Business Strategies from an International COO
At only 33, Gwendolyn Floyd is the founder, president and COO of a cutting-edge e-commerce fashion and style enterprise, SOKO, which helps global artisans connect directly with international consumers. (Think: Etsy for emerging African artisanal economies.) And this isn’t her first business. The San Francisco-based Floyd has also been a product designer and a consultant for international NGOs.
We asked Floyd to reflect on what she’s learned juggling her roles as an executive and founder of a female-run global services company (her co-founders are Ella Peinovich and Catherine Mahugu). Here are her top six lessons.
Turn Bad Situations Into Learning Opportunities
Learning from — instead of stressing about — unfortunate situations that I could not control has been something I’ve come to draw strength from. For example, here I am running an Internet business, and frequent power outages in Kenya could be incredibly hard for my company. But it has, in the end, made our organization more resilient and closely integrated. It’s led us to create more relevant and appropriate mobile tools by being responsive to local conditions. So no, we don’t lose data or [have to deal with] the dreaded “restart” if a connection is interrupted midstream!
It’s OK If Your Business Model Changes
We began our business thinking we were a technology company and learned within months that we are actually a services company. We piled resources and expectations into a model that was partial, and developing the service suite was almost like launching another business. Even my role has shifted, from being involved in every detail of the business to managing an incredibly smart and effective team to take ownership over their specific domains. And that’s OK because each change is a learning experience for me. Local staff in our African markets are more adept at understanding local opportunities for business than me as a foreigner.
Hire People Who Are Smarter Than You
Part of making SOKO a reality has been growing my skills at team building. Discovering and hiring people who are smarter than me — who are better at doing many of the time-consuming aspects of the job — has been an incredible boon to the business (as well as my personal life). Respecting the people I work with makes it easier to carve out more time for myself, knowing that experts are running the show when I’m not around.
Make Your Relationship With Your Co-Founders a Priority
The relationship you have with your co-founders is like a marriage. You have to take it seriously and work on it to make it healthy and successful. If well-tended, it is an important key to a successful venture. If glossed over or taken for granted, your bad relationship can damage even the most promising business. Since our communication is often remote (due to the international nature of our business), we make sure to “meet” many times a week by Skype because emails aren’t as meaningful as video and voice interactions.
It turns out our women-run-and-operated business is the least dramatic and most productive business setting any of us have ever worked in.
Innovation in Business Doesn’t Have to Be Revolutionary
SOKO is my fourth business. Previously, the career that I was most recognized for was actually as a product designer and partner in Ransmeier & Floyd design. Many people don’t see how a product design career could ever lead to founding and running a tech and fashion startup. However, what was amazing about developing SOKO was that it used the same strategic, problem solving part of my brain as product design did. When designing a better lamp or dish rack or couch, a designer’s intention is not to reinvent the wheel, but to approach the item from an innovative angle that enhances experience, usability and engagement with the object.
It was the same with SOKO. It doesn’t reinvent the wheel to create something completely foreign for shoppers and artisans, but uses design thinking to coordinate existing social, technological and physical infrastructures.
Draw on Your Background (No Matter How “Un-Business” Related)
So many things from my background prepared me for this job. Growing up in the south exposed me to a special blend of extreme traditionalism mixed with a healthy disregard for convention. Being raised in a family obsessed with science fiction taught me to see the world through a speculative and technological lens. Going to a high school that put as much focus on creative thinking and production as hard science skills helped me develop interdisciplinary skills I am thankful for.
Some disappointing experiences of being undervalued in professional and academic contexts for being a woman lit a fire under me to excel. Living in six countries before I graduated college exposed me to a way of working culturally that I love. And working in male-dominated industries, like industrial design and technology, inspired me to start a women-run-and-operated business.