Jethro Marks had just returned to New Zealand after a nine-month backpacking trip through South America and decided that he needed either to 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 twelve different product categories, but the only consistently productive one was books. Customers ordering a book knew exactly what they would receive, unlike a diamond purchase, which requires lots of specification and a long sales cycle. Book sales had lower margins, but returns and customer demands were also low, and the sales process was straightforward.
So they decided to focus on books and build a business around it.
Before diving in, they needed to come up with a company name. Anyone who has tried to start a business knows that this isn’t the easiest thing to do. They went back and forth for three months and tossed around names using a river theme. “The Murray” (Australia’s longest river) didn’t quite fit; they thought “Yangtze” was too difficult to spell. Realizing that the Nile was actually longer than the Amazon, they made their pick. In 2003, they officially launched TheNile.com.au.
Almost a decade later, The Nile employs forty people with offices in Auckland and Sydney. The company found success as an online store for books, CDs, and DVDs, but other departments have recently been rolled out, such as health and beauty, baby, sports, wine, and others. The Nile offers Australians and New Zealanders the entire range of products that consumers could buy overseas, but from a local company in local currency with competitive or better pricing and local customer service.
Jethro Marks shares the following ups and downs from his experience in growing TheNile.com.au to the successful organization that it is today.
Engineering the Course of a Culture
The Nile was the first organization that I spoke with that does not have a written set of cultural values. And it’s not because the management team doesn’t care about culture—just that culture had not been enough of an issue in employee engagement or staff retention to motivate the team to sit down and crystallize their values. Furthermore, offices split between Auckland and Sydney have each developed independent, different cultures on their own. Jethro views the two offices’ customs as being irreconcilable, having totally different styles.
He admits that he’d prefer better alignment across the two offices and among the three types of staff: developers, back office, and warehouse. He wants everyone to be 100 percent bought-in and passionate about the company’s mission: delivering goods to customers.
Deliver on Promise to Customers
From day one, Jethro reiterated to everyone in the company that they must deliver on their promise to customers: it was their most important job. During Christmas season, he personally leads the charge, with the entire company swamping the warehouse to ensure that packages get out on time. Jethro acknowledges that this passion to please the customer is the core of his values, and that it leads everything else at the Nile. How it gets done is considered secondary.
Emulating the Best Examples of Different Companies
Jethro has definitely followed the success of Zappos and their competition with Amazon (before Amazon acquired Zappos). On the one hand, Zappos’ 1-800 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 a live person in real time there.
Even though these companies take different approaches to customer service, they have proven each approach can be successful. Jethro decided to leverage the best of both companies. He focuses on automation and providing a great customer experience. At the same time, if a customer needs support, he displays his phone number right on the homepage too.
Jethro also shared an experience comparing two companies’ customer service approaches. He sent identical emails to Zappos and Mavi, looking to find a pair of Mavi jeans. He wrote:
—–customer message to follow—– Hello I’m after this product: http://www.zappos.com/mavi-jeans-josh-low-rise-easy-bootcut-in-rinse-american-vintage My size is 34/30 The Mavi code is 00 450 7779 Are you able to source this item for me? Thanks Jethro
The following response is 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 wonderful day! Kind Regards,
Customer Service Mavi USA Online email@example.com (mailto: firstname.lastname@example.org) 1-866-525-1631 Phone 310-868-2938 Fax http://www.shopmavi.us
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!
Yours in service, Courtney S. Zappos.com Powered by Service! Phone: Toll-free 1-800-ZAPPOS-1 (1-800-927-7671) e-mail: email@example.com http://www.zappos.com
Jethro was thoroughly impressed with the thorough, thoughtful response from Zappos, especially since they weren’t even the manufacturer of the jeans. Just reading the two, you can clearly see how much more enthusiastic, empathetic, and personal (including the employee’s name) the Zappos’ response is.
Review More than Metrics
When I asked Jethro about the assessment process at The Nile, Jethro made it clear that their reviews have been designed to stimulate a dialogue about how the employee feels about their performance and about the company. In the past, they used a 1 to 5 scale, and he noticed that this numerical rating approach dampened these meetings. Conversations would get pigeonholed into a numerical ranking of specific skills and weren’t achieving the outcome he was seeking, such as whether someone has the proper tools to succeed or the employee’s career path at the company.
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. He still doesn’t think that he perfected a way to map key performance indicators in a way that would drive a compensation increase, so he will still seek out an improved system.
Find Someone to Guide the Co-founders’ 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 deeply enough to review the performance of one another. Jethro decided to hire an outside facilitator to conduct a three- to four-hour management review session.
The three co-founders didn’t have to prepare, nor did the facilitator have any background on them or the company. Instead, she just dove in and asked pointed questions such as, “What should this person do more of? What should this person do less of? What should this person stop doing?” The session definitely exceeded his expectations, and he recommends this approach to other business leaders.
I know it’s difficult for people at the top of the pyramid to get honest feedback from their subordinates. So I think it’s a great idea to bring in an unbiased outsider to help compile feedback from the team and deliver the themes to the executives.
— David Niu
Being from Seattle (Amazon country), I had looked forward to interviewing Jethro and learning about his company’s growth. Jethro proved that there’s not just one path to success. For example, Zappos adopts a high-touch customer approach, Amazon takes a low-touch customer approach, and the Nile.com.au leverages a customer approach in between the two.
As The Nile 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 around which everyone can rally.