On June 13th, 2011 I founded a company that would change the trajectory of my professional life forever. I called it Sevenly. A play on the words “seven” and “heavenly.” Sevenly is a for-profit clothing company where each week we would partner with a new charity, and for every item we sold, we donated $7.00.
The company grew quickly. From zero to 22 employees and just over $1 million in our first year. Then to 40 employees and $3.5 million in 2013, and finally almost 50 employees and nearly $6 million in annual revenue by 2014.
The company was hot. People were talking. Investors were interested. Articles, interviews, and keynote speeches were requested. And almost $4 million was donated to charities across the globe.
But in November of 2013, the dagger of change aimed to destroy us. Facebook made their first major News Feed algorithm adjustment, and it altered everything.
At the time, much of our sales were driven by Facebook. And like many e-commerce brands, this change brought major loss to the traffic engine fueling the company’s revenue.
That December, I remember pacing outside my home at 2 a.m. unable to sleep through the pressures of finding a new solution. The industry landscape had changed. Marketing had changed. The path forward for Sevenly would have to change too.
Just a few days after the birth of Veronica and my first child in January 2014, I received a call from the Chairman of our Board of Directors. The investors were worried by the company’s drop in sales. At the time, this was a complex issue to explain–especially to a group of traditional Baby-Boomer financial folks. Social media marketing was still quite new, and a major algorithm change was uncharted territory.
Days later, my long conversation with the Chairman led to an intense formal meeting where it was clearly implied I should step down as CEO. I was to move into a less critical role managing culture and marketing. A painful degradation of responsibility that would cause deep strife and frustration in the coming months.
Then, on April 9th, 2014 (one day before my 29th birthday) I was invited to an El Torrito Mexican Restaurant near the John Wayne Airport in Orange County, California. There, two investors would publically terminate me in a manner that felt opposite to our company’s most valued phrase: People Matter.
I remember walking out of the restaurant with tears rolling down my face. I remember other patrons staring at me with confusion and concern. My entire world was just flipped upside-down. I felt lost, I was bewildered, but most of all, I was scared.
Months later and thousands in attorney fees, we settled with an agreement in which I sold 91% of my approximately remaining 30% of stock. I would be removed from the board and have no input on any of the operations of the company.
It was a hard time for everyone. Egos were hurt, loyalties were lost, and maturity was required.
Now over two years later, with hundreds of hours of processing, and a handful of critical conversations reconciling our relationship with each other, I feel ready to reflect on a few important lessons I’ve learned.
1. Just because you have the gift doesn’t mean you’re qualified to use it.
I’m a born leader. An entrepreneur in development. If you asked my father, he would tell you about the stories of how I would guide friends on childhood expeditions or how I could control the baseball field from the pitcher’s mound. Leadership, influence, and clarity seem to have come quite natural to me.
But as I began using this gifting in a professional setting, I started to recognize the complexities and cost that come with this somewhat rare character trait.
During my time at Sevenly, I remember my mentor jerking me away from a conversation with our lead web developer. He walked me into the conference room and said, “Dale… I’m not sure if you’re noticing this, but you hurt people. The way you just spoke to him was incredibly arrogant and rude. And to be honest Dale, a lot of people here notice that about you.”
Ouch. It was similar to the moment when you walk off stage, and your friend tells you that your fly was open and you had a booger on your face during your entire speech.
The lesson is this: It was the first time in my life I realized my company could grow faster than my maturity. It was the first time I realized I let a lot of people down. And it was the first time I realized how much trust I truly lost. While I was 1000% gifted in the area of leadership, strategy, and vision, I wasn’t qualified to be operating at that caliber alone. My pride blinded me from seeing reality. But more than that, my lack of humility kept me from stepping into the role everyone needed me to play.
Timing is a critical piece of success. There is nothing quite as powerful as years for the developing of a person. I’m not saying my immaturity should have stopped me from launching the company, but I am saying I should have recognized the youthful pride blocking my ability to lean into the reservoir of wisdom available to me.
Just because I was a born leader doesn’t mean I was ready to lead.
2. Sometimes not getting what you want is God’s greatest blessing.
Looking back, my years at Sevenly were equivalent to a graduate degree from Harvard Business School. I worked until I just about sweat blood. I had fierce conversations with millionaires, billionaires, and celebrities. I managed wealth and built a strong company culture. I even shared our story in a keynote presentation at Facebook’s 10th Anniversary conference to 3,000 employees right after Mark Zuckerberg.
But all of it was at the cost and compromise of my health, my family, and my bride. Insomnia became common, and heart palpitations had sent me to the hospital twice in one year. My family was falling apart, and my marriage was weak.
A difficult view to see while the whole world is cheering you on. A difficult view to let go of when you’re making a good paycheck. A difficult view to believe when your influence has risen to business celebrity.
But in reality, I needed my time at Sevenly to end. I would have pushed myself too far, sacrificed my marriage in a complete loss of healthy perspective.
The lesson is this: If your career compromises your family it’s not worth it. And sometimes the ripping away of a toxic lifestyle is the only method for realigning priorities. In these last few years, I have recreated a healthier reality. A reality that allows me to work from home, with less hours, and surprisingly more money. I have the margin to invest into my children and the capacity to cherish my wife.
So instead of looking at change with the eyes of loss, look at it with the eyes of renovation. Because more often than not, we’re fighting against a future better than the one we’re living now.
3. There’s nothing impressive about a group of people who can’t work out a dispute.
In the heat of my termination, I’m sure words were said which I would be embarrassed to stand beside today. It was the kind of conflict that people don’t come back from. Words and actions that hurt so deeply most people would hold grudges for life.
But not this time. In a valiant effort by one of our investors Jim Van Eerden, we found complete reconciliation. Not just in the legal sense, but in our hearts. Jim walked us through an arduous process of both repentance and forgiveness. He reminded us of the intrinsic value we each held and the flaws we all share.
It was a moment of pure maturity. To shift our focus back to our mission and choose to value people over profit.
The lesson is this: Jim taught us that the right way, is often the hard way. He taught us that as business owners, fathers, husbands, and Christians we must act differently than the culture. That we must come together regardless of our differences to fulfill the work we set out to do.
And while we don’t get to always control what happens to us, we do get to control what happens in us.
At the end of the day, getting fired is never a fun experience. But people still matter. Those I left behind matter. Those I think may have wronged me matter. The good people Sevenly still serves matter. And nothing tested whether or not I truly believed this like having something “good” feel as if it has gone bad for me.
Each morning when I rise and slip on a Sevenly shirt, I swell with pride, not bitterness. Though I am no longer involved with the company, I will always be its Founder. While they have had their fair share of struggles and even let some customers down, they are still a great company with great people working hard to do the right thing. And that’s something I can always support, and I hope you can too.
If you’d like to learn more about my story and the philosophy that built Sevenly and many other incredible companies, I have written a Wall Street Journal Bestselling Book titled “People Over Profit” that you can see here.
Did anything stand out? Was anything useful to you? Let me know in the comments below.