As part of our series called “Five Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became A CEO,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Juliette Fassett, CEO of Happy Products, Inc., makers of the Original Flippy Tablet Pillow, among other products. Juliette cares deeply about thoughtfully designed, well-made products with a purpose and believes a privately held business with healthy gross margin is a gorgeous thing. She describes herself as dogged, disorganized, well intentioned, and dislikes being asked to function before 9am.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
I’m from Upstate NY, and my parents were into traveling, museums, theater and the arts in general. They were also big skiers and put me on skis as soon as I could stand up. I became a ski instructor in college and worked in Europe and Japan before landing in Utah to work at Alta. After that first ski season I got a job with a startup sporting goods company. The job didn’t last very long (I was fired) but it cemented my interest in consumer products. My career path was much determined by the fact that I’m just not a good employee. The first clue that I was going to need to create my own path was maybe when I got kicked out of Girl Scouts at age 12.
For the sake of what we’re discussing here, it’s important to understand that I became a CEO by having created the businesses I run — all in consumer products — and not by working for someone else.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
In 2004, my husband and I created the original tablet stand called Flippy. The company that makes Flippy is Happy Products, Inc., and today I remain the company CEO. We’ve sold hundreds of thousands of Flippies. We are a certified Woman Owned Business, we help employ developmentally challenged adults in our warehouse and we also support our literacy partner FirstBook.org through product sales. Flippy is a smart, functional, problem solving product. It took years to develop, get patented, and take to market. We started selling slowly on Amazon, but I was sure the product would do well on QVC. After years of rejection, on November 3, 2018, I was there at QVC studios in the famous Green Room when we sold over $500,000 worth of product in 13 minutes.
So obviously the great thing about having a hit product on QVC is having a hit product on QVC. It’s a really big and exciting deal. The other side of that story is the “interesting” part.
I have to preface this part of the story: We all know there are predators in the world, people whose obsession with money and disrespect for others have no guardrails. Perhaps I’ve lived a charmed life because I had never come into direct contact with people this corrupted before, but the success of Flippy put me into a new orbit and I have, honestly, really struggled to make sense of it.
Right after our QVC show Flippy was knocked off by a company called OnTel. OnTel and Telebrands are large companies run by the same family and are well known for knocking off hit products then using their immense wealth to litigate against the original inventors. They copy your product then sell it on TV, online and place it in big box stores. If you sue them for IP infringement, they sue you and attempt to invalidate your patent. This is an established pattern. Their resources for lawsuits are immense and what they are doing is not necessarily illegal but in the words of a US Attorney I spoke with: “it’s certainly reprehensible and wrong.”
I found a display of the knockoffs in my local grocery so I reached out to the CEO of this large, public corporation explaining that I created the original product, have a patent, and would they please take the knockoff off the shelf and think about buying ours instead? They wouldn’t even consider it. In fact, their IP counsel responded that they respect IP rights but that they referred the issue to Ontel because their policy is not to get involved in disputes between vendors or potential vendors. That’s a convenient policy to have when you’re making bank on someone else’s product isn’t it? How that demonstrates respect for IP rights when you keep selling the knockoff is a mystery to me.
These retailers are indemnified by Ontel and Telebrands so they have no incentive to monitor the IP of products sourced from them. As long as the product sells and Ontel/Telebrands can tie up the smaller company in litigation why should they care? This particular corporation also touts its initiatives in supporting women and minority owned vendor partners and its values of “Honesty & Integrity, Diversity & Inclusion, and Safety & Respect.”
Ontel sold its knockoff of our product into most of the major retailers and big box stores you can think of. We recently were able to get the Ontel product removed from Amazon because they have a Neutral Patent Evaluation program but the estimate of total lost sales in the past 2 years is perhaps more than $40,000,000.
So that’s the interesting rabbit hole I’ve tumbled down. As a result of this experience, I’ve connected with many folks who’ve had the same experience with Ontel and Telebrands including fellow inventor Josh Malone. After settling with Telebrands for $31,000,000 Josh now works full time with USInventor.org to create better awareness of inventors’ rights and strengthen them through policy change. There is a terrific documentary called ‘Invalidated’ about the broken US Patent system and also about Josh’s battle against Telebrands.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I’ve made so many mistakes and find so many of them funny I can’t even keep track, but here’s an early one. In my first business, I was communicating with a client in Japan. Since the client’s English was not good, I wrote English in a way that I thought the client could best understand me, rather than grammatically perfect.
When my business partner saw my communication (after I sent it to the client), he thought: ‘OMG my partner in this business can’t write intelligible communication! She’ll ruin the business!’
I explained that it made more sense (to me) to communicate the critical information than write using proper grammar, which would be harder for the client to understand. Our company had that client for decades and helped the client become the $100m company it is today.
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 about that?
In my experience it’s rarely only one person who helps, though my husband Bruce gets snaps across the board. In my current business my gratitude falls into two main categories: the Product and the Money:
The Product: I hit a wall trying to get the product made, and I was referred to an industrial designer named Bill Dieter. He helped get the product into production, and he did not charge an outrageous fee to do it. His participation was critical.
The Money: There are two investors, Frank Hood and Lou Doctor, who listened to what I said, looked at the product, the spreadsheets and the return I was offering and wrote checks. They were decisive and fast, and they didn’t ding me for equity or higher returns. Each of them a total mensch.
As you know, the United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?
It’s difficult for me to answer this question because my businesses and my management teams have always functioned best with diversity so it’s natural to us. But this may have to do with our product categories and industry — we produce consumer products and our business overlaps with the fashion world.
In my experience though — gained through making hiring selections that did not work out well — the best team members and leaders are people that arrive without a sense of entitlement. People without a sense of entitlement are my jam and the secret sauce in any organization.
I think another reason for diversity at the executive level is that we’re swinging culturally in a direction where consumers are making purchasing decisions based more and more on what the company itself stands for. Each consumer is now potentially a little single serve activist voting with their dollars. It’s the power of the purse.
As a business leader, can you please share a few steps we must take to truly create an inclusive, representative, and equitable society? Kindly share a story or example for each.
The biggest step is paradoxically simple. We decide. Once we decide that’s what we’re going to do as a society, the steps are obvious. I personally do not struggle with this because of how I grew up. My older sister’s brain was badly damaged during birth and my parents refused to institutionalize her — as was common at the time. So I grew up with a sister whose existence in the world was challenging to some people and watching people’s response to her, positive and negative, was educational. For me, being inclusive is natural. I’ve also traveled extensively and have been exposed to people from many backgrounds, cultures, religions and races. Difference doesn’t scare me. It intrigues me.
We have three warehouses. One of them employs developmentally challenged adults. It’s a low tech operation and at times disorganized. Running some of our operations through this organization is inefficient and sometimes exasperating, yet we’ll keep giving them our business because on balance it’s the right thing to do. Sure it’s not necessarily the typical business decision, but optimal money is not the only reason my business exists.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO or executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?
The CEO is ultimately responsible for keeping the wheels from coming off a business, broad vs siloed responsibility.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?
My impression is that most people think of a CEO as one type of leader when in fact — CEOs are as unique as each person and each business.
I, for example, am a terrible manager but I’m good at the startup phase and the creative aspects. So even though I’m the CEO of my company — the company has been designed so that much of the “executive” stuff that I’m not good at doing — is done by people who are better at doing it.
I don’t think people should get excited or hung up about the title.
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
I thought (with this business) that once we got rolling, I’d be able to find better efficiencies but the problems now keep getting more and more complex and harder to fix. Because we had a patent the concept of losing millions to knockoffs wasn’t really on my radar.
Presumably not everyone is cut out to be an executive. In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive? Can you explain what you mean?
I think the best executives are scrappy and comfortable with hilariously impossible ambiguity. You have to be willing to look the other way while (perhaps) an entire section of your business implodes because there is actually something more important going on elsewhere. That’s painful.
What advice would you give to other business leaders to help create a fantastic work culture? Can you share a story or an example?
Hire smart people and let them do their jobs. Leave them alone to work. And, make absolutely sure everyone is covered with healthcare.
One of my businesses was a fashion accessories business. I insisted we provide insurance and maternity leave for everyone (which is CRAZY for smaller businesses, but I just decided that was the right thing to do). One of our employees had a new baby who was sick, so she and her husband took the baby to the ER one night. She called to say she might be late the next day because she was in the ER with the baby. So, I got out of bed and went to the ER.
We were all in the examining room and the doctor walks in and says, “Ok so you’re the Mom and you’re the Dad and here’s my little screaming patient but who are you?’ My employee’s husband responded:
“She’s the reason we have health insurance.”
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
I may be making a tiny, little dent by not driving my businesses exclusively as a vehicle to get rich personally. I want to do well, but not at other peoples’ expense.
We pay attention to our supply chain, pay people a living wage, and financially support our literacy non-profit partner First Book as much as we can. I also personally fund a small scholarship for veterinary students.
Fantastic. Here is the primary question of our interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- You are going to fail in ways you cannot imagine. It’s awesome learning. The trick is to be able to assess how big a deal these failures really are and move on quickly. It’s just part of the process. I always ask myself “is that mistake going to put us out of business? If not — then it’s not that bad a mistake. Keep going.
- However, much money you think you need, double it! In general we all underestimate the time and money needed to get to the next level.
- For startups personal guarantees will be asked of you. Do everything you can to avoid them. I almost lost my house because of the ones I made.
- Find other CEOs to commiserate with. They will understand and you will enjoy sharing stories over drinks. You will need them.
- Leading people is such a privilege you will learn so much from your people and they will also make you a better person.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
I love this question SO much. It’s not a movement. It’s a business, but maybe could be a nonprofit entity?
I think travel is one of the most gratifying and important activities for people. Especially young people. It enlightens like nothing else. Particularly travel outside of the US. It’s also expensive and hard to do if your parents or other family members/friends are not in a position to help. I want someone to create a business to gamify being able to plan and pay for travel. Here’s my idea:
You decide you want to spend next summer in Guatemala. You put together a program — the dates, where you want to go, what you want to do etc. You work with this company on the details and the company books your flights and helps make the arrangements maybe even a year in advance. You’re all booked. The company has paid for everything. You are going to have a life changing experience.
Then you start putting money into your account. You skip that Starbucks (bang — $5 toward Guatemala), you mow the neighbor’s lawn (bang — $20 toward Guatemala). You can chart your progress! Week after week — month after month till 6 weeks before your trip — you have paid off your adventure. You learn the value of money, get to go to Guatemala and have a life enriching experience and when you come home you take your experience and keep moving without being bogged down with the debt of it. Can you even imagine the opportunities and positive experiences this could create?
Can someone get right on that please? Thanks!
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I like the poet Mary Oliver’s quote “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
I spent too much time trying to be something I wasn’t. Everybody needs to be comfortable flying their own, personal, freaky flag. Just get out there and live it.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them
I would really love to have coffee with John Oliver. I think he could help tell the story of how businesses like mine are abused by companies like OnTel and Telebrands and the big retailers that buy products from them. He’s also really good at breaking down policy in a way most people can understand.