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 Jing Xue, COO and Co-founder of DecorMatters, a free home decoration app using augmented reality (AR) and artificial intelligence (AI) technology, to make the interior design and furniture shopping process fun, simple, and affordable. Prior to building the DecorMatters platform from scratch to a mature version, Jing has nearly a decade of experience as an architect and engineer at some of the top tech companies in California such as Qualcomm and Nvidia. She not only oversees all operations at DecorMatters but is also a mother and wife, raising and homeschooling her 3-year-old daughter and expecting her second baby in the upcoming months!
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?
Before starting my own company, I was an engineer working in different tech companies for 6 years. During this time, I was fascinated with learning how to build a successful company culture, and how to build products that can help to improve people’s life. Then, when I purchased my house, I found it really hard to design and furnish my own home. It’s difficult to imagine how different furniture would look together in the room. That’s when the idea of building a product that can make the furniture shopping and interior design easier and fun, came to mind. Luckily, I was able to find two other co-founders and then scale the team. We quickly built the iOS app and tested the market. That’s how I started DecorMatters.
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 read a book about how to create contagious messages to achieve growth. I got so excited so I shared the book with my team. I created a Twitter account and tried the tactics mentioned in the book like creating social currency, etc. And that failed horribly; 0 retweets, 0 likes. One of the lessons that I learned is: simply copying the tactics from a book isn’t going to work. It will be better if I can combine these tactics with my own experience and come up with a solution that fits our product.
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?
Assana Fard is one of my mentors who shared her wisdom with me. She is a Senior Software Manager at Apple. At the beginning of my career, I felt uncomfortable when managing a team with mostly male and senior members. So she came to have a coffee with me. During our chat, she shared her stories about how she dealt with gender inequity in her career at Apple and her ‘secret sauce’ which helped her manage a team with all male members more efficiently than other managers. It inspired me and I learned how to be a good female leader in a male-dominated industry.
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?
Our mission is to build a platform that helps people to build their dream home. Our vision is to empower everyone through that whole process, from finding design inspiration to furniture shopping. This has got us to where we are now, and it will continue to support us moving forward.
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?
There was one week that we got a feature request from our vendors. At the beginning, no one in the team believed that we could make it. Once I analyzed the requirements, I sat down with my team to break down the tasks and lay out the priorities. I took the initiative to work on some tasks that no one else has time to do, like preparing the email template in HTML, writing scripts for uploading the data to our database, etc. With our combined efforts, our team was able to launch the feature successfully in time. Lead by example, provide enormous support, and take responsibility for the prioritization of tasks — this is what helped me lead the team through this challenge. Additionally, the team morale was high after that since we had accomplished something that we thought was unobtainable
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
Yes, sometimes, but I always feel motivated when I see my team working so hard with me towards the same goal; to help people build their dream home, even during a global pandemic. I also feel driven when I see users’ feedback. The warm support, encouragement, or just greetings inspire everyone in the team to move forward through challenges.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
During challenging times, leaders must take care of everyone in the team. In this particular moment with the pandemic, everyone is facing uncertainties in their lives; possible career changes, loss of loved ones, or economic difficulty. If team leaders take responsibility and ensure everyone’s job security when necessary, it will greatly increase team morale and the possibility to overcome challenges together.
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?
The best way to boost morale is to provide positive feedback immediately after the team has accomplished something. This can help every team member feel appreciated and valued. Whenever there is any good feedback from our customers or any data analyzed from our successful release, I share these with my team. In this way, we are motivated to keep improving our product which we know can bring customer satisfaction. At the same time, I make sure that everyone has opportunities to grow. For example, they may wish to participate in different projects like joining online training to broaden their knowledge.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
Try to keep genuine communication both with your team members and customers. Last year, we needed to change our revenue model from subscription-based to consumption-based and it was hard for the paid customers as they needed to adjust to the new model. However, we managed to keep any extra hassle to a minimum, and communicated the message crystal clear. Most of the customers showed support when they received the news clearly.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
Try to make plans with small steps. For example, last year, we began to make plans per month instead of per quarter due to the pandemic. Planning only a month ahead gave us more flexibility and enabled us to be nimble. We were able to make marketing campaign adjustments more frequently than before by adapting to the changing market. It also enabled us to alter our product to capture more revenue than before.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
Keep clear communication with all team members and care for them sincerely. Only if we take care of our team can we make the team come together through tough times. And because we care about each other, we cultivate a culture of empathy which is then transferred to our business partners, customers, and users.
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?
I’ve seen some businesses cutting their resources, this would be the worst thing to do during a pandemic. The other common mistake is to keep the bad news secret and not openly communicate with the team. Or, they may carry out some strategy that will only benefit the company in the short-term but hurt the overall business in the long-term. Keep asking yourself whether these decisions will help take care of the team in the long-term and avoid some unnecessary mistakes.
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?
In a struggling economy, we pay extreme attention to our current, best-selling products to make sure we bring extra value to our loyal users. At the same time, we work hard to expand our products and services to reach new customers. The principle behind all the product developments is to have great empathy for our customers, so that we can bring more value to them. Serving current customers well, and involving new customers, can bring us increased revenues during challenging times.
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.
- Lead by example — If a leader is ready to roll up their sleeves to work on the hard things first, the team will follow fearlessly. For example, I always write my own weekly report and present to the whole team, so that everyone else can read it. This encourages them to write their own summary in great detail. They have great confidence in me since they know what I am doing every day. They know the company is doing well as they know what everyone is doing.
- Communicate well — This is the key to success, especially during the pandemic when working remotely. By communicating well, I mean being able to communicate facts, not opinions or judgements. For example, when we had a failed release, the number of active users dropped. We stayed together to figure out what went wrong, instead of pointing fingers. We diagnosed the problem quickly and carried out a fix immediately. In the end, we knew the issue was due to our testing plan, thus we implemented a testing flow that could automatically cover all the testing cases. With efficient communication, we were able to quickly fix the issue, reduce the impact, and have confidence in ourselves to prevent similar things from happening in the future.
- Help everyone grow — I believe everyone joining the team is there because they believe in our vision. They are the most valuable asset in this company. If we can’t provide them a good place to learn and grow, they will leave the company in the end. So, I talk to every team member to understand their career goals. Either through being a great individual contributor or a team leader, I provide enough resources for them to learn and help them to achieve their goals.
- Respect their time — Paul Graham mentioned the ‘maker’s schedule’ and ‘manager’s schedule’ in his essay- I encourage every leader to take a look. In general, a ‘manager’s schedule’ is usually divided into small segments due to meetings and multiple threads, while a maker needs a large block of time to work on projects without interruptions. With this in mind, a great leader needs to respect the makers time, and make sure they have enough time to work on their project without any interruptions, like meetings in the middle of the day, etc.
- Encourage work-life balance — As a working mom with two kids, I manage my work and life balance by improving my working efficiency. It’s the same for the team members, I encourage them to maintain a good work-life balance so that they can be more productive during work. We carried out some pilot procedures during the pandemic; we had standup meetings in the morning and quick update meetings at the end of the day, so that there was a clear cut off between work and life.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Steve Jobs once mentioned the “Stay Hungry, Stay foolish” quote. Since then it has become my motto. My understanding is to always stay eager to learn, no matter if you are learning new skills or knowledge, and stay foolish to jump out of your comfort zone and challenge yourself.
How can our readers further follow your work?
LinkedIn — Jing Xue DecorMatters