Blinds.com: How Empowering My Staff Powers My Business

Last Updated Aug 16, 2010 6:47 PM EDT

After running two Houston window blind stores for more than a decade, Jay Steinfeld and his wife and business partner moved most of the business to the Web in 1996, founding Blinds.com, now a $50 million business and the No. 1 seller of blinds online. Yet after his wife's death in 2002, Steinfeld underwent a personal transformation that changed how he did business.


Blinds.com CEO Jay Steinfeld

Ten years ago, I wasn't as nice of a guy as I am now. I seldom complimented anyone. I wanted everything done my particular way, and I reamed out people when they failed, even if they did 90 percent of the job right. Then my wife Naomi died in 2002. We were married for 26 years. She was my best friend and my partner in business. Naomi's death devastated me, but it also woke me up. At that point, both my parents had died, I had three kids to raise and I had a business to run. I realized I could not do everything alone.

A new mindset, just in time

I got counseling and poured myself into books on business and psychology. My favorites: "Good to Great" by Jim Collins and "Man's Search for Meaning" by Victor Frankel. I realized my 70 employees weren't my servants. I worked for them. They needed to be encouraged to take risks and empowered to do their jobs.

I sought out smart, top-level people for chief operating officer, chief marketing officer and chief technology officer so I could rely on them to develop their own departments. By giving them more leeway, I had more time to think about the future of the company, and we were all free to be more creative and come up with more ideas. I wanted them to seek continual improvement and experiment without fear of failure. I owe my company's survival to that shift.

Boosting sales through brainstorming

Our company's sales hit $50 million this year and profit went up 17 percent. But for the past two years, the market for window blinds has been in a tailspin. Dismal new home sales means dismal blinds sales. Two large regional blinds manufacturers recently filed for bankruptcy, numerous retailers closed their doors, and the industry's sales are again down 25 percent this year. To grow, let alone survive, we knew we had to do something. But I didn't take it on alone like I might have a decade ago. It had to be all of us innovating and trying new ideas.

Some of the risks we took were complete flops. One crazy idea that failed miserably was advertising on dry cleaning hangers. We tested three different messages, and each was worse than the other. We tried revamping the category pages on our website, spent a lot of time asking customers what they wanted, did internal focus groups, and went live showing the new page to half of our visitors, and the existing page to the other half. We saw zero change in sales.

Solving customer problems pays off

One of easiest ways to rev up innovation was simply thinking about our customer's problems. What might prevent someone from buying blinds online? We figured out that customers get overwhelmed by the thought of measuring and installing blinds themselves, so we made about 65 two-minute videos that explicitly show how to measure and install blinds. My daughter, Esther, our PR manager, regularly searches Twitter for tweets about installing blinds. She responds with links to our videos. So far, the web pages on our site with videos bring in about 15 percent more revenue than the ones that do not.

We also spent $150,000 and six months building a widget that helps buyers who don't know what they want. They answer questions such as if they have kids or pets and what's more important to them, price or blocking out light. That tool gave us another 15 percent lift to our sales.

Finding partners for profit

Letting my chief marketing officer, Daniel Cotlar, and his team run with ideas has been huge. By doing cross promotions with Flowers.com, Cooking.com and OmahaSteaks.com, they helped boost our gross margins per customer visit by 25 percent over the past two years. Someone who buys a certain amount of blinds get discounts from other companies, and vice versa. This turned out to be a really low-cost way of marketing.

My senior leadership team also drove the boat on an idea to partner with big-box retailers — an idea that for years was pretty scary. We worried that if we partnered with big-box stores, offering them technology so their online customers could buy blinds, we would create big new competitors. But whether we helped big-box stores or not, they would eventually get into the blinds business, and the bad economy was a good time to do it. We wound up striking deals with Office Depot, Linens & Things, Window World, Rugs Direct, and Overstock.com. We do all the selling, fulfillment, customer service, technology — everything. It's been a pretty good deal for us: It's looking like it might increase sales by 10 percent this year.

Testing, testing, testing

I could not have done this alone. Free-flowing ideas are key. Risk taking is key. It's all about testing and retesting ideas in small ways and then continually improving them. We set 90-day goals and check in with each other every 30 days. Today, we get more done in 90 days than we did in all of last year. It's a complete culture shift – one of clear and focused execution. I know it because when I come to work every day, our employees are energized. And we still have jobs. In fact, we're hiring.

-As told to Jennifer Alsever

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    Jay Steinfeld is the founder and CEO of Blinds.com, the industry leader in online window blinds sales. He is an Ernst and Young Entrepreneur of the Year. His company was named Best Place to Work in Houston, won the American Marketing Association's Marketer of the Year, and Steinfeld was named by the Houston Chronicle as Houston's top CEO in the under-150 employee category for the last 2 years.