Home Articles Every entrepreneur should clean poo – literally – and create legend

Every entrepreneur should clean poo – literally – and create legend


sahil_merchant_iconMy last post seemed to strike a chord with many of you given the number of messages I received after it went live. There were two common themes to these messages.

1) People asking me for a coffee (you have to read my last post to understand why).

2) Other entrepreneurs relating to the role of CTC, where I said:

“At various times, we [entrepreneurs] take on every role imaginable, and if you are running a startup and you haven’t yet taken on the role of CTC (Chief Toilet Cleaner), then I would say that you are not the real deal!”

There are a number of reasons why scrubbing the toilet has been a hugely important task for me as a founder of a startup. Some of these include:

  • It demonstrated to my team that no job was too menial and that I too was willing to get my hands dirty.
  • It entrenched a cost-conscious mentality among my staff – if I was saving on cleaners and taking on this job, then it was definitely not acceptable for them to spend in an exuberant fashion.
  • It kept me grounded and ensured that suddenly being the top dog didn’t addle my brain.

More than all else, however, it was an additional component in the legend.

I don’t know if anyone has done any research on this, but I bet there is a correlation between entrepreneurs who succeed and entrepreneurs who have a legend built around them. I don’t mean being a legend. I am referring to a network of stories that create an impression or reputation around a person. This legend can set the culture within a startup organisation and end up defining how it operates.

I don’t think it is easy to build a legend as a leader. It is not as simple as cleaning the occasional toilet or two. That is why I used the words “additional component in the legend” and “network of stories”. Lots of consistent events across time seems to be what is required. The big impactful deeds interspersed with small acts.

I also think that creating legend has certain parallels with social media. If I actively tried to communicate my stories to my staff, I would probably have come across as a self-important tool (I’m waiting now for the inevitable “you are” comment). However, when your staff pass-on the stories in muted whispers, it becomes that much more powerful.

Mag Nation has provided me with plenty of rewarding, bizarre and at times painful experiences. Some of these no one knows about. Others were witnessed by staff and have been passed on. I will relate two here, and then explain why these stories have become important to Mag Nation.

  • When opening our Sylvia Park store in Auckland, after 36 hours straight of stocking and final preparation, we were all ready for opening day. We were about to go home for a good night’s sleep when we suddenly saw water seeping into our carpet from underneath. Within 10 minutes, half our store was under water. The food venue next door to us suffered a massive leak in their fire sprinklers and what felt like a swimming pool’s worth of water (mixed with a vat of oil for frying chips) escaped and flooded us. The two founders and our Operations Manager spent the entire night holding back a flood with towel cloths, drying carpet with a hair dryer and applying chemicals to the floor to absorb the greasy oil while the fire department fixed the sprinklers next door. We still opened on time. We worked 60 hours straight.
  • When opening The Third Floor at our Elizabeth St Store last December, my Operations Manager, a retail staff member and I worked through the night carrying over a thousand heavy books up flights of stairs, pricing them, labelling them, dusting them, and shelving them. Our staff member went home, but we continued working the next whole day, and then spent the next night sorting, ironing and hanging T-shirts. As we were running behind schedule for opening day, I recruited help. At 3am on opening day, my mother was ironing T-shirts to help out. We again worked 60 hours straight. After this, I slept in the office on a roll out camping mat.

I don’t claim that my experiences and actions are any different or more heroic than the average entrepreneur. Very few startups make it without these sorts of stories, and I could easily recount about a dozen more, perhaps even weirder occurrences if time permitted. However, the retelling of these stories has, in my opinion, played a clear role in our staff culture.

Many start-ups consist of a few key team members working in close proximity with common goals. The will and personality of the founder(s) influence the team and set the tone. The problem for a retail startup is that my store staff have little daily interaction with me. Ask them what I do with my days and it wouldn’t be as transparent as it would be for staff in many other startups. The traditional hierarchical divide between a retail frontline (who by and large do not consider their job to be their chosen career) and the CEO is about as big as it gets.

So if I waltz in at 10am, my staff are not to know that I have already had 3 meetings, the first of which started at 7am. They don’t receive the emails from me at midnight like my managers do. They don’t know that while I might leave work at 4:30 to beat the traffic and put my kids to bed, that I work at home till around 2am every morning.

And while none of this should matter, it bloody well does.

I set the tone. If I am a slack fat-cat, it becomes ok for slack fat-cat-like behaviour. The legend protects my organisation from this sort of complacency. My staff work damn hard, but they know that their leader is doing the same thing. Newbies are initiated into this culture of go hard or go home.

So much has been written about culture, but to me, it starts with a collection of stories. Start-ups have the opportunity to get it right from the get go.

With the founder being so pivotal, legend goes a long way, especially as you start to grow. In my case, cleaning the toilets formed part of the matrix of stories that have helped create legend and define our culture.

Amazing what cleaning a little bit of poo can do.

Sahil Merchant is founder of mag nation. Follow him on twitter: @sahilmerchant. His launch post can be found here.