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LINDSEY VONN
CNBC.com web-only interview
Downhill skier Lindsay Vonn

In Business, Customers—and Employees—Are King

As part of the "How I Made My Millions" series, CNBC.com asked the founders and CEOs of these companies to share their experience on a variety of topics. What follows is the story behind Vineyard Vines—part inspiration, part how-to—from co-founders Shep and Ian Murray.

When we started out in 1998, we knew two things: what we wanted to do and what we didn’t. It was pretty clear to both of us that sitting behind desks in Manhattan wasn’t something we could imagine ourselves doing for the rest of our lives, and knowing this helped us figure out some things.

Vineyard Vines Co-Founders, Shep and Ian Murray
Photo by Vineyard Vines
Vineyard Vines Co-Founders, Shep and Ian Murray

We didn’t start out thinking about creating a tie company, rather we started conceptualizing our brand and what it would represent, which is how we came up with the notion of the "Good Life." It would represent all the finer things in life, like the things we loved to do and dreamed about doing.

People thought we were crazy, and truthfully, if we had listened to most of them we wouldn’t be where we are right now. But we knew that doing what we loved was more important than having a job for the sake of having a job.

There were hard times and still are, most definitely in the beginning, as we were figuring out how to do everything, like market and sell our ties as well as how to pull together a consistent brand message. Still, we wouldn’t do anything differently. Growing so rapidly basically gave us a crash course in the many different aspects of what running a business is all about, but two key areas for us have to do with customer service and the team that is Vineyard Vines.

From every point of sale, customers should be happy—whether they’re dealing with a phone representative, placing an order on our website or shopping in our stores. The experience our customers have determines how they interact with our brand in the future—treat them right, and they’ll keep coming back. It’s pretty simple. If someone has a negative experience with our brand, we want to know about it so we can make it better. The thought of having a bunch of unhappy customers out there is pretty unsettling.

That said, the importance of the team you surround yourself with should not be overstated either. Your customers need to be happy, but so do your employees. We couldn’t have come this far without the incredible hard work and dedication of everyone we work with. They do so much, and from our end, we’re constantly looking for new ways to empower them. We’re constantly asking ourselves if they’re inspired, growing in their roles, and if we are doing everything we can to empower them.

One thing we learned early on is that everyone needs to have a mentor, whether you know him or her personally or not. Pike’s Place in Seattle sells fish, but they turned it into an experience. David Neelman of JetBlue made flying commercial a pleasant activity. Howard Schultz of Starbucks created an empire around getting people together for a cup of coffee. Success stories almost always have the same recipe: There’s a great new idea or an existing idea with a twist on it. We looked to the above mentors for our inspiration in taking the necktie, a relatively boring product, and making it fun.

You can’t do it all by yourself and you’ll need plenty of advice and encouragement, but if you have something you believe in, you can create your opportunity and you can do it. We did it with a lot of creativity, kindness and passion, and we loved what we were doing. And we still do.

Vineyard Vines, a company best known for its whimsical neckties and smiling pink whale logo, was founded in 1998 on Martha’s Vineyard when brothers Shep and Ian Murray cut their ties with corporate America to start making ties that represented The Good Life. In addition to signature neckwear, vineyard vines offers a variety of clothing and accessories for men, women and children.

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