“On Many Occasions, You Will Be The Bad Guy. Somebody Has To Be.” 5 Leadership Lessons with Neel Grover, CEO of Indi.com

“I was brought in to both Buy.com and Bluefly to turn them around and get them profitable. This, of course, involved some layoffs and deep cost cutting. It was painful, but had to be done and it was my job to do it.”
I had the pleasure of interviewing Neel Grover, CEO and Founder of Indi.com. Neel has sold over $5 Billion online competing with Amazon as the former CEO of Buy.com, Rakuten North America and Bluefly.com. While at Buy.com, he lead the team from losing over $100M a year when he took over to 13 consecutive profitable quarters competing with Amazon on every product. Neel lead the sale of Buy.com for over $250M to Rakuten, one of the largest internet companies in the world. Neel has been on numerous private and public company boards and is currently on the Board of the Intercollegiate Tennis Association and the Executive Committee of noon, a new marketplace in Dubai that has been initially funded with $1 Billion. Out of the office, Neel is number one in the country in Men’s doubles tennis for over 40 year olds!

Yitzi: Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your “backstory

My parents moved to the United States from India a few years before I was born and have always believed in hard work and treating people well. My family comes from a long list of doctors, including my father, brother and sister and believed strongly in following a traditional professional route which lead me to become a corporate securities lawyer. My mother, on the other hand, is a yoga and meditation teacher and instilled in me the confidence and self-awareness for me to follow my passion, which lead me to leave my corporate lawyer position and take a risk going into a company that was losing a significant amount of money while competing with Amazon. Thankfully I followed my own path and, along with a great team, turned Buy.com from a negative $100 Million per year loss to 13 consecutive profitable quarters and the sale to Rakuten for north of $250 Million. Similarly, I later left my corporate position running Rakuten North America to create and run my video engagement platform, Indi.com.

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

When I was the CEO of Buy.com I would have the receptionist send an all-staff email if any employee had an item from Amazon delivered to the office. We only sold 20 Million items and by no means didn’t sell everything they Amazon sold but still instilled the walk of shame for an employee to have to pick up their Amazon item.

Yitzi: So how exactly does your company help people?

Indi.com is a video platform focused on engagement and commerce. Brands utilize Indi to engage with their customers and fans and to drive sales of products on their website. Examples on engagement include Starbucks donating close to $1M to charities their customers told them were most deserving, Domino’s giving away pizza for a year to the customer who drove the most Indi Buzz, or awareness, to their Domino’s content they uploaded and shared. Examples on commerce include Brand Ambassador programs whereby retailers’ customers create video content of their products and post them with commissionable shopping links. If anybody clicks through and buys an item, the retailer gets the sale and the customer gets a commission.

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

Indi stands out because we help Brands focus on engaging and incentivizing their best influencers…their customers! So many companies want a quick solution to drive more awareness and sales without ever engaging their existing customers who already organically and authentically love them. One of our clients just publically reported adding 1,000 performance based micro influencers in their first two months working with Indi which drove an incremental 2% in sales.

Yitzi: 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 had several positive influences on my career, but the person who helped me the most is my former college tennis coach, Greg Patton. He is a legend in the college tennis world where he helped develop my tennis game. More importantly, he taught me how to get the most out of each team member by leaning on their strengths and how winning as a team is more special than winning as an individual.

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

Indi’s entire platform is built around giving a voice to the everyday Individual. Irrespective of socioeconomic status, race or access, every Individual has an opportunity to showcase their talent and share their opinions without worrying about people commenting negatively (as no comments or thumbs down are allowed on Indi). One example was when Elite Model Management was running a model search on Indi. There were thousands of video submissions, including young women from all over the country, of all sizes and some with physical disabilities who could enjoy this opportunity without any negative comments being made in any way.

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

1. Listen to Everyone But Follow Your Intuition. The first thing I did when I went into both Buy.com and Bluefly was to interview every employee and ask them about what has worked well in the past and what in their opinion could be better. Once I took everyone’s suggestions and biases into play and matched those against our corporate goals and the P&L, I relied on my intuition on making the tough decisions.

2. Be transparent. Keep every employee aware of the company’s performance, key initiatives, challenges and goals to foster a sense of ownership and trust. Share numbers as much as possible, and don’t be afraid to share the good, the bad and the ugly. During our turnaround from losing $100 Million per year to profitability at Buy.com, we had a projector that displayed our hourly sales on the wall as compared to our goals for that hour so everybody knew how well our sales were doing in real time. I’m a big believer in weekly all-staff meetings sharing how the company is tracking to Key Performance Indicators and opening up for Q&A.

3. Think big. Don’t underestimate what your company can do, even if it is small or just starting out. By being nimble and aggressive at Buy.com, we were able to become the largest merchant on Ebay and powered Best Buy’s 3rd Party marketplace. More recently Indi in its early stages has powered campaigns for major brands like Starbucks, Domino’s Pizza, Hewlett Packard, the Denver Broncos, Hans Zimmer, Elite Modeling and America’s Got Talent. None of those deals would have happened if we were not swinging for the fences and thinking big.

4. On many occasions, you will be the bad guy. Somebody has to be. I was brought in to both Buy.com and Bluefly to turn them around and get them profitable. This, of course, involved some layoffs and deep cost cutting. It was painful, but had to be done and it was my job to do it.

5. Be Yourself. Let your staff and business partners get to know the real you. Don’t worry about fitting the mold of the textbook CEO or perfect leader. Authenticity is better. Being yourself will help build the sense of connection and trust that is key to all business relationships. I feel like more business deals get done when you trust and know your business partner, both professionally and personally.

Yitzi: 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 love to have a private breakfast or lunch with Sir Richard Branson because he has started and built amazing companies while changing the world to be a better place.

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