I recently met serial entrepreneurs Ajay (pronounced “Ahh-Jay”) Kori and Jeff Sheely, founders of the scaling success story UrbanStems, Allay Lamp, and several other emerging ventures. The duo became friends while attending Duke University and, after starting their careers independently, came together to create UrbanStems.
Their entrepreneurial rise to success with UrbanStems has been classic: ups, downs, a “near death” moment, passion, investor wrangling, insight, increasing maturity, hiring someone else to run the business, and then—of course—starting their next venture.
We spent just over an hour together via Zoom as they told their story, including many of the hard leadership lessons they learned as the business evolved. Both Jeff and Ajay are humble, curious, intense, self-aware, and whip smart.
Their story is instructive and inspirational for entrepreneurs and leaders. To date, it’s a two-act tale featuring three crystal clear winning moves—patterns of thinking, really—that accelerated their remarkable and continuing success.
UrbanStems launched on Valentine’s Day 2014 with the aim to disrupt an outdated floral delivery system and provide a superior experience to its customers. Through expressive bouquets, plants, and curated gift options, they help people connect and feel more cared for, even from afar. The company currently employs a team of over 100 and offers coast-to-coast next day delivery and same-day courier service in New York City and Washington DC.
Mark: How did you split your roles as co-founders?
Ajay: It broke down cleanly to internal and external. Jeff handled the internal, especially operations before we had a dedicated COO. He managed the team on a day-to-day basis, managed our marketing activities before we had a CMO, and ensured that everything internal was working. I handled the external, bringing in early shareholders and, once we gained traction, lining up the seed round that allowed us to expand the team. In addition, I focused on recruiting people to the company to ensure we had the strongest team possible.
We defined our culture from the very beginning, and that’s before we even knew we’d be doing flowers!
Jeff: Ajay and I came together on leadership and the culture. We defined our culture from the very beginning, and that’s before we even knew we’d be doing flowers! We always talked about what kind of company we wanted to run and what kind of workplace we wanted to create. That’s something we did together since founding the company and the culture persists to this day.
Mark: I understand Valentine’s Day of 2017 was a “near death” experience for UrbanStems, about three years after you founded the business. What happened and how did you recover?
Ajay: The floral industry is quite unique in that you have these two days—Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day—where you get about ten to twenty times your normal business volume on one day. Especially if you’re a same day delivery company, you have to increase your operational capacity by 20x for a single day, twice each year. As you can imagine, bringing on 20x the employees, having 20x the space, and so forth is difficult to do. We had managed it in prior years and were able to make it work with 20x everything, except for our space. We just didn’t have access to that much space in 2017. What happened is mundane, but it led to a cascading series of failures. Our couriers came in, but then couldn’t find their bouquets on the racks because they were stacked three or four deep. So, we had to pull our preppers to help, which stopped production of new bouquets for later delivery windows. The couriers were going out late and fell behind on other deliveries. Then, a couple hours into the day when bouquets weren’t being delivered on time, we had a crush of phone calls from angry customers. This overwhelmed our customer service team, who could no longer talk to each customer about the bouquets that were missing. By the end of the day, we had thousands of deliveries that never went out on one of the most important flower delivery days of the year!
Jeff: Who we are as a company is creating the best experiences for our customers. We quickly decided to make it up to every single customer. We held an emergency board meeting to explain what happened, why it happened, and what our plan was to make things right. They said: “You’re doing the right thing. We’ll put up whatever money is necessary for you to execute this.” Support from our board, who were clearly aligned with our values, was key. We spent the next four days calling every one of the 10,000 customers whose delivery we screwed up. For each of them, we found out what their story was, what part of Valentine’s Day we ruined, and then did whatever it took to make it up to them. This included not only delivering the missing bouquets, but in some cases buying them plane tickets to spend time with their partner!
Ajay: When all was said and done, we surveyed the 10,000 customers and by a margin of 50-to-1, they said that they would never use another flower company other than UrbanStems again. It was a lesson for me that when our team and our investors are properly aligned behind the right ideas, you can get over any mountain.
The first leadership success pattern that emerged from my dialogue with this duo was an early and almost maniacal focus on getting the right people on the team. Jeff and Ajay took this further with a clever and powerful step they integrated into their hiring process to ensure each employee’s personal interests and aspirations were aligned with the goals of the business.
No matter how great a company is, each employee views that company through the lens of their life story.
Ajay: For us, our culture and the right people came down to two things: smart and nice. As a company, that’s how we want to be. In terms of hiring, we believe everyone is the protagonist of their own story. No matter how great a company is, each employee views that company through the lens of their life story. We wanted to help our people get to the next chapter of their story. In every first interview, we’d ask this sequence of questions: (1) Where do you ultimately want to go and what do you want to be doing? (2) What is the next goal or rung on that ladder for you to attain? (3) Does the potential role we have for you here help you get to that next rung? We focused on finding people who we could challenge and help them get to wherever they wanted to be. For many, that was starting their own company, and what’s been great is that since we started eight years ago, many of those people have started successful companies.
The primary job of a leader is to point to what matters most. Ajay and Jeff did exactly this, repetitively and unceasingly, over time. What mattered most to them? Their cultural attributes: smart and nice.
We wanted to ensure that we reinforced the culture first and foremost, before getting down to business.
Jeff: We spoke about our culture a lot. Maybe people would say too much, but every team meeting, every gathering, everything we did, we’d talk about it. Even in our board meetings! Ajay would start board meetings talking about our “smart and nice” culture to the investors—we put it at the core of everything we did. We wanted to ensure that we reinforced the culture first and foremost, before getting down to business. This habit is what helped ingrain it and make it stick so well over time.
As I’ve written before, capability outweighs capacity and relevant prior experience is priceless as you scale your firm. This often involves knowing when to step back as a founder to let more capable and experienced people run the business. The way to become an $XX million dollar (fill in the numbers to match your aspirations) business is to begin acting like an $XX million dollar firm today. And the way to do that, as Jeff and Ajay did, is to hire one or more experienced leaders who have already operated at that level.
Ajay: We were clearly not set up for the volumes that we were growing into. As a result, in mid-2017 we hired a Chief Operating Officer (COO). Seth Goldman was the US CEO of HelloFresh and had grown that business from $20+ million to several hundred million in revenue during his tenure. HelloFresh was a similar business to ours, delivering perishable items daily to consumers.
UrbanStems is far ahead of where we would have been if Ajay and I remained in place.
Jeff: In 2018, we continued to grow rapidly, and it became clear that our biggest challenges were operational. It was about optimizing supply chain, optimizing delivery, optimizing the operations of the business, what we offer, the branding, all of that. That’s when Ajay and I realized we’re not optimizers, we’re builders. We approached Seth and offered him the CEO role. Thankfully he was game to take it on and has done a phenomenal job ever since. UrbanStems is far ahead of where we would have been if Ajay and I remained in place leading things we weren’t particularly passionate about.
By stepping away from day-to-day leadership roles at UrbanStems, Ajay and Jeff had time and space to create their next venture: Allay Lamp. The lamp is a non-pharmacologic form of relief for migraine sufferers and others with extreme light sensitivity. It’s also fantastic at helping just about anyone relax.
Harvard Medical School Professor Rami Burstein discovered a natural band of green light that allowed people with light sensitivity to get back to their everyday lives. His dream was to create a lightbulb to help them function without discomfort. After talking to lighting experts about mass-producing his research device’s $50,000 bulb, the first cost estimate was $20,000—clearly not viable for a consumer product. A short time later, he began working with Ajay, Jeff, and their third partner who were eager to make his dream a reality. The team contacted the engineer who designed and installed the lights on the International Space Station, who then helped design an affordable light that delivers the precise band needed. Within a year, Allay Lamp was born.
Since then, as you’ll see, Jeff and Ajay have begun applying the same leadership success patterns that worked so well for them back at UrbanStems.
Ajay: My father is one of the top migraine specialists in the country, so I grew up around a lot of migrainers and the things that my dad worked on. It’s the third most prevalent illness in the world and there is no cure. Even worse, migraine drugs work for only about 50% of people and they have pretty bad side effects. When my father’s longtime friend at Harvard Medical School told him he’d discovered a specific frequency of light that provided relief for 90% of people, I became interested right away. It became clear that this was something that could make a huge impact on people’s lives if they knew about it.
Our goal is to get this in as many hands as possible—to help as many people as possible—by educating them about the benefits of narrow band green light.
Jeff: Our challenge with Allay is that no one is actively looking for green light. If you’re a migrainer and you’ve been spending thousands of dollars a month on medication, it’s a tall order to believe that a $180 light is going to make you feel better. Our challenge is to educate and then sell. We’re good at the selling. The education piece is what we’ve been learning and scaling up. Our goal is to get this in as many hands as possible—to help as many people as possible—by educating them about the benefits of narrow band green light.
Mark: One of the happy discoveries along the way is that narrow band green light benefits non-migrainers as well. How did you figure that part out?
Jeff: Dr. Burstein anecdotally knew the light helped with other things and that people found it soothing. The first day he showed it to us, when he turned off all the lights and turned on just this green light, we could feel a difference. As you’re sitting there, you get a little more relaxed and you start to feel it. When we started getting it in people’s hands, we began asking how they use it and were able to identify non-migraine uses. For example, NFL wide receiver Brandin Cooks uses Allay to relax before games during the football season while his wife used it at night when she was feeding their newborn baby. The more stories and testimonials we heard, the more we were convinced that just about everyone could benefit from our product. This makes us even more committed to getting it out there however we can, because it’s just life changing for so many people.
Mark: I feel compelled to comment on the design and packaging of the lamp—both are beautiful. Mine felt like a gift as I unwrapped and opened it, which makes total sense to me now as I think back to how customer driven you were at UrbanStems. I’ve been using my Allay Lamp for about two months. I keep it next to my bed and turn it on for 15-45 minutes before I go to sleep. I am definitely falling asleep more readily than in the past. I find the green light really relaxing.
Jeff: Awesome! That’s exactly how I use it too.
Mark: Thank you both for sharing your story and these leadership lessons with my audience.
If you’d like to learn more about Allay Lamp, check it out here. The lamp is great to help entrepreneurs and leaders unwind at the end of the day—and it’s sure been working for me! Jeff and Ajay have very kindly offered a $25 discount for my readers, which will automatically be applied at checkout with this link.
Imagine how great it would be if your employees were more independent, better decision makers, and did the “right things” more often without needing much guidance. Although we intuitively know that these attributes eliminate countless leadership headaches and set the stage to create scale, it’s shockingly easy to elicit the exact opposite behaviors from your team.
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