Josh Neblett, co-founder and CEO of technology and retail company etailz, has grown what started as a college business plan into a $100 million company. In his senior year at Gonzaga University, Neblett stepped off his path towards becoming a financial adviser to jump into the world of entrepreneurship and e-commerce.
Having grown up in Seattle, Neblett put down roots in Spokane, Wash., in 2008, where he and his wife, Sarah Wollnick co-founded etailz with noted angel investor Tom Simpson, who was Neblett’s entrepreneurship professor at Gonzaga University.
“We decided the best place to grow and build the company was going to be Spokane. It has such a quality of life over here, where you don’t have the traffic and the rain,” said Neblett, now 29 years old. “Seattle has a ton to offer, but there is just a different dynamic over here that is really unique.”
The original brand, greencupboards.com, became etailz in March of 2013 following the acquisition of ecomom.com. Etailz now operates five niche websites and three storefronts including greencupboards.com, which maintains the eco-friendly focus it was founded upon.
With 130 employees, etailz continues to grow. Sales have jumped from $435,000 in 2009 to a projected $100 million in 2015, according to the company. Neblett says that leveraging the company’s partnership with Amazon has been fundamental to that growth.
Neblett views a large portion of his role as CEO as a “moderator of mood,” a feat he has tackled with an open office environment and weekly office-wide boating excursions on Lake Coeur D’Alene.
Neblett received his bachelors in business administration in 2008 and his MBA in entrepreneurship in 2010 from Gonzaga. He has been awarded Spokane’s 30 under 30, catalyst’s Emerging Innovator of the Year, and was a finalist for Ernst & Young’s Entrepreneur of the Year.
Continue reading below for excerpts from our interview.
Tell me about yourself. “I grew up over on the west side, in Seattle, and came over to school at Gonzaga. I was lined up to be a financial advisor and take over my dad’s business, and then in my senior year of college I took a class called ‘Creating New Ventures’ which was my first formal introduction to entrepreneurship. That is how the original company started. I decided I’d try this whole entrepreneurial thing out. I think I have the few loose screws in the head necessary to pursue such a venture.”
What do you like to do for fun? “We have a boat and always go out to Lake Coeur d’Alene and take the employees out on the boat. So that’s something we like to do for fun a lot. I like to play basketball, I love sports, I love all things competitive. Back in the day I used to play poker. There are some weird dynamics and interesting similarities between entrepreneurship and poker players and their thought processes. I don’t have the time to play so much anymore.”
How did etailz begin? “I remember going home on winter break and saying to my parents, ‘I know I have this really lucrative opportunity to take over dad’s business and be a financial advisor and that’s what I have gone to school for, but I’ve got a better idea. What if I go and start a company in this industry I really know nothing about, I’ll make next to nothing, and we will see what happens.’ And they kind of looked at me funny but supported me through it. The day after break ended, I showed up on the adjunct professors’ doorstep because he was a venture capitalist and said ‘Hey what do you think if we get this thing started, we won a business plan competition, we have some momentum, let’s actually give it a shot.’ That first year we made $5000 in sales, and our most popular product was a toilet bowl cleaner. Over time we just learned, adapted, and moved quickly, and eventually got to where we are today.”
How would you explain your business to someone who doesn’t know what it is? “At the end of the day, we are pretty complex in our approach, but the overall business is very simple. We are a retailer. We essentially find and curate really cool products and sell them online. But the way we do it with the level of technology, data, software and all the complexities is what makes us unique. We are one of Amazon’s biggest merchants and biggest partners, and so that allows us to focus on the supplier, curating products, building software and building technology, and less on customer acquisition as you would as a standard retailer.”
What has been the biggest learning experience so far? “How my role has changed and adapted. Early on … it was just me in the back of a hallway with Sarah, sitting around doing customer service, studying up relationships, doing accounting, really the jack-of-all-trades to some degree. And with time as you grow, now that we are 130 employees, you have to get better at delegating. I heard someone once say that a CEO’s job is a moderator of the mood and architect of the future and I’ve really embraced that. For me it’s been a real transition because early on you are always taught if you want something done right, do it yourself. My job now is to make sure that the culture is right, that people understand what we are trying to build here. Make sure that the mood is in line with something that is going to allow us to grow. And then come up with the ideas and implement the ideas that will allow us to continue to grow.”
What are you looking toward for the future of the company? “Every year we do something different. We move quickly, learn, and adapt. That is our mindset when it comes to innovation and growing the business. In terms of the future, our goal and our initiative has always been to become the next wave of commerce. You don’t hear a lot about marketplace focused merchants, but we believe you can build a compelling model to be the worlds’ biggest merchant on what will be the worlds’ biggest marketplace. That has been our focus over the last few years, and we are excited about the potential of that.”
Editor’s Note: Reference to ecomom corrected since original post.