Catching up Featured

8:00pm EDT April 25, 2008

Matt Rutledge prefers to set the bar low. As founder and CEO of Woot Inc., he says the best way to have excellent customer service is to set low expectations and then far exceed them.

The online retailer sells only one item each day, and while perusing Woot’s Web site, you’ll read that if you have a problem with your purchase, then you need to figure out what you’re doing wrong because you probably are doing something wrong. If you have buyer’s remorse, the Web site suggests selling the item on eBay to save everyone a lot of hassle.

Rutledge says that if customers are willing to do business at this level, they’ll be surprised by the high service they actually receive, which makes them want to purchase again. This creative approach allowed Rutledge to grow Woot to more than $100 million in revenue last year.

Smart Business spoke with Rutledge about his approach to business and why you don’t want to paint smiley faces on the walls.

Don’t micromanage. We’re a bootstrapped company from a small stage, so the style that develops from that is hands-on and wanting to be involved in the detailed level but a balance of not micro-managing, not overshadowing other people’s works and trying to inspire independent thought.

It’s a tough line to walk. It’s a lot of checking-in conversation with people. Try to stay objective, and you want to assess work output and understand what went into it and be fair and objective when you’re doling out praise or suggesting change. You still want to have touch points at the floor level of the business, as well.

Micromanagement’s a negative, bad thing you want to avoid. It’s a cultural problem and an efficiency one. You want to have a healthy culture and work environment. If every manager were heavy-handed or too active in the detail work, then there wouldn’t be much time for strategy and overall business direction thinking.

Assess work outputs. There are some positions that lend to measurement. Sales, purchasing, accounting — they have black-and-white definitions of good, mediocre or bad job.

When you get to old-school business operations, you don’t try to reinvent the wheel. If there are commission plans and incentives that have made sense for 100 years, let’s use those.

Trying to put metrics on a creative output department is a classic example of an impossibility. Realize that, and don’t have the same management approach to a group of writers as you would a group of sales-people. ...

There is no metric to measure the quality of creative work other than a subjective pulse or atmosphere around the office or in our audience for various initiatives. It really boils down to peer opinion, so you want to start with a core group of people that you respect and then build from there.

In the creative departments that we have, it really is a fair amount of peer-to-peer driven growing. Peer respect is a major factor.

Have a great work atmosphere. You hope a lot of that is organic. You don’t want to paint smiley faces on the wall and throw meaningless parties — you don’t want “The Office” TV show. You can only input your ideas and direction for that every so often.

It helps if your company has a somewhat exciting brand and appeal to it. Our demographic is fairly young and energetic toward us, so internally, it’s the same culture you hope for.

It’s fairly cliché, but don’t be afraid to have fun. You don’t want to have a draconian management style and cut down every fun thing in your business. There aren’t any rules. It’s going to come down to personality and letting people have their space and seeing what develops.

You go through phases, and maybe those phases are tied to economic performance or maybe they’re seasonal. There are causes for celebration, and there are causes to clamp down and meet goals and meet expectations of our audience.

Measure what you can. You want to keep your finger on the pulse. Then your job as an executive is to share that pulse because the higher position you’re at, the more points of data you have to measure that pulse.

A lot of things are important, so it’s not a short list. It’s more an effort of what’s not important and removing those from the reports you get. You have to have a good gut reaction. If you find yourself spending time, you’ll usually have a gut reaction, ‘Hey, this is disproportionate to the needs of this priority,’ and you can do a daily assessment of what your priorities are.

Prepare for growth. If you’re in a constant state of growth, you go through phases of speeding along and then getting your legs back under you.

Catching up becomes being ready to recognize deficiencies in departments. That’s how you continue to fuel the growth. You usually see signs in work output or frustration levels. ... When teams are stressed out and departments are bottlenecked, those are pretty clear signs.

You probably hear about it from them and don’t need to be that proactive. It depends on the work environment and the mix of whether it’s a department you have metrics on ... or a department you’re relying on personal skills and relationships to measure.

It’s a lot of conversations with your employees to find out what their perceptions are. Ninety-plus percent of the time, your employees know what you need to do. It’s a matter of finding out from them the direction that’s necessary.

HOW TO REACH: Woot Inc., (972) 417-3959 or www.woot.com