After serving four active deployments, former Navy SEAL sniper and instructor Brandon Webb returned to civilian life and started his first business venture. While he was unsuccessful the first time around, he then channeled his Special Ops training and built a flourishing $100 million digital media and e-commerce company. In Webb’s latest book, “Total Focus,” he shares the skills he learned throughout his Special Ops training that made him a better entrepreneur, and how you can utilize the same ones in your own business, whether to think unconventionally, make decisions under pressure or to simply follow your gut.
The following selection is taken from chapter 7 of “Total Focus,” in which Webb urges entrepreneurs to lead from the front. He expresses that as a leader, it’s important to know who you are and what you aspire to be. That means you must have a vision for not only your company, but a personal vision statement, too.
The case study to follow profiles Matt Meeker, co-founder of BarkBox, and illustrates the themes Webb discusses throughout the chapter: always be ready to pivot, communicate often (and well) with your team, don’t be too proud to ask for input and never lose your entrepreneurial spirit.
The following excerpt is adapted from “Total Focus: Make Better Decisions Under Pressure,” by Brandon Webb and John David Mann, with permission from Portfolio, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2017, Brandon Webb and John David Mann.
I met Matt through my good friend Nick Ganju, cofounder of Zocdoc.
In early 2016, when we were starting the subscription part of the business and trying to work through some logistic challenges, Nick said, “You should talk to Matt. He’s been through this.” We met and became quick friends. His input has been invaluable to our development of the Crate Club and Book Club programs.
He never planned to start Bark & Co. In fact, he resisted the idea. But he couldn’t help it: he had a great idea. Or really, it was more as if the idea had him. “I had no choice,” he says. “It just dragged me in.” (Think Al Pacino in “The Godfather: Part II,” only in corduroys.)
Matt had a dog he loved to spoil, a 130-pound Great Dane named Hugo. He was having a hard time finding new products for Hugo, so one day in the fall of 2011 he came up with this idea: a monthly box filled with treats and cool toys for dogs.
“It wasn’t meant to be a big idea,” he says. “It was just a side project, a little experiment to set up and watch, and make my dog happy along the way.”
He told a friend, Henrik Werdelin, about the idea and Henrik sketched up a mock home page, which Matt set as his cell phone home screen. He started showing it to friends to see what they thought. People said, “Hey, that’s great—I have a dog, so let me know when it’s live, and I’ll sign up!” After a few weeks of this, Matt attached a Square credit card reader to his phone and started taking orders—for a product that didn’t exist, for a company that didn’t yet exist either. By December, he had 49 paying customers eager to start their subscriptions.
The holidays were just around the corner. Matt and Henrik figured they better come up with something soon to satisfy those people who’d voiced their interest and put up their credit cards, so they hastily assembled some items into some boxes and shipped off 49 packages.
They’ve shipped every month since.
By the end of the first year, they’d gone from those first 49 to about 10,000 customers. By the end of year two, it was 60,000, and it kept growing. By the end of 2015, they were at about 225,000 monthly shipments, and in 2016 they doubled that to about 450,000. By the time this book is in the stores, they’ll be at well over half a million BarkBox customers.
In March 2014, Forbes named BarkBox number four on its list of “20 Companies You Should Be Following on Social Media,” a list that included TED Talks, SpaceX, Starbucks and Zappos. Not too shabby.
Even as their core concept, the BarkBox, has continued to grow like crazy, Matt and his partners have continued spinning off new idea after new idea. Just as I’ve found with our websites, some of those ideas stick and some don’t. The BarkPost, a blog about dogs (sort of a dog-themed BuzzFeed), and BarkShop, a retail portal for pet-related products, are both alive and thriving as I write this. Bark Care, a virtual veterinary referral service complete with a 24-hour hotline for dog questions and emergencies (and even house calls), didn’t make the cut, and they had to shutter it after a year.
All grist for the entrepreneurial mill.
Right now they’re working on BarkAir, an ambitious plan to provide a door‑to‑door travel experience, partnering with ride-sharing companies, hotels and airlines. The week we held our interview, they were doing a trial flight from New York to Boston with a complement of dogs.
Which brings me to the point of Mr. Meeker’s Wild Ride and the critical lessons Matt says he’s learned along the way. The success of Bark, especially as placed side by side with the colossal failure of an early tech company that never shipped a product where he worked earlier in his career, has shown Matt three keys to staying out ahead of the curve and doing so successfully:
- Don’t overfund, overthink or overplan. “We had too much money,” says Matt of a company he started in 2000, which had a $15 million budget and no product and ultimately failed. At Bark, they had a product shipping before they had anything else. The lesson: build the idea first. Ship a product. If the idea is solid, the money will follow, and so will the planning. The key is to plant your flag and make something real happen.
- Get your idea out in front of people. Real, live customers are the most important source of business intelligence you have. Get your idea out in front of them right away. Never allow yourself to become isolated from the voices of end users. Listen to your customers, and let them guide you. Matt had access to the wisdom of Pierre Omidyar, founder of eBay, one of the most successful digital entrepreneurs of his generation— but it was customer response, even before they’d shipped a product, that told Matt and Henrik they had a viable business.
- Keep it fresh. Don’t let your company get stale and “established.” Give your people the freedom to create, to innovate, to come up with new ideas and new products. At Bark, some of the new ideas have come from the business owners, some from employees and some from customers. They keep passing the baton of leadership back and forth.
“Which is difficult,” says Matt. “As a perfectionist, it’s tough to let go, to let other people take your thing and run with it. But there’s tremendous power in that, too.”
“Total Focus: Make Better Decisions Under Pressure” is available at fine booksellers today, and can be purchased through StartupNation.com.
Reviews of “Total Focus: Make Better Decisions Under Pressure”
“What an incredible ride! Watching as a former Navy SEAL sniper approaches the challenges and complexities in growing from start-up to $100 million–plus in five short years is a master class in business and leadership.”
—David Bach, author of “The Automatic Millionaire” and “Start Late, Finish Rich”
“What do the training, leadership, and entrepreneurial skills of a Navy SEAL have to with running a successful business? As it turns out, just about everything. And you won’t find a better guide and mentor than Brandon Webb, former Navy SEAL sniper turned hugely successful CEO. In “Total Focus,” Webb and Mann provide a game plan based on the mind-set and skill sets that will result in a business that you’re passionate about, that is lucrative, and that provides extreme value to those you serve.”
—Bob Burg, co-author of “The Go-Giver” and author of “Adversaries into Allies”
“The most engaging, exciting business book you’ll ever read.”
—Marshall Goldsmith, author of “Triggers” and “What Got You Here Won’t Get You There;” Thinkers50 No. 1 Most Influential Leadership Thinker in the World
“Brandon Webb’s transition from Navy SEAL to CEO provides inspiring insights on how leaders lead. Reading this book challenged me to raise my own personal leadership bar!”
—David Novak, author of “Taking People with You”