As a part of the series called ‘Five Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became A CEO’ we had the pleasure of interviewing Steve Wolf, CEO of MORE Surface Care.
Steve Wolf is the CEO and Co-Founder of MORE™ Surface Care. He co-founded MORE™ Surface Care in 2015 to bring a fresh, new approach to stone and tile care. After working in the industry for more than 20 years at companies like DuPont and Clorox, Steve and his partner knew that products could be safer and easier to use, yet still meet the performance demands of today’s professional installers, architects, designers, and consumers. Steve began his career in commercial banking and mergers & acquisitions before earning an MBA at the University of Chicago, at which time he made the switch to general management and marketing. Steve lives in Palo Alto, California with his wife Christy and has four grown children.
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 started my career in the world of corporate finance in the late eighties and worked for a company that focused on financing leveraged buyouts of medium-sized manufacturing companies. I was an analyst and had the opportunity to really dig into the financials of businesses in a wide range of industries. While I enjoyed the work at the beginning, I soon realized that I wanted to learn more about all aspects of how a business works (i.e., marketing, sales, general management, R&D, etc.). With that realization, I chose to attend business school to help facilitate my transition from finance to general management. I interned at Clorox between my first and second years and was fortunate enough to receive a full time offer to work as an Associate Marketing Manager upon graduation. At Clorox, I worked on a wide range of brands, including Clorox-2, S.O.S, Tilex, Armor All, and STP. When I was promoted to Brand Manager in 1999, the dot com boom was in full swing and seemed enticing — I made the jump to a venture-funded startup called Restaurantpro.com, a company that developed web-based software that connected restaurants to their suppliers. It was a wild ride that lasted for only about 1 year, at which time the company pivoted and laid off about 90% of its workforce. I was one of the casualties. However, the experience made me realize that what I really enjoyed was building brands and businesses that manufactured physical products that you’d find on store shelves. I really did enjoy the pace and excitement of the startup environment, so I set out to find a small consumer products company on the rise. I ultimately landed, in 2002, as the VP of Marketing and Business Development at StoneTech Professional, a Bay Area-based company that manufactured care products for natural stone and tile. The founder and CEO was a hard driving entrepreneur with big aspirations. He decided to sell the company to DuPont in 2005 after tripling the size of the company in about three years. I made the jump to DuPont and ended up being the the General Manager of the StoneTech business unit until DuPont’s strategy changed in 2014, at which point the company decided to divest the business to a building materials company (Laticrete). It was at this point that my co-founder and I recognized that we had the opportunity to start a new enterprise in the stone and care space, but develop the products and build the company differently (and better) than StoneTech and the other brands in the space. MORE Surface Care was born in 2015, and we haven’t looked back. We earned a spot on the Inc. 5000 list of the Fastest-Growing Private Companies for 2021 after achieving 161% growth and are seeing great success with our revolutionary AntiEtch™ product which we recently launched to protect stone like marble from etching.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
The pandemic! It was a completely unprecedented challenge, which we had to pivot and learn from. It was especially challenging since in our industry, virtual meetings were almost unheard of and business was conducted face-to-face. Our team did an excellent job of taking on this challenge by not only quickly shifting to online meetings, but also adapting our company in other ways like transforming the sales process from in-person to virtual.
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?
In 2017, just after we had developed our innovative protective coating for marble (MORE™ AntiEtch™), my co-founder Mark Deskur and I decided to go on a roadshow in California to demonstrate the product for stone and tile dealers and professional stone restoration contractors. We loaded up my wife’s Nissan Versa and made the trek from Northern California to Los Angeles. While driving on the freeway at about 70 mph somewhere near Palm Springs, suddenly the hood popped open and folded all the way back onto the windshield — luck was with us that day, as we somehow were able to make our way to the shoulder without hitting any other cars. Mark and I both had our heads out the window to navigate from left to right. Fortunately, we had a bungee cord with us and used it to strap down the mangled hood. We decided to finish out the trip anyway and, to this day, that roadshow remains one of the most important things we’ve ever done in introducing our product to the marketplace. As an early stage entrepreneur, you have to be willing to do whatever it takes to survive, which means facing adversity on what seems like a daily basis. The mishap on this adventure is just one small example of adversity we overcame that ended up really paying off.
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?
I learned a ton from Mike Guasch, CEO of StoneTech Professional, a successful entrepreneur that’s built and sold several companies. While he certainly was a strategic thinker, he was also a savage in execution, which I learned is the absolute most important skill set in an early stage company. You can have an amazing strategy, but if you can’t execute, you’re dead in the water.
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?
I agree that having a diverse workforce and executive team is essential in creating a successful company. I believe race, gender, and diversity of thought are all important considerations. To that end, I’ve found that building a team that comes to the table with a wide range of perspectives and experiences is paramount in tackling the most difficult business challenges. When you’re making big strategic and financial bets that will profoundly impact the company, ensuring that I have a 360 degree view of options, risks, and solutions is critically important. As we expand our team, we do our best to ensure that we’re bringing in people that view business and society at large in different, but complementary ways.
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.
Very difficult question to answer, as the entire society needs to be pulling in the same direction to make lasting change. With that said, I believe we can all make a contribution by being mindful of DE&I in our companies and behave in ways that encourage seeking perspectives from a wide range of people with different backgrounds, experiences, and skills. So, in summary, I think the greatest impact we can make is in the small sphere of influence we can control; if everyone “walks the walk” in their daily lives, that could aggregate into a substantial impact at a societal level.
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?
While a CEO must execute the business plan just like the rest of the team, I believe his/her most important responsibilities are the following:
- Establishing a vision for the company.
- Establishing goals and objectives that support that vision.
- Developing a high performance leadership team with skills and experience required to deliver against goals and objectives.
- Ensuring the company has enough financial and human capital required to deliver the vision.
- Maximizing company value for all stakeholders (investors, management, and employees) and interfacing with the capital markets to facilitate meeting this objective.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?
I suspect that many people believe that being a CEO is a glamorous job that provides a path to earn outsized sums of money. While at times a CEO may be in the spotlight and have the opportunity to earn robust compensation, the typical CEO (especially those that are also founders) earns modest pay and is generally out of the spotlight. Most have put their own capital at risk and defer current compensation to ensure the company has adequate cash reserves to fund the growth of the enterprise. Moreover, because the success or failure of the company is ultimately the responsibility of the CEO, the role can be pressure-filled and sometimes a lonely place to be.
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
As I described in the previous question, I too had assumed the CEO job was certainly more glamorous than it actually is. At the beginning, I was interfacing with investors in the morning and processing UPS shipments in the afternoon. And while we now have the luxury of having built a team that handles most of the day-to-day functions, it’s not uncommon for me to jump into the production line to help the team fulfill orders when demand has outstripped our capacity. Moreover, while I understood conceptually, that the CEO is ultimately responsible for everything, I didn’t fully grasp the concept until we started MORE and were on the clock with our investors’ capital.
Do you think 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 believe that everyone can be an executive and/or a CEO if they have the desire and are willing to gain the experience and develop the skills necessary to be successful in this role. There’s a few key traits that I believe are required to be successful in this type of leadership role: strong work ethic (it’s never easy), ability to deal with and respond productively to adversity, interpersonal skills (especially the ability to listen), and potentially an unjustified level of optimism/confidence as it relates to the venture that the CEO is leading. This is incredibly important, especially in the early days of a startup, when everything is stacked against you — prospects are skeptical, suppliers are skeptical, banks are skeptical, employees are skeptical. And finally, an entrepreneur needs to be comfortable making quick decisions with limited information. This was difficult for me at the beginning, as most of my experience was at larger companies where resources were rich and most decisions were supported by plenty of data — sometimes too much data, which often resulted in deferred decision making to the detriment of the company. By extension, someone that prefers more predictability in their daily work life and is relatively risk averse may struggle to be a CEO, especially of an early stage company. Moreover, someone uncomfortable being the chief steward of other people’s money (i.e., private equity, venture capital, etc.) may want to consider an alternative career path.
What advice would you give to other business leaders to help create a fantastic work culture? Can you share a story or an example?
There’s a few principles that I believe provide the foundation of a “fantastic” work culture. 1) Create an environment that encourages open, honest, and transparent communication in all functions at all levels of the organization. My experience informs me that when people feel like their voices are being heard they feel like they’re contributing to the success of the company. 2) Make it clear that ultimately the executive team and/or CEO will make final decisions on key topics and that everyone may not agree with that decision. However, as long as everyone feels like they have had an opportunity to provide feedback and share their ideas, most people will accept the decision and support it going forward.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
MORE’s AntiEtch™ product could truly be world changing because it has the ability to transform a global industry for the better. It offers a revolutionary way to protect acid-sensitive natural stone, including marble, limestone, travertine, and onyx from permanent damage. Until now, marble owners had no choice but to have a restoration professional sand and re-polish their surface or completely remove the countertop altogether. AntiEtch™ offers a solution that protects marble surfaces for a lifetime, which ultimately reduces the number of countertops ending up in the world’s landfills.
At the risk of sounding ridiculous, we genuinely believe that we are in a position to “save” the marble industry. Marble occurs naturally and there is an abundant supply of it, making it the original “green” material choice when building. The prevalence of etching has led marble to lose market share to manufactured surfaces such as quartz which is not eco-friendly (solvents, resins, toxic emissions, etc.). Many quartz manufacturers have launched colors and patterns that look remarkably similar to marble and other stone types in recent years. Our customer base of natural stone dealers has experienced a rebound in marble volume since they started offering AntiEtch™. In turn, this has helped stone dealers grow their revenue and profitability, as marble generally is sold at higher prices with more substantial margins versus quartz. Their clients recognize that they can now have their dream marble kitchen without all the headaches of owning marble. As quartz volume falls, its environmental impact will decrease. Revitalizing the marble industry is important because, if properly protected, marble is exceptionally durable. David, Michelangelo’s 500-year-old statue, looks like it was sculpted yesterday. Building things to last with sustainable materials will help shift our society away from trends that favor fast and cheap materials that contribute to the world’s pollution and waste.
AntiEtch™ is also zero VOC, meaning it emits zero pollution into the air and is a safer option compared to most other marble treatments. Zero VOC is also important because those exposed to toxic compounds can experience a variation of adverse health conditions including kidney disease, liver disease, and cancer. Our water-based AntiEtch™ solution is better for the environment and also better for those who produce it and use it.
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.)
1. Big company experience is valuable, but maybe not as helpful as I had expected.
I always wanted to start my own business, but as I was going through my career, I felt like I needed more experience or to reach a certain promotion, etc. What you realize after you start a business (which I feel that I did too late), is that you’re never going to have enough experience. If you really want to start something, you should just do it sooner rather than later with the experience you have because you’re going to end up learning everything you need on the job. I’m not suggesting having no experience, but to do it the way I did with a 20 year career before I become an entrepreneur is not required. One of the key reasons is that when you work for big companies, you’re going to get great experience — but it isn’t necessarily the experience you need when starting from scratch. So this bootstrapping, ‘school of hard knocks’ experience you get from being an entrepreneur can come earlier if you start sooner in your career because the personal/financial risk is lower and business cash needs are lower.
2. Make networking a priority.
I’ve never really been a big networker because it’s a lot of work and can be awkward. After making the Inc. 5000 list, we were invited to participate in a program called ‘Birthing of Giants’. It’s a really cool program for CEO’s and entrepreneurs, co-founders, etc. where everyone gets together to share business challenges and opportunities and get advice from people who have gone through it before or are currently dealing with it. I’ve been to two events with that program in the last six months and have picked incredibly useful skills and concepts that we’re beginning to integrate into our day-to-day operations and strategic planning.
3. Assemble a team of trusted advisors.
This is also a lesson that came from the ‘Birthing of Giants’ program. We currently have a loose collection of informal advisors but are working on assembling an official board of advisors. The goal of these advisors is to get feedback on strategic decisions for your company and gather advice from people with a solid framework for advising on key issues. Ideally, we’ll be able to stack the deck in our favor by putting together a group of people that have started, grown, and exited entrepreneurial ventures.
4. Retain as much equity as possible to enhance return at exit.
You might not always be able to do this to the extent that you want because when you start a company you might need to raise capital. However, knowing this, I recommend that founders be stingy with the amount of equity that you’re willing to sell to investors. At the end of the day you want as big of a return as possible in return for the blood, sweat, and tears that will undoubtedly be required to build a successful venture.
5. Make every decision as if you’re going to sell the company tomorrow and as if you’ll keep the company forever.
It sounds like a contradiction and it is very hard to do, but you’re basically trying to eliminate short-term thinking and avoid making decisions that will benefit you only today at the expense of the future. How this ties into selling the company is that if you’re making decisions that are good for the long-haul, it will normally enhance the value of the business, even today. Here is a good example: don’t hire sales reps from your competitors. Even though it is an easy thing to do, it is short-sighted because you’re now retraining somebody who used to sell against your products and it often tends to not work out. Instead, you’re better off training somebody from scratch that has an open mind and is more free to learn the systems and methods of your company.
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.
Do your absolute best to think about your job through the lens of an owner and make your decisions and recommendations as if you are an owner. This has been really helpful for me over the years — when reminded of this concept I would often change my recommendation or make a different decision. This also empowers employees to feel more embedded into the company and gives them more of a voice, especially if the company is privately held.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
This takes a while to learn, but if you try to find a profession that you absolutely love, even if it is not necessarily going to compensate you in the way that you’d like — ultimately if you’re following something that you love and you’re good at, it almost always guarantees success. When you wake up everyday and report for a job that you love, it’s hard not to succeed. Don’t chase the money, chase a passion — the rest will take care of itself.
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’d say Elon Musk because he is a business success in every way you can think of. I just love how he is sort of cavalier and is going to do things his way. It’s probably partly because he has enough net worth, which enables him to insist on doing things on his terms — but I have a feeling he has probably always been his makeup. He is such an interesting individual in so many ways, I’d love to have lunch with him and pick his brain.