Starting his company in the dingy garage of his parents' New Jersey home, Chieh Huang drew ire from skeptics. His neighbors would warn their kids not to go near the garage. His disappointed mother-in-law once told him, "I knew you weren't the one."
But Huang proved the naysayers wrong, building an online wholesale retail company, Boxed, that has raised approximately $250 million in funding to date. Its latest funding round valued the company at $600 million, according to a report in The New York Times. The company has also launched an advertising platform and is developing ad sales software.
"Selling potato chips can be a good business, if you get it right," Huang said. "Selling ads for potato chips is a wonderful business. Selling the software that drives the ad selling for other retailers to sell potato chips is the best business in the world."
In his keynote at the Inc. Founders House in Austin on Monday, Huang shared some tips on how to stay fair--to your employees, your customers, and yourself--as your business expands. (The Founders House is the inaugural event of Inc.'s Founders Project, an initiative pairing prominent mentors with early-stage entrepreneurs.)
1. Figure out what's important to you.
In Boxed's early days, Huang said, the team began including a handwritten thank-you note in each box it shipped. That personal touch was easy to add when the scale was small. As the company grew, though, Huang feared the practice would become unmanageable--and potentially dangerous, since the company didn't have a standard operating procedure on what the notes should say. The issue presented itself when an employee wrote a note for an order of four 40-pack boxes of Trojan condoms that read, "Everyone loves an optimist."
Despite the mishap, the team kept the policy in place, and still writes thank-you notes for each of the millions of boxes it sends out every year. "If it's important to you, don't let anyone say it's not scalable," Huang said. "You'll find a way to scale it."
2. Take care of your employees.
Sometimes it's the small things that count toward treating employees like human beings. In addition to a living wage and benefits, Huang said, he provides his workforce with a $500 emergency fund for unexpected charges such as medical bills or flat-tire repairs. Similarly, he added, workers need to be secure in their jobs. For example, because Boxed is such a fast-growing digital business, it's critical to assure people that technology won't replace them. When the company introduced robots to its warehouse facilities, the management team showed employees how the robots relied on them, training the staff on mechanical components and how to troubleshoot the system when it goes down.
3. Build a strong brand, and take a social stance.
Huang was embarrassed to admit he hadn't heard of the so-called "pink tax"--the sales tax many states place on feminine hygiene products, such as tampons--until several of his female employees educated him. Huang was incensed by the hypocritical nature of this tax, which is not placed on hygiene products for men. He decided the company's brand dictated taking a public position on the issue, and doing right by its customers. By law, Boxed has to pay the tax, but it sends a full rebate to customers to cover that fee. The business has rebated well over $1 million on those products to date, Huang said. "If you build a really strong brand, there's currency in that," he said. "Especially with the younger Millennial shopper."