John Tabis: 5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became CEO of The Bouqs Company
You will fail, and that’s okay. Failure is literally a part of this journey, and it will happen often. You’ll fail at parts of this job, perhaps all of it at times. Getting used to that and learning from it, rather than letting it drag you down, is key to making it to the other side. A few of our failures/learning experiences include being rejected by >100 VCs in the early days, getting rejected on “Shark Tank,” and almost going bankrupt (twice). We failed to deliver to almost 1,000 moms on Mother’s Day one year, which was heartbreaking. So many failures… Every time it happened, I thought it meant we wouldn’t make it or I wasn’t good enough, but I learned over time that it’s just how it IS. And it’s okay, so long as you learn from it, get better, and focus on the customer.
As part of my series about the leadership lessons of accomplished business leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing John Tabis, Chairman & Founder, The Bouqs Company.
A proven brand builder and entrepreneur with deep experience in innovative media ventures and consumer products, John Tabis is Founder and Chairman of The Bouqs Company. In 2012, along with co-founder Juan Pablo Montúfar, Tabis launched the Marina del Rey, California-based company, a distinguished industry leader in the online floral space that delivers flowers and plants fresh from eco-friendly, sustainable farms around the world to doorsteps nationwide.
Redefining the flower-buying experience for consumers under Tabis’ leadership, The Bouqs Company has received top recognition, including multiple features on Entrepreneur’s 360 list and being named as one of Inc’s Top 15 Companies to Watch in 2017. Individually, Tabis has been recognized as a Techweek 100 Ambassador for the LA Region and as a finalist for the EY Entrepreneur of the Year Award.
Prior to launching The Bouqs Company, Tabis worked in corporate brand strategy at The Walt Disney Co. and ShoeDazzle, and in management consulting at Bain & Company. Tabis graduated summa cum laude from the University of Notre Dame and earned his MBA with honors from the UCLA Anderson School of Management, where he studied on Fellowship.
Tabis is a coveted speaker on brand strategy and startups, has appeared on numerous TV shows, including ABC’s “Shark Tank,” “Access Hollywood,” and “20/20,” and acts as a mentor to early stage startups at blue chip accelerators TechStars and Amplify.LA. He also serves as a board member for the National Association of Women Business Owners in LA and is the host of the podcast “Give’m the Biz.”
After serving as CEO for seven years, Tabis recently stepped into a new role as chairman of the board and appointed Alejandro Bethlen as the new CEO to spearhead growth and catalyze existing momentum with expansion initiatives.
Tabis currently resides with his wife and three young children in Venice, CA, where he’s likely to be seen riding his longboard or electric scooter to work.
Thank you so much for joining us John! Can you tell us the story about what brought you to this specific career path?
While working in strategy at Bain & Company and Disney, I was lucky enough to learn that business is always about serving the customer and telling great stories. After a decade in strategy, I got itchy to run something and, frankly, wasn’t qualified to run a division of Disney, so I explored startups and landed at ShoeDazzle. After a few weeks, I was hooked on early stage — the energy, creation, the action. While there, I started talking to JP [Juan Pablo Montufar Arroyo], my former college roommate whose close friends owned a flower farm in Ecuador, about the challenges for farmers and consumers in flowers. We found the idea of building an aspirational brand from scratch exciting and challenging, so we got together and hatched a plan to launch Bouqs. A few short years later, here we are.
Can you share one of the major challenges you encountered when first leading the company? What lesson did you learn from that?
Early on the biggest challenge was keeping up. At the beginning of a company there are so few resources: few people, no or very few dollars, little time. It can be a lot to tackle since there are so few places to turn for help. If you have a rapidly growing business, the business won’t wait for you, so you have to roll with it. Be flexible, focus only on the biggest pieces and don’t sweat the small stuff.
What are some of the factors that you believe led to your eventual success?
A key factor that led to our success (and remains essential) is a ton of great people supporting us — friends and family, employees early and later stage. At the beginning, we had $13,000 and a small but great group of people committed to making things happen every day, including my co-founder JP, our part-time Creative Director Dave Plafchan, and our part-time developer Leonard Lin. My mom Rae was doing Customer Service remotely from Pittsburgh, my sister Sara was handling HR. Kostas McDade was managing social media part-time and Mai Nakamura was helping with graphic design on the side. We were a group of folks making it happen without much in terms of money or time together, but we made it work.
Another essential factor is that we had a mission that people love — I believe that if you aim for good, for what’s RIGHT, people tend to get behind you. From the beginning, we wanted to be honest with the customer, serve them well and do things in a way that minimized environmental impact and increased transparency. Because of that story, which starts and ends with love — of family, friends, of the earth — folks got behind us.
And finally, we had a lot of luck — let’s face it, luck is a big part of any startup journey. Anyone that gets this far got lucky at some point — the right timing, the right choices, the ball bouncing your way a few times. Luck always plays a role.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became CEO”? Please share a story or example for each.
- You don’t need to figure out the next stage until the next stage. For example: early on, JP asked me about Valentine’s Day — How will we ever ship more than 1,000 bouqs? We didn’t actually need to worry about that at the time, we just needed to do 1,000. Taking the business and the journey in stages is critical, so it’s vital to set key goals and milestones and aim for those, one step at a time.
- Once you become a Founder & CEO, the business never ‘turns off.’ It’s like taking the blue pill (or is it red?) in “The Matrix.” Once you enter this world, there’s no going back. Your business will need you all the time, every day. You’ll think about it when you’re with your kids (or fur-babies), when you sleep, when you wake. There’s no escaping it and the business becomes a large part of who you are. And while it’s great and invigorating and you learn a lot, you will sometimes wish you could ‘untake’ the blue pill (or red?) because you remember how nice it was when you could leave work and actually, you know, leave it. Having a break would be so nice. But you had to take the blue (or red?) pill… Sheesh…
- You will fail, and that’s okay. Failure is literally a part of this journey, and it will happen often. You’ll fail at parts of this job, perhaps all of it at times. Getting used to that and learning from it, rather than letting it drag you down, is key to making it to the other side. A few of our failures/learning experiences include being rejected by >100 VCs in the early days, getting rejected on “Shark Tank,” and almost going bankrupt (twice). We failed to deliver to almost 1,000 moms on Mother’s Day one year, which was heartbreaking. So many failures… Every time it happened, I thought it meant we wouldn’t make it or I wasn’t good enough, but I learned over time that it’s just how it IS. And it’s okay, so long as you learn from it, get better, and focus on the customer.
- Technology is key. In any new company today, this is true. Technology is absolutely, critically key to scaling a business effectively. You have to invest in Tech and Tech talent early, and often. In our case, when we started, I thought we could only use open source and have a tiny team. It worked fine for a smaller company, but we couldn’t handle the scale as we got bigger.
- Leadership is hard, so hire great leaders! It seems obvious and so easy but learning to manage and then learning to lead is a skill that not many folks have mastered. Finding the best possible leaders is key to building a business over time. Over the years, we’ve been lucky to have some great leaders and at other times we’ve had some misses. Poor leadership can crush an organization’s soul, and that leads to a number of problems downstream in culture and execution. You have to ensure everyone has the mission in their heart — they have to believe and push all they can to get there, and that they have the leadership skills you need to build a great team and business. If they’re not there, they’re not right for your team and mission, and they’ll take others down with them. So get those hires right — take your time, pay more to land the right folks, and do it right.
What advice would you give to your colleagues to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
- Find ways to create a cadence in your job and your life that balances for you. For some people that might mean vacation, for others it might mean going for a jog or reading a book. Regardless of what it is, you have to find time for YOU in your work and personal life. Just you, doing something that refills your cup, gives you energy, gives you life. You MATTER in your journey, and you have to realize this and make time for it. Allow yourself to count. Work hard, add value and make it happen, but it doesn’t have to be at the expense of you — It can be in parallel, alongside. Once you do that, you’ll find those ways to be balanced.
- Recognize the big picture. If you have a roof over your head, a job you love (or even like) and you work for a decent boss and make enough money to allow you to eat and rest comfortably daily, you’re better off than most people that have ever lived. Think about how lucky you are, in the broadest sense. First, you’re alive now, at the greatest time in human history in terms of science and advancement. You could have been born in the times of The Black Plague, but you’re here, now. The odds weren’t in your favor for that (history is looooooong), yet you’re here. Lottery win #1. Second, if you’re reading this, you most likely live in the US, a democracy, arguably the greatest country in the history of humanity, where you actually have rights. While we have a long way to go to achieve full equality, there’s a framework in place that generally supports your right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Big win #2! Third, you work in business. If you’re reading this, you are probably in a startup or some other company doing cool and interesting work. You have a chance to work with others like you, smart folks that are also working hard and doing interesting things. How lucky for you! You could have ended up working in difficult, terrible conditions, but you’re not — what a win! Fourth, whatever you were born into, it could have been worse. Have all your limbs? You could have been born missing one. Born into a stable home? Could not have been. Have an education? You’re so lucky to have one. Have loving parents? So many did not. Born into a stable region? You could be a child refugee fleeing war. The point on all this? We’re all very, very lucky. Everything is relative and I don’t know your personal story, but if you’re reading this and diving into it and any of the above is true for you, say a quick Thank You to the Universe. You’ve been given a lot of gifts. Recognize them, and then make the best of them!
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
So many people have helped us get to where we are. I think the person that’s been most vital is my co-founder and great friend, Juan Pablo (JP) Montufar Arroyo. JP took this leap with me, has been in it through thick and thin and never, ever wavered. When I struggled, he lifted me back up. When I didn’t think anyone believed in me or this company, he did. When I wasn’t sure we were going to make it, he was. He’s a rock, and the reason we’re still here and still making this grand experiment work.
What are some of the goals you still have and are working to accomplish, both personally and professionally?
- I hope to help build a number of companies that make the world better.
- I want to become the best leader I can be.
- I want to spend my time creating, teaching and laughing.
- I will get in the best shape of my life in my 40’s
- I’ll be a better father every year until the day I die.
- I will love my wife more completely with each passing day.
- I want to spend more time with my parents and sisters — not just vacations, but actual day to day living.
- I want to write a book on how to build a brand, how to scale a brand, how to stand out in a crowded marketplace.
- I want to have a platform to speak to people, coach them up, help the understand that their struggles are OUR struggles, and we’re all in this thing called life together, whether we realize it or not.
- I would like to help our government get to a place where it actually represents the will of the people. (I’m not totally sure what that means, but it’s important to me that the partisan gridlock of today gets solved in my lifetime.)
- I want to help people spread love far and wide, as much as humanly possible.
What do you hope to leave as your lasting legacy?
Lasting legacies are hard — long, long term, very few exist. Name the 14th President. GO! You can’t? Neither can I. So, aiming to be remembered long term is really hard, maybe impossible. But today, we have the opportunity for a massive impact. If you help someone, teach them something, help them through a tough time, you never know what kind of ripple you might create through that good. I hope to have this kind of impact on my children, and I focus heavily on them every single day. I try to help them lead the best lives they can and in doing so, over time they will help others. I hope to have the time to have that kind of impact on many, many more people in my life. Ultimately, I doubt that there will be much of my life to remember in the grandiose sense of history, but perhaps some of those people will remember that when they asked for help (or even if they didn’t), they got it. Maybe then they’ll pass that along. That ripple, deep into the future, is legacy enough for me.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would enhance people’s lives in some way, what would it be? You never know what your idea can trigger!
If I could change anything, it would be our wildly broken political system that’s designed to keep the will of the people in check and the two parties in power. Congress has a 20% approval rating. The President’s is less than 50%. Yet more than 90% of congress will be re-elected due to a rigged system designed to keep us all fighting one another instead of focusing on real change. I’d love to launch and scale The Purple Party, a party that spans across the large and growing Independents, and like-minded Democrats and Republicans. It would be a party based on what the Founders truly envisioned — open and honest debate, science, humanity, equality, opportunity and even love. There are so many major issues impacting us today and our children and all generations in the future — and we are lost as a nation, and therefore as a people. Represent.US and UniteAmerica.org are two of the best organizations out there fighting for change, including rank-choice voting and ending gerrymandering. If I could, I would spend 100% of my time fighting the sickening corruption in the system. Oh, how glorious it could be if we could get it done.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
Linkedin — https://www.linkedin.com/in/jtabis/