Lessons on building Zappos to an exit

Bambi Francisco Roizen · April 20, 2010 · Short URL: https://vator.tv/n/ebd

COO Alfred Lin on his lessons as an entrepreneur on the road to a $1B exit to Amazon

Earlier this month, Alfred Lin, said he was leaving his COO/CFO post at Zappos to become a VC at Sequoia Capital, starting in 2011. 

His reasoning resonated with me because Alfred, whose wife is pregnant, said he wanted in part to change his lifestyle to accommodate his upcoming responsibilities as a parent. As a parent myself, with three children, I understand what it means to put family over work. It's a good thing.

I recently caught up with Alfred, and his wife Rebecca, for a series of interviews. In this segment, Alfred talks about his "lessons learned" as an entrepreneur. You'll get a good sense of Alfred's affable way about him and his seemingly low-key demeanor.

You'll also note that Alfred's lessons are simple: work hard and be passionate. These are lessons you hear most often from typical "successful" entrepreneurs. That's because they've already journeyed through rough patches and have come out wounded and scarred, but still ready to charge. Eventually, they realize that what's kept them moving was this constant drive to work hard and an omnipresent passion that inspired them. It's just that simple.

But don't let me give away all his lessons. Here's just a few highlights. 

Alfred, who's known for his skills in growing revenue and selling companies, was credited for being instrumental in Zappos' sale to Amazon. Prior to Zappos, Alfred worked at LinkExchange, which was sold for $265 million to Microsoft. 

So, what's his advice on getting a company sold? It's pretty simple. "Build a real sustainable company first," said Alfred.

What about finding the right business model? I asked. Alfred said that "as a startup you don't necessarily know." To that end, find one that's at least a big opportunity and try, iterate, try, iterate, etc. 

"Try something," he said. "It may not work. If it works great, if it doesn’t continue to iterate."

Alfred also talks about how Zappos zeroed in on "services" as a product. You don't hear this all to often. Many retailers try to gain a leg up by having the most locations, the most inventory, etc. So, why did Zappos begin to focus on selling "service" as their value add? Alfred said that in 1999, the idea was about selection, and having the biggest. But over time, brand partners couldn't always fulfill the orders. That's when the Zappos team turned to customer service as their mantra. And, the goal was to create a business model around customer service rather than selection.

One of the lessons Alfred shared is something I've heard a couple times, and something entrepreneurs should take comfort in.

"If nobody else can think you can do it, then that’s great. If you figure it out then you’ll have no competition for some period of time."

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Bambi Francisco Roizen

Founder and CEO of Vator, a media and research firm for entrepreneurs and investors; Managing Director of Vator Health Fund; Co-Founder of Invent Health; Author and award-winning journalist.

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Our goal is to position Zappos as the online service leader. If we can get customers to associate the Zappos.com brand with the absolute best service, then we can expand into other product categories beyond shoes. And, we're doing just that.

Internally, we have a saying: We are a service company that happens to sell ________.

  • shoes
  • and handbags
  • and clothing
  • and eyewear
  • and watches
  • and accessories
  • (and eventually anything and everything)

Alfred Lin

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