About Queensboro.com and How We Discovered our Path to Greatness
(which is not the same as actually achieving greatness)
By Fred Meyers, President and Founder
THE EARLY DAYS
Queensboro.com started out life as a part time hobby back in the late 1970's when I was a college student in New York City.
At the time, the Lacoste "Alligator" shirt was at the height of its popularity and Ralph Lauren had just started putting his little polo player guy on his version of the classic short sleeve knit shirt with the long tail and soft knit collar.
Growing up, both of my parents worked, and my job was doing the laundry. I first fell in love with the Lacoste Shirt, which was just about all my father wore when he wasn't in a suit and tie, when I experienced how great they felt and looked coming out of the dryer. In high school I got a few hand-me-downs (not that they ever really wore out) and never felt better than when I was wearing one.
In college, Preppy Madness raged with a fury. The alligator had become a status symbol of exclusivity and snobbery. That was a big problem for me.
Wouldn't it be great, I thought, if you could get that same great Lacoste quality polo, with any logo or design you wanted on it?
Well, life can be a funny thing sometimes. Through a series of coincidences too random to make up, I soon found myself in a dorm room full of more shirts than books, hustling to find likeminded iconoclasts eager to take on the preppy establishment.
What was it about those original Lacoste shirts that made them so great? It took a lot of questioning and digging around to learn, but what I ultimately came to understand was that original French Lacoste shirt was made from a fabric knit from a special two ply yarn that most modern shirt makers deemed too difficult to make and too expensive to use.
Thus began my education in quality, value and the importance of details and nuance in making the ordinary, extraordinary.
I couldn't find anyone to make a shirt for me using this special fabric and yarn, so ultimately, I had to figure out how to do it myself. First, from my office in the basement of an embroidery factory in Astoria Queens, New York, I had to find a yarn spinner that could make this special yarn, and then a knitter that could "convert" (the technical term) that yarn into the classic "pique" mesh fabric. The next search was for a dyer that could apply the color so that the fabric wouldn't fade, run or shrink too much, and then, finally, I needed to find a factory that could cut and sew the fabric to duplicate the perfect fit of that great original shirt.
It took me a while, but what I lacked in experience, I made up for in enthusiasm and resourcefulness. Finally, my supply chain was in place and production began!
Not bad for history major with a minor in Latin!
Fast forward a couple of years...
The color red is added to the original selection or white and navy, and our product offering is thus increased by 50%. 800 numbers allow for free customer phone calls and we place ads in The New Yorker, The Wall Street Journal and just about every airline magazine that was ever published. The phone begins to ring.
We buy a computer and printer for $5,000 and can now keep track of our customers without index cards. We send out our own personalized mass mailings. The fax machine is invented (another $5,000) and people can now send us logos and orders seemingly through thin air. We start producing catalogs, most of which get thrown out, and use up about a forest worth of trees, but generate a ton of business.
The Internet is invented and we stop producing catalogs and stop advertising in newspapers and magazines, which, for the most part, people have ceased to read.
We spend a lot of time sending email, producing web sites and giving Google our money. The economy crashes and Queensboro shrinks for the first time ever. Oh so gradually, the economy begins to recover, but doesn't quite, unless you are Amazon, Uber or Facebook.
And that, more or less, is where we are today.
OUR VALUES, MISSION AND QUEST FOR GREATNESS
So what have I/we learned in the last 34 years?
Probably my greatest revelation came two summers ago when I was swimming laps one August evening. Like many others, in 2014 we were still struggling to re-start the growth we had enjoyed before the 2008 recession, which had always been something I had taken for granted. "Why, why, why aren't we doing better?" I kept asking, as I churned out stroke after stroke after stroke.
And then I hit the wall and it hit me. We aren't doing better because we aren't better. In fact, we were achieving to the level of our ability. The conclusion was unfortunately as clear as the water I was swimming in. If we want to do better, we have to be better. And thus began our quest for Greatness.
I say this was an unfortunate revelation because the commitment I had made to myself 34 years ago when I started this original journey was to always strive to be the absolute best I could be, and never settle for anything less than a supreme effort.
As I started to think through the implications of my conclusion, it was clear that I had A LOT of work to do. My challenges were no longer about keywords, yarn and shirts but were now about leadership and management. And these were roles I had never been 100% comfortable in, having always been drawn more towards the creative aspects of marketing and product development.
So where to start? First stop was Barnes and Noble and a copy of Good to Great, as I felt that best described what I was trying to do. When I soon saw that many of the examples cited in the book as Great Companies had ceased to exist, I began to understand the extent to which things really had changed in the business world since the recession, and that I truly had my work cut out for me.
Once again, it seemed, just like back in the day when I had to figure out how to get my shirts made the way I wanted, this too, I was going to have to figure out by myself.
A lot of reading, research, great discussions and hard thinking followed. The first product of all of that was an expression of our values:
- Always do the right thing.
- Value relationships above all.
- Innovate and have fun!
The next difficult question we had to answer was why did we exist? What was our economic purpose in the world?
What we learned through this process was that what we were really passionate about was:
Helping People Share Who They Are with the World.
So now we had expressed our values and a mission and were feeling pretty energized by the progress we were making. The time had now come, however, to really get down to work. Casting about for the proper next moves, I had my next "great" revelation:
We will never be better than the people we have working here. If we want to be great, everyone working here has to be great.
Though a profoundly simple concept, what a tangle of challenges this idea has proven to be! Particularly when it came time to do more than just talk about it.
Underpinning this idea is a belief that great people, working together, will find a way to solve any problem they encounter. Ultimately, this is what defines their greatness. The answers to the problems - and then the strategy and leadership necessary to execute the solutions and innovations - all come from the people.
Simple concept - difficult execution. What does great even mean?
What we did next was make a list of all the qualities of a great employee. Reliability, intelligence, hard worker, teachable, empathetic, communication skills - our list was really long. I then took the list and looked at it. And then I looked at it some more. And then I saw that intelligence is kind of like teachable, and reliable is kind of like dependable, et cetera, and so forth, until I came down to four basic qualities which conveniently all started with the letter P.
And this list became Queensboro's Four P's of Greatness:
Do you have the basic skills and ability to do your job well? Attitude and hard work are important but they will never be a substitute for skills and ability. You don't have to be a superstar to be Productive, but you do have to be good at what you do. And this, of course, is often much easier said than done.
A great teammate will actively lift up all those around him or her. As simple as it sounds, not everyone believes or is capable of doing this. Many feel if they are Productive, they shouldn't need to be Positive. And while being Positive is like breathing to some, it truly can be very difficult for others. But we believe it is central to greatness. No single thing has so significantly transformed Queensboro over the past two years than the implementation of the Positive P. And it is not like we were so negative before! This emphasis on Positivity, however, has given us a new energy that now accompanies everything we do, and it is this energy that fuels us in our quest for greatness. One more important point about Positive? Neutral is not positive. Only Positive is Positive. If you are not actively lifting people up, you are not being Positive.
We all have our beliefs, but one thing we can all agree on is to treat others as we would like to be treated ourselves. When someone is principled, you know how he or she is going to act and you know they can be trusted. There can be no real communication without trust and without communication, nothing can get done. How do we want to be treated? This can also be a tricky thing some times. Some like the direct approach. Others prefer a little more subtlety and encouragement. What do we all want? Respect, feedback that is job focused and not personal, encouragement, and a little compassion.
OK. So someone is great at their job, and is positive and principled. That's a pretty good employee and teammate, right? No doubt about it. To be truly great, however, it is not quite enough. To be truly great you need that something "extra", and that quality we capture in our final P, Proactive. A proactive person doesn't just do his or her job and react to whatever is comes at them. By instinct and nature, they question, learn, push and strive. Proactivity is the special sauce of Greatness! Proactivity is what causes a person to stop and pick up a piece of trash instead of walking right over it, and it is what causes a boy scout to stop while rushing to the way to the ball field to help an old lady across the street. Proactivity is at the heart of our humanity and is ultimately where all innovation and positive change comes from.
One final note on the 4 P's. Perfect is definitely not on the list. We all possess the Four P's to varying degrees. One thing we now discuss regularly is that we all have our strong P, and our weak P, and how can we work accordingly to look for help from others where we are weak and help others where we are strong. No one gets a perfect score on all four P's though, and that is not only OK, it is actually great, for that is what keeps life and work interesting and fun - the constant challenge to learn, grow and improve.
ARE WE GREAT YET?
So how are we doing?
When we started this process we figured our best proxy for evaluating our progress would come from two places: What percentage of our orders, according to our customers, are "perfect", and how many on our team think we are great.
For obvious reasons, there was a lot of trepidation when we first talked about looking these things. And I do think it did take a degree of courage to start. In the summer of 2014, however, we began sending up a follow up email after every order asking the simple question: "Was your order perfect?" And there were only two possible answers, yes and no. At around the same time, we did our first official employee survey asking "Is Queensboro a great company." I have to admit when our first responses to both of these surveys came in in the low to mid 80's that I was pretty relieved and not totally deflated.
As I write this it is April, 2016. We have been working on this process for a couple of years now, and we continue to survey our customers after every order, and our employees periodically. Interestingly, each of these measures has improved in tandem, so it is hard to tell which is driving which. For both, however, we now regularly score in the mid to low 90's. So while we clearly still have plenty of work to do (our goal is 95% - Perfect is not one of the Four P's!) our progress has been steady and certain and our commitment to the process has been very energizing.
What has been the biggest challenge throughout this process? Unquestionably it has been the emotional roller coaster that change invariably brings. By committing to greatness as we have done, we have taken away the seeming luxury of not acting on something that is not clearly great. And that puts a lot of pressure on everyone, for improvement is a continuous and constant process. But this is where the importance of Positive and Principled come into play. This indeed has been hard work and there have certainly been days and times when it just all seems overwhelming, impossible and overly idealistic.
Then we go home, be with our families, and start again the next day.
Interestingly as the vision for Queensboro has been laid out and refined, there have been a few who have opted out. We have respected and supported that decision 100%. We recognize that this is a bit of a crazy, radical idea, and it is not for everyone.
For the most part, however, what has changed has been less who we are than how we work.
We still, and I am sure always will, struggle with coming 100% together on the need and drive to be Proactive, and seek innovation and improvement constantly, every day, in everything we do. Indeed, this is constant, relentless work. Our progress has been steady though, as we believe is reflected in our improving numbers. We also continue to struggle to continuously think hard about what we are doing in light of day to day pressures to get our jobs done, meet our goals and targets, and take care of our customers' immediate and long term needs.
But with all the challenges and difficulties, we remain full bore in our commitment to the process of becoming a Great Company. As a potential or existing customer, it is important that you understand this. In considering starting or continuing a relationship with us, know that as far as we are concerned, ultimately our Greatness will be measured in the quality of our relationship which will be determined by how well we serve you.
For while we talk in terms of what we need to do to be great, our mission is to help you share who you are with the world! So when that day comes when you stand on that mountaintop and shout to the world "This is who we are, and you need to know that." we will have played our part in making you look, and feel, Great!
Thank you for your time and consideration. I welcome your comments.