A wholesale grocery CEO's 10 tips to persistent leadership

Serial entrepreneur Chieh Huang is the founder and CEO of online wholesale club Boxed. Along the way, he’s learned some lessons about persistence in leadership. He shared some insight about the subject with on the Virtual Fireside Chat podcast.

Who is Chieh Huang?

A New Jersey native, Huang is the child of Taiwanese immigrants. His mother supported their family of four with a minimum-wage job at a Chinese fast-food restaurant.

Huang spent two years working at a Manhattan law firm before realizing that his heart wasn’t into making partner. After dropping out of the corporate rat race, he partnered with two high school friends to develop Office Heroes, one of the first social games designed for the iPhone.

Nobody played the game, Huang acknowledges, but the app caught the fancy of a Japanese gaming company that acquired it for $800,000. Soon after that, the partners sold their company to a San Francisco-based video game developer.

For their next venture, Huang and his buddies turned to a problem Huang had encountered when he was growing up. In New Jersey, Huang’s family made a trip to a warehouse store every other week. But when they moved to Manhattan, they didn’t have the physical means to access a wholesale club anymore.

When Huang researched the stats, he found that 60% of wholesale club members are boomers or seniors. He decided to build a mobile-friendly online wholesale club targeting millennials, and Boxed was born.

Boxed is known for its frugality. For instance, when the co-founders travel together (in economy class, of course), they share a hotel room. But the company splurges on its people in other ways.

Depending on how long an employee has been with Boxed, the company pays up to $20K for life-changing events like weddings. And Huang pays for employees’ children’s college tuition, after scholarship, with no cost ceiling.

That’s the right thing to do, Huang says. Those people-first perks also help keep company morale high and turnover low, so they’re a long-term way to improve the bottom line.

So that’s some context for Chieh Huang. 

Here, then, are ten lessons Huang shared about leadership for the long haul:

  1. Act at the right time.

How do you know the right time to take the leap either in starting a business or adopting a new idea or direction? If you have an idea that you’re so obsessed with you’re losing sleep over it, and millions of people have the same problem, then the marriage of those two things is a really powerful thing to go after.
What about if you’re looking to move from a start-up to another phase of business? The key is to try and understand the markets to determine when it’s time to make your move. Get a really good feel for the markets and then double down.

  1. What are you good at?

It’s important to ask yourself foundational questions. What are you good at? Where can you excel? How can you differentiate your business? Huang explains that Boxed excels at price, convenience, brand, and now safety. For the Boxed.com brand, it’s about building connection and social capital, treating employees well, and clearly implementing creative strategies.

  1. Do your homework.

Once you’ve got a compelling value proposition, you need to research your concept and learn more. “Google it over and over again,” Huang advises. Does a market exist? Talk to people who think critically and will give you honest feedback. Flush out the idea with them.

  1. Stay balanced.

Don’t let yourself get too high or too low about yourself or your business. And don’t let external elements such as press, articles, or anything else dictate your emotions. Entrepreneurship can be a wild ride, but you need to keep steady. Wake up, put one foot in front of the other, and move on.

  1. Manage your money well.

Use investor funds to scale your business. Leverage that scale to create partnerships with larger companies such as UPS and FedEx to reduce costs and create sustainability.
If you have a marketing budget, hire a PR consultant to get you placed in a few stories. You can burn through money on Google or Facebook with no results, but a PR person can help you build a story and get you priceless free publicity.

  1. Hold everyone accountable.

Just because Boxed treats its employees well doesn’t mean that they can coast. Whether they’ve been on staff for seven months or seven years, staff have to account for their performance. “You need to hold people accountable and apply it evenly,” Huang advises.

  1. Leverage social media

For a competitive edge, leverage social media. Shift to what customers want to see and issues that customers care about. Use an omnichannel approach in marketing. Look at multi-touch social media to see when a customer converts.

  1. Be courageous and nimble.

You need to muster up your courage to make changes and take a leap in business. Most fear and hesitation you’ll feel is right before you do something. The moment you do it, it’s behind you, and there’s no going back. Recognize that fear is transient and wastes time.
Along with courage, you have to be nimble enough to change with the market. While staying true to your core brand, get creative to respond to customers’ needs and wants.

  1. Get your own house in order.

Make sure you offer a compelling service, fair prices, and top-notch customer services. This opens things up for your business to get its fair share. After you’ve gotten your own house in order, then you can start thinking about competitors.

  1. Let it go.

For your business to scale successfully, you have to let go of managing everything. Give your staff clear direction and the freedom to operate.

Interested in more insights from top leaders?

The leadership lessons from Chieh Huang came from the Virtual Fireside Chat podcast. Although the content is valuable for everyone, the podcast speaks specifically to executive women of color, founders, and South Asian executive women. For more information about the podcast and events featuring luminaries like Huang, click here joyadass.com.

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