Leadership + People:
Episode 17 - Carla Meine - Part 1 of 2

In this episode, Carla Meine shares her experience from corporate America to telecom services. Meine outlines her path in gaining venture capital from Tim Draper and by learning from past managers. 

Show Notes

  • The inspiration that to bring the work to the workers and what it took to convince the boss [02:22]
  • How to manage staff remotely and the powerful use of commission incentives [06:53]
  • Setting business terms with Tim Draper unaware of his status as the Godfather of venture capital [11:22]
  • A demotion that allowed for increased growth, training and mentoring [14:40]
  • The need to focus on quality improvements, not just getting money back to the bottom line [16:15]
  • The Role of social media in building Ideal Shape [18:10]
  • Meine’s to not overreact and don’t sweat the small stuff [19:46]

Show Audio

Show References

  • None of Note
Podcast-Episode-Art-17

This episode of Leadership and People was originally released on: January 16, 2017. 

Show Transcript

[BEGINS] 00:00

Welcome to Leadership and People. This is a series that pulls back the curtain on leadership by interviewing CEOs, Senior Executives and Entrepreneurs who had large exits. We ask these experts about how they built trusted networks to rapidly grow their companies.  And what advice they wish they knew if they could do it all again.

HOST – JESS LARSEN: Today on the show we’ve got Carla Meine.

GUEST – CARLA MEINE: “Alright, I’m just like- I go in his office. I’m like all “Hey! I’ve got a great idea. This is the business I’m going to do. [laughs] It’s a good thing I didn’t know what I didn’t know because I would have been too nervous to pitch any of these guys. And I would have thought there’s no way. But I just thought, this is what you do.”

00:46 JL: Carla, thanks for making time.

CARLA MEINE: Thank you. This will be fun.

00:49 JL: So you’ve built and exited a couple of businesses, with some pretty good numbers. 20 time-sing customer, er investing dollars.

CARLA MEINE: Right.

01:00 JL: Let’s hear a little bit about your career background here….

CARLA MEINE: Ok.

01:02 JL: …business background.

From Corporate America to Restaurants, Airlines and Teleservices

CARLA MEINE: Well I actually started in corporate America. So I went the route. I did business school. Came out. Started managed restaurants cause that was my passion. So I managed restaurants, seagally restaurants for about seven years. Then I went to Mrs. Fields Cookies for a couple of years. oh excuse me- GodFather’s Pizza for a couple years, Mrs. Fields Cookie for a couple years.Then Morris Airlines for a couple of years before they sold. And that’s when I started my own company; O’Currance Teleservices, back in 1994.

01:35 JL: And then when did you sell O’Currance?

CARLA MEINE: I sold O’Currance in 2007.

01:40 JL: K.

CARLA MEINE: And in the meantime my husband and I had started Ideal Shape. We were doing a fitness- trying to help people lose weight. Mostly his dad. His dad was 350 pounds. We were trying to help him. And so we started it and then we realized we were going to- our call center business was suffering, so we kind of shelved it for a few years. After we retired, cause we were going to retire after we sold O’Currance in 2007, realized that wasn’t going to work out. Then we decided, David’s son came to us and said ‘let’s do this online’. And that’s when we caught this idea of online fitness company. And that’s when we started Ideal Shape online.

02:22 JL: I love it. So I think it’s a really fun story to hear about how O’Currance came about. Can you tell us a little bit of that?

Bring the Work to the Workers

CARLA MEINE: Sure. So I was working for Morris Air. And we had half our holds. And that was back in the day when we were paying like 28 cents a minute for someone to sit on an 800 line. So it doesn’t take a lot of math to figure out we weren’t making money on $39 flights if people sat on hold for half hour. And so I was looking for a solution. I was the VP of operations. And the reservation center reported to me. And I went to an AT&T conference. Where it had a session called ‘Bringing the work to the worker’. And I caught this vision of, oh my gosh, we could have airline agents working from home. And so I brought it back to David Neeleman and he wasn’t super excited about that.

03:14 JL: Is this like Jetblue David Neeleman

CARLA MEINE: Yes. That’s the David Neeleman. So back in the day, before you know, you were probably even born, he was with Morris Air. And he helped start that charter company and then turn it into an airline. But when we sold the Morris Air he had a five year non compete. And after that, he came out – back with JetBlue. So anyway we decided to try home agents. I finally convinced him to give it a test. And so we took 20 of our best agents, that wanted to work from home. And we put them home and their productivity went up 15%. And the rest is kind of history.  180 agents later Southwest Airlines came in and bought us. And so I …..

03:57 JL: I wanted to talk about the family bbq though.

CARLA MEINE: Oh [laughs] That’s right. So initially David wasn’t really excited about the idea of home agents. He said “There’s no way. We can’t manage them” And I said “I can manage them. I know everything they’re doing. I know every stat. I can manage them remote. I promise you I can.” And he didn’t really like the idea. So he went to a family BBQ and his sister in law worked for us. But she only worked like 15 hours a week. And we actually needed agents to work more hours. So he went up to her and said “If you could work from home would you work more?” And she goes “Absolutely.” He goes “Like how much more?”. She goes “I’ld work full time.” And so he came back to the office that next week and he said “I’ve got this idea. We’re going to do home agents”. So we laughed about it. Everybody knew. But it didn’t matter. It was exciting, because we were going to get to do home agents. And so when Southwest Airlines bought Morris Air, their union contracts wouldn’t allow agents to work remote or part time. And most of these agents were part time. So I just thought, the idea is too good. I just have to do it. And it was one of those things. A lot of people ask you how an idea comes. And if they should start a business, how do they know if they should start a business. And one thing I tell people is “What is it that you think about when you don’t have to think about anything?” Because thats what happened with this idea. Like, I got this great severance package, two years severance plus my stock was converted to Southwest Airline stock like immediately. I really didn’t even have to work for a few years.  And I was a single mom so that idea kind of appealed to me. Like this will be great. I’m going to take some time off. But this idea of starting a telemarketing company with home agents just wouldn’t leave me alone. I’d find myself thinking about it all the time. I was still working for Southwest Airlines. I had a one year contract with them. And I didn’t have much to do because all the HR and supervision of the reservation agents all that was taken to Texas. So I would just start playing with this idea of starting my own company with telemarketing and then I’d go- “No no no. I’m going to take some time off.” But it was one of those things were there was no way- I mean I knew I had to start this business. It was one of those things were I just wanted to employe agents to work from home. Mostly women. We had men working for us to. But there was this drive that I had to help women be able to support their families. Because we had lots of women that were making $60,000-$70,000 a year taking inbound phone calls at home. So even though I didn’t get to work from home, I did help thousands of people work from home. So that was why O’Currance got started.

06:52 JL: You know this show’s called leadership and people.

CARLA MEINE: Mhmmm

06:53 JL: Why don’t you talk about how many staff you started with and what it grew to by the time you sold it.

Managing a Remote Staff

CARLA MEINE: Ok. So we started with 10 agents. And initially they couldn’t work from home because of course the technology to make that happen was difficult to set up and training and everything. So they sat in a room around a conference table. A phone would ring and they would run over and get it. That’s how we …You know, in 1994 that is how we would pop a script. Cause it wasn’t really a script. It was that phone number was that clients phone. [laughs] Later on, we had the technology to actually prompt a script. And they could go home and sell the product from home. When we sold in 2007 we had over 600 agents working for us.

07:38 JL: That’s exciting. So specifically with a distributed workforce like that I mean a lot of people recognize how much of America is becoming freelancers…

CARLA MEINE: Right.

07:47 JL: …and this kind of stuff. What kind of advice do you have for leaders about leading remote staff, above just managing them?

CARLA MEINE: Right. Ok. So we set it up, this is how we set it up. First off all there’s got to be a way, you’ve got to have a way to manage. Like, to rate their performance. You have to know if they actually are working I mean. There is that qualifier. In our situation it was easy because they had to log into the phone to take the phone calls. And that is how they got paid. Once they logged in, our clock- the clock starting ticking that we paid them an hourly rate, but what we really did is we commissioned them off their sales. So they made 9-10 bucks an hour back then which isn’t bad but that isn’t where they made their money. They made their money when they sold the product. And so when everybody, when a client would come in I’d say; Ok, let’s figure out what kind of commission program we can do for them. That wasn’t common in the call center business. They just wanted to pay a per minute fee, flat rate. And I’m like- No the reason you want to do this commission program is you’re going to get more sales. I said I’ll go against any call center out there and I will show you. We will do a head to head test and I will show you with a commission how I will make you more money. You’ll pay more, but I’ll make you more money. We never lost, we never lost any of those. So, I set it up so they could work from home. They came in. They did their training. Learned the system. Then we had a minimum requirement that you had to maintain to stay at home. So the home- working from home was the big draw, but the commission program obviously was what motivated them to increase their sales and make more money. But they all knew that if they didn’t keep their stats up, they’d have to come back and work on site. They didn’t want to work on site. So it was easy to motivate them. But we also brought them in every 2 weeks. And we did trainings and motivated them and kept them excited. I have a cute story. My son knows somebody who was a, was an agent for us worked for us for several years when we started the business. And she was there when we sold. And she was telling my son about a year later. She said “You know it’s interesting I always thought when people asked me, you know, ‘you know do you love your job?’ I love my job. I get to work from home” She said I always thought working from home was why I loved my job. And she said “But after Carla sold”, she goes  “I still got to work from home but I didn’t love my job anymore.” So the new owners came in. They took away a lot of the commission program. I mean I showed them how successful it was. And they were like oh we can put those dollars on the bottom line. No you can’t. Because those dollars don’t come in to you from the client unless they get the sales. So they were stupid. They were really not a great company. I mean an investment company to realize what made us successful. So they did that. They did other things that she said “you know what the job isn’t that satisfying anymore and I still get to work from home”. So it showed us something. It’s a lot more than just working from home or whatever it is you’ve set up. It is really about leadership and people and how you manage people and motivate them and inspire them and give them autonomy but have some rules around it and things like that. So it goes way beyond that. And that was a telling point for sure.

11:22 JL: And we’re talking about investors. Did you take investors early on in that business?

Seeking Venture Capital

CARLA MEINE: Yeah. So that’s another fun story because I just thought, you know, I… my banker introduced me to Todd Stevens with Wasatch Venture Funding saying you’ll probably need some venture capital. Oh no. I’ve got all this money from the bank. And I’ve got my own money I’m putting into this. Well then Southwest Airlines decided not to sell me the equipment for 10 cents on the dollar. Because they had all this equipment they weren’t going to use. So I offered to buy it and they were going to sell it to me. So all of a sudden I had to go out and pay full price because it wasn’t on the used market. It was all state of the art and it was all brand new. It was new technology. Nobody was doing home agents in 1994. And so all of a sudden my costs of startup went way up. So I thought, well I will talk to these venture capital guys. So I didn’t even know what venture capital people were. I mean I was like ok I need money. They’ve got money. So I meet with them and I pitch them, you know, just like I did the bankers what a great idea I have. So Todd says, “you know I want you to go meet Tim Draper. He’s in Silicon Valley.” And I had flight benefits with Southwest Airlines. So I jumped on a plane. I went down. I didn’t even know who Tim Draper was, you know, the godfather of the venture capital world. Alright and I’m just like I go in his office. I’m like all; “Hey I’ve got a great idea. This is the business I’m going to do. [laughs] It was a good thing I didn’t know what I didn’t know because I would have been too nervous to pitch any of these guys and I wouldn’t have thought–I would have thought there’s no way. But I just thought this is what you do. So they decided to invest in me and my business. And they gave me a number. And I thought, well I don’t want to give up that much of my company for that amount of money. So I’m like “No! You know what? If you want in, this is the deal”. [laughs] They took it. And I was like ok. From start to finish I had the money in 30 days. And I just thought that was how it was done. Later I learned- I was like “just go to these venture capital guys and they’ll give you money”. And people were like “uuuuhh no they won’t. We’ve pitched and pitched and pitched”. And I’m like “What do you mean?” I didn’t even… So that’s how I knew I was supposed to start this business. And lot of things fell into line. So. And Todd Stevens not only became my investor but he became a great partner. He was there to kind of guide me in some things that I didn’t know or you know introduce me to people when I needed introductions and things like that so. He was a great partner too.

14:05 JL: Well let’s talk about that. You know that business is more than just having a good idea and working hard.

CARLA MEINE: Oh yes.

14:10 JL: Talk about the value of meeting the right people.

Great Mentors and Managers

CARLA MEINE: Ok so, I think it starts with, you know, looking for people you want to emulate first of all. So I go and I look at- I had a couple of really great bosses in the corporate world. Debbie Fields was a really good one. We had John Sanchez was an excellent district manager. I learned a ton from him of how to treat people.

14:40 JL: Like what’s an example?

CARLA MEINE: Ok so, the Sea Gally… we expanded really fast. And so i got to be a district manager. So I became a peer to John. And Then the company got into some financial trouble so they decided to scale down. So they demoted me. And they wanted to keep me. They wanted me to still run a restaurant. But I was like; “there is no way I’m going to do that. I’ve already been a district manager. And John took me in and said “listen, you still have a lot to learn. It’s a great company. I’ll continue mentor you and teach you and then you’ll go get an even better job.”  And so he just showed me how making-  how helping people understand what their worth is, how their talents can be developed and expanded and that’s what people want to do. Ultimately people really do want to do a good job. And they want to do the best they can. And most of the time they just don’t know how to even do that. So he was really good at that. And then, Paul Beard he was with Godfather’s Pizza. He helped me see that you know, getting the numbers is how you get promoted. And as long as you do, you know, like I said, with really great people and do it ethically and all of that. But he taught me how to get the numbers. Like Godfather’s Pizza was really focused on year over year. And a lot of their other things so.

16:15 JL: Like what’s an example there on how to get the numbers?

CARLA MEINE: Well. The whole thing there is he would say; “yeah you can cut costs, cut costs  but i figure out how to increase sales. So he would show us how to take a store and turn it around by improving the customer service to such a degree that the revenue would ultimately go up. And then, because too many people cut costs and yeah they put temporary money on the bottom line. But they don’t put long term money on the bottom line. So he would show us how to increase our revenue and how to improve customer service, cleanliness, you know the basics of restaurants. But you know he was just amazing at he. He was really really good. But yeah so it’s partnership and meeting people and mentors and people that take an interest in you. I mean there’s… it’s just people. I mean it really is. I’ve often said, pretty much I can run almost any business if I have great people. Yeah I need to learn something about the- like when I took over the airline- when I became… in the airline business, I’d always done food. But I didn’t have to learn how to fly a plane. You know even though for a while there I oversaw the pilots. But I had to still manage people and get people to perform. So pretty much any business if you have a really great team you can be successful in most any business.

17:58 JL: Let’s talk about this idea of mentors and the right, you know, making the right connections in the business community, you know post O’Currance… [laughs]

CARLA MEINE: Yes. Yes.

18:07 JL: Right? You’re doing it all over again with Ideal Shape.

CARLA MEINE: Yes. Exactly.

18:10 JL: Tell us what it was like that time comparatively.

Social Media and Business Growth

CARLA MEINE: It was completely different because when we started O’Currance there was no social media. You know, email had just come into being and, you know, all these things. And the internet had helped us become an even better call center. But there was no social media. And all of a sudden our son’s saying “ok you’ve got to learn social media so we can figure out how to market this business”. I’m like “whaaat? That’s for kids, you know”. No. So I had to learn Facebook and Instagram and all these social media platforms I’d never even learned. So I went to a couple of groups that- in the area. I’m trying to think of a couple of names of them now. WTC women’s technology council. So networking with Cydni Tetro and that was really great. And then there was another group; something business. They were the ones who really introduced me to social media. And so we brought up a facebook page and just started experimenting with lots of things. And truly our business tripled in a very short amount of time mostly because of social media.

19:30 JL: That’s exciting. Well we are closing in a little bit on the end of part one of the episode.

CARLA MEINE: Ok.

19:37JL: When you think about… when you think about some of the best advice you have ever received. Or advice you could go back and give an earlier version of yourself.

CARLA MEINE: Oh yeah.

19:46 JL: What would that be?

Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff and Don’t Overreact

CARLA MEINE: Ok so I would think- I would think I would say to myself; to not sweat the small stuff, and not over react. I am focused and driven and so when things would go wrong, sometimes I would overreact. Reacting is fine because I think people need to see, around you, this is important. This is serious. This is, you know… But overreacting is actually counterproductive. And I think if I was going to tell myself anything it would be- don’t overreact because it doesn’t help anything. I’ll give you a really good example. In 2000, or in 1999 when we were facing Y2K and I had a database system that was not going to make it into 2000. Our phone switch, we were upgrading and it was going to make it. But our database wasn’t going to. So we were creating a new ordering system and all this. And we didn’t get to test it because T1 lines didn’t get in till December 15. So we tested it. It was during our slow season because it was Christmas time. Worked fine. And then the 3rd of January comes along. Our busiest time of year. We put 70-80 agents on at one time for an infomercial. And it completely goes down. I mean it can’t even save an order. It takes 10 minutes to save an order because just everything- The processing of it was way too cumbersome. We did not know this. And so all of a sudden, I mean, we are in crisis because we are back to taking orders on paper and then paying somebody in the middle of the night to put them in the system. And then getting them to our clients like a day late. Which my clients were great and they were understanding to a point. And my IT guy was doing everything he could think of. And I was overreacting. I mean I was getting really upset. ‘We’re going to lose the company.’ ‘You guys are going to put me out of business.’ ‘We’ve got to solve this’. And ‘We’ve got to fix this.’ And I remember one day thinking “Hey you’re not helping this situation. You know. You’re putting your people into a panic. And you are not helping this situation”. And I remember distinctly one day getting in the shower and going “You know, we need ideas and those ideas are not going to come with everybody so under pressure”. And I had this idea just pop into my head. ‘Why don’t you get back to 1999. You know your system worked in 1999’. And I’m like, ‘oh my gosh that is a great idea’. So I went to my IT guy and said we’re going back to 1999.  And he goes, “that’s not possible”. “The computer doesn’t know ok. Change the date to January”. At that point it was January 13th. So we did 13 days in January just about killed us. January 13th, 1999 instead of 2000. And I said “And at the end of the day we will do a data search and change all of the dates to 2000 and send them off to our clients. So that’s what we did. And everybody got you know into it. We then had to develop a whole new system. And we didn’t even celebrate 2000 new years 2000 until like November 15th. It took that long. We were in 1999 that whole year to solve that problem. But that’s what I’d tell myself is: Don’t sweat the small stuff and don’t overreact. It doesn’t help anything. Even if it’s serious. Your overreacting doesn’t help you. You’ve got to help people stay calm and that’s how they come up with solutions.

23:39 JL: I love it. Tune back in for our next episode. We’re going to get some more wisdom from Carla. Thanks everybody.

[ENDS] 23:42

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