You know those business success stories that seem to come out of nowhere? Companies that start with little to no name recognition or capital and end up becoming a household name in just a few short years. I’m talking about the kind of rags-to-riches, get-rich-quick, fairy tales that make us all green with envy. It seems so easy—from the outside.
I’m here to tell you that even the most successful “unicorns” hit some bumps along the way. No matter how easy it may look from the outside, no one blazes a path to success without screwing up, making wrong turns, or falling down along the way.
Recently, I had the opportunity to bring together a diverse group of leaders from across the country for an event co-sponsored by Encore Consumer Capital and my Austin-based strategic recruiting firm, HireBetter. Attendees included representatives from most of Encore’s portfolio companies like Supergoop! and Tender Belly and Austin companies like NadaMoo and SKG Texas. On the surface, this gathering was a mixer, a happy hour to riff with like-minded professionals after hours. But I wanted attendees to take something away, something more than another set of business cards. I wanted it to be worth their time.
So, I did what I do best: I called some smart people to help me out. My first two calls were to the founders of two “rocket ship” companies based here in Austin—Paul Hedrick and Mason Arnold. Paul is founder and CEO of Tecovas, the direct-to-consumer, handmade, high-quality-at-honest-prices cowboy boot company that is taking social media by storm. Mason is founder and CEO of Encore-backed Cece’s Veggie Co., whose organic spiralized vegetable noodles and riced vegetables can be found in produce aisles all across the country.
I purposefully chose these two CEOs for a number of reasons. First of all, they have great stories. Second, they’re both incredibly humble and willing to share those stories—and not just the glory stories, but also the gory stories, mistakes, and shit shows along the way.
Typically, these networking events are pretty formulaic: uber-successful CEO is invited to the party, has a few drinks with his or her buddies, then gets up and waxes poetic about success and provides a few inspiring-sounding tips. You get the point. It’s what we’ve come to expect. But these are not the stories we need to hear and not the stories we need to tell. We need to learn from each other’s mistakes and talk openly about our struggles. I believe we learn more from the valleys than the peaks.
I wanted attendees to think they knew what they were getting – the typical “here’s how I made it” story about making the right moves at the right time and not backing down from the dream. Then I wanted to flip those expectations and give the audience what they weren’t expecting—stories of how these superstar entrepreneurs struggled, made mistakes, and learned lessons along the way.
Thanks to Paul and Mason, they allowed me to dig deeper and probe for some behind-the-scenes, inside access, since CEOs aren’t used to speaking so openly about themselves. And now, with their permission, I’ll share a few of their stories and lessons learned with you.
Paul founded Tecovas in 2014 after his business school application was rejected. As he researched companies to start, he was drawn to consumer brands, but was uninspired by the boot brands out there. With Tecovas, he wanted to provide the highest quality cowboy boots at a direct-to-consumer price. He has grown the business rapidly in his first four years. Without disclosing financial information, they are well on their way to becoming a junior unicorn. To an outsider, Paul’s story is a fairly tale. Sure, he quit his high-paying private equity job and risked everything to start Tecovas, but he’s been on the proverbial rocket ship ever since!
But that’s not the whole story. Tecovas began like many startups—a passionate founder, with drive and an almost unhealthy belief in his vision, willing to do anything and everything it takes to make it a reality. He said yes to everything. He put customer needs first. In fact, in the early days, he was the customer-service team. When a customer called to lodge a complaint, ask for a refund, or praise the boots, Paul took the call.
That sounds like good advice—the founder needs to stay close to the early adopters. But as the business grows, if he or she is stretched too thin, it actually hurts more than helps. This is something Paul realized much later than he’d like to admit.
“I had become the bottleneck. That was painful to realize!”
Through the first few years, the scrappy, startup mentality kept Paul involved in quite literally everything Tecovas was doing. Until he looked up and realized he was actually holding the business back. He was doing too many things, and Tecovas was behind on hiring specific talent to handle everything from leadership and strategy to basic business tasks. He was a bottleneck. He needed to focus on the bigger picture, developing longer-term strategies to grow and scale Tecovas to the proverbial next-level, not handling basic service issues.
Paul learned this lesson the hard way. By the time he realized he needed to bring in next-level talent, Tecovas was already behind. They made several key hires and eventually recovered, but Paul still wishes they had invested in the team earlier.
Now, Tecovas makes a point to prioritize hiring. After that initial round of hiring, Paul turned his attention to being the visionary CEO he wanted to be and hire a great team around him. In fact, as Tecovas began planning to expand into retail, Paul used many of the hard lessons he learned about not hiring. Paul prioritized hiring a superstar to lead this key initiative. He knew that he could not—and should not—lead this himself, so they pulled out all the stops.
It was a long, drawn-out process, but Tecovas eventually found the right talent. They’ve successfully opened stores in Austin and San Antonio and are now on the verge of opening five more retail locations, with plans to expand further in the future. Now that’s learning from your mistakes!
Switching gears, let’s talk about Mason Arnold, who founded Veggie Noodle Co. (later rebranded Cece’s Veggie Co.) in 2015. If you haven’t seen Cece’s vegetable spiral noodles in the produce section at your grocery store yet, you haven’t been paying attention. Since inception, Cece’s has grown astronomically—23,000%!
But prior to Cece’s, Mason was a roller coaster serial entrepreneur. He failed with a restaurant concept in Spain. Then he parlayed that into success, then failure, then success again with Greenling, a produce-delivery company focused on sustainability and ethical sourcing. Oh, and somewhere in there he found himself broke, alone, and sleeping on his mom’s couch.
But adversity leads to innovation. Failure often breeds success. There’s definitely a lesson in there for those of you keeping score at home. At Greenling, Mason developed what started as a sound business model. He and his team were totally devoted to the vision, they had plenty of know-how and elbow grease necessary to make it. But he ran into a few problems. The first was that two of his first key hires proved to be disastrous.
Ultimately, his experience with these two hires made Mason realize that he didn’t have the HR acumen to make truly good staffing decisions himself. But he knew that good people would make or break his company, so he studied HR and team building, becoming something of an expert.
The second problem? With Greenling, his business model was very complicated, and the company’s shortcomings were exposed when the grocery-delivery boom took the country by storm.
Greenling’s struggles caused Mason to pause and spend time to study human capital and hiring. He had learned the hard way that, while the CEO makes a big impact, ultimately the people on the team make or break a startup. He made hiring a priority so that when he started his next company, he wouldn’t make the same mistakes again.
In 2015, Mason got the chance to prove that he learned from his previous challenges. Mostly, he wanted to keep things simple. At first, all Cece’s did was make and sell vegetable noodles. And they were damn good. They perfected a process that makes a consistent, great tasting product with the consistency of pasta noodles that customers craved. They didn’t offer other products or otherwise overcomplicate their business model. Only later, as the company grew and matured, did they add new products to the lineup, including a promising veggie mac and cheese. And you didn’t hear it from me, but there are plans in the works to expand into frozen goods and ramen noodle soups later in 2019.
And what about the people-related lessons learned? Mason leveraged his newfound human capital prowess to make several key hires—people who not only fit the job description on paper, but also the culture he wanted the company to have. And Cece’s has an amazing culture. One of Mason’s strengths that he was able to leverage is that he is mission-driven. As a result, Cece’s is mission-driven, which helps to attract and retain like-minded team members.
Want an example of their mission-driven culture? A few years ago, Mason was struggling with finding qualified workers in their production facility. One of his team members read about a refugee program during the European refugee crisis. Cece’s dipped its toe in the water and hired three refugees from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, who turned out to be incredible hires. They were all hard-working, talented, and dependable—and they believed in Cece’s core mission. Fast forward three years and now one-third of Cece’s 200 employees are Congolese. Fun fact: All announcements at Cece’s are made in English, Spanish, and Swahili!
From the outside, neither Paul nor Mason seem like they have made any mistakes. Their businesses are wildly successful—Tecovas is closing in on the next milestone and Cece’s is on a 23,000% growth trajectory. But even these two wildly successful founders faced challenges and adversity, and even the daunting reality of sleeping penniless on mom’s couch.
The true test of a good leader is not about climbing to the top without missing a single stair. It’s about lessons learned along the way. What do we do when challenges arise? No one, and I mean no one, “makes it” without overcoming some form of adversity and falling on their ass.
I’d love to hear from you. What do you think of Mason and Paul’s stories? What tough lessons have you learned in your life or career? What steps did you take the next time? Drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.