Chieh Huang, co-founder and chief executive officer of Boxed, speaks during the Milken Institute Global Conference in Beverly Hills, California, U.S., on Monday, April 29, 2019.
Kyle Grillot/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Behind the Desk

After starting a $900 million company in his parents' garage, Boxed's CEO learned to embrace this type of stress

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This story is part of the Behind the Desk series, where CNBC Make It gets personal with successful business executives to find out everything from how they got to where they are to what makes them get out of bed in the morning to their daily routines.

By most measures, Boxed CEO and co-founder Chieh Huang is a successful entrepreneur: He just took his start-up public in a $900 million deal, eight years after launching it from his parents' garage in Edison, New Jersey.

But behind the scenes, he says, the experience is hardly glamourous.

"On certain days, I don't feel blessed to be CEO," Huang, 40, tells CNBC Make It.

On Thursday, Boxed — a New York City-based online retailer dubbed as "Costco for millennials" that sells bulk-sized toilet paper, laundry detergent and pet food — debuted on the New York Stock Exchange via a SPAC deal with blank-check firm Seven Oaks Acquisition Corp. The BOXD stock opened at $8.90 per share, and rose to roughly $13 per share within its first two hours of trading.

It's a new step in Boxed's rise — and another source of continual stress for Huang, who says he's worked nearly 24/7 over the past year to take his 400-employee company public during a global pandemic.

"[It's] been really difficult," he says. "I think everyone's been on 25 hours a day this past year."

But instead of learning away from the stress, he says, he's learned to balance it by embracing the importance of little things: not looking at his phone during dinner, making sure he remains active in his fantasy football group chats and returning to a "secret" childhood spot at least once per week to journal.

Here, Huang discusses the one type of stress he actively encourages, the challenges of taking his company public and how he learned to stay happy by effectively managing his time.

On the stress he encourages: 'Only the most difficult and complex situations end up on my desk'

In recent years, and this is no bullsh-t, I come into meetings a lot more confident. I know this might sound hubris, but I just put myself in this mindset: There's no one that knows how to sell bulk toilet paper online — and the software behind it, and how we function — better than us.

We should be equipped to answer every question confidently. If we can't answer it, we'll either get back to them, or it's not answerable. This is how I think about the world these days.

As the company gets bigger, only the most difficult and complex situations end up on my desk. No one ever says, "Oh, I have an easy problem to be solved. Let me make sure the CEO solves it for me."

No one ever says, 'Oh, I have an easy problem to be solved. Let me make sure the CEO solves it for me.'
Chieh Huang
CEO, Boxed

It's very stressful, but I encourage it. I'm not the smartest guy in the room, or the one with the highest mental horsepower. But I certainly have this ability to look around the corner to see what's ahead and where we should go.

On his sleepless year taking Boxed public: 'I think the last seven years have trained me for it'

Almost throughout this entire year, we've been going through this process of going public via a SPAC. I think the last seven years have trained me for it because the last seven years of running a private company have been nothing but ups and downs.

I'm learning something new every single day. When you go into public markets, they're asking you things like, "We noticed on row 85, column double Z, what does this number represent?"

Even our roadshow was different. Traditionally, you had to go on an airplane and could only do a certain amount of meetings because you had to fly to the next city. But on virtual roadshows [during the pandemic], you're packing them in throughout the day.

Then you grab dinner, and guess what? Asia is waking up as you're finishing dinner, and you're going to do many more things that evening. That's been really difficult.

On learning to balance his time: 'Nothing is going to burn down if you put your phone down'

I knew I wasn't balancing life correctly when all my high school friends threatened to boot me from the fantasy football group chat for being non-responsive. That's when I knew I was not striking a good balance — it was really the only way I kept in touch with them.

I read all these stories about people waking up at like 3 a.m., and it's supposed to be the best time to concentrate. I'm like, "3 a.m. is the best time to sleep." I don't know what they're talking about.

I read all these stories about people waking up at like 3 a.m., and it's supposed to be the best time to concentrate. I'm like, '3 a.m. is the best time to sleep.'
Chieh Huang
CEO, Boxed

For me, it's drawing certain boundaries and carving out certain hours of your day. Whether it's dinnertime, lunchtime or a happy hour with friends, [I try] to get an hour or two to myself. The world isn't going to stop and nothing is going to burn down if you put your phone down for an hour or two to reset and recharge.

I know it's not groundbreaking, and its sounds super easy. But it gets harder as you get bigger and bigger.

On the 'secret' spot that helps center him: 'I sit there quietly, anonymously, with a notebook'

Once a week, to really get centered, I go to this really exclusive café called Dunkin Donuts.

I generally try to go to the one next to my childhood home. It makes me remember that I was once studying for high school tests in the same seat. It makes me realize how far I've come — and while I have a list full of sh-t to take care of, I'm not in a bad position.

I sit there quietly, anonymously, with a notebook. I write all the things that stress me out at the moment. That release of getting it onto a piece of paper helps me visualize the problem and draw some conclusions.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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