Leadership + People: Episode 43 - Ryan Moss - Part 1 of 2
In this episode Ryan Moss shares the history of Little Giant Ladders and the struggles of cheap knockoffs, wildly successful infomercials and how finding the correct why not only rejuvenated the company but gave everyone a greater reason to get out of bed.
- Choosing to not fight a knock off legal battle but instead put money and time into new strategy [00:56]
- A slow start that eventually lead to global brand awareness [04:45]
- Do not innovate for the sake of innovation, innovate to fill a consumer need [08:25]
- The ladder as a life saving device, not a commodity [08:25]
- Enjoy the process and do not be afraid to take a sick day or some time off [16:05]
Sinek, S. (2009). Start with why: How great leaders inspire everyone to take action. New York, N.Y.: Portfolio.
This episode of Leadership and People was originally released on: July 17th, 2018
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.
JL: Today on the show, we’ve got Ryan Moss.
Ryan Moss: “Focus all of our efforts on designing products that address the five leading causes of ladder accidents. And knowing that safety training in America has been on the rise. And dollars spent in keeping employees safe has been on the rise and yet accidents and injuries at the workplace and on ladders, is still on the rise.”
00:51 JL: Ryan thanks for making time.
RYAN MOSS: Yeah. Great to be here. Thank you for the opportunity.
00:56 JL: So for people who don’t know LIttle Giant Ladders, can you explain to people, kind of, a bit about what’s different about the product and maybe some of the success highlights about the business?
Knock-off to Infomercial
RYAN MOSS: Sure. We’re, Little Giant Ladders, is about a 45 year old company. The founder, Hal Wing met a German painter who was an inventor, many years ago. They became friends. He negotiated the rights for the U.S. Our ladders are different for the fact, at the least the one that we had for many many years, the one that most people know us by, is the aluminum articulating ladder. It’s one ladder does it all. So an A-frame, multiple sizes of an A-frame. It’s an extension ladder, a staircase ladder, lean to ladder, separates into trussels. So it really is a kind of one ladder does it all. The company was really founded on a toe to toe sales. So literally home and garden shows or trade shows. You’re in a booth doing a demonstration. People walk up if they have interest. You kind of go through the whole close. And they’d give their credit card and you’d ship them the ladder. It was really operated and sold the product that way for many many many years. We had probably very few dealers. I would say in the very early 2000s. In 2002 we had a knock off that came into the market. Showed that it was available at Home Depot for about, I think it was almost exactly half the price. And it sent shock waves through our company. As we had an American made product and here was a knock off that had hit the market. And so we went to work on how we were going to compat this. We still had 2 years left on the patents. But knowing the court system, decided not to fight it. Because we would have won but lost all the money in the process. And of course at the end not been able to do anything to stop them. So in 2003 we created an infomercial. And most, a lot of people, who know LIttle Giant Recognize us from the time that we had on the infomercial. And that’s a piece of our history where things went really really good. We had a wildly successful infomercial. Most infomercials fail. One in 100 work. We were incredibly blessed And ours was wildly successful. In the first year of running the infomercial we… I guess I’ll maybe backup a little on that. I don’t know how much of this story you want to hear right now, or if you really wanted to focus just on what’s different about our product. Tell me how far to you want to get into that?
04:16 JL: Well I’m just thinking for the people across the world who might be listening or even just across the country that may not be familiar with you. You know, they may not think of a ladder company as being super successful. But you guys have made a huge dent out there. And so just giving people a bit of a sense of like, you know, what somebody might think of as a small ladder company is actually a force to be reckoned with.
RYAN MOSS: Well maybe I’ll just quickly zip through the rest of the story.
04:45 JL: Yeah.
RYAN MOSS: Really help answer that, how we got to where we are today. So this idea of creating an infomercial sounded well and good. We’re used to demonstrating in front of people. And we figured hey why can’t we just do it on TV. It’s probably best that we didn’t know what we know today which is that they rarely work. We didn’t have any money for the infomercial. The founder of our company Hal Wing literally bet the farm, because he had a little farm that he leveraged to get the money. He spent 1 million dollars we didn’t have to create an infomercial. Of course this brought new life to all of our employees. People were excited, we were going to make it. We had salesmen prior to this say there’s no way I’ll be able to sell a ladder again because I’m selling it at double the price of one that’s in Home Depot. We did our first airing and at the end of the day of course everyone was excited. And the first airing we received 4 phone calls and sold 1 ladder. And everyone was deflated as you can imagine. And then people again like ‘oh I’ve got to find another job. This isn’t going to work’. We as I mentioned, spent 1 million dollars we didn’t have and 8 months time doing this. And what appeared to seem like a flaw really wasn’t. Fortunately someone who knew the infomercial business said ‘hey you closed 25% of your calls. That’s not bad.’ We went to work again. We tweaked the show. And it was wildly successful. We grew by 600% that year. The next year we grew by another 500%. We were incredibly successful. It branded Little Giant globally. I traveled across the country and around the world and people recognize the Little Giant Brand. And most of that’s from the infomercial. And of course that also drove retail. We were side by side with the knock off in Home Depot selling at double the price and wildly successful there and many other places such as Bed Bath and Beyond, Linens and Things and places you wouldn’t expect to see ladders because the infomercial was so successful. But like all successes or even your favorite song on the radio, if you’ve listened to it 10 times today next month you’ld change the channel if you heard it. The same thing happens in an infomercial. After a few years that success started to wane. And of course retail went away after that. We had shortly after that, 2008, not only did we lose the infomercial, lose the retail sales but we also lost the general contractor in the great recession. So it was time for LIttle Giant to reinvent itself. And we spent time and money that we didn’t have or maybe shouldn’t have at that time, in learning how to innovate. We went through the innovation process and learned a very valuable mistake there; is you don’t just innovate for the sake of innovation. You innovate to fill a need. And of course we didn’t recognize that at the time. And had some really really cool products that nobody wanted.
08:25 JL: [laugh] Yeah.
Finding the Why
RYAN MOSS: And so we don’t make those products any more. During this time I personally had kind of gone through I guess, career crisis. I started with the company in early 1984. So I’ve been here a long time. And really wondered; what am I doing, or what are we doing as a company? There has to be more to life than just getting up building ladders, selling ladders. And I stumbled across the book by Simon Sinek called Start with Why. And I love the book. Simon Sinek is one of the great minds of our time. Absolutely loved the book. Asked our management team to read it with me after I had finished. And so we went through and each week we’d get together and go through the book. And ultimately went through the process of discovering our why. If you don’t know the premise of the book, it’s that people don’t buy what you do they buy why you do it. So we thought we’d go through the process of discovering our why. We failed miserably the first time. We thought our why was chasing excellence. And we had all the rational in the world for why that made sense. You’re in a hurry and excellence is not achievable and so you’ll always be, you know, trying to obtain, you know, be better than you possibly can be. Any way, it sounded good. We rationalized it. Went on our way. A couple weeks later, I was about to board an airplane. I just couldn’t do it because when I heard it I just didn’t feel anything. And if you can’t feel your why you don’t have the right one. So I called our head of marketing, I can’t do this whole chasing excellence thing. I don’t feel anything. There was a long pause and he said I am so glad you said that. We feel the same way. There’s nothing there. So we went back to reading the book again. And we went through it again. During this time I started listening to a lot of people because of this innovation snafu we’d had, listening to a lot of people in our industry. And particularly those that were in the safety realm. I learned a statistic that I just couldn’t belief. And that is that every day in america there are 2000 ladder accidents. And 100 of those involved suffer permanent disability. And there’s a death every day in America on a ladder. And I thought that’s impossible. How could I have never heard that. At that time I was a board member of the American Ladder Institute. I’m currently the president of that group. But nobody was talking about that. When I learned that, I was shocked, somewhat embarrassed to be part of an industry that found that acceptable. So as we went through that process, when we finally came to our why, which is preventing injuries and saving lives; there was no rationalization. It was something we felt and not something we had to say or to justify verbally in our minds or anything. And that completely changed our company. Every decision we make now, is made with that why in mind. So if you come with an idea and say I want to do xyz, we say well is it going to prevent an injury and save a life? And if it is going to lead to that we will further the discussion. If it’s not, it’s the end of discussion. So all decision making has become very very easy for us. And of course it reinvigorated our employees because now they have a reason to get out of bed. Imagine thinking about this one guy who’s not going to come home that day. If we could affect his life. If we could make sure he got home, play soccer with his kids or go to his daughters piano recital or just spend time with his wife. That would be a cool reason to get out of bed and go to work. Every product we build now has to prevent an injury and save a life. And so we’ve focused …. This is a long answer to your question on why we’re different.
13:03 JL: It’s great though. It’s a great answer.
RYAN MOSS: We have focused all of our efforts on designing products that address the five leading causes of ladder accidents. And knowing that safety training in America has been on the rise. And dollars spent keeping employees safe has been on the rise. And yet accidents and injuries on ladders is still on the rise. There has to be something more than just those training, there has to be more than education. And we believe it is through innovation and product that is designed to protect the user from himself. A quick example of that is, we’ve all watched Christmas Vacation. And we all know that if we’re going to, we call it ‘griswolding’, right? We’re going to jump the ladder to the side versus get down move the ladder. And so what do we do? We overreach. That is an innate human nature type thing. And so as we talked to major companies like Comcast, Coca Cola, Exxon Mobil, and all that. Many many companies share what time of incidents they’ve had. And we’ve addressed those incidents through design. So we have an extension ladder that has outriggers that levels, so even if you do overreach, which we tell people not to, and we know they’re going to, it prevents the ladder from tipping over. I could go on and on about all the innovations. But for us when we talk about what’s different. The products are different. The people are different. Our why is different. But in the end what’s most important to us is we’re here to get people home safely at night. And we’re finding great success in doing that. Our competitors are all looking at how they can they make the product cheaper. And they’ve really made the ladder into a commodities. And we feel that ladders are not commodities. They are life saving devices. No one would ever rush to Amazon online to find the cheapest parachute they could find on a Black Friday Sale. And yet you find people trying to find the cheapest ladder they can possibly find on a Black Friday Sale. For what reason I have no idea. Because more people are killed on a ladder than parachuting. But we just feel differently. We feel there’s a whole blue ocean in the product, ladder product category. Even though it may be one of the oldest categories on earth. The ladder was invented before the wheel. Who knows Adam and Eve may have used one to get the fruit off the tree.
15:44 JL: [laugh]
Ryan Moss: Who knows. But we feel like there’s a whole, a huge opportunity to reinvent the category with the consumer, the end user in mind. And ultimately try to get them home at night. A long answer I’m sorry.
Smell the Roses, and Take a Vacation
16:05 JL: No, but it covers so much. In part 2 of the episode I really want to dive into some of those concepts. Before we end part 1 here. Let’s go maybe a different direction for just a minute. What’s a piece of advice if you could go back and give a younger version of yourself?
RYAN MOSS: You know, one thing that I’ve thought about quite a bit lately is I think maybe I didn’t take enough time to smell the roses, so to speak. Or to enjoy the process as much as I should have. I went first through 16 years of my career here at Little Giant without taking a vacation. I went the first 30 years without taking a sick day and trust me I was sick. And so I think that was, I believe that was a mistake. I think, I perhaps took… Now I could weigh that out and say well I started in manufacturing, sweeping floors and punching rungs and today I lead the company. So did that lead me to where I am at? Probably. But I still don’t know that it was the right way to do it. And so I would say probably not take things quite as, you know, life or death, or seriously. And maybe enjoy the process a little bit more. That would be one of those pieces of advice I would give myself.
17:50 JL: Yeah that’s great. I think especially for ambitious people it’s super easy to hyper focus on one thing in front of us right?
RYAN MOSS: Yeah. Far too often.
18:04 JL: Okay. Well I think this is a great place to cut off for part 1 of the episode. Everybody please tune back in, we’re going to hear more about these experiences from the shop room floor to the CEO of a big multimillion dollar company.
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