Illustration of the Tortoise and the Hare. Wikipedia image

For the past few years, Keith Vernon of Bristlecone Advisors has taken the stage at the University of Washington’s annual business competition awards dinner and read a popular children’s story. The idea is that important entrepreneurial lessons can be gleaned from children’s literature, like last year when Vernon read “The Little Engine That Could.”

This year Vernon told the group of would-be entrepreneurs “The Tortoise and the Hare,” retelling the classic with a few twists (inserting some jokes about Facebook as the arrogant hare).

It was an interesting choice, not so much for the important lesson contained in the fable, but for the contrasting message that followed from keynote speaker Darrell Cavens.

The CEO of Zulily, a humble Canadian who stays out of the limelight, is an entrepreneurial speed freak if there ever was one. And the former Blue Nile executive is using speed — something employees call “Zulily Time” — to outflank rivals and deliver a more fulfilling customer experience for those buying children’s clothes, toys and accessories.

Consider this: Zulily, which has grown from a few folks in fall of 2009 to more than 300 employees, moved from initial concept to full site in about 10 weeks. It now launches about 1,400 styles of new product every day.  The private sales site for moms is already on its fourth office, finally settling down last year in an 80,000 square-foot brick building in Seattle’s Sodo neighborhood.

Darrell Cavens

“I feel a little bit like the hare,” said Cavens, referencing Vernon’s earlier reading. “We have absolutely grown very, very rapidly.”

Speed can kill, but it is also a weapon that startups can use to their advantage. And there’s absolutely no better example of it in Seattle than Zulily.

“It’s all about running at it every single day, running very, very fast,” said Cavens. “It’s hard work.” Cavens shared a story about how the company overwhelmed its fulfillment partner within the first five months, creating all sorts of havoc on Zulily’s business.

“We sat down last August, and we said: ‘Oh, shit. We are in a world of hurt,'” said Cavens, adding that they had hundreds of thousands of orders that were not getting shipped on time. “We were disappointing customers, and so we had to find a better way.”

Cavens deployed some of the company’s top minds to figure out the problem. And when they returned with a solution that would have required a year to implement, the CEO said that just wasn’t good enough. A new plan that would have taken eight months also was canned. Here’s what followed:

“We sat down and said: ‘We want to hit November 1st.’ This was the end of August and the first of September. And the team sat around and said; ‘It can’t be done. We need to get a lease, we need to get a building, we need to get software, we need to hire a team.’ And we went out there and through each of those said: ‘How can we?’ This was a Friday. We went out on Monday, hopped on an airplane and went and leased space in Reno, Nevada. We went and found a software solution by the end of the week, and we hired a consulting firm the following week to help us staff. And we had 200 employees in Nevada operating a fulfillment center eight weeks later….It can be done. Running fast. Looking at ‘how can you’ as opposed to ‘how can’t you.’ I think that is built in our DNA. It is what we do every single day.

Cavens concluded his talk by referencing the classic fable, making sure not to stumble over the arrogance that upended the hare.

“From Keith’s story, I think you can be the turtle. I think you can go slow and be very deliberate. There are probably businesses for that. I think in the consumer space — the Internet space in particular — speed and going after and trying it. The Internet provides such a great opportunity to to put it out there today, and see what happens. And, if it is not great, make it a little bit better tomorrow. Change it a little bit…. Don’t spend five months on your business plan, apologies for those professors in the room. Put that plan together, and try it, innovate on it, adjust it, move forward.”

I captured the bulk of Cavens’ talk below, broken into two segments. Note the image in the background of the tortoise and the hare in their classic race. Got me thinking, which one best symbolizes your business? Here at GeekWire we’ve certainly exhibited some hare-like tendencies, launching the initial site on WordPress in a weekend. But we’ve also not run as fast in some other aspects of the business, and Cavens’ talk was a reminder of the importance of sprinting, while also staying in the marathon.

A sprint and a marathon. That’s how I like to describe startup life.

For more on the winners of the UW business plan competition see our earlier story: “Rooftop urban farm may sprout at Microsoft’s Redmond campus”



GeekWire’s coverage of last year’s talkGist CEO T.A. McCann: ‘To be an entrepreneur takes a tremendous amount of courage’

Comments

  • Jonah

    Always find it curious that Zulily is a retail site with no real technological innovations happening yet gets regarded as a technology company.

    Great company regardless, just a humourous observation.

    • johnhcook

      Yeah, we’ve talked about that before here on GeekWire, and even Cavens admits that he’s building a company more in the style of Costco or Nordstrom. We do classify e-commerce startups, including those in the daily deal arena like Living Social and Groupon, as tech. I can see your point, though. Thanks for the comment. 

      Nonetheless, some great advice in this talk for entrepreneurs of fast-growth companies.

    • http://www.facebook.com/davidgeller David Geller

      I suspect there’s more tech than meets the eye. It’s a challenge to build a platform and workflow that handles a rapidly growing customer and product base. Beside order fulfillment, there’s content creation and management, including still an video, commerce tools, support systems, etc., etc. Yes – these may not be unique challenges, but successful companies manage to implement these core competencies well and I have no doubt Caven’s team (which has some very A-level technology folks) is doing that for Zulili. It’s not pure luck that they’re growing. They’re satisfy a need and doing it expertly.

    • Guest

      I remember when people first dismissed amazon as “just a book store”.

  • Guest

    Zulilly is actually over 1000 employees !

    • johnhcook

      That would not surprise me, actually. Cavens only said they have more than 300, but how much more he did not say. The number kind of surprised me in part because of this story earlier about them hiring up to 600 for a facility in Ohio. 

      http://www.geekwire.com/2011/daily-deal-site-zulily-add-600-jobs-ohio/

      Zulily has always been super quiet, and low key as they built out their business. I’d guess they don’t really want their rivals to know just how many folks they have. 

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