#188 Joe Coulombe (Founder of Trader Joes)

Episode Summary

What I learned from Becoming Trader Joe: How I Did Business My Way and Still Beat the Big Guys by Joe Coulombe.

Episode Notes

What I learned from Becoming Trader Joe: How I Did Business My Way and Still Beat the Big Guys by Joe Coulombe.


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[0:01] I wrote this book to help entrepreneurs and would-be entrepreneurs. That's why there's a lack of miracles and a surplus of marketing details including buying, advertising, distributing, and running stores; and lots of discussion of how we built a successful business on high wages.

[18:09] Chapter 11 was a possibility. But I was reading The Guns of August, by Barbara W. Tuchman, with its implicit concept of multiple solutions to non-convex problems.

[19:07] This is my favorite of all managerial quotes: If all the facts could be known, idiots could make the decisions. —Tex Thornton, cofounder of Litton Industries, quoted in the Los Angeles Times in the mid-1960s.

[22:33] The most basic conclusion I drew from her book was that, if you adopt a reasonable strategy, as opposed to waiting for an optimum  strategy, and stick with it, you'll probably succeed. Tenacity is as important as brilliance.

[24:31] The one core value that I chose was our high compensation policies. This is the most important single business decision I ever made: to pay people well.

[30:30] The basic problem is that convenience store retailing is a commodity business that is hard to differentiate. What I needed was a good but small opportunity for my good but small company: a non-commodity, differentiated kind of retailing.

[33:38] As we evolved Trader Joe's, its greatest departure from the norm wasn't its size or its decor. It was our commitment to product knowledge, something which was totally foreign to the mass-merchant culture, and our turning our backs to branded merchandise.

[38:25] Most of my ideas about how to act as an entrepreneur are derived from The Revolt of the Masses by Jose Ortega y Gasset, the greatest Spanish philosopher of the twentieth century. I believe this book still offers the clearest explanation of the times in which we live. And I believe it offers a master “plan of action" for the would-be entrepreneur, who usually has no reputation and few resources.

[40:22] From the beginning, thanks to Ortega, I've been aware of the need to sell everybody. . . I took a cue from General Patton, who thought that the greatest danger was not that the enemy would learn his plans, but that his own troops would not.

[47:32] We assumed that our readers had a thirst for knowledge, 180 degrees opposite from supermarket ads. We emphasized "informative advertising," a term borrowed from the famous entrepreneur Paul Hawken, who started publishing in the Whole Earth Review in the early 1980s. These informative texts were intended to stress how our products were  differentiated from ordinary stuff.

[52:09] All businesses have problems. It's the problems that create the opportunities. If a business is easy, every simple bastard would enter it. My point is that a businessperson who complains about problems doesn't understand where his bread is coming from.

[57:00] We violated every received-wisdom of retailing except one: we delivered great value, which is where most retailers fail.

[1:14:05] But do I regret having sold? Yes. I admit it. To mine own self I was not true when I sold. I regret not having had the guts to ride out the loss of the surtax exemptions, the employee ownership problem, the threat of death taxes, Carter's threat to eliminate capital gains preference, and all the other fears, real or phantom, of late 1978. I have to admit the truth, that I regret having sold Trader Joe's. And I have had to pay something for this, beyond the loss of my shadow.


Other episodes mentioned in this episode:

#18 Let My People Go Surfing: The Education of a Reluctant Businessman 

#20 Setting the Table: The Transforming Power of Hospitality in Business

#89 Confessions of an Advertising Man

#107 Sol Price: Retail Revolutionary & Social Innovator

#110 Distant Force: A Memoir of the Teledyne Corporation (Henry Singleton)

#170 My Life in Advertising

#179 Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon

#181 Copy This!: How I turned Dyslexia, ADHD, and 100 square feet into a company called Kinkos


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