Jules Pieri on how to launch almost anything: An interview by Bob Morris

Jules Pieri is Co-Founder and CEO of the product launch platform The Grommet. The company’s Citizen Commerce™ movement is reshaping how consumer products get discovered, shared, and bought. Pieri started her career as an industrial designer for technology companies and was subsequently a senior executive for large brands, such as Keds, Stride Rite, and Playskool. The Grommet is her third startup, following roles as VP at Design Continuum and President of Ziggs.com. She completed her undergraduate degree at the University of Michigan and people tell her she is the first designer to graduate from Harvard Business School, where she is currently an Entrepreneur in Residence.

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Before discussing How We Make Stuff Now, a few general questions. First, who has had the greatest influence on your personal growth? How so?

This answer changes almost yearly as what I need to learn always evolves. But I would credit my college roommate Claudia Thomas with having had a deep influence. Her parents were educators and she had a drive and purpose that inspired me to reach higher. I was the first person in my family to go to college and I did not have a lot of role models for professional careers. For instance, when she declared she was applying to medical school, I started imagining getting my own graduate degree. In addition, she was a great co-conspirator for our explorations—everything from working tons of hours in a variety of part-time jobs, to travel, to camping, to becoming volunteer ushers at University of Michigan. For a period of four years we saw everyone who was anyone. I still have Ella Fitzgerald’s sweaty towel she discarded on stage.

The greatest impact on your professional development? How so?

Getting an MBA at Harvard. It opened doors for me that would never have been reachable with my industrial design degree.

Years ago, was there a turning point (if not an epiphany) that set you on the career course you continue to follow? Please explain.

My junior high Latin teacher took me under her wing, in a struggling Detroit public school. I expressed dismay at my expected high school course and she told me about a fine private school in the suburbs. I ended up sneaking behind my parents’ backs to apply. I got a scholarship that forever changed my life. I had never been on a plane and hardly had left Detroit. Suddenly a whole world of people and places and academics opened up to me.

What do you know now about the business world that you wish you knew when you went to work full-time for the first time? Why?

I’ve never developed any real swagger. I wish I could!

Here are several of my favorite quotations to which I ask you to respond, First, from Michael Porter: “The essence of strategy is choosing what not to do.”

This is true, especially so in the early starvation days of a startup. At that stage the only activities you should allocate attention and resources are ones that create market distinction and competitive defense. That means letting most of the typical business functions go or operating them badly.

From Thomas Edison: “Vision without execution is hallucination.”

So true. I did a fireside chat last night with Susan Tynan, the founder of Frambridge, an online site for custom frames. She says people come up to her all the time saying “I had the same idea!” She implied that these same people almost want to claim partial credit for her business. But her response is, “Um, yeah?” Ideas are a dime a dozen. People who never execute them don’t seem to understand that.

From Howard Aiken: “Don’t worry about people stealing an idea. If its an original, you will have to ram it down their throats.”

I never heard this and I love it! I want to put it on a wall of our office. I do see inexperienced entrepreneurs being super protective of their ideas. It’s a rookie error. The risk of someone throwing over their life to steal your baby is infinitesimal. But so are the chances of your success if you don’t reach out for help. Getting help necessitates discussing your idea.

What are the defining characteristics of a workplace culture within which personal growth and professional development are most likely to thrive?

My view is that the ideal culture is set up similarly to the conditions that help children to develop and thrive. Esther Wojcicki (mother of the three famous sisters by the same name) just wrote a book that expertly captures the five key qualities of this in an acronym TRICK. It stands for trust, responsibility, independence, collaboration and kindness.

This week I had lunch with one of our newest customer support employees. She told me she was surprised at the degree of autonomy we give her to make decisions to handle customer needs. I told her we hire carefully but then we do our best to trust people to use good judgement. Any other approach would slow us down and create dissatisfaction. I would rather take the risk of the occasional mistake than micromanage. And when that inevitable mistake arises, kindness better the heck kick in.

Looking ahead (let’s say) 3-5 years, what do you think will be the greatest challenge that CEOs will face? Any advice?

Well my optimism is showing up here, but progressive leaders are struggling to recruit for diversity. I hope that three to five years from now the CEO conversation is more about maximizing the benefits of diversity.

Now please shift your attention to How We Make Stuff Now. For those who have not as yet read it, hopefully your responses to these questions will stimulate their interest and, better yet, encourage them to purchase a copy and read the book ASAP.

First, I want to express my opinion that most of the information, insights, and counsel you provide can help almost anyone launch almost anything other than a product or service. It could also be a career, efforts to buy or sell a company, a political campaign, or a fundraising drive for a non-profit organization.  What do you think?

Thank you for that generous assessment. Oddly, the writing of the book was done with a narrower lens than the current market reality of the book. What I mean is I thought I was writing it for current or future consumer products entrepreneurs. Then people got their hands on it and started assessing its utility more broadly. They are giving it as gifts to new graduates, to career-changers, and to people with a project that needs either a kickstart, a roadmap or a surgical refinement in one area.

I embrace all these uses of the book. In processing all the feedback I have realized that the book is pretty much a comprehensive guide to most of the major components of a business. I think the fact that the case study subjects are Makers just makes the lessons more understandable.

But there is one very large gap in what the book covers: I do not address the internal human capital aspects of building an organization. That’s another book.

When and why did you decide to write the book?

I can look at this two ways. I decided when I was a kid and I decided in 2017. Both are true. I’ve always been an avid reader with a bucket list intent to write a book. When I was about eight or nine I wrote a slim illustrated manual intended for my future self called “How to be a Good Mother.” It was kind of a screed against whatever perceived wrongs my own (lovely) mother had perpetrated. I hid it from her for later recovery, but it was lost either to the sands of time or to my mother–who probably had a good laugh over it.

In 2017 our Director of Communications Charlie McErnerney helped me get serious about the project. Prior to that he had compiled a very lively e-book full of media-rich Grommet case studies. That became a catalyst for a former book proposal that Charlie and I assembled. My litmus test for the go/no go decision was watching to see if I could secure an agent. I think I needed that professional validation to take on such a big project. We had a few agents bid for the project, picked one, and then we were off and running.

Were there any head-snapping revelations while writing it? Please explain.

I was surprised how delightful it was to get in flow with this work. As a CEO you are constantly being pulled from one pressing issue to another in the office. You travel a lot and are often dealing with external parties in either a business development or negotiation mode. It’s exceedingly rare and a delicious luxury to have any kind of time for a large creative output project. As a designer, for me, that creative desert is probably one of the hardest sacrifices of being a CEO.

My process was to set aside every Wednesday to write a chapter. It took seven months. In reality those were very long days in which I bounced between my day job and writing a chapter. But the critical enabler was I worked from home. No book would ever have happened if I had tried to do it in the office. Even with all my own distractions and a somewhat ritualistic weekly procrastination ramp to writing, each and every Wednesday I got into a truly focused flow state. Sometimes it happened as soon as I sat down at 6:00 AM to write. Sometimes it took until noon. But inevitably I would spend a few intense hours writing very rapidly and with unbroken attention. I was so extreme that I quite often would literally forget where I was and kind of poke up my head and think, “now just where is the bathroom in this place?”

Of course, a lot of my normal work got bumped to the weekend because of my writing, but answering emails or reviewing business documents is far easier to do in fits and starts. Even with weekends away or friends visiting, I can get ordinary work done on the fly.

To what extent (if any) does the book in final form differ significantly from what you originally envisioned?

I would have liked to include drawings or photographs to illustrate the case study products. My McGraw-Hill editor wisely anticipated the extra complexity this would entail and suggested I not take this on. That was good counsel. But if I ever write another book it will be more visual.

You discuss six components of design thinking that range from identifying opportunity to advanced prototypes. Here’s a two-part question. What is the relevance of design thinking to an aspiring entrepreneur?

At its essence design thinking yields better ideas through an iterative creative process and it reduces risks by focusing on voluminous customer feedback. That pretty much sounds like what a startup company should seek to achieve.

Of the six, which seems to be for most aspiring entrepreneurs the most difficult to master? Why?

It’s hard to have the foresight to really assess an opportunity—both the scoping of its market demand as well as the discipline to hold off on working on product ideas until you know if there is a business to be won.

Which of the 16 competencies you discuss in Part II seems to be most important to achieving ultimate success? How so?

Marketing is the hardest thing. It’s just so damned expensive and become such a sophisticated activity. The days of Oprah or a single media guru anointing a product and assuring its success are over. Traditional media are too fragmented and the digital platforms can be impenetrable and a huge time suck.

What are the defining characteristics of the person best qualified to lead a startup to success?

I recently built a March Madness of entrepreneurship. Tenacity took the prize. I made a video of it you can find here.

Of all the mistakes that founders of startups make when launching them, what seems to be the most common? Please explain.

Here are two that come to mind:

Having too many founders: Two is ideal. One is possible but it’s going to make the job so much harder. Above two it is really hard to have evenly shared accountability.

o Being undercapitalized: I made this mistake and I recall another founder putting her business on ice when she found herself in the same spot. It’s a tricky one because a person with tenacity is going to plow through anyway. I did. But the startup standard of one to two years of extreme pain and suffering became four–and that was cruel and unusual punishment. The small team of twelve did the work of thirty or forty people. They were, and are, heroes to me.

What do you know now that you wish you knew when you launched The Grommet?

So many thing. Here are two:

o Don’t try to raise capital in the middle of an economic crisis

o Claim my story more—my background is Hollywood casting for tenacity and grit and I did not talk about that at all. I did not realize it was so important. And to make matters worse, I look like a soccer mom from Darien, CT. There is no way a stranger would be able to tell what I have done and who I am.

In your opinion, which of the material you provide in How We Make Stuff Now will be most valuable to those now preparing for a career in business or who have only recently embarked on one? Please explain.

Definitely the chapter “Educating the New Entrepreneur.” It’s a master class on building a robust and enduring professional network.

What’s the best way to read the book?

If you are already a Maker with an active business, then I would read the introduction and conclusion first. Then I recommend snacking on the chapters in any order, as they interest you or help you solve a current problem.

If you are taking on a new career, or project or business, a sequential read makes more sense.

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Jules cordially invites you to check out the resources at these websites:

www.thegrommet.com

www.howwemakestuffnow.com

 

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