Matt Fiedler was a product manager at a tech startup when he and his roommate, Tyler Barstow, had a very analog idea for a company: vinyl records. In 2013, they launched Vinyl Me, Please, now an e-commerce site that, for $29 a month, sends curated records to subscribers, from the vintage (Black Sabbath's Paranoid) to the obscure (Watch Out! by 1970s Zimbabwean band Wells Fargo). But in 2015, Fiedler made miscalculations that led him to an emotional breakdown--and the near-unraveling of his business. --As told to Yasmin Gagné
My co-founder and I were in our first year out of college when Spotify came out in the U.S., and we used to send each other songs to push each other's tastes. We started Vinyl Me, Please as a way of creating a community around music, and of sharing these diamonds in the rough.
I didn't know much about running a business. We started out doing wholesale, but pivoted to a manufacturing model. We'd find albums and secured rights to them before getting them pressed by our manufacturer. Usually we'd receive the next record a week before shipping, and then we'd ship the albums out ourselves. Right before Thanksgiving 2014, we were waiting for December's record of the month, but it never came. When I emailed the manufacturer, we were told that it was delayed by six weeks. There was no way we could get it to our subscribers on time.
As a record-of-the-month club, if you don't have a record of the month, then you don't really have a business. It was bad, but after a lot of customer outreach, we averted disaster.
After that, I was both overly cautious and overly optimistic. I thought if we committed to things sooner, problems like that wouldn't happen again. We started to commit to inventory quantities for the next year. We were super naive, and I thought we would just keep growing at the same rate we already were. Turns out, my forecasting was all wrong.
We ordered 25,000 units for November and December 2015 and soon realized there was no way we were going to have that many subscribers. In the months leading up to it, I was living in constant anxiety because each time we missed our forecasts, we had unsold inventory, and it was just piling up. I was sure we were going to go under because of my stupid decision. It was like watching a car crash in slow motion--I could see our company folding, and there was nothing I could do about it.
It all came to a head in October. I was abroad in Thailand with my wife and my daughter, who had just been born. When I heard that that month's large shipment of records had arrived in Colorado, I broke down. I thought the company was dead. I'm a pretty stable and positive person. I don't usually have too many peaks and valleys, but it was the lowest I've ever been emotionally. I'd made a boneheaded mistake, and I kept running through "If only I was smarter, if only I could do my job better, if only I was more capable" scenarios in my head. I couldn't sleep, and I was paralyzed by overwhelming anxiety.
My employees were concerned, asking me, "Am I going to have a job next week?" I didn't know what to say. I was 26, had never been a CEO, and didn't have the emotional maturity to deal. The team managed to pull together by themselves; I was not there for them the way I should have been. Someone in the office had to sit me down and say, "Everyone is responding negatively to the emotions you are bringing to the office, and even if you don't think we can get through this, you just have to pretend." So I pretended, and the team dealt with the situation against all odds. We cut back some inventory, deferred some loans, and got everything back on track.
There's no way we would be where we are today without those experiences. I'm stronger, and my company is stronger because we got through it.
Discovering the Beat of a Business
If you were to start another company, what would you do differently? Hire a finance person way sooner.
Number of hours of sleep a night: 8 (I need a lot to function.)
What creative things do you do to retain talent? Wednesdays and Fridays are designated work-from-home days. We let people catch up and do deep work without distractions from the office, and they can schedule doctor's appointments and do laundry.
How do you manage stress? I run every day.