About this episode

Complacency is dangerous. It has the ability to destroy entrepreneurship. Businesses must be constantly innovating and never settling for stability if they are going to continue growing. As brands start to come up with new ideas, they will encounter resistance. The key is to keep on pushing and never give up.

Jason McCann is an entrepreneur who has experienced this first-hand. He is the founder of Very, a company that transforms cultures through workspace innovation. The name of his premier product Vera Desk has become the standard name for any desk we see. Since the first launch, they have shipped to over 130 countries that can be found, elevating 98% of the Fortune 500. In today’s episode, we sit down and talk about the challenges he has overcome to get his brand to where it is today.

In this episode, you'll hear.

  • Why Jason felt the need to rebrand Very.
  • Whether now is a good time to innovate or to seek stability.
  • His predictions for how brands will operate post-COVID.
  • How to maintain a company culture in a distributed workspace.
  • How he got his very first customers.
  • Potential service and product opportunities coming out of this season.
  • Book recommendations for those at the beginning of their entrepreneurial journey.
  • Jason’s initial pricing strategy.
  • Tools and resources to use for customer feedback.

Resources from this episode

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The Startup Story on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/company/thestartupstory

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EPISODE CREDITS

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Contact him today at https://emeraldcitypro.com/startupstory

Special Guest: Jason McCann.

Episode transcript

Startup Story LIVE- Jason McCann

In this week's episode of The Startup Story podcast we explore how complacency has the ability to destroy entrepreneurship, even in times of economic chaos.

Every wildfire began with a spark. Every superhero has an origin story. And every single startup has a moment that they point to as their beginning. And every founder has a purpose that drove them in the midst of all obstacles. THAT is The Startup Story.

[00:32]
James McKinney: Welcome to another episode of The Startup Story podcast. On May 14th and 15th we held our first Startup Story LIVE event which was an epic, two-day livestream event featuring 13 incredible founders from varying industries. Throughout those two days, our founder guests shared the various tactics and strategies they have employed in their businesses as a result of the global pandemic. This event also gave you the listeners a chance to have your questions answered directly by the founders themselves. With that in mind, we have an incredible opportunity for you now, so make sure you listen closely and get ready to act. How would you like to join a private recording session of The Startup Story podcast with our gust founder being Ben Chestnut, the founder of Mailchimp? Not only would you get to be part of the recording session of his Startup Story episode but afterwards Ben will be available for you to ask him any questions you may have. I'm dead serious, this offering is for you. You just need to join The Startup Story Inner Circle ASAP because our recording session with Ben will take place on July 21st. You heard that correctly, it's happening next week. It's not too late to be part of this private event. Just visit thestartupstory.co/VIP to secure your spot today.

When have you ever been afforded the chance to sit with a self-made billionaire and receive direct mentorship from them? Ben built Mailchimp from absolutely nothing and now has over 1,200 employees and 15 million clients using their email marketing solutions, and you get to have your questions asked directly to him. This opportunity is only for The Startup Story Inner Circle, so visit thestartupstory.co/VIP and become a member today. When you become a member of the Inner Circle, you will get unlimited video access to every live event segment, as well as access to private livestream events just like this one with Ben Chestnut of Mailchimp. All of it, just for being Startup Story members. And as if that weren't enough, all Startup Story Inner Circle members will receive a hardcover copy of Jaime Schmidt's upcoming book titled Supermaker: Crafting Business on Your Own Terms absolutely free. That is a $25 value as a bonus for joining The Startup Story Inner Circle. You can see all the many perks by visit thestartupstory.co/VIP. All right, now let's jump into this week's founder session as it was originally recorded during Startup Story LIVE.

[03:00]
James McKinney: Jason McCann is the founder of Vari, formerly Varidesk. The growth of the Vari brand is so significant that the name of its premier product, the Varidesk, has become the common term given to any standup desk that we see. Since the launch of Vari they have shipped to over 130 countries and can be found elevating 98% of the Fortune 500. Jason's Startup Story was actually the very first episode of The Startup Story and still remains one of our more popular episodes in part because of the many challenges he speaks about and how much he loves pouring back into the larger entrepreneurial community. Jason truly embodies The Startup Story motto of entrepreneurs support other entrepreneurs. Please help me welcome Jason McCann to Startup Story LIVE. Jason, thank you for joining us for Startup Story LIVE.

[03:45]
Jason McCann: Oh, my pleasure James. So glad to be here and talk to everybody, so very excited. Thanks for putting this all together. I know there's a lot of entrepreneurs out there learning a lot today. We're all learning a lot together, so thank you for doing this the last couple days.

[03:57]
James McKinney: Oh it's been incredible. Eighteen months ago you and I sat down to record episode one of The Startup Story podcast, and I'm still just so eternally grateful that you afforded me that chance, an unknown podcast at the time, and now look at us today. We're livestreaming all over across the globe. We've got Kenya and the UK, the US and Australia. Thank you so much for your support of the brand as well as entrepreneurship in general. Thank you for everything.

[04:23]
Jason McCann: Yeah, it's been so awesome, and so grateful to be a part of it. It was so fun to be the first one. I didn't realize it was the first when we were talking about it, but it's been great to see that you've lit a nice fire out there and it's been great to have the positive impact for so many of us that are listening to all of these stories.

[04:39]
James McKinney: It's been incredible. And day one yesterday was just absolute fire. Such transparency from the founders. I know it's really encouraging to those who are streaming. As we kick off our time together, when we talk about as we journey through the idea that complacency is dangerous and will kill entrepreneurship, as we kick off our time I want to jump in with understanding more, and maybe you can help and share this. What were your goals with Vari? At the time going into 2020 it was Varidesk, but what were your goals for 2020 with Vari prior to coronavirus?

[05:14]
Jason McCann: Yeah. I think like so many entrepreneurs out there, 2019 was a very good year. If you were in the real estate business or hospitality, all the different sectors were firing on all cylinders so I think we were very optimistic about a great opportunity to elevate our brand and our company. We had done a whole strategy on elevate 2020 was our rallying cry, and for the first time ever were putting actual teams in markets. So we entered into seven different markets with teams so that was a whole new push for us. We invested in a multimillion dollar TV campaign that we were getting ready to launch and as our brand and product offering expanded, we just thought it was time to go through a rebrand campaign. So we were like all in, here's 2020, I can't wait to see the battlefield having no idea what was about to hit us.

[06:07]
James McKinney: That's incredible. Yeah, no one had an idea what was going to happen in February and March. Again, you're global so you were probably more aware of the impact of coronavirus than others because of your global reach in shipping out products. But I have to ask, and again I hope this is not insensitive or belittling in any way, but why the need for a rebrand? You had an incredible, you have an incredible business. Varidesk as a brand became to standing desks what Kleenex became to tissue. People saw a standing desk and are like, "Oh, you got a Varidesk," even if it wasn't. The brand was huge and really positioned in a way that most people would love. So when you're sitting in such a sweet spot that so many want to be in, why go through the rebranding process?

[06:52]
Jason McCann: Yeah. It was an incredible journey to start with that single product out there, addressing Dan's back pain, and realizing that it resonated with so many people. So the beauty was that we had a hot item so it was a product, and it was the Varidesk, and everybody knew what that product was. And today fast forward we've got over 3 million users of that original product all over the world in 135 different countries, so we knew we had made a huge push out there to drive so much awareness addressing one person's back pain.

We've gone through no employees literally two of us, and David the three of us working on this, to over 350 employees in the seven or eight year process. We've gone from this little tiny company to a huge company generating hundreds of millions, well over a billion dollars in sales plus in all these markets out there. Became the fastest growing company in DFW so in this market which is a huge business market out there. And also winning best places to work. So all this is working, but as people started to think Varidesk, they didn't realize that we had elevated our vision to think about creating workspaces that elevate people.

So it became a new vision for us and our products had expanded. We now had seating and walls and lights, and really thinking about work space. Because it wasn't just about Dan's back pain and addressing that with the original sit- stand desk, it became transforming cultures through workspace innovation. So we reached out to the company that helped take Federal Express, for those of you that might remember that term, to FedEx. And so from Federal Express to FedEx which today you just understand FedEx. So we worked with them, we did a tremendous amount of research out there and said what is possible. So we talked about are we going to change the name because it's no longer a desk company, it's a workspace innovation company.

Going through that process, we learned our fans out there resonated with Varidesk and we said what about Vari? Could that be? What does that mean? They said, "It means flexibility and change and embracing the future," and it became this bigger canvas for us to dream, so we said let's go for it. We invested millions of dollars and over a year of our time planning for it, and obviously said we're going to come out of the gates in 2020 and elevate the brand and push it out for Vari.

[09:12]
James McKinney: That's incredible. For those who have not had a chance to hear episode one, we replayed it later in 2019 as well. One of the things that if you listen to Jason's episode that you will find out is Jason is very big on listening to the fans and listening to the consumer. So I want to ask this q. when it comes to the idea of hearing what fans and consumers were saying as the brand grew, was it in response to a challenge you were having as you were coming into client engagement as Varidesk, they were only positioning you as a desk and they were losing site of all that you offered? Or was it truly just an internal effort? But I have to believe it was external because you're such a great listener to the fans.

[09:54]
Jason McCann: Yeah, we've been blessed. One of our core values is create lifelong fans. I learned early on that by listening to fans you get great ideas on product or understand their pain points and you can monetize those pain points and create solutions for them. So by listening to them we were able to improve that original product. As we outgrew our space and we were incubated inside of another company, and we were transforming our headquarters clients started to come through and realize we were creating a workspace that worked for us and when they would walk into our headquarters on these tours they would describe, "Well I'm looking for this." They were describing the energy and the culture of the space. So listening to them, they said, "I thought you were that Varidesk Company but you're so much more." So once you hear that about 50 times you get whacked over the head with something that obvious, it's probably time to make a pivot.

So we could have been Varidesk forever and probably been okay, just like Starbucks or one of these other brands, but we said we've got an opportunity here to really build a company of our dreams. It can live beyond my lifetime and be one of the great brands out there, so is this a chance for us to do it? And so we said we've got to leapfrog ourselves. What would we do if we walked in today as a CEO, what would I do if I was starting today? I said I wouldn't have the word "desk" in there. My team wouldn't have the word "desk" on everything, so what could we do, what's possible? That forced us to just go through the process. Now it's a financial commitment and a bet, and you never know until you hit the battlefield but it has played out well and we've been very excited about it.


[11:26]
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[13:07]
James McKinney: So when it comes to both innovation and forward momentum, is now the time to really be pushing in that way or should entrepreneurs who are watching right now, should entrepreneurs be seeking stability? What are your thoughts on that balance?

[13:19]
Jason McCann: Oh I think at any moment in time that you've got to lean in. one, you've got to lean into your core values and understand what you've got from a culture and a business standpoint, but you have to innovate or die in all these moments. So whether you are watching the era in the late nineties when the dotcom thing was happening and people were shifting to the early stages of ecommerce, whether there's been other macroeconomic shifts that have hit real estate or other markets, businesses are born out of this. Businesses are transformed out of this. Entrepreneurship, this is where you make it or break it right here, and as leader you've got to dig in deep and recognize this is a tremendous opportunity to grow, to find something new, to find a solution to get you from here to there, and where are those opportunities at, and really build a company that can withstand the test of time.

So they talk about the infinite gain and building these business models that are timeless over time. These are those moments where you've got to be able to withstand a shock, dig in, innovate, come up with that next stage, challenge yourself, make those hard choices but make a decision and keep going. You can't just rest back, saying it's going to be fine and a check is going to show up because it's not. Those days end so this is a chance to go for it and dig in. I look at these as these are great moments in time. We will look back someday in hindsight 20/20 and wonder what happened then, and what did we do to react and make a positive impact out there, leaning in on our core values, giving back to the community, really rallying the troops to build something transformative here and taking advantage of the change and the churn out there, not being afraid by it, and powering through it from a business standpoint.

[15:03]
James McKinney: Oh, absolutely love it. And you support so many businesses within the framework of your customer base, your fan base. So I'm sure you're probably getting a lot of feedback just in monitoring trends on what you're seeing within companies and entrepreneurs when it comes to innovation. One area of innovation that really every single organization is going to have to solve for is the new workplace. With that, it's crazy, and with that in mind, I mean Twitter just said it's going to permanently be work from home. I think it's going to be a lot of transition and ways of thinking through this. I have two questions about the idea of the new workspace. Do you foresee brands really leaning in on this work from home model or is this just really a temporary experiment for some?

[15:46]
Jason McCann: Yeah, I think this has been a test to see does the work from home model work, and so I think we were already setup to deploy and work from home so 100% of my team has been laptop ready. We've always tested it, almost like an emergency fire drill so if something went out we had a power outage, our teams immediately were able to deploy and work at a Starbucks. I didn't plan on everybody being remote for weeks or months at a time, and so I think a lot of people got home, sat at the kitchen table for four hours, for four days, now for four weeks and they're realizing okay I've got to think about work from home differently and what does that mean.

So from a business standpoint we pivoted and said we're going to go after this work from home. We've already done it. Our teams work in a seamless way, they can work from home, so how do we create the assets for people to help them work from home? So I think that's one thing that we took advantage of and started to figure out.

The second phase is now people are transitioning back to what is the new normal, what's that going to look like. I do think that there's going to be some hybrid there that works over time and it's going to continue to evolve company by company, culture by culture, even department by department, person by person. All of us have a different skillset, all of us have different ways that we work whether we're more introverted or extroverted, so I think what we're going to do here is see an evolving process that happens over time. A lot of companies are going to approach it a lot differently. The beauty is I think it's all going to be built on flexibility and change. So for one of our core values has always been embrace change, and we lean on flexibility so even as we think about creating workspaces we've always thought of them as a canvas.

So as you think about even creating a workspace in your home like I need a dedicated space, I want something that's actually ergonomic and works, and maybe sit-stand whatever is your work style, I may need a little privacy because I've got kids or loved ones, or three generations at home so do I need some type of panel in my open concept apartment or home? Also when I'm in the office I want all the same tools to be productive, but I want to be safe, I want to be aware. And so all those things are going through.

So I think as a nation, as a country, really as a world we're going to learn so much over time. I think there's going to be businesses that emerge out of it, productivity that we're going to measure from it, Zoom technology and conferences like this, but also people will want to get back together because the purpose of a workspace is around building culture, community, and building collaborations, think about that versus it's all virtual. So I think a lot of things are going to change. I don't think it's going to go one way or the other. I think it's going to be hybrids based upon the business, based upon the culture, the team, the individual, and it's going to continue to evolve over time.

[18:30]
James McKinney: That's awesome. You mention culture and I know again from our time together with episode one, I know culture is a very big deal to you as a leader, to Vari as a brand. For an existing entity like Vari how do you maintain a culture in a distributed workforce versus in a concentrated environment? Because I think a lot of times we think of culture as our workspace and our work environment. And then two, for a startup that is starting in a distributed workforce with no desire to be in a centralized workspace how do you maintain a culture in that world?

[19:04]
Jason McCann: Well we describe culture is really built upon your core values. So I think as an entrepreneur in a small organization, the core values are yours. It's what you're hiring people that compliment you, that you trust their values, they're similar to yours. As you get larger, once you get over 100 or 150 people you've got to clearly articulate those core values to everybody because you're not hiring everybody, you're not interviewing everybody, but by hiring people that embody those core values, and for us we have six core values, your culture is built on top of that. By hiring people that live those core values, they then add to the DNA and the fabric of the culture of the organization.

We looked at 2020 and we said we're going to open up, decentralize work forces and put some of our teams in the field, and so one of our challenges was how are we going to maintain culture? So through the onboarding process, telling the stories and interviewing and making sure that the teams align with our core values. Celebrating the core values. So awards, so if you've been a team player, you've been authentic, and sharing and talking about those core values. So in my now weekly addresses we're talking about our core values. That is what your culture is built on. If you're continuing to march down that whether you're Southwest airlines with 50-, 60-, 70,000 employees or you're Walmart or you're Starbucks, you need to have your own culture and you can feel it when I just say their brands. So we at Vari know that our culture is built on top of these core values. So I think now that we've gone to a decentralized overnight where everybody went home, we had to shift gears and say one as a leader and as leadership, we've got to over communicate.

So what I shifted to personally was I started a daily email and it does thread in the core values, it does celebrate our short time rallying cry that we're going through. And weekly I have a Zoom conference just like this with all 350 of my employees so they can feel the energy, see what I'm talking about, but I'm authentic. I realize we're in the middle of a storm like all of you are. How do we get through this storm and believe it's possible, which is one of our core values? So I've hired people that embody that. They celebrate it and talk about it, and it's communicated all throughout the hiring process, onboarding, and celebrated all throughout the journey. I think those are the key things as you're thinking about culture and your people in times of crisis, but also once you get through it and what the new normal is going to be.

[21:30]
James McKinney: That's incredible, Jason. For those that maybe don't follow Jason on LinkedIn or follow Vari on LinkedIn, you can actually see the employees truly celebrate a lot of things within the Vari culture. It's awesome to be a part of it digitally I guess to be a part of it. There's a couple questions that are popping up that I think would be really great for you. One question is it's about product, so from Marvin, when you create a great product like Vari how do you handle competition as it starts to show up in the marketplace? So I guess there's a question going back to the early days of the original Varidesk. How did you handle competition as you started really gaining traction and everything?

[22:12]
Jason McCann: You think about the beauty of innovating and creating a great product is you get out there, getting feedback from your early customers and the goal is to build them into fans. So our goal was to get a small group of people to see if they really love the item and have that ripple into a ripple effect that would have millions and millions of people like the item. So what happens is you start to gain traction on that, get fans, the competition starts to creep in. they see a hot item, they want to take some shortcuts. So we did what every business tries to do and so we did our patent protections where we could, and have invested millions of dollars from an IP, intellectual property, perspective, protecting our brands and trademarks. So the challenge is you do get out in the marketplace and the better you do, the more follows.

As my mom, who's probably listening today always says, the view only changes for the lead dog. You've got to continue to be that lead dog and continue to drive innovation and keep coming out with the next thing. So from a strategy standpoint, think of it as sports. So I've got teams focused on offense driving revenue and brand for the product. I also have some teams that are very good at defense so they handle the lawyers, the conversations with the retailers or the companies that may be taking a shortcut that are infringing on our intellectual property. You can read it out there, I think we've settled over 30 and have won, but that's a very challenging thing to go through from a business standpoint. I've been through this before. I am 50 so I've been through this on multiple occasions. You've got to continue to innovate. You've got to continue to go and it's going to happen. It's going to work itself out. But by building an authentic relationship with your fan base, they're going to trust you. They know that you're here to deliver.

Also you keep finding new ways to solve challenges for them. So we didn't stop with just that one product. We have over 200 items that we offer today, and we're not just a product company. We're in service so I design the workspace of the future for you, I can help you lay it out. I can come install it for you and put up the walls and put up a standing conference room, and setup a Zen pod or put in a privacy booth. Then as your business needs change I can come in and work with you to transform it, because your business may be growing, your business may be changing, it's going to be adjusting just like all businesses do.

So I'm no longer a product company that you're knocking off, you've got to kill me on a bunch of different fronts. So that whole Warren Buffet, build the moats around your business are true. Get into your fan base and expand the tentacles so that you can drive more value and continue to innovate on every front. So learn what your competition is doing, but really focus on your spans and your customers, and how do you service them. That will guide you down the path. The knockoffs are going to happen, they're going to keep coming. Be grateful. That just shows you're doing something right.

[24:57]
James McKinney: That's awesome. What a great perspective on how to handle that challenge. You've mentioned a few different names that I assume you kind of lean in on as mentors of some sorts, whether it be through a book or podcast. But from a relationship standpoint, one of the things that I think day one proved when it came to like Emma Rose Cohen and Sean Cannell and Christina Stembel, in just the transparency they shared as they were unpacking some of the challenges that they're navigating through right now.

In watching the chat channel and the question that they're posing, I can tell they're really seizing this moment as a time of mentorship to learn from someone who is farther down the road. You yourself, David Smith from Cotopaxi he talked about how for him it's the CEO of Trager Grills that he leans in on for mentorship. So for yourself, who are the people that because again we look to where you are and think man, Jason is the guy we want to go to. But who is the person that Jason wants to go to when it comes to mentorship and learning how to navigate the next steps that you have yet to take?

[25:59]
Jason McCann: When I think about it, I read all the business biographies. I just finished Bob Iger's book out there. I learn from their stories of getting through grind and fight and grit and building great businesses. So reading what Howard Shultz did, reading what Mark Cuban has done. I think reading from a learning standpoint is given me almost a lens into how they were going through challenges. Because the reality is business doesn't go like this. It is a constant push and so if you read Seth Godin's The Dip and you're learning how to power through these challenges here, that's how business operates. So I think for me reading about that or reading about great leaders out there, Abraham Lincoln, others that have been through very challenging times, because this too shall pass from a business standpoint.

I had a conversation probably six weeks ago with my 97 year old grandmother who has been through a lot of challenges. At 97 years old she's seen a lot and so she talked to me initially, my first conversation was a few weeks ago, she said, "This reminds me a lot of the challenges of World War II. I had five brothers that were sent off to war, I had a husband that was sent off to war, and I had to decide am I going to go and help my family?" And she was working in a bomb factory making… and this is, picturing I'm talking to my grandmother and I've heard this story as a child but to hear it today, and it puts a lot of things in perspective that we're in a great time to get through these things. So I think from a mentorship standpoint I kind of lean on history to teach me that this is a moment in time there.

I think also just surrounding yourself from a leadership standpoint and listening to the teams that are hear growing and fighting the battle with you. They become the wind in your sails as you're thinking about being a leader, and hearing about what they're addressing. The second part of it I would say is continuing to find ways to give and serve. So I recognize while I may be facing tremendous challenges, I recognize there's other people that are hurting. So when we started seeing the layoffs that were happening out there, and we've all been impacted by layoffs, my recruiting team and HR team reached out and said, "Hey, if you have a loved one that's been hurt have them send us their LinkedIn profile, send us the resume, and let us help get them coached to interview for new jobs." So suddenly we weren't in our own misery of the fight that we're fighting through, we're finding ways to serve our loved ones and give back.

So when we had a big shipment of masks come in, because we have obviously counterparts in Asia, and Metro charities here in Dallas needed masks, our team went over and gave masks to them. So finding ways to continue to give and serve while you're in the middle of this is also inspiring. It's not really a mentorship thing, but it allows you to just take some of the pain off and find ways to find solutions to help somebody else that makes you feel better, helps you get through this challenge that you're facing as a leader, and allows you to elevate your thinking and start marching ahead.

[28:54]
James McKinney: That was incredible, Jason. The hair on my arms stood up as you were speaking to that, because just the idea of getting outside ourselves. Fear and panic truly does narrow your field of vision and there's just so many opportunities you can miss out on, so thank you for sharing that.


[29:07]
James McKinney: Before we continue with our episode I want to let you know that all the great content from our most recent two-day livestream event Startup Story LIVE is available to you in an on demand format. Basically a Netflix for entrepreneur. After two full days of groundbreaking content at Startup Story LIVE my head was spinning for days. Every time I thought, "That's going to be the biggest takeaway," I was floored by another mic drop moment. And that's why we created a new membership program for entrepreneurs that want to leverage the Startup Story LIVE experience as much as possible.

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[31:41]
James McKinney: I want to run through some of these questions here because there are some questions that if I'm going to read into these questions, I'm going to assume that there are some people that are looking at this season to start a business like you had said. This is a time when great businesses can be born. But also too I think there are some that are looking for just some go to market guidance. Tran Nguyen asks, "What was your go to market strategy for Varidesk? And how did you get the very first customers, and how did you bring that up to 100 or 1,000?" We share a little bit about it in episode one, but can you unpack it here because we have a lot of people that are new to the podcast through Startup Story LIVE so can you talk to your first customer acquisition strategy and how you grew from one to 100 to 1,000?

[32:25]
Jason McCann: Yeah, the initial idea was born at Dan standing at a cardboard box having back pain and we couldn't find a standing desk for him. He told his doctor he felt better standing up, she said, "Well then stand up more." So he knew he needed one and he dreamt up the first product, and David helped bring it to life. We had our first prototypes and recognized we like, it was different and this is back in 2012. So we said we need to show it to some other companies and get some feedback. That's just the way you learn with your product, so whether it's your idea, you've got to show it to somebody. If you just keep it here all locked up and you just show mom or your brother, that doesn't matter. You've got to get out there and get the battlefield of commerce.

So he said who knows somebody and we said at a call center, that was our strategy, was just who knows somebody. Because they have a lot of desks and somebody knew somebody at Verizon, and they're here in Irving. They were kind enough to let us in and have a conversation, so Pedro Carrera, the president, allowed us to come to a meeting. At the same time the Wall Street Journal had published an article from Dr. Levine at the Mayo Clinic and said sitting is the new smoking, so we're like this must be a trend, this must be something, validation, on top of we've got this thing the sit-stand desk we called Varidesk. So we showed him, he said, "I have no idea what you're talking about, let me get my ergonomist."

At the time I didn't know what an ergonomist was. Then the second thing was he brought in his head of human resources, and the head of human resources said this is a huge trend out there that's coming on. It can address obesity and back pain, all these things. The ergonomist gave his feedback and at that moment I realized we're on to something. So that was, and they said, "Well how much is it?" And we said, "We don't know yet. We're still working on… how much would you pay for it?" The typical when you don't know, you've got to be authentic in these conversations. We went to The Container Store is also based here in Cabell that we were able to show our prototypes too, and we did it one customer at a time. That's how you start. You're getting all the feedback. Someone told me early on if you get a lot of people to love it, it's going to ripple into something that millions of people could like. But if they only like it, it's not really going to ripple into anything. So really get the love part down of your product or service idea.

So right now this is a great time. People are looking for solutions. How do we deliver food, what's the future of food delivery going to be? What is the future of home and work life balance going to be? What is the future of school like? All these crazy challenges that are out there. If there's one that fits you and you've got an idea, start sharing it, start figuring it out. How do you protect and nurture it, but you've got to hit the battlefield. That's where we iterated the product over time and as we learned, we just kept getting that feedback and we sold one. I remember we sold three one day and I'm like high fiving. We had a $1,000 day, we had done $100 in Google ads, we thought we were on fire.

Obviously now we've done days where we've done millions of dollars in sales, so it has been a totally incredible journey but again it all starts with one fan at a time, one order at a time. We still talk about that today. So if you come to our website and you buy one Varidesk, the original from us, or you're thinking about the workspace of the future, every interaction I have with you I'm learning, listening, getting feedback so we can improve. Because ultimately we've got to learn and grow and get better, but each idea creates another idea. So I would just say continue to talk to your fans, build that fan base. See if you've really got something that people love and from there millions of people could like it a lot and turn into something fantastic.

[35:48]
James McKinney: That's incredible. Oh Jason, that was so powerful. Thank you so much for sharing. But I want to hopefully you'll entertain this exercise. If you were to think through an early stage startup right now, you're a very creative, innovative person. Maybe it's in the workspace environment, maybe it's something totally different, what are you seeing as a potential product or service opportunity coming out of this season right now? Again, we have some people watching that are probably completely displaced when it comes to what their career was, what their business was, and they're looking to try to figure out how can I position myself for this next upswing. What do you see from a product or service perspective that people should be giving some credence to and maybe potentially consider as they move forward out of this?

[36:33]
Jason McCann: Yeah. I think you're seeing a lot, we always talk about there are so many pain points and friction points that you're seeing out there right now. So if you can find ones that collide with your passion, so if those two can collide and you can create a solution for something right there at those collision points become incredible business ideas and opportunities. So if you're at home and you've suddenly got five kids around, or you've got three generations of parents and you're trying to think about what is life going to be like or I've got an idea, or why doesn't the school do this, like that can talk into a software or service model. Or you're sitting there going why does the food show up like this, or why is food delivery like this? You're watching companies overnight transform their businesses and services, and rules are all changing around that. What is the future of hospitality going to be like? So you're watching them impacted today, but people do want to get out and experience the future.

So the people that are also thinking about sports and gaming and charities, and how do we fundraise all these events when we can't be together. So anyone of those areas that are out there going through tremendous churn. So if there's friction points that you're seeing where you have a passion that can collide with it, I think at those moments are sparks that create product ideas. So that to me is what I would be focusing on. If I'm there, that's what we're focusing on all the time. It's where are those collision points that inspire us that we can make a positive impact, really build something fantastic here. So we're seeing it all around the workspace. We're watching social distancing and what is distance space designing. So when the team went home and we were considered an essential business so I was able to work here, and we're saying what are we going to do? We said well let's redesign our entire headquarters while everybody is out.

So the design team thought about what is the CDC guidelines, what are we going to do, do we need acrylic panels. We started to create acrylic panels. We've added more walls. We've started literally transforming our space. Started putting up acrylic guards throughout in the break areas. We've got masks for all the employees. We started doing temperature checks four weeks ago, all built around pain so we started to say, "I'm not just going to sit at home and hope that something works out. I've got to lean in. I've got to create a space that's going to work for my team." Now we're saying, "Other companies, you can learn from us. How do we help you transform your space?" So we've been able to talk to our clients who are trying to get ready for the new normal. How do we help them get back and think about what is the future workspace going to be? So for us we're creating lots… I've got another 300 products that the team is literally ideating on around what is work from home mean, what is new collaboration spaces mean? And now we've obviously bought buildings called Vari Space where we've transformed them.

So we're even working with our clients that use our furniture in that space, in our Vari Space locations to transform the workspace of the future. From the way we do our coffee bars to the way that we do our entrances. I try to remove doors, so I don't have a door on my office space for those of you that know me, because I just don't like… I'm kind of a germ freak so we increased the number of Purell stations, increased the number of plant life throughout the space. But all of those are ideas built around the pain that we recognize we were in the middle of, combined with our passion for creating workspaces that elevate people. Ultimately we believe we can monetize that and help a lot of organizations.

[39:55]
James McKinney: That's remarkable. In fact one of the things you said, where the friction intersects with your passion there's some opportunity there. It reminds me of someone who had posted a question yesterday. Their space, their business was built around recruitment events and obviously there's going to be challenges in the idea of events and recruitment as a whole, so I think for whoever that viewer was, Jason just said right there might be an opportunity as you see where those frictions, those pain points intersect, so pays credence to that. We have a couple people that are saying Jason might be getting more fans right now, so the viewers-

[40:27]
Jason McCann: Thank you.

[40:28]
James McKinney: … the viewers are loving the content. Let's listen to some low hanging fruit here. What are your top books or what books would you recommend to people at the beginning of their business and entrepreneurial journey?

[40:40]
Jason McCann: When we were starting to build Varidesk and it ultimately became Vari, we started to think about what is a proven timeless business model. We leaned on Tony Shay's from a customer service, the whole Zappo's story and Delivering Happiness, that was sort of the model for us on customer experience. Good to Great has always been one of my staples of just thinking about building teams and businesses that align. I think what Simon Sinek on The Infinite Game recently has done is incredible. So think about those from a leadership and book stand point. I think we also looked at what The Snowball or Jack Bogle's books, all of his from Vanguard, start to talk about long-term investing. So for us, it meant every day value. But those are great books to help reset your mindset on really thinking about the long-term in driving every day value. If you love the Made in America Sam Walton story, again thinking about those are great books to realize you can start small and building something huge and fantastic.

In the last two years I've become a huge Patrick Lencioni fan and so right now I would say the motive for your CEOs or aspiring leaders is a great book to say do I really want to be a CEO or do I want to be something else, because it's a great leadership book. The Five Dysfunctions of a Team and The Ideal Team Player really give you the foundational things as you're going through those early stages of building your business. If you need inspiration like Elon Musk's book is awesome. Just hearing his story of grind and grit that the biographer did. But I always lean on books like that, that start to inspire me. Those are the ones that I go to when I need it. If you're just needing a poem because you're over stressed and you want to read The Precious Present, that will just help you give like a thirty minute Zen moment there, or any of Sharma's stuff on The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari. All of those will inspire as well.

Also, I looked at business and try to say if you focus on your customer the way that Tony was able to do in the Zappo's model, if you believe in every day value the way that Sam built Walmart or Jack Bogle built Vanguard, if you build an authentic relationship with your customer base, if you build an employee culture like Southwest Airlines, if you start to think about those basic core principles and you don't start to have this, "Hey we're going to coupon all the time, we're going to discount," and not have an authentic relationship with your customer, you suddenly realize you can build the company of your dreams that embodies your values, that can live beyond your lifetime and be absolutely incredible. So I think there's a lot of great authors out there. It's typically biographies on businesses, even the Home Depot story is awesome. So again, there's all these great businesses that you can think about. You don't realize that they all started with one or two people, an idea really finding a friction point, combined with their passion, and it turned into something incredible.

[43:32]
James McKinney: That's awesome. I want to ask just because I've been a fan of yours for quite some time, when is your book coming out Jason? When are we getting a Jason McCann book?

[43:40]
Jason McCann: Right now it's here on audible right? You're hearing the story of it so…

[43:45]
James McKinney: That's awesome. That is awesome. We've got someone who's asking do you think the open space office concept is going to die in general because of coronavirus? Do you think it's going to completely go away?

[43:58]
Jason McCann: Early on, we always had walls up in our space but we don't believe in sheetrock. So if you think about what happens with sheetrock, I think it's 13 million tons of it end up in a landfill every year because somebody wants to change the design of a building. So we created our walls you see kind of behind me, and we're able to build an office in a matter of less than 45 minutes. So we always believed that it's not about being open, it's not about being closed and sheet rocked, it's the idea of flexibility in a workspace. So I do think what you're going to see right now is this pendulum swing to more partitions, more spacing. So where businesses were getting more and more dense, so you picture those floors and they would say they would have so many people, almost eight people in a 1,000 square ft. space, I do see less density on the physical buildings that is happening out there.

I also think as we learn more and more about whether it's wearing masks, temperature checks, Purell stations, the space is going to continue to evolve and the way they think about not coming to work ill, and can they work from home if they've got somebody that's ill at their home. So again thinking about where we work and how we work is going to continue to change. The idea of just having everybody on a little 48 inch by 24 inch desk and you all have probably been in those spaces, that's going away. That's not coming back.

But the idea that you can have a proper space, and so that's really what we did here was while the team was out, so as we're now about 20-25% occupied in our headquarters, teams are starting to move back in, they see the new normal as we're envisioning it, and they see the acrylic panels that are up. Everybody is in masks. I just took mine off for this. So the teams are in masks, we're doing temperature checks, those are going to become very normal. They're very normal in Asia. I've been traveling to overseas since '96. For the last 15 years I've had my temperature checked at the border between Hong Kong, Vietnam, Taiwan, any of those borders in China. They're always checking your temperature. That's just going to be a normal thing in the US so they'll check your temperature now at a restaurant in Asia. That may become the new normal in the US. So all of those things will just become a normal of how we think about it.

We were talking about masks yesterday and it's almost like seatbelts. I remember as a kid I'm standing in the back of a car bouncing around the car, and in the early eighties we had to start wearing seatbelts and we all thought that was so constrictive at the time. Now I can't imagine being in a car without a seatbelt, even if I'm in the back. So masks, for a lot of people have just become the norm in other cultures. So things like that which become business opportunities. I've seen all these companies out there launching mask lines, a great business for a lot of people that were on the fashion side of it, because if someone can get to you to create better masks, they're probably going to make a fortune out there.

[46:37]
James McKinney: Yeah, I would agree with that. It's interesting when you think about the impact a mask can have from just an engagement relationship and a service perspective. If you're in a face to face service industry, so much of our communication comes from just the lower half of our face. So if you're a server and you have a mask on there's… the smile is gone. It's like if someone can figure out how to, maybe it's a see through mask, I have no idea. But there's so much about our face that is expressed and communicated through our smile and our gestures. I think masks, it'll be interesting to see the impact of just service.

I was talking with a bank teller recently and it came across sterile but I was reminded that okay, I see there's a grin from the eyes but I don't see it here. It's interesting how that's going to change a bit. For all the fans, we've got 13 minutes left with Jason so I've got a couple more questions for him, but make sure you're continuing to populate your questions here. We've got one here. How did you find the sweet spot for pricing your product and what was your initial pricing strategy?

[47:34]
Jason McCann: So our initial pricing strategy was I just, in the furniture industry for those of you that have bought office furniture, they call it list and discount, and they automatically discount furniture 50%. It's the most opaque 1980's way of buying a car is how they try to sell you furniture. It's horrible. They're a dealer model. It's atrocious what that whole business model… Watching the way that Elon Musk attacked the automotive industry and say I'm going to create incredible cars and future in transportation and you can get it direct from me and I'm going to continue to innovate.

That was one of the inspirations for Vari to say we're going to create great product, we're going to sell them directly to you and have transparent pricing. So our initial pricing was $350 for the product and $50 shipping and handling, and it became this weird moment of why are you adding shipping and handling? This was seven or eight years ago. We said okay, well let's just start our first product at, we could price it and make margin, at $395 including shipping and handling. If you buy a bunch of them, we would just have a transparent discount. So if you bought 10 or more, $100,000 worth of product, we would have a transparent pricing model. To me, that is the best way to do business and that's how we built our business. You've seen us lower prices where we can over time. But if you think about building a business in those early days, it's very important to get profitable.

You hear Mark Cuban always say, "Hey, I've bartended the whole time. I've been bankrupt. I've been bust." The last thing you want to be doing is borrowing everybody's money and signing your mom's house and all that stuff. You want to get your business model right, get your product profitable, have the value and the fans want it and they're willing to pay for it, and get it, stay lean, and think about your business that way. If you can't get it profitable, you're now at the mercy of investors or other people, or you're spending all your time raising capital which I did in the late nineties during the dotcom days. It's imperative as you think about the prices to test it. That's why we said here's what we know it costs us to make, what would you be willing to pay me for it.

When the furniture industry was saying oh you need to see it for $800 and discount it to $400, and have these other deals that drives me crazy. That is the worst model I've ever pictured. I said we can sell this at a good value, direct to anybody just like Tesla, and offer a single price. If they buy a whole bunch we can have a discount. That to us has worked great across our entire business. I just believe again focus on authenticity and transparency with your fan base, continue to innovate or you will die. Don't be afraid. Lean in and figure out what you've got to do. And really surround yourself with people that embody your core values of your business, and believe in your vision. Then you can build something that can live beyond your lifetime, and really build the company of your dreams.

[50:22]
James McKinney: That's awesome. Two questions have come up. One is in the pricing how did you handle shipping internationally on a flat price model?

[50:29]
Jason McCann: What we did was early on we started getting emails from Australia and voicemails from Australia saying, "Hey, do you have product over here?" And we didn't so I was trying to find a distributor. I had never been to Australia at the time. So we couldn't find a distributor so we just worked with our lawyers to set up a legal entity, use the power of the internet, and we took our 3D car website which $99 a month I think, turned it on in Australia, found a third party logistics company, a 3PL that would actually handle it.

So that's almost the Tim Feriss 4-Hour work week model, and said I'm going to literally outsource everything to them but when you call the 1-800 Australia number or you email, I'm going to address it here from our headquarters, from Dallas Fort Worth. So one of our employees Emily volunteered at night to take the calls from Australia. We said we've got a third party logistics that can handle the freight and we just have a price in Australia that's slightly higher based on currency and everything. But again, it's a similar model that we've done internationally. So I've got nine distribution centers globally. We ship 30 countries on a daily basis, and so we've got third party logistics set up in Amsterdam that covers all of Europe. I've got one outside of London, and also in Canada. That allows us to hit Europe, Australia, New Zealand, and then we have a handful of distributors like in South Africa, Malaysia, Singapore and they operate those in a slightly different model but the same principles of us.

So that's allowed us to leverage, I give Tim Feriss a shout out on that one, because it's saying, "Hey, I don't have any boots on the ground in Australia. I had never been there. How am I going to do it?" And our team, one of our core values is you find a better way. We figured out a way to make it happen leveraging technology, voice over IP, email and chat, and they happen to speak English the correct way maybe, and it just worked out. Same thing in Canada. So it's been great way for us to scale and grow the business from a learning standpoint.

[52:27]
James McKinney: That's awesome. We have some questions here, one I think we'll end with so I'll save one for the end but there's one that says are there tools or software that you recommend when it comes to customer feedback? And they're a product based brand as well so what do you suggest for getting customer feedback? What tools and resources do you use?

[52:46]
Jason McCann: Yeah, so initially the first things we were doing was we had our 3DCart website back in the day and it had its own reviews platform. I read every review. Now, the teams aggregate some of the data and I isolate because we have thousands of reviews. So I get it still every week I get all the reviews and I can go through any which one and read them. But we aggregate that data in the stars. The number one word that people said in our reviews at the time was "love" and that's when I realized we were no longer talking customers, we were talking fans. I love my Varidesk, I love furniture, I love what this has done for me. That is a powerful connection that you have.

The other thing is you can talk to them. I would literally, I can call anybody and say, "How did we do?" I can talk to anybody. So in the early days I got all the feedback because we were seeing the returns come back if somebody didn't like it and we could see it in the warehouse before we had a third party logistics. I could read all the emails. So in the early days you can read everything.

As you get larger, you start to use Net Promoter Score, Survey Monkey, you start to get feedback that way and aggregate data, and then you have teams that can pull it together for you. But in the early days you just pick up the phone. People will talk to you and they'll tell you the good and the bad and the ugly, and you want to hear it all because the last thing you want is to think everything is fine, because that's not how you get beat. You get beat when you ignore the three and four stars, or the one star because you didn't take care of them. So you take care of those raving fans, but then you listen to the pain points and you turn those into fans, and you can transform this company and build something even greater.

[54:18]
James McKinney: That's incredible. Absolutely love that. So here's a question that I know we addressed in your episode of The Startup Story, but again we have so many new fans to the brand from Startup Story LIVE. How did you overcome your fear in not being successful in your business? And for those that may not know, Varidesk is not Jason's first rodeo. You have to go back and listen to the entire journey, but can you walk us through based on your past experience how you recovered from some of the early day challenges and failures you had?

[54:48]
Jason McCann: I think each time that you read the stuff, you've got to get back up when you've been knocked down. I don't know that you realize that until you've been knocked down several times, and we continue to face challenges in each chapter of your life. And so when I started a beach umbrella company back in the day, we did okay but it happened to be one of these cycles in Galveston Island where the seaweed starts rolling up and it's waist high out there, and I'm out there hand raking trying to make my little tiny parcel of beach to make money for me when it's like every seven years there happens to be crazy waist high seaweed everywhere.

Or when I opened the restaurant business and just didn't quite get it. It wasn't quite for me. I didn't really surround myself with the right people and build a great business. When I went bust in the dotcom days, it was really great idea, not a profitable business model. I ended up spending all my time trying to raise capital because I hadn't really gotten the business model right. I built our dotcom just like all dotcoms were built in 1999.

And so thinking about those things, what I had to do is just get back up and try to get… we were going to continue to have fear. I think when this COVID thing happened it was like what are we going to do? And so as you start to think about those things, you've got to continue to find opportunities out there to survive. You as a leader have got to lean in. these are the times for you to shine and to continue to over communicate with your people, and find ways to get through it.

I was thinking about this a few weeks ago as I was talking to my team on a weekly call like this, and I was thinking, I was laying there over the weekend working on my presentation, I was like wow, 20 years ago I started to learn how to snowboard and I was a terrible snowboarder because I taught myself. I wrecked a bunch of times but after five years, I said okay I'm going to hire somebody.

This kid took me on the mountain 15 years ago, so I would have been 35, and he takes me up the mountain and he's taking me down. He says, "I'm going to teach you how to get through the trees." And I said, "I'm not going through the trees. I've hit enough trees skiing, I'm not…" He goes, "No, no, quit looking at the trees. You've got to find those snow lanes and once you find them, that's where your body is going to go. So continue to look for those lanes," and suddenly he goes, "Dude, you got this." And I'm going down with this kid, and all of the sudden I'm going through the trees because I'm not looking at the trees. I'm starting to find those snow lanes. So I think as each of us continues to go down this crazy mountain that we're hurling down right now, find those snow lanes. Don't stare at the trees. There's plenty of them out there. Continue to find those opportunities. You're going to get down and at the bottom he's like, "Dude, I told you. You've got it."

So I would say to all of you dude, you've got it. You've just got to find your lane, continue to find those opportunities. You're going to get through this. It's not going to be perfect, but by being authentic, over communicating with your team, continuing to get the rallying cry… our teams right now it's we're going to keep rolling until the wind catches our sails. We're going to power through this storm until there's those breezes at our back in the future. And it will come, but we've got to get through the storm first. So continuing to find those ways as team members, as leaders to encourage your team, to get back up, do the work, fight the fight. You're going to get through it. So that's what I would think about as you're starting to hit walls like this.

[58:04]
James McKinney: Jason, as always it is an absolute joy and a pleasure to sit with you. I encourage everyone to go back and listen to the very first episode of The Startup Story because Jason's story is remarkable. This just gave you a great sense of his transparency, his authenticity, and his character and leadership. So Jason, thank you so much for joining us on Startup Story LIVE.

[58:27]
Jason McCann: Awesome. My pleasure. Thanks so much for doing this, James. I'm honored to be here. You can reach out to us on email, come check out the site. We'd love to host you on a virtual tour to see and help you guys in any way grow your businesses, and really build the companies of your dreams.

[58:42]
James McKinney: Once you've had a few moments to process all the value Jason brought us in this week's episode, please hit me up on LinkedIn, Facebook, or Instagram and share with me your thoughts on this episode. Remember, entrepreneurs support other entrepreneurs so visit thestartupstory.co/VIP to learn from some of the most successful entrepreneurs out there. And now for my personal ask.

The Startup Story community has been so incredible about sharing our podcast with others, but we have more stories to tell and more people to reach. We too are a startup and word of mouth is everything, so please follow us on Facebook and Instagram @TheStartupStory or on Twitter @StartupStory_. If you're on LinkedIn, please search for The Startup Story and follow our company page. LinkedIn is a really powerful way to raise awareness of the show. But the most impactful way you can help us grow our audience is to leave a review on Apple Podcast. Or if you listen to the show via Spotify, then please simply share the podcast directly from your Spotify app or wherever you listen to the show.

These simple actions can make a huge impact in getting these amazing founder stories out to the masses. And please make sure to tag or mention The Startup Story when you do share so that we can connect with you and say thank you directly. I'm so incredibly appreciative of the fact that you listen to the show each and every week, and I look forward to sharing these amazing stories with you every Tuesday with hopes of encouraging and inspiring you to start your story.

If you like this podcast and are thinking of creating your own, consider talking to my producer Danny Ozment. He helps thought leaders, influencers, executives, and authors create, launch, and produce podcasts that grow their business and make a real impact in this world. You can contact him today at emeraldcitypro.com/startupstory.

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July 14 2020
Startup Story LIVE: Jason McCann

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