“Be Obsessed With How You Create And Add Value And Everything Else Will Generally Take Care Of Itself”

5 Leadership Lessons with Ryan Abood, Founder and CEO of GourmetGiftBaskets.com

I had the pleasure of interviewing Ryan Abood, Founder and CEO of GourmetGiftBaskets.com. A five-time Inc. 500 list company with three Guinness World Records and a CEO with two 40-under-40 awards.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your “backstory”?

I grew up in a flower shop!

Both of my parents were florists and the family business was a huge part of my life from a pretty early age. I got a front row seat at the dinner table every night with my parents discussing all the various challenges, risks and rewards of running a small business.

The flower business is very seasonal and while many people today might not agree with it, we were routinely allowed to work Valentine’s Day instead of going to school (the one and only day we were allowed to skip).

Mostly because they could really use the help (and whether it was accidental or not), I got tons of real-world, first-hand business experience long before anyone else my age. I literally got to do it all — I ran a register, I manned the phones, I ran a delivery van and more. There was no aspect of the business that I didn’t get to experience and be responsible for at some point growing up.

Then one night back in my college dorm room, as I was pouring over flower shop financials for a class, it occurred to me that gift baskets would be a way to take everything I learned about the flower shop and extend our reach beyond our physical city footprint. Gift baskets could be shipped easily, thus opening up the whole country and even the world for us. That realization turned out to be the very beginning of what’s now GourmetGiftBaskets.com.

Looking back at my days in the flower shop, some of the most valuable lessons I learned included thinking about and designing business processes that were able to service 10 times the normal daily demand without breaking. Those lessons served me well back then, and I still use them each and every day now.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

In 2009, we were growing 300% each year and we really wanted to find a way to do something WILD, something that would give something back, and at the same time, would get people talking. I never allow myself or my staff to think small, so whatever we settled on was going to need to be BIG!

Back then, the Belle of the Ball was the Cupcake. Cupcakes were everywhere — on TV shows, in pop-up shops, anywhere you looked. The economy was trashed from the mortgage crisis and cupcakes were little escapist treats that the country went gaga over.

We settled on baking the World’s Largest Cupcake in Detroit and wanted to unveil it at the Dream Cruise rolling car show that summer. It was a MASSIVE project that we conceived and executed in less than a month.

Since we don’t have super-sized ovens or any baking experience, we pretty much acted as the project managers and assembled a dream team of volunteers to provide the expertise while we provided the muscle. We found the right baking team at Merengue Bakery in California, and Jensen Industries, who were near Detroit and could provide the custom-made pan and an oven big enough to cook it!

We ended up making a 7,000-pound behemoth that separated and died in the oven just 24 hours before unveiling. We were CRUSHED! The story had been picked up by the AP and I was spending my entire day traveling around the city to radio shows, who were all vying for the scoop on the cupcake.

After several hours of group think, we were able to identify exactly what went wrong. But we didn’t have enough ingredients to make another one. So, we calculated that we could make a new cupcake around 1200 pounds and still smash the record by a factor of ten. We started over, learning from all our mistakes and produced a beautiful, FULLY COOKED cupcake with about 10 minutes to spare. In fact, we had to frost the huge cupcake in the back of the truck ON THE WAY to where the storm of national media was covering the unveiling.

The final tally was 1224 pounds for a brand new Guinness World Record. The entire event was in partnership with Susan G. Komen for the Cure and we sold pieces of the cupcake live to support the charity, while tens of thousands showed up to eat and take their picture with the massive cupcake. It was and still is the type of never-quit, blaze-uncharted-territory event that defines this company and the people who work here.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

See #2. We are defined by the lengths that we go to make sure we do what we say we will for our customers, and say what we mean. If we can, with some routine, do things that shouldn’t be possible, like a World Record Cupcake, Hot Coffee and Iced Coffee, then surely, we can be trusted to make you look good when gift giving!

What advice would you give to other CEOs or founders to help their employees to thrive?

THINK BIG, dream big, and never ever quit. My favorite part of this job is getting to invent new ways to do things that the market will reward. Sometimes we do little things, sometimes we do big things. But incessant, maniacal attention to creating incremental progress will over time move any mountain.

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?

I have a lot of people who have been incredibly helpful along the way. To limit this section to just one name is brutal.

The one that stands just a bit taller than the others is Stephen Spinelli. One of my favorite professors of all time, who was also one of the founders of Jiffy Lube. He is one of those rare people where spending just 30 minutes with him on the phone can change your entire perspective on your business.

Whenever we are facing a particularly daunting decision, someone on the executive team will eventually break down and say…well what would Spinelli say?

The value he has added over the years is too great to understate.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

We used all three of our Guinness World Records to raise money and awareness for Susan G. Komen for the Cure, and a few years ago, we created a new class of annual time for each employee called Volunteer Time (VTO) to work for any charity of their choosing on company time.

This is all part of our company-wide Give Good Back program. We also routinely donate a great deal of food from our soon-to-expire product inventory to our local shelters.

One time, we had a miss-ship of five tractor trailer loads of popcorn, so we ended up donating 65,000 bags of popcorn at Christmas that covered the needs of food pantries, shelters and schools over a three-to-four-state radius. If you showed up, we filled your vehicle with popcorn for a week straight!

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became CEO” and why?

1. CEOs spend a lot of time in meetings. Sometimes this frustrates me as we are not yet to the size that I can spend 100% of my time in meetings. I generally work two to three hours past the time most people leave and come in a little later, too, so that I can still structure in time to work on projects that I know are important, but don’t fit into the daily flow.

Perhaps someday soon we will have the resources where I can have dedicated staff for my projects, but until then, I’ll just invent more capacity by working a few more hours.

2. Connect the dots between departments. As we grow, fewer people know the real inner workings of each group at work. When we were 12–18 people, everyone knew everything.

At 50+, someone needs to weave together the work of people far away from the daily experiences of each other and champion the concerns of the departments that aren’t involved in a discussion.

I will routinely provide color to the Product Development team as if I were a member of the Production team about things they would say if they weren’t stuck out on the line while this discussion is happening. And vice versa. Connecting those dots and advocating for the customer experience is key.

3. Rely on your mentors in times of need. When in doubt, I always pick up the phone and call to ask for advice. I have a list of people that I will call depending on the need.

Mostly I call my friends who are other business leaders and just simply ask for their opinion. Freshness of perspective is a much undervalued gift. They almost always look at the issue in a way that provides clearer answers than you had when you pushed the talk button.

4. Be obsessed with value creation. What are you going to do better? Find it, and obsess over it.

5. Don’t pick up the pennies and miss the dollars. Running such a resource-constrained business, I am always calculating in my head “is this the best thing we can we be working on right now?” It’s often unpopular to arrest a project because its energy investment outweighs its return, so be delicate when the calculation says, “spend time elsewhere.”

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”?

Be obsessed with how you create and add value and everything else will generally take care of itself.

Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this :-).

I would sleep in a snowbank if I had the chance to have breakfast with Marcus Lemonis. I respect him and what he does tremendously and his 3-Ps approach (People, Process, Product) to running a small business (which also works incredibly well for running a big business).

I think of myself often as a Marcus in training and watching him work routinely gives me a better framework to execute what are solid, time-tested business strategies. He so often says exactly what I’m thinking, but he does it in a way that inspires those around him with masterful poise. One of my favorite Marcus quotes is: “What do you mean you can’t? It’s business…it’s not that hard. Price, minus cost, equals profit…it’s not rocket science.”

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