Taro Fukuyama – Co-Founder & CEO, Fond

Taro co-founded Fond (formerly AnyPerk) in 2012 and serves as the Chief Executive Officer. Born and raised in Tokyo, Taro is a Y Combinator graduate and part of the first Japanese team ever to be admitted into the program. He studied Law at Keio University in Tokyo and was named one of Business Insider’s “Silicon Valley 100: The Coolest People in Tech Right Now”. And yes, he helped found Fond in a Taco Bell parking lot.

How did the concept for Fond come about?
When I moved from Japan to San Francisco, I was shocked to hear that employees change their jobs every two years. In Japan, where I grew up, people tend to stay at their employers for their entire careers. The difference between the Japanese and U.S. markets really piqued my interest and that led me to do an in-depth study of the market. One of the most startling stats I came across showed that two-thirds of employees in the U.S. are either somewhat or totally disengaged at work. This finding motivated me to solve this challenge by building a company to help companies engage better with their employees.

How was the first year in business?
Like most start-ups, our first year in business (2012) was pretty scrappy. To gain initial client traction, we utilized our investor network for referrals and introductions. The corporate discounts business is a marketplace model that required that we scale both customers and perk providers. So we targeted each one of these groups to attract them to our platform to create a vibrant experience for buyers and sellers. Within no time, we were reaching out to literally 1,000 potential customers and perk providers every day until we got enough traction to launch a viable marketplace.

What was your marketing strategy?
We knew that we had one chance to earn our customers’ loyalty so we focused on customer satisfaction. This ended up being a core component of our marketing strategy. Marketplaces are classic “chicken and egg” constructs; once we’ve achieved a critical mass of active customers, the aggregate demand they represent would enable us to attract more and better perk providers to the platform. Having more perk providers on the platform made it easier to attract more customers. That form of network effect really helped us grow.

How fast did the company grow during the first few years?
The business took off quickly and in no time we were experiencing growing pains. I remember at one point we didn’t have enough meeting rooms, and the team had to make client calls in hallways, stairwells, and even in the bathrooms!

How do you define success?
Our success is when, after our solution is implemented, employees of our customers find their companies to be greater places to work for than before Fond entered the picture.

What is the key to success?
Keep learning and challenging yourself to grow in order to accomplish your goals.

What is the greatest lesson you’ve ever learned?
What you wish to accomplish is more important than what you are actually able to accomplish today. In other words, don’t limit your dreams based on what you feel capable of doing today. Dream big, work hard, and you’ll find that your skills will expand to meet the challenge.

What are some quotes that you live by?
“Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”

What are some of your favorite books?
The Advantage by Patrick Lencioni, The Effective Executive by Peter F Drucker, and Drive by Daniel Pink.

Tell me about one of the toughest days you’ve had as an entrepreneur.
During our initial period, we were a Y Combinator accelerator company. One day, the Y Combinator founder, Paul Graham told us we were the worst startup in the batch, among sixty-five other startups. Our ideas were not working and I could not speak English as well as I do today. Paul and I joke about it today, but that was one of the toughest days we’ve had.

When faced with adversity, what pushes you to keep moving forward?
When facing adversity, I’ve found that staying as close as possible to our customers is the best medicine. When I hear from them how they have improved their employees’ engagement by using our products, it always energizes me and gives me the extra impetus to work our way through whatever challenging situation we’re facing.

What advice would you give to young entrepreneurs?
Always be vulnerable. As long as you are open to feedback, there will always be people around you who will help you move forward.

Sébastien Dupéré – Founder & President, Dupray

Sébastien Dupéré is the founder and president of Dupray, a leading provider of advanced cleaning systems; being vapor steam cleaners, floor scrubbers and carpet cleaners. In North America, Dupray is known for providing world renowned Tecnovap® commercial steam cleaners, Multiplo floor scubbers and carpet cleaners.

Tell me about your early career.
My early career was eventful to say the least. I had a ton of ideas and often got distracted by the million and one things that kept popping into my head. I’ve always been on a quest to order the chaos of thoughts and ideas that I have. Everything finally clicked when I was able to order them into manageable and palatable bites that I can chew off.

How did the concept for Dupray come about?
Dupray came about primarily because I was unsatisfied with the tools that we were using in one of our side businesses. We had gotten into the business partly because we were realizing that cleaning chemicals were toxic, and there was no real alternative for many verticals such as retail, QSR and hospitality. Even worse, we felt as if the North American market was lagging behind Europe for alternative cleaning methods.

How was the first year in business?
Our first year in business was the most frantic time of my life. If I’m being completely truthful to myself, I don’t remember much. I’m sorry if it sounds cliché. However, the reality is that we were working, grinding hard and creating so many new things. There were really long nights, with some long hours of work – with some really great people. I think our first year was bearable partly because the people I worked with maintained excellent states of mind.

I think one of the really underreported elements of being a successful entrepreneur in the early phase of business is your ability to deal with your surroundings. In my time as an entrepreneur thus far, I have seen people and companies with amazing ideas and outstanding products that end up nowhere simply because they weren’t able to maintain the perseverance and focus that it takes to weed out the negative thoughts and sense of being overwhelmed.

What was your marketing strategy?
Our marketing strategy was, and to a great extent still is, based on simplicity. Simplicity makes sense when you’re starting a new business. Why? Because your business will evidently evolve in the early years, which means you shouldn’t pour resources into it. You need to maintain the flexibility that comes with simplicity until you refine your brand.

We wanted to convey a simple message to the people that bought our products. Our products would be functional and reliable, but maintain a top threshold of elegance. Our entire strategy revolved around these three quintessential characteristics. I think our current website and branding are a reflection of an evolved version of this simplicity.

How fast did the company grow during the first few years?
It grew fast enough that we had some online placements and ended up in the city paper without us having to make any effort. We actually had difficulties filling the orders that we received at one point. It grew fast enough that somebody approached us to purchase the company. We declined.

How do you define success?
I think success has an internal definition. It’s variable based on your outlook on life. Some of the most successful people I know are making minimum wage and have a big smile on their face all day long, for eight hours a day. The reality is that you are successful when you finally feel like you need to stop working like an animal. For some people – and I’d like to include myself in this segment – it takes significantly longer to feel that.

What is the key to success?
The keys to success are very much aligned to what the majority of society believes. Hard work and long hours are to name a few of those tenants. That being said, the reality is that the keys to success are actually perseverance and persistence. Yes, it’s great to be focused for twelve hours on a Monday – but what about Tuesday? Even more important, what about twelve hours for the seventh Monday in a row? How many people can say that they execute a mentality of success for a persistent and sustained amount of time?

What is the greatest lesson you’ve ever learned?
Being humble and sincere go a long way in today’s world. Consumers can see right through marketing lingo and desperate ploys to get their attention. If you are sincere in your messaging and humble in the hawking of your product, you will likely reap your rewards. Also, another great lesson – try to laugh once in a while. It’s healthy.

What are some of your favorite books?
Great question. I think all good entrepreneurs read as much as possible to increase their ability to field different perspectives. My favorite book is How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie. Most people have heard of it in passing, but even though the book is over 80 years old at this point, it still gives great basic tips on how to deal with people and tough situations. The only thing to keep in mind is the relevance of modern technology!

Tell me about one of the toughest days you’ve had as an entrepreneur.
I think one of the toughest days I had as an entrepreneur was the first time I had to hold firm with one of our costumers. We are proud of the products that we put into the market and we stand by them. That being said, one of our customers very clearly broke several of the terms in our warranty and wanted a complete refund despite their actions. It took everything I had to respect the business process that we had implemented. I knew that we would lose this customer. You would be shocked to know how hard it was, and still is, to respect the boundaries of our business. When you are customer-centric, it really hurt me deep down to know that I had to take a firm stance. I knew it was the right decision, but no entrepreneur sets out to disappoint anyone.

When faced with adversity, what pushes you to keep moving forward?
This is a very simple answer – I don’t want to have all the great work I’ve put in go to waste. I’ve spent years building this business. One hiccup doesn’t tarnish the work that I have done or the accomplishments that I have had. If anything, it just makes me want to fight more to preserve AND enhance what I have done.

What advice would you give to young entrepreneurs?
Persistence is key. Remember those twelve hours on the seventh Monday.

James Marks – Co-Founder & CEO, Whiplash Merchandising

James is a serial entrepreneur, multi-year member of the Inc. 5000, and the co-founder and CEO of Whiplash Merchandising. Whiplash connects eCommerce sellers with warehouse capacity and coordinates fulfillment for millions of orders.

Prior to Whiplash, James founded VGKids, a screen printing company focused on high quality artist prints and custom printed goods. James also founded SPUR Studios, providing work spaces for artists and musicians, and The Vegetarian Grocer, a natural foods store in Pontiac, Michigan.

Tell me about your early career.
I started my first business when I was sixteen. My friends and I chipped in $200 each to buy a t-shirt press so we could make t-shirts for local bands. It was a disaster; we had no idea what we were doing. I remember going through the trash behind a screen printing shop and pulling out the screens they’d thrown away. That’s how scrappy we were. After I graduated high school, I opened a vegetarian grocery store in a blighted neighborhood outside of Detroit, MI. We sold some groceries, but primarily paid rent by putting on shows in the basement. After two years, I was buried in debt and ready for something else. I focused on making t-shirts fulltime, and started to get a little bit of traction there.

How did the concept for Whiplash Merchandising come about?
When you make shirts for touring bands, you ship some to the band on the road, and some to their warehouse to sell online. It seemed silly that we’d ship these shirts to sit on someone else’s shelf instead of our own. It also seemed like a lot less could go wrong shipping orders on the Internet than interpreting someone’s art onto a shirt. The last ten years had a been a series of hard-earned lessons in all the ways custom printing could go wrong. I thought it would be an easier business to run, with better margins.

So when we started Whiplash, we thought it would be a licensing deal with the bands – we’d just earn a percentage of retail. We signed a couple of deals very quickly, but couldn’t land any others. So we pivoted away from licensing to just earning a “handling fee” to hold the inventory and ship orders. It was still slow at first, but we won a couple of clients and we started building a reputation.

How was the first year in business?
The first year was when we were on the licensing model, and it was just a part-time project. It took 10-15 hours of our time a month, and lost a steady trickle of money. Not enough to shut it down, but not enough to go full-time, either.

One of the key ideas that keeps me motivated in the early stages of a company is from the Zingerman’s team – this idea that success and failure are indistinguishable in the beginning. The fact that it feels like its going well or poorly isn’t a reliable indicator. I couple that with something my brother noticed, which is that it takes about three years minimum of sustained energy for a brand or concept to be known.

In those first three years, I try to stay totally disconnected from whether or not it’s “working.” Likewise, when I start a project, I’ve already cleared the hurdle in my head, “Am I willing to hang on with this idea for three years, knowing full well that for some amount of that time it will be dragging me through the mud?” And that mud could be anything – feelings of failure, self doubt, flaws revealed about the model, cash flow problems, partner problems, etc. You have to disconnect yourself from those negative emotions.

If anything, those bad times may actually be positively correlated with success. Maybe it’s just survival bias and that pain is proof of being alive, but all the good things are on the other side of bad things.

What was your marketing strategy?
The better your product is, the less marketing you need. We’ve done virtually zero marketing for that reason, but there are few things that generate passive leads that are beneficial. One was the mailer we ship vinyl records in – we designed our own that was better than anything we could find, and made sure it had the Whiplash logo on it. When we build an integration to a webstore like Shopify, we make sure it’s listed in their app store – basic stuff like that.

When our customers are happy, we grow. When they aren’t, we stall out. It’s as simple as that. Nothing beats the value of just doing good work.

Would we have grown even faster if we’d done good work and had strong marketing? Of course. And if you can do both, great. For us, improving the product has always seemed more valuable.

How fast did the company grow during the first few years?
The first two years were flat. Once we pivoted to eCommerce fulfillment, it was about 140% YOY.

How do you define success?
Daniel Pink narrowed work satisfaction down to Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose, with financial stability as a pre-requisite. That’s just as relevant as an entrepreneur and CEO as an employee. I used to have ideas of success based on X employees or Y buildings or Z revenue – some external measuring stick. Now I see those for what they are, which are ego drivers. Success means doing great work.

What is the key to success?
Resilience, Preparation, and Positioning.

Resilience because so many skills are based on time spent practicing, and that means getting up every time you get knocked down. Starting a business means you are going to be knocked down and/or want to quit a lot.

Preparation because you will be presented with opportunities, and whether or not they go in your favor depends on the condition you’re in at that moment. Warren Buffett can have a great insight on an investment opportunity, but it’s useless to him if prior to that he hasn’t amassed capital. You have to know in the bottom of your heart that the opportunity will come, and you have to get ready for it. That’s why we love characters like Jason Bourne – they are deeply prepared, and we get a vicarious joy when we see their preparations play out.

Positioning because you can increase the number of opportunities that come your way – you place yourself on their path. Whether that means working at a co-working space instead of your spare bedroom, going to conferences, getting listed somewhere there’s built in traffic, etc., you increase the number of opportunities you’re exposed to.

What is the greatest lesson you’ve ever learned?
Everything is negotiable, though many institutions work extensively to hide that fact.

What are some quotes that you live by?
“Luck favors the prepared mind” – Louis Pasteur

What are some of your favorite books?
Anything by Malcolm Gladwell, The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg, and The Snowball: Warren Buffett and the Business of Life.

I actually read more SciFi and Fantasy than business books these days. I like big fantasy series’ to help soothe my mind when things get stressful. Kingkiller Chronicles, The Expanse Series, and Dresden Files are all good.

It’s counterintuitive, but reading fiction helps me make better strategic decisions. By stepping away from a problem and coming back to it fresh, I can think more holistic and long-term, instead of reacting to the moment’s fire.

Tell me about one of the toughest days you’ve had as an entrepreneur
In the early 2000s, the IRS showed up on our doorstep to collect a year’s worth of late 941 payments. It was 10x the amount of cash I’d ever had at one time. They were going to padlock the doors if we couldn’t convince them we had a viable plan to get caught up, and I ended up writing them a check on the spot for a small fraction of it. That check alone drained our bank account, and the payment plan for the next two years kept us on the brink of bankruptcy.

When faced with adversity, what pushes you to keep moving forward?
The adversity is expected – on a long enough timeline, there’s a 100% chance of bad things happening. When bad things come, you’re just discovering the details of something you were already mentally prepared for. It still sucks, but it’s less scary than feeling like you’re somehow off the path and unrecoverable.

We’ve tried to foster a culture at Whiplash that problems are okay. What’s not okay is repeating the same mistakes. So when bad news comes, as it always does, we gather facts and abstract the problem to prevent as many future variations as possible. It keeps you focused on what you can control instead of getting caught up in the emotions of failure.

What advice would you give to young entrepreneurs?
Start your first business now. In my 20s, I would meet people in their 30s and 40s who would ruefully tell me how brave I was to start my own business. I didn’t realize it until I was 30 myself, but starting a business when you’re used to getting a paycheck and supporting a family is very different than what I did. When I started my first companies, I was young and broke with no dependents. It didn’t even seem like a risk, because my standards of living were already low. It wasn’t brave, I was just young.

Now that I’ve built up my skill as an entrepreneur to some degree, starting a business still isn’t brave, because I’ve done it before. But starting your first business in your 40s with a family to support? That’s brave.

Nelson Nahum – Founder & CEO, Zadara Storage

Nelson Nahum brings over twenty years of experience in the storage industry. He is known for creating innovative products and successfully bringing them to the market. Prior to co-founding Zadara Storage, he was a Fellow and Vice President of Software Engineering at LSI Corporation, where he was responsible for an engineering team of over 250 people. Previously, he was Co-Founder and CTO of StoreAge Networking Technologies, which was acquired by LSI in 2006. At StoreAge, he invented the out-of-band storage virtualization system, which led to a successful product that was adopted by HP and led to the acquisition of StoreAge by LSI. Nelson holds multiple patents related to storage systems. He has a BScEE from the Technion, the Israeli Institute of Technology.

Tell me about your early career.
I started my career as a software engineer and my first project was to develop software to diagnose and test disk drives, back in the days when there were special labs that could fix failed disk drives. Very quickly, I got promoted to develop the firmware for an AS/400 compatible Disk Array (called DASD by IBM). Since the beginning, most of my career has been involved with storage – first as a developer, then as a team lead, R&D manager, to founder of companies.

How did the concept for Zadara Storage come about?
I’ve been working in enterprise storage my whole career, but when I started looking at the AWS cloud, I thought there was a great opportunity to change the game of enterprise storage. Instead of building monolithic storage arrays that cost a lot of money to buy (Capex) and also to manage (Opex), we created an enterprise storage service that has the security, performance, data protection, and manageability of monolithic arrays, but also with the elasticity fully-managed and all the good things of the “as a service” model, even when it is on premise, at the customer site. Our software creates a cloud storage solution that is unique in the way that we separate the different tenants and workloads into a multi-tenant cloud. In our case, every tenant has the same capabilities as they would have with dedicated storage arrays but totally as a service. When you bring a new and unique technology, it is very powerful, but when you also bring a new business model, that is a game changer.

What was your marketing strategy?
Marketing is key for the success of a startup, otherwise nobody will know about your idea. In today’s world, in order to compete with the established companies with known brands and large marketing budgets, it is necessary to innovate in marketing all the time. We focused in the beginning on having good SEO for certain keywords and to generate enough content and distribution so people would know about Zadara. Most of our initial customers were enterprises, but they came to us. For example, our product is really good for people that need file storage in AWS, so we refined our messaging in such a way that anybody who searches for file storage in AWS will find us. It is very important to optimize organic search before you start spending a fortune in Google Ads. We always try to use the latest marketing techniques – the sooner you can use them the better because the big companies cannot move fast and this is where you can have an advantage.

How fast did the company grow during the first few years?
We launched our product eighteen months after starting the company. We saw immediately that this will be a hit based on the number and size of our beta customers. In the first year of sales, we sold $300,000. By the second year, we were at $2.2 million.

How do you define success?
Success for me is building a company where its employees, customers, and investors are happy and share the same vision. It is a three-legged stool. You cannot succeed without having all three legs. Over time, these three groups of people may have different interests but it is the job of the entrepreneur to align the three of them around the same vision and expand these groups as you grow.

What is the key to success?
First, build a really good team. Second, build a culture where customer satisfaction is a must. If the customers are happy, then it is a good base to start growing and attract the best talent and investors.

What is the greatest lesson you’ve ever learned?
The initial decisions at the beginning of the company are the ones that are harder to fix. The co-founders, business model, product, and initial investors are among those key decisions that are best to have right from the beginning.

What are some quotes that you live by?
“How to succeed? Think big.” “Better to be smart than right.” “It takes 100 smart people to solve a problem that a dumb person created.”

What are some of your favorite books?
I like Malcolm Gladwell’s books. David and Goliath is my favorite, but I also like The Tipping Point.

Tell me about one of the toughest days you’ve had as an entrepreneur.
The toughest part of this job is when you come to the conclusion that somebody you hired early on, and who did a good job for you in the very early days, is no longer capable of doing a good job during the company’s growth phase. It is easy to let go of somebody who hasn’t performed well, but it is very hard to let somebody go who believed in the vision and worked well early on, but became an obstacle for the company’s growth. Unfortunately, these tough decisions need to be made or else it can compromise the rest of the team who also believe in the vision and bet their careers on your success.

When faced with adversity, what pushes you to keep moving forward?
During adversity, it is always good to step back and look at the particular adversity and think that there are other things that can be much worse. Family and friends are the best possible support system. Fortunately, most of the problems in business are reversible (as opposed to health issues), so the best thing to do is to keep calm, stay healthy, and start thinking about how to reverse the problem, even if it takes time.

What advice would you give to young entrepreneurs?
Try to solve real problems and come up with a differentiated product. Even if many people don’t believe that this is the right thing to do, all you need is enough early adopters to get going. The early adopters should be the investors, new hires, and the first customers. If you succeeded to convince a handful of people that your idea is good, then it is probably good. Don’t be afraid to pivot if needed. New ideas typically require adjustments according to external feedback. And most importantly, don’t let the naysayers doubt your idea. Build a great team and focus on customer satisfaction.

Scott Wolfe Sr. – Founder, President & CEO, Melba’s Famous Poboys

Founder, President and CEO of Melba’s Famous Poboys, which has been declared by Inc. 500 magazine as the #1 fastest-growing company in Louisiana (2016) and recognized by GQ Magazine as one of the BEST restaurants in America.

President and CEO of Wagner’s Meat (Est. 1980). Wagner’s Meat was a chain of convenience stores in the New Orleans Area from 1982 to 2003. In 2001, Wagner’s was slated as one of the 100 Fastest Growing Inner City Companies in America (#31) by Inc. Magazine and listed in City Business as one of the Top 100 Private Companies in New Orleans (#77).

President and CEO of Chicken Box (Est. 2001). Chicken Box was a chain of restaurants in the New Orleans Area. In its first six months, it raced to become New Orleans’ #2 Fried Chicken Company.

Owner and Chairman of the Board of Wolfman Construction Company (Est. 1999). Wolfman Construction is a commercial contracting company that does work throughout the New Orleans Metro Area. The company was listed by New Orleans’ City Business Magazine as one of the city’s “Top 25 Construction Companies”.

Together as the owner of Melba’s Famous Poboys, Wagner’s Meat, Chicken Box, Wolfman Construction and American Amusements, Scott Wolfe, Sr. employed over three hundred employees for more than thirty years.

Tell me about your early career.
My wife Jane and I are statistical parents of teenage pregnancy. She was 15 and I was 17 when we had our first child in 1980. High school sweethearts and high school dropouts. Both GED-certified with three mouths to feed.

Working for Jane’s dad at a small inner-city grocery store at $3.50 per hour, Jane and I saved up $10,000 in two years, enough to parlay with a partner ($20,000) to purchase a bankrupt grocery name Wagner’s in the poorest and highest crime section of New Orleans. 40% unemployment and 50% welfare. We were on welfare and foods stamps ourselves!

Determined and perseverance, we bought out our partner within six months, and within a year, we had that store up to $100,000 per month in sales. That community embraced the courage and determination of two white kids with a kid coming to their neighborhood to earn a living. Within the next five years, we would have grown the Wagner’s Meat brand to ten high-profile locations throughout New Orleans, and for the next 30 years, Wagner’s Meats became a New Orleans icon.

Retired at forty-two (2004), selling all the Wagner’s locations while retaining the real estate. Diversified with ten locations across town enjoying significant passive income. However, Hurricane Katrina had other plans. August 2005, Katrina destroyed all ten locations leaving us with $125,000 per month in mortgages and no tenants or customers to pay it.

Chicken or the egg…who would be first? Neighbors coming home, redeveloping their homes or businesses hoping that customers would soon ensue? City officials quarantined everyone out of New Orleans for two months following the storm which meant I already owed the banks $250,000 in payments. Electricity would not come back for four more months. Now due? $500,000.

It cost $200,000 just to clean the stores out and board them up ($20,000 per store). It would cost millions more to fix them, and still no neighbors to sell to. Our insurance policies would not pay for another four years! Scary times.

It was my own roots that would save us. While Jane’s father was in the grocery business, my father was a general contractor. I actually grew up on job sites helping plumbers and carpenters and watching my dad make deals. Prior to retiring in 2004, I acquired my contractor’s license in 1999, as I had planned my retirement career as a property developer. I have been developing property since 1999. So, while Katrina took away my retirement and my nest egg, it also provided a path to recovery. This is where preparation met opportunity.

With billions of dollars in destruction in New Orleans, my construction company, Wolfman Construction, quickly grew into one of the top 25 construction companies in New Orleans. Providing jobs and income for me and my extended family, it provided the cash flow desperately needed to pay $125,000 per month in mortgage payments as well as new renovation costs of my real estate empire as each neighborhood survived one by one.

Ironically, it was Wolfman Construction and my retirement plan of property developing that caused Melba’s to be born. The year was 2012, when I stumbled over a blighted, closed building on a major corner of New Orleans across the street from one of my other developments which leases to Family Dollar. I usually look for high-profile corners located with intense rooftops nearby. This location fit my appetite and the price was right – $850,000.

I gutted it and developed it into a two-bay commercial space available for my next commercial tenant. Asking $10,000 per month, triple net lease. Six months elapsed and no one even called. Because of my retail experience in groceries/deli’s/gasoline and laundromats, I always develop sites that I can start the business in case I can’t secure a tenant. This was such a location.

Therefore, I planned the development of a laundromat and an ice cream shop. I also needed to develop the name and menu. Melba’s it was. Why? Melba’s was one of those old time names famous in New Orleans for an ice cream shop which went out of business in the late 70’s. I knew it would resonate with many locals and give us a head start. So, we opened as an coffee/ice cream shop with a laundromat attached. Out the gate, the laundromat did well, but no one purchased ice cream. We couldn’t even cover the labor costs. Trying to overcome the low sales, we stuck it out for more than a year. Then, we knew we had to close it or change the concept. So I said, “We know these neighborhoods when we had Wagner’s. We need to sell similar products if we want to turn this place around. That meant more investment in equipment and renovations as well as much more labor to run it.” Our experience told us we should do it.

While losing $10,000 per month in profits and infusing another $10,000 per month in redevelopment, $200,000 later we rebranded Melba’s as a po’boys shop. From the beginning, sales jumped to $1,000 per day. That’s when I hit my stride because I now knew we had a marketplace that would respond. All I needed to do was deliver a good product with great service and ADVERTISE! Our specialty.

We purchased local TV commercials and created a celebrity chef out of one of our longest-employed cooks, Mama Lois. Soon, everyone was talking about Melba’s. 1,900% growth over the next two years causing Inc. Magazine to take notice. Now we’re already a New Orleans institution with tourists flocking to see America’s busiest po’boy shop. We are now working on developing our own trolley tour company, Melba’s Trolley Tours LLC, which will bring tourists from the French Quarter to America’s busiest po’boy shop for a taste of authentic po’boys as the highlight.

What’s the secret to our ability to rise to the top of any business we invest in? I think it is a few simple tricks.

No matter how slick the ad or how much advertising we do, the food and service needs to be paramount every time. Our employees are well-groomed with uniforms and the facilities and restrooms are clean and festive. All the things any prudent business owner should do. Beyond the obvious, we have always spend a lot of money on marketing. Much more than our peers.

My last piece of advice is to “listen to the land.” I’ve always listened to the land…my customers. They will tell you everything if you listen. For example, I have one general manager and four shift managers who run Melba’s. Every Tuesday morning at 8:00 AM, we have our managers’ meeting. A pre-scripted agenda which covers all important topics, from security to housekeeping. Each week, I can barely get my team to tell me what we do wrong and how we can be better beyond my experience and earned knowledge. Thanks to technology, we use a cloud subscription service that records all of our telephone calls which I personally listen in the comfort of my remote office where I “listen to the land.”

My customers who call Melba’s for phone orders or other requests always tell me what’s wrong. Wrong with our food, or what we should sell and how was our service. Refunds, spoilage, complaints, attitudes, compliments, and atmosphere. They will tell us the unvarnished truth. All you need to do is listen.

What was your marketing strategy?
We are a fan of outdoor marketing – signs on our buildings, neighborhood billboards, and television ads.

How fast did the company grow during the first few years?
The first two years were flat. Very flat, barely paying the labor and losing $10,000 per month. We changed the concept and returned to our successful roots, calling back some of the Wagner’s Meat staff while pouring in marketing dollars. From 2015 to 2017, the growth was vertical. Almost viral.

How do you define success?
If this is a financial question, as it usually is in business, the answer is turning a profit. When you beat your industry with sales per square foot, gross margins, labor costs, and opportunity, then you have a roaring success.

What is the key to success?
As corny as it sounds, it is primarily product and service, in that order. Once you master that, then you can broadcast it to a wider audience to achieve more than your market share of customers.

What is the greatest lesson you’ve ever learned?
Integrity is everything. In business, it is NORMAL to have shrinkage, especially from employees (which means theft). While it breaks your heart that people you employ and emotionally-invest in would pilferage from you, it almost seems like human nature. However, as the owner and leader, you can never reciprocate, meaning you cannot get caught stealing or cheating an employee out of one cent, because once your integrity as a boss/owner is tarnished, it can never be recaptured. Bankers, suppliers, employees, and family are all holding you accountable at much higher levels than anyone else. You have to be different.

What are some of your favorite books?
Positioning by Jack Reiss and Al Trout. After reading this book in 1985, it prompted us to create one message (“You can’t beat…Wagner’s Meat”) and the rest was history for us. The same is true with “Melba’s Old School Po’ boys”.

Now that circumstances have changed at Melba’s, whereby we are Louisiana’s fastest-growing company in 2016 according to the Inc. 500, we’ve changed our slogan to “America’s Busiest Po’boy Shop”. Listen to the land.

Tell me about one of the toughest days you’ve had as an entrepreneur.
At the height of Wagners success, the U.S. Department of Labor audited our books, a three-year history. I wasn’t worried. Heck, we hired Paychex Corporation to handle our payroll and everything was on the up and up. “Give them the records,” I said. It took them three months and cost me $20,000 in CPA fees to oversee it.

Results day: They called us to their office to tell me the results. “Mr. Wolfe, the good news is over the past three years we only found about $15,000 discrepancies. The bad news…you have about 25 violations of child labor laws. Each violation is a $10,000 fine.” $250,000!

What child labor? “That 17 year old high school kid you employed who uses the slicer to cut ham for Mrs. Jackson…thats a violation.” Only 25 times? That should be a million times. Turns out, 17 year olds cannot use any motorized machines. “Are you serious? You are going to fine me $250,000 for employing inner-city high school kids?” That meeting was held at 3:00 PM that day.

At 8:00 AM the next morning, I received phone calls from every TV station in town asking me my comments on the child labor violations? Stunned, I asked “How did you know?” Turns out the DOL had their press release all typed up for broadcast the next morning. We were set up as the poster child to show how government bureaucrats are doing their job. Publicity stunt.

Because of our success, we were worthy of statewide exposure, making the front page of every newspaper and the teaser commercials for the upcoming newscast, along with the talk of every radio show. Our hard work and success made us a target. It would take us another six months for the DOL to accept a $10,000 settlement and a contract that says neither party is guilty of anything. From $250,000 to $10,000. However, it cost me $65,000 in CPA and legal fees for being a target of my own government. I’ve never trusted my government again.

My customers? I can trust. We never lost a penny of sales from that bad press, as all of our customers rallied to our side, telling us we appreciate what you do for our neighborhoods and our kids.

When faced with adversity, what pushes you to keep moving forward?
With 300 employed for more than 30 years and 20,000 customers per day, I’ve ran the equivalent of a small city. I call myself a 51% batter, which means I’ve succeeded at 1% more than the number of things I’ve failed at, yet I’ve learned from each of them. I’m as seasoned as Gumbo which means I can recognize adversity and problems in advance and I’m experienced enough to know that consistency and persistence will overcome them all.

What advice would you give to young entrepreneurs?
It takes twenty years to become an overnight success! True for actors and entrepreneurs. Focus on one goal and work 24/7 to accomplish it. Write down your goals and chip away at them. I look at all problems as an iceberg. I chip, chip, chip, and occasionally, I break off a chunk. Business is like that.