Q&A: Houston entrepreneur discusses big exits, startup advice, and his new book
Jay Steinfeld is a household name — at least within Houston's growing innovation ecosystem. Steinfeld founded Blinds.com and, along with his team, grew it to a $100 million company before exiting to Home Depot in 2014. Over the past few years, Steinfeld has had time to reflect on that empire he created and recount his lessons learned in a new book.
Lead From The Core published this week, and Steinfeld took some time to answer some questions about the new book for InnovationMap. He also shares some insight into the acquisition process and advice for fellow entrepreneurs.
InnovationMap: You founded Blinds.com and exited the company to Home Depot — this is lauded as one of Houston’s big exits. What did this acquisition mean to you as a Houstonian?
Jay Steinfeld: Blinds.com ended up being far greater than what I ever believed was possible. I had no vision as to what it could become. I had no vision as to even what the internet was at the time I started. I knew nothing when I started — I didn't even know you could sell things online. So it's kind of a shock in one way, because we just started as an experiment and not to get rich or to build something massive. It was a marketing experiment and that was all, it was, we had no business plan. We didn't know what the total addressable market was. I didn't even know what a TAM was at the time. It was just an incremental step to improve my drapery shop. So now that we have developed that into by far the number one online retailer of blinds in the world and acquired by Home Depot, it's just so satisfying and so gratifying to know that all the little things that we did with all the people who were so, so much a part of it — like Daniel Cotlar, Tom Cabanski, Larry Hack, Steve Riddell, Marilyn Franks, all these people who, I mean, no one knew who we were. We were nobodies, but we were able to do something and become better than what even we believed was possible.
And that's actually the greatest thing for me — that so many people elevated themselves and either were a part of the success and felt like they were consequential in developing something that was consequential. They were a significant part of that, but they evolved along with it. And are either now still with the company prospering flourishing or they're now with other companies doing the same thing. Omair with Cart.com — starting as an accounts payable cost accountant and working his way up. And now, you know, the story there. It's amazing. So I think the fact that we were able to build these teams and do something of consequence and have people feel really good. It's not about how much money we made, but how much we really impacted ourselves and how we helped each other. And that was the key. We, we brought humanity into the workforce and show that having a culture of people first really does work. And it's not just a bunch of talk.
IM: I think when you look at some kind of growing and successful innovation ecosystems, they start with a couple companies that made it big, created a legacy and a group of successful entrepreneurs that then inspire others. Do you see Blinds.com kind of within the Houston innovation ecosystem?
JS: But I never, at the time, believed that was the case because we were within ourselves and didn't really see a responsibility or anything other than to what our own mission was. Looking back now and seeing how many people have succeeded and how other companies have used our success and even been able to get funded and to bring attention to Houston as a place where big exits can happen. That's a good feeling, but at the time I didn't really reflect on that.
IM: Your book came out this week — what did you want to accomplish with Lead From The Core?
JS: The book was originally written so that the people at Blinds.com would know what got us to where we were and would use it as the foundation for continuing what that success was all about. As I began teaching and expanding my influence throughout the community nationally, I realized that there were many entrepreneurs who could learn from the same success, the techniques, the strategies, "The Four Es" that were really the, the secret sauce of the company, the reason we were able to beat Amazon, Home Depot, and Lowe's, and why we got so much money as a result of it. I then expanded even more because people were saying, you know, I don't necessarily want to start a business, but I want, I've got an entrepreneurial bug and I want it to apply to my career. And for those people who feel stagnant and wanting to grow, these principles apply not just to a business, but to life into career trajectories. And that's been particularly satisfying because it was always about helping people become better than what they believed possible, not about the mission of Blinds.com itself. That was the mission, helping people. And now that people are re it's resonating outside the business world to any type of career, that's pretty cool. And now I realize that the audience is much broader than what my original intention was.
IM: What’s the biggest thing you want readers to take away from the book?
JS: I think if he can do it, I can do it. I think that's really it. It's not as hard as people think. I mean, it is tedious and you have to stay immensely focused, but it's a simple process. If you don't get so static in your thinking, and you're more expansive and open to possibilities — possibilities of you changing of you improving, and you're improving everybody around you — and that if you have the time and a little bit of money, then you can incrementally improve enough and fast enough that you can build something of significance too.
IM: What did you wish you had known before starting the process?
JS: I actually wish I hadn't known any of this beforehand, or I might not have started. It's it is intensely grueling. It's not just the writing process, which in itself is hard — and the editing process, the rewrites, and the different types of editors that we've been involved with publisher — it's just the business of a book. It's it's everything. It's getting a publisher, getting editors, determining artwork for the cover and for the interior artwork, the publicity for the book who narrates it the whole process of audiobooks and rights. It's like starting a company. If you knew how hard it was going to be, you've might not have started it from the first place. So, but that's one of the things that was great about and be starting a business. I had no idea what I was doing, and I knew as much about writing a book, as I knew about starting a business. And that gave me an advantage because I didn't have bad habits. I didn't have a predetermined understanding as to what had to be in order for this to work. I would just meander through experimenting, being curious, asking for a lot of help, helping having people express themselves so I could get diverse opinions — like I did making business decisions. And that's what I want people to get from the book — that they can make these little decisions. And if it doesn't work, you stop. If it does work, you do a lot more of it. And that's what I did with the book. It's been fun. It's exactly what my "Four Es" are — experimenting, evolving, expressing, and enjoying myself.
IM: That's so meta that working on the book was like the process of what you're writing about in the book. Could you see yourself doing it again?
JS: Yeah, I've got two other book ideas — one will be a lot easier because it's not about me. It's harder to write about yourself, but writing about something else will be a lot easier. And now that I know the process, it will be so much easier. The first time is always harder. Going back to what you said about "it's kind of meta," if your core values are something, then that means that's what you do. So it shouldn't be surprising to anybody that I am experimenting and evolving and expressing and enjoying, because those are absolutely true, authentic core values for me. And therefore that means that's how I behave all the time. That's what I do every day. Not as a goal or an aspirational idea — if people can understand what is absolutely true to them and not just who they want to be, I think they'll be able to do almost anything they want.
IM: You’re involved with several companies and even have taught at Rice University. What drove you to get involved in this endeavors?
JS: Well, I'm either on board or advisory board members of five different companies, and it's a diversified group because some are in the pre-A stage and one's a public board. When I was about to step away from blinds.com, the idea was how do I keep having an active role in helping companies, but not be so active that I'm up to my eyeballs every day with the primary responsibility. I've got two in Austin, one in Chicago, one here, and then the other one's in Tampa.
The first thing I wanted to do knowing that I was going to be leaving Blinds.com was to start teaching in Houston, and this was while I was writing the book. So, it gave me an opportunity to bounce off ideas in the classes while writing and seeing what would be good to put into the book. It was like comedians going to small markets first and testing their material. That was fun, and I found that the things that I was teaching them was outside the normal courses that they were taking. I was providing that more personal introspective view while they were learning all the true skills, like evaluating markets, discounted cash flow and things like that. And that was very exciting for me to be involved there, especially with such a prestigious school like Rice. Al Donto was the one who I teach with, and he's been a great mentor and a great facilitator of that process.
This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.