As part of my series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Colin House.
Colin House is an entrepreneur at heart and a highly seasoned professional in the sleep space. He entered the sleep market in an unusual way — through a friend who had assembled a team of brain scientists that developed a sleep program using the healing benefits of sound, founded on research to help NASA get astronauts to sleep in space. After acquiring the technology, Colin developed an app called Sleep Genius and took it to market. Sleep Genius provided something the industry had never seen before — it focuses on treating sleep problems, not just tracking them. Recruited to Intellibed as CEO in 2014, he contributed his leadership and high-tech experience with disruptive technology to the company., which differentiates itself in the sleep category with its disruptive Gel Matrix®. He is responsible for leading the overall company strategy, overseeing the sales team, establishing strategic retail partnerships, guiding organizational initiatives and determining unique POS retail activities. Over the last five years with the company, Colin has expanded distribution of their high-end luxury products at retailers from coast to coast, introduced Sleep Genius to the mattress and bedding industry, and championed the launch of the unparalleled Sleep Genius Smart Base. Over the last three years Intellibed has doubled its business each year, making it the fastest growing luxury mattress brand.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I grew up in South Africa and after high school served a two-year mandatory military service. I started playing volleyball in the army and fell in love with the game. After finishing my tour, a good friend and I decided we wanted to follow our dreams and passion, so we sold everything we had, bought two tickets to LA and off to America we went. We lived in a car for several months while we visited all the universities in Southern California and introduced ourselves to the volleyball coaches. We were ultimately offered scholarships to play collegiate volleyball and later also played pro beach volleyball. I was fortunate enough to experience that the American dream is alive and well, and I am most humbled and grateful for this incredible country and the freedoms and opportunities it offers to those who are hungry and want to take advantage of it.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
I can’t think of one that comes to mind, but mistakes are rarely funny, they are mostly very costly and extremely painful.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
My greatest mentor was a former Vietnam sniper who was very much a “challenge the status quo” type personality. He taught me to always push the boundaries, explore out-of-the-box ideas and strive for “innovation wins.” He encouraged me to read books on leadership and understand how the great ones became so successful. One of them was “Leadership Secrets of Atilla the Hun” — it was unconventional, yet so inspiring and powerful.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?
Over 20 years ago, Gel Matrix (under the brand name “Isoflex”) was used by Gaymar Industries (later purchased by Stryker Medical) in a line of hospital beds. The beds in clinical trials were proven successful to treat and actually cure stage IV bed sores. The reason it was so successful was due to the incredible pressure relieving properties that the Gel Matrix offered. To this day, Stryker Medical uses the Gel Matrix to help reduce pressure and bed sores for these types of patients in long-term care and burn units. The medical origins opened the door to launching Intellibed and taking this great technology to the consumer market, where everybody can benefit and get a better night’s sleep. We’re not just a mattress company, we’re a sleep and health wellness company. Our mission is to improve the quality of your life by giving you a better, healthier sleep. Through our innovation, our vision is to be the number one manufacturer of sleep technology to treat sleep issues and enable a healthier life.
Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?
Leadership comes in many forms, but one of my personal driving principles is transparency, especially during turbulent times. When COVID-19 hit and the world was turned upside down, our employees were uncertain about their careers, the future of the company and more importantly, how they were going to pay their bills the following month. My leadership team and I were very transparent and open with everyone, sharing where we were financially strong, where we were concerned, and what we were going to do to support and help them through this. Fortunately, we had planned ahead and were well prepared for an event like this — but having everyone understand where things were made the world of a difference.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
The only constant in life is change and failure is a critical part of being an entrepreneur. I have had many failures and that is where the hardest and most valuable lessons are learned. Giving up was never an option, but some days it was very hard to get out of bed and keep going. It has shaped who I am and how I operate a business. I have had the opportunity to be an adjunct profession teaching entrepreneurship at the University of Utah for the last few years. One of the favorite sections I included in my curriculum was “How Not to Start a Company”. Filling students minds with illusions of grandeur building the next Facebook is great and inspiring, but equally as important is helping them understand the path to success is littered with failure. There are so many great lessons to be learned from failures.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
A true leader leads, communicates and sets a clear path forward through the challenging times. Having everyone know what the vision is and having them rally them around it can transform and empower the entire organization. When COVID-19 hit, we actually had employees proactively offer to forego their salaries so they could support us if we needed. That was a very humbling moment for us as a leadership team.
When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?
Give people hope and show them a clear path forward.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
I feel it’s important to be direct, upfront and honest in delivering difficult or bad news. People appreciate candor. When delivering unfavorable news, don’t make them guess what they are being set up for.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
Innovate and adapt…stagnation kills business. We must ensure that fear does not dictate our future. Far too often I see people and companies suffer from analysis paralysis. Change brings opportunity — and if we look for the problems that need fixing, incredible things can happen.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
Innovate and adapt.
Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
- Get defensive and climb under a rock…miss out on opportunities
- Keep employees in the dark…uncertainty breeds distrust and fear
- Poor financial planning…find ways to cut and manage expenses
Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?
Sometimes it is impossible not to lose growth traction, but challenging times can also open up opportunity. Make sure you are always looking for gaps and problems that need solving. A wise mentor once told me to never let a good crisis go to waste.
Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Communicate communicate…be transparent with employees: Treat employees like you would want to be treated. Being kept in the dark is the worst experience, so being open and transparent is key to morale. Communicate to them not only in the good times, but especially in the bad.
- Look for the opportunity in the crisis (there always is): We analyzed how buying behavior had shifted when COVID-19 hit and we quickly adapted and developed a new product line to be sold online.
- Be nimble and adapt: When COVID-19 hit we got together with one of our biggest partners and developed a new product that adapted to the new online way of buying. We prototyped, developed, tested, and launched it literally within two weeks. Every employee made this possible, rallied behind it and felt like they were part of the solution.
- Always have a rainy-day fund: When and if possible, always put money away for a rainy day, build up a reserve. And absolutely have a CFO who is seasoned and experienced to manage financials, particularly through troubled waters. If we did not have a world-class CFO and a rainy-day fund when COVID-19 hit, we absolutely would have missed the opportunity to make the best of the situation.
- Be patient: As a serial entrepreneur, by nature we are extremely impatient and believe in a rapid-fire approach to solving problems and executing. Entrepreneuring is hard and some of the toughest and most expensive lessons learned have stemmed from lack of patience. Take time in thinking through ideas, vet them with others and more importantly recognize and be self-aware enough to know you are not always right, even though we often think so. Building and launching the wrong product at the wrong time can be detrimental.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Follow your dreams and be a self-starter.”
If I didn’t have the courage and passion to leave my home country, go to a unfamiliar place, and step out of my comfort zone every single day by introducing myself to coaches and strangers, I never would have achieved my goal of playing volleyball. And I never would have experienced the American dream — which is very much alive and well.
Whenever my daughters ask me for life advice, I tell them to go and watch the movie “Yes Man”. It’s a silly movie, but the principle of being open to trying new things is life altering. You never know who or what is around the next corner.
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