new events a day. That means adopting about 6,000 new SKUs online daily. A typical Costco store has about 4,000 SKUs. If we put the same product up, people wouldn’t come back--that daily newness drives the business. When people think about e-commerce, they don’t realize the complexity of what happens behind the scenes. We have 35 photo studios and do shoots seven days a week.

I get up at 6 a.m. religiously, because that’s when my phone notifies me about the Zulily sale, which launches every day at 6 a.m. Pacific Time. Part of my night routine is to look at a preview of what the site’s going to look like the next day--so the very first thing I do is pull up the site on my phone to make sure they match.

Culturally, our mindset is to go fast and try things. And that means occasionally tripping up. The worst thing to do when we have a site outage is for me to go stand behind the developer and say, “Fix this now!” All that guarantees is that the person will never move fast again, because he will make sure that every i is dotted and t is crossed. Instead, we actually try to celebrate those outages and learn from them.

Once I know the site is fine, I’ll get ready and then go downstairs to have breakfast with my family. I met my wife, Siobhan, when I was at Blue Nile. She was a program manager at Microsoft when I started Zulily, and it wasn’t uncommon for us to have dueling laptops across the table after the kids had gone to bed, from 8 p.m. to 1 a.m. She left her job two years ago to stay home with our kids, which gives us a little more balance. It was insane for a while.

I try to get to the office by 8:30 a.m. and won’t start any internal meetings until 9. That gives me time to check emails and get ready for the day. I get an hourly metrics email: sales, top events, shipments, inbound receipts, what’s being received in the facility, usage of coupon discount codes. I look at sales and compare that number to the sales on that same day for the prior month and then use that as a prediction of what we think sales will be for the day. We try to make sure we have enough inventory, but product does sell out, sometimes as early as 6:30 a.m. or 7 a.m.

I’ve given up on trying to stay current with email. Now I focus on not letting it run my life. Marcia Cardona, my executive assistant, prints out important emails and says, “Don’t forget this.” It’s the first time I’ve given somebody full access to email--and it’s been a huge help. Marcia also helps manage my calendar and books all my travel. And she also knows that at about 2:30, I like a double tall skinny vanilla latte, which magically appears wherever I am.

Six months into the business, we got one of those Starbucks coffee machines here in the office. If I had realized the morale boost that would come from having a free coffee machine in the office, I would have got it Day One. It’s almost more exciting than medical benefits. We have one on every floor now.

This is our fifth office since we started--we moved here 18 months ago with 200 employees. Now, with 600 here in Seattle, it’s getting tight. Plus, we’ve got about 160 open positions. More than half the company has joined in the past year. We’re going to move everybody again in the fall. The new building is three times the size of the current one. We have two full-time facilities people that oversee these moves. Two things draw the most anxiety from employees: their paycheck and their seat. Don’t screw up either. And if you can solve both, a lot of other anxiety falls away.

You hear all the doom-and-gloom unemployment metrics, but we’ve got challenges finding enough great people. We have about 20 recruiters on staff--I spend a lot of time working with them. Last week I probably interviewed seven people. For the first 18 months, I interviewed everyone. As we’ve grown, it’s not possible. But I still interview all the key hires. And I still approve all offers. I don’t get a chance to meet everyone just because of the numbers, but I’m involved in the process.

Once a month, I spend an hour or more on Monday morning with a new-hire group. Each executive team member, myself included, adopts a class, which can range from three to 20 people. I’ll spend the morning going through the culture deck and the history of the business. I’ll then meet with the same group 30, 60, and 90 days later to hear their feedback about their experience with the company thus far. I’m specifically interested in how people are acclimating, since we’re growing so quickly.

One of the biggest complaints we kept hearing was, “You say go talk to Sally, but I don’t know who Sally is.” We used to just send people to the wall, which has employee photos ordered by start date. But then it got overwhelming, so an engineer put it online. We call it Zucrew.

That’s the extent of our company’s intranet. I’ve been talking to CEOs about what they’re using, trying to see if there’s a magical answer. I’ve yet to find one. So we recently asked one of our engineers to work on figuring out the best way for people to connect inside the company. So if you’re in the studio, and the copy team needs to know what’s going on, how would it find out? Another issue is that we’ve gone from one to four offices in the past year, so how do we make the folks in Columbus, Reno, and London feel like they’re part of the team?

I have a few set meetings throughout the week. But I try to not book my week too busy, so I can wander the floors and see and hear what’s going on. I want to be approachable, so people can come up and say, “Hey, I’ve got this idea.” Recently, an employee asked if we could do more in plus-size women’s apparel. Another person recently suggested doing short videos on the site. You get those ideas only by being out there.

I also make a point to wander through customer service. We have 120 people in that department and try to have a really high service level. When the phone rings, we try to answer immediately. And we try to answer all emails within four hours. It’s a tremendous amount of energy and cost, but it’s why these moms come back every single day. I still get a portion of the customer service email into my inbox. And I spend time reading through our responses.

I do a companywide meeting every Tuesday at 4 p.m., which I’ve done since the company’s start. I canceled it maybe twice in the past two years, and there was a revolt. Sometimes I feel like I’m saying the same thing over and over again, but it’s an opportunity to fill everyone in on what’s going on. It also allows us to address little issues every week as opposed to waiting for the quarterly meeting, where it turns into a big issue. One recent example was transportation. The city took the buses off our street for a construction project, and so employees were rightfully concerned. It was a high-anxiety item. We put in a shuttle bus that takes people to public transportation, back and forth.

These days, I’m most interested in the details around the customer experience, which spans all these different areas. I pick the area--tech, merchandising, shipping--where I feel like we’ve got to get calibrated or make progress. This way, my teams know I think it’s important and we really have to go after it. I have a 15-minute check-in with my COO, Bob Spieth, at 5 p.m. every day. At 5:30, I meet with Maureen Shea, who runs our studio and customer service, to go over the images on the site for the next day.

We certainly spend money on marketing, but I don’t spend a lot of time doing PR. Success is not seeing my name in the newspaper. It’s delivering great products and being able to go to a birthday party with my daughter and say, “I work at Zulily,” and parents telling me, “I love it! I just got a pair of boots for my daughter there.” That gets me excited.

I work from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. three days a week with the door closed, getting caught up on email or putting together a presentation. I try to use the site every day, whether it’s on my phone or on my computer. I buy things for my kids and wife, but I also rate the images and events. There’s a way to do that internally, so every employee can give an event feedback. I spend a lot of time doing that--this way, the studio team, whether it’s in Columbus or London, can see what I like and don’t like.

The idea of a vacation day in the early days of the business was comical. It didn’t happen. That’s changed. My wife is Irish, and so we like to go to Ireland in the summer. She took the kids over for almost a month last August. I spent 10 days there off the grid. My cell does not work where her parents live, so I had to drive 20 minutes and stand outside the library in this little village to sync my email and see what was going on. It stressed me out at first, but then I started to relax.

On Fridays, I leave by 5 o’clock to go out for dinner with the kids. They get to pick where. On Saturdays, I’m pretty good, not great, at trying not to work. I will take my son to the park, or we’ll wash the car or go bike riding. I’ve actually gotten better about not being attached to my phone over the weekend. That makes my wife happy, and it’s been good for the team as well. Lori Twomey, our chief merchant, once admitted that getting emails I’d sent in the middle of the night or over the weekend gave her anxiety, because she felt pressure to respond.

That was never my intent--it was just a great focus time for me. But as CEO, you have to realize the impact your actions have emotionally on people. So I try to be more conscious. And I don’t send emails at 2 a.m.

IMAGE: Photograph by John Keatley
Last updated: Apr 30, 2013




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