John Merris, President and CEO of Solo Stove, on cultivating a solid company culture, radical customer service transparency, and creating your own fire.
They always say the best products are ones that solve a problem for a consumer. Solo Stove (founded in 2010) was already growing quickly, but its team could not have predicted how much demand there would be for their products this past year. The ingenious smokeless design of the product enabled thousands of people to connect with their loved ones around a warm fire in cities and countrysides.
They say an overnight success takes about seven to eight years, so it wasn’t a surprise when I read that brothers Spencer and Jeff Jan founded Solo Stove 2010. How was the company formed and how has it changed?
That’s right. Spencer and Jeff fell in love with e-commerce in the late 2000s and started looking for products that they were passionate about in an industry that they were passionate about. They both grew up spending lots of time outdoors, camping and fishing. And so camping stoves kind of became a natural attraction to them as they thought about products that would work well in that e-comm space. And so they started with a very small kind of camping stove, designed for ultra-light backpacking. And then from there, they just developed this cult-like following around the beauty of the product, and what the product was doing for people versus what the product was.
If you think about a camping stove, you think about something that’s designed to boil water or cook food. But it was more than that. It was this device that was encouraging people to get outside, to make great memories with other people. And that’s what led to the customers coming back saying, “Gosh, you guys have got to come out with more products, because every time you come out with something, I have more good moments.” And that’s really been a focus for us around our product development, not just thinking about the thing, but thinking about what the thing does and sure that the products that we’re releasing are helping more people have more good moments, whether in their backyard or in the back country.
It’s really given people who live in urban spaces the opportunity to have an outdoor moment.
Right. A hundred percent. And that’s been a big turning point for us as a company. It started out with ultralight backpackers. Then there’s another group of people that likes to day hike and day camp. So then we came out with a product that satisfied that group with a larger stove. And then you have a larger audience that is car camping, so we made a larger one that accommodated more of that market. Eventually we decided it wasn’t just about camping. What about those that are intimidated by camping, but want to have a campfire experience? And that’s where the idea of the fire pit really took hold for us. We realized that we could provide a camping experience for people so they didn’t have to pack up their car, plan a big trip and spend an overnight away from the house. They could have the comfort of their bed, but they could do it right in their backyard.
You were brought into the company three years ago to help scale and grow. Tell me about your vision when you started the company and where you’re hoping to take it from here.
Spencer and Jeff are incredible. I joined the company because of them. They were fascinating to me. They were humble. They were so passionate about what they were doing. And yet at the same time, they were super successful and had this thriving e-commerce business. I was the fifth employee at the company, so it was quite small from a people standpoint. Jeff and Spencer were probably working the equivalent of five or six people each. So I probably should have been like the 15th to 20th, but I was the fifth. The first thing that I endeavored to do was to build a team. Spencer and Jeff had been very protective of who they brought into the company. They wanted people to come in that were going to treat it like they owned it. I’ve done a lot of hiring and scaling teams to grow organizations, so I joined and immediately got to work and started finding where the biggest holes and gaps to fill were. And about three years later, we have 85 employees.
It was a huge undertaking to maintain the culture of the business and the roots of who we are and still be able to hire that many people that fast. As we found the people to fill those gaps, it’s allowed us to scale the business so much faster than we would have otherwise. It’s allowed us to get more products into people’s hands so that they can create those good moments.
What are some characteristics that you look for in your employees?
We hire good people and let them do their thing. If you smother them, you never get the good out of them. And so I’m a big believer in autonomy. I am extremely direct. I’m a very blunt leader. And so on the front end, I do my very best to make sure that the expectations are clear, but I manage the output or outcome. I don’t manage the process. So you may have a different way of getting from point A to point B, but as long as you know where you’re headed, then I believe that you can take your skillset and get me there.
We all wear these bracelets at the office that have kind of our battle cry on it. And it’s an acronym of LEAD: learn, execute, aspire, and deliver. So these are kind of the things that we’re looking for when we bring new people in, people that are always learning. We work really hard not to hire know-it-alls. We want people that are just hungry for information that always feel like there’s something else to learn.
We’re constantly looking to create more good moments tomorrow than we then we did today. The big one for that is around delivering on expectations for our customers. Our goal is not to deliver the same level of service. Every time we interact with the customer or the same experience, our goal is to figure out where your expectation as a customer is, and then we’re going to meet or exceed that every time.
That’s an interesting point about determining what the expectation is. I know personally when I ordered my bonfire for my friend, I knew it wasn’t going to be in time for Christmas. And I really appreciated that transparency.
I think it’s the idea that any news is good news. People don’t like to be in the dark. I think that this holiday season was the most disappointing time for me personally, for our brand, because there were so many people, even with as hard as we tried to communicate well, we still missed the mark. If one customer is having a bad experience, it’s disturbing to me. It’s what keeps me up at night, knowing that we disappointed a customer and stressed them out.
We spent all of our time over the holidays, all hands on deck, dealing with customer service issues and just answering the phones. I remember one day coming in, and we had a team of 10 customer service agents. We had 18,000 tickets, or orders to respond to. And I remember we sent an email out to the entire company. It didn’t matter if you were in the warehouse, marketing, accounting, finance. Everybody’s logging in today, and we’re going to start responding to customers. And it took us three days to go from 18,000 tickets to zero.
They say there’s two kinds of leaders, especially with CEOs: the leader in the peacetime, and then the leader in the wartime. You’ve kind of had both sides of the equation. You’ve been in the trenches, but you’ve also been on the other side of it. What tips or secrets of leadership can you share about moving forward in either one of those times?
I’m a big believer that in every circumstance, the glass can either be half full or half empty. And I choose to lead with a glass half full. It’s a really interesting distinction. A lot of leaders feel like their job as a leader is to find the areas that need to be improved and really focus on those. And there’s no doubt that under my leadership style, we attack the issues, but we’re always focused on the positive as we attack the negative. And I think that that’s important for your team from a morale standpoint, as a reminder that you’re doing a ton. Actually as a company, if you’re not failing at something, then to me, you’re not trying hard. You have to take risks as a brand. You’ve got to go out and do more than you should be doing. Then you fall on your face and learn from it.
Where did the name Solo Stove come from? What’s the origin story of that?
Yeah, it’s a good question. At the very beginning, it was the idea was that it was the last stove that you would ever own. So it was your solo stove. We never intended or thought there’s going to be three sizes, and there’s going to be fire pits and so on and so forth. But actually the messaging holds that whether you own our entire suite or whether you own just one of our products, we hope that it’s the last that you own. And you don’t sit around a fire generally by yourself. You sit around with other people. Today about 60% of our business is coming by word of mouth, and that’s powerful for a brand that’s growing. It allows you to do some really special things as your customers help you to evangelize what you’re about.
Solo Stove is all over Instagram. It’s amazing how often I see your ads. As a brand who’s used digital and social media to scale and grow, how do you see that evolving?
Our belief — and this goes back to Spencer and Jeff who were fascinated by e-commerce — is that if you can deliver value to customers, they will give you their time and attention. And so whether it’s Instagram and Facebook, or Pinterest or YouTube or TikTok and podcasts and radio, the content that we’re putting out is intended to inspire and ignite something inside of people so that when they think back to that ad, they go, “That added value to my day” or “That added value to my life. It inspired me to get outside, or inspired me to do something different.”
Social media has been a big one for us. It’s easy to share because of that word-of-mouth factor. We found social media to be highly effective, but the truth is, we’re not married to Instagram. We’re not married to Facebook. We’re not married to YouTube. We will evolve over time as the platforms continue to evolve.
One of the challenges with digital marketing is correlating sales to engagement. How do you assess a correlation between the two?
We measure everything. We track every dollar for every spend. And then what revenue is generated by that dollar. And we shift the dollars around to the platforms that are delivering the best ROAS (return on ad spend).
We make very calculated decisions around our digital investments, and it’s all tied back to a return on ad spend. We don’t do anything blindly and we typically say no to any opportunity that can’t be measured.
We’re coming up on almost a year now of lifestyle changes around COVID-19. Have you heard any stories or anecdotes during this time that stand out in your mind?
You talked about there being hundreds of thousands of reviews of our products, and we love the stories in there. We were featured in the Seattle Times newspaper for this story about a neighborhood that was just sick of being inside and sick of not having human interaction. And this neighborhood coordinated an effort where multiple neighbors purchased Solo Stoves, and they went out into a large parking lot. They set these fire pits out, and then they were all six feet apart, but there were like a hundred people from the neighborhood, all with their camp chairs, all with the Solo Stoves and the heat coming off of the Solo Stoves. There’ve been countless others, lots of experiences where people were able to use the product to create those good moments.
There’s something primal about fire. It draws you in and creates an aura of quiet too. A lot of times you’ll see people not even talking while they sit around a fire. It’s interesting to see fire coming back around as a gathering space for family and friends.
It’s fascinating to me. We get hundreds of photo submissions on our site on a weekly basis of customers that want to share a picture of their fire. It kind of looks like every other fire you’ve seen, but there’s something really special about your fire. And I think it goes back to that primal nature, the ability to create. There’s something pretty special about creation in general, and to be able to create your own fire.
You recently launched a grill that was designed to be at height where people could sit around it and co-grill. Could you talk a little about the story behind the product design?
We knew we wanted to do something for grilling, but we didn’t want to do it like everybody else. The grilling space is pretty boring, in our opinion. Everybody’s doing it the same way, just adding their brand to an existing experience. So we wanted to go back and explore the roots of grilling. Forgetting about the object and focusing on what it was intended for. And the guiding thought was, what if we the grill master didn’t have to grill alone? What if we could change people’s behavior and have the same experience in the yard as you do in the kitchen where everyone gathers to cook and create together?
I have five children when I’m grilling. I’m always by myself and the rest of the family is somewhere else swimming or doing this or doing that, especially in the summertime. My thought was like, what if my kids were sitting around the grill with me? What if my kids had a set of tongs in their hands? What if they grilled their own hot dog or burger? And we all just sat around laughing and enjoying the moments together? That would be pretty cool. It’s like Benihana of the backyard. It’s not the way that people think about doing it right now, but we are big believers that once people experience it, it will be one of those things that you look back on and go, how did we ever grill any other way?
What you’ll see in the future for Solo Stove is a lot of food content. Helping people, just like we did with fires. You don’t have to be a camper to have a great bonfire in your backyard. If you’ve never grilled before, this doesn’t need to be intimidating. We’re going to make it super fast and easy for you.
Where else are you hoping to take the company next?
We are coming closer and closer to being a household name. In a lot of ways, we really are becoming the YETI of the cold season. Though one place where we differ from YETI is our beginnings. YETI was a company that was very focused on getting into retailers, and Solo Stove has been a direct to consumer brand from day one. We added some wholesale retail relationships much later in our progression, but today we’re still a vast majority e-commerce brand. Because of that, we have direct access to our customers and their feedback and to what they want and where they are, and that has allowed us to follow the customers and take the product where they are, which we believe has been a huge differentiator for us.
What are some other brands you admire?
I’ve been reading lots of biographies of founders of a variety of companies. I’ve read Starbucks and Netflix and Apple. Apple is one that I’ve had a huge admiration for because they this coined this term of “think different.” Not think differently, which a lot of people kind of mistake it for, thinking the term was all about just thinking in a different way.
Patagonia has been anther one that I’ve admired. They’re more causal-based than Solo Stove is, or probably ever will be. But what I really admire about Patagonia is their commitment to that. I just love authenticity. I love brands that are authentic. They are who they are, and they’re unapologetic about it.
One last question: how would you define beautiful thinking?
Not to be too cliche or repetitive here, but to me, it’s beautiful when you’re authentic. When you feel like you can be who you are and outwardly say what you think. I think that the beauty is in the authenticity of being vulnerable enough to say what it is, and then let the world determine whether it’s beautiful or not.