Jethro Marks just returned to New Zealand after a nine-month backpacking trip through South America and decided that he needed to either get a job or start a business. He chose the latter and rounded up two good mates to try their hand at selling goods online. They experimented with selling books, CDs, DVDs, games, sheepskin products, Maori artwork, high-end jewelry, low-end jewelry, and even Polynesian cots.
After six months, they were in 12 different categories, but the only consistently productive one for them was books. For the customers, when they ordered a book, they knew exactly what they were going to receive. For the company, books possessed lower margins, but returns and customer demands were low too. So they decided to focus on this category and build a business around it.
But before diving in, they needed to come up with a business name. Anyone who has tried to start a business knows that this isn't the easiest thing to do (here's a tip from how Leona Watson chose her name, Cheeky Food Group). They went back-and-forth for three months and threw out names like the Nile, the Yangtze, and the Murray (Australia's longest river). Through a process of elimination, they didn't think the Murray would fit. They thought Yangtze was too difficult to spell. So it was back to the Nile, and as an added bonus, the Nile was even longer than the Amazon. So in 2003, they officially launched TheNile.com.au.
Almost a decade later, TheNile.com.au is up to 40 people with offices in Auckland and Sydney. Today, the company is an online store for books, CDs, and DVDs. They offer Australians and New Zealanders the entire range of products that they can buy overseas but from a local company in local currency with competitive or better pricing.
Jethro Marks shares the following ups and downs from his experience in growing TheNile.com.au to the successful organization that it is today.
*Promise to Customers- From day one, Jethro reinforced to the company that they must deliver on their promise to customers, and that this is their most important job. Around Christmas time, he personally leads the charge with the entire company swamping the warehouse to ensure that packages all get out on-time.
*Culture in Flux- TheNile.com.au is one of the only organizations that I've spoken to that does not have a written down set of cultural values. In addition, their office in Auckland and Sydney have both developed independent, different cultures. This presents unique problems to Jethro as he sometimes views the two offices' cultures being irreconcilable.
He admits he'd like better alignment across the two offices and the three types of staff: developers, back office, and warehouse. He wants everyone to be 100% bought in and passionate.
*Culture Learnings from Tony Hsieh of Zappos- Jethro has definitely followed the success of Zappos and their competition with Amazon (before Amazon acquired Zappos). On the one hand, Zappos's 800-number is located prominently on the homepage above-the-fold. On the other hand, Amazon tries to use as much automation as possible, and it's very difficult to reach someone live there.
Despite both companies being on opposite sides of the spectrum, they have both validated that their approach works. At TheNile.com.au, they display their contact number on the homepage below-the-fold. They notice a direct correlation between delivering better customer service and receiving fewer calls.
Jethro also shared his experience when he sent identical emails looking to find a pair of Mavi jeans to Zappos and Mavi. He wrote:
> ----- customer message to follow -----
> I'm after this product:
> My size is 34/30
> The Mavi code is 00 450 7779
> Are you able to source this item for me?
The following response if from Mavi, who replied right away:
Thank you for contacting us! We typically replenish our inventory every
2 to 3 weeks. We recommend continually checking our website for
availability or sign up for "can't find your size." As soon, as the
item is replenished, you will receive an email notification. If you
have any further questions, please give us a call. Thank you and have a
He was not impressed with Mavi's response, but it was received same day. But then he got Zappos' response the next day:
Thank you for contacting the Zappos Customer Loyalty Team. I hope you're
having a beautiful day so far. My name is Courtney and I'm here to
assist you today!
Unfortunately, it does not look like we will be carrying the Mavi Jeans
Josh Low Rise Easy Bootcut in Rinse American Vintage jeans in your size
as it is currently out of stock on our website and we do not have any
open purchase orders with the manufacturer. I'm very sorry. I did browse
competitor sites to see if I could find the jeans but it's my best guess
that this item has been discontinued as I could not locate it anywhere.
You are always welcome to contact the manufacturer as they would have
more information as to whether or not the item has been discontinued and
if not, where you may be able to purchase it. I'm sorry I wasn't able to
help any further.
Thanks again for contacting us here at Zappos.com. If you have any
further questions, please don't hesitate to ask, we are here 24/7 via
phone, Live Chat and Email. Have a wonderful day, Jethro!
Jethro was thoroughly impressed with the response from Zappos, especially since they weren't even the manufacturer of the jeans. Just reading the two, one can clearly see how much more enthusiastic, empathetic and personal (includes name) the Zappos' response is.
On a side note, do all successful e-commerce site CEO's have to shave their heads? See Jeff Bezos' hairdo below too.
*Shift from Quantitative to Qualitative Focused Performance Reviews- Jethro Marks made it clear the purpose of their reviews is to start a conversation about where the employee feels like they're at and how they feel about the company. In the past, they used a 1 to 5 scale, and he noticed that this numerical rating approach dampened the conversation. Conversations would get pigeon-holed and weren't achieving the outcome he was seeking.
So in October of last year, he switched to an entirely qualitative-based annual appraisal form. Thus far, he's been pleased with the increase in dialogue and conversation, which is the goal for him during the review.
*Conducting Management Performance Reviews- In addition to Jethro Marks, there are two other co-founders. They talk all the time and discuss issues often, but they've never dug really deep to have a performance review of each other. Jethro received some tips from other folks who have done this, and he decided to hire an outside facilitator to conduct the three to four hour management review session.
The three co-founders didn't have to do any preparation nor did the facilitator have any background on them or the company. Instead, she just dove in and started asking questions pointed such as, "What should this person do more of? What should this person do less of? What should this person stop doing?" He claims the session definitely exceeded his expectations, and he would recommend this approach to others.
*Conclusion- Being from Seattle (Amazon country), I definitely was looking forward to my interview with Jethro and his company's growth. Jethro proved that there's not just one path to success. For example, Zappos adopts a high tough customer approach, Amazon takes a low touch customer approach, and the Nile.com.au leverages a customer approach in-between the two. But I do think it's true that the CEO does have to maintain a nicely shaved dome.
As TheNile.com.au continues to grow and maintain two separate office locations with different cultures, it'll be interesting to follow the company's development and how they attempt to create a more singular culture that everyone can rally around.
*Follow @TINYhr on Twitter to get the latest insights and best practices from entrepreneurs as David continues his travels and interviews around-the-world.