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From Groupon to Amaze, this Serial Entrepreneur has Learnt to Adapt During Crises

Stephen George, Co-founder of Groupon and CEO of Amazing Brands, shares insights on what drives entrepreneurial success amidst global and financial crises.



Home Work is a series that examines how founders and designers are managing their work and team in a remote world.
Home Work is a series that examines how founders and designers are managing their work and team in a remote world.


Home Work Issue No. 6: Stephen George, Founder & CEO of Amazing Brands

 
Originally jumping into the startup world while still in university, Stephen George knows how to land on big ideas and bring them to fruition. From being one of the original Co-founders of Groupon to his new role as the CEO of Amazing Brands, Stephen has done nearly every job required to build a company throughout his career. His exceptional know-how and experience offers insights into executing on big ideas, leading a team, and being flexible during shocks to the economy.
 
To get started, could you tell us a little bit about yourself? 
 
I’m a Chicagoan, born and raised. Chicago is also the city where I attended college and entered the startup world a little over a decade ago. I eventually moved to Los Angeles where I now live with my wife and four-month old son, Theo. I love the weather over here, and probably won’t move back to the winter again! I’m also the founder of Amazing Brands, our corporate business consisting of two platforms, Surkus and Amaze, which help consumers connect with brands. 
 

On Getting a Foot in the Startup Door
 

You mention an early entrance into the startup world. Can you tell us about that?
 
After my sophomore year in college, I had a summer internship opportunity. I was working at a startup for a two-month long program. Well, it was supposed to be two months long, but a month in, the company ran out of money, as most startups do. It was amidst the financial crisis of 2008. 
 
I had two choices: go back to school or join the team and help pivot the business. I had nothing to lose; I could always go back to school and there were only four other guys working on it at the time. I ended up staying along and joined full-time. In the Summer of 2008, we ended up launching what became Groupon.
 
How did you manage studying and working full-time once you joined Groupon? 
 
I was at Indiana University at the time which is a four and a half hour drive from Chicago. Groupon was in Chicago so I had to transfer. The one school accepting transfer students at the time, around late August, was DePaul University.
 
I transferred and would attend classes whenever I could. Mainly during late afternoons, evenings, and over summers. I had a lighter load because I was working full time. It took a lot longer, but I was able to finish. 
 
What about that experience made you gravitate to the startup world thereafter?
 
I always loved working from a young age. School was something I knew I should do, but I always saw it as a place to learn how to learn. Rather than focusing on the topics, I was trying to learn the best practices for life. 
 
I had been studying Finance and Economics to become an investment banker, like my father and older brother. After joining Groupon, I realized I could never go back to putting together financial models at an investment banking firm.
 
What was your official, and perhaps unofficial, role at Groupon?
 
When I joined, I became the Head of Global Operations. At a startup, that’s just a title. You end up holding a variety of responsibilities. My four cofounders had engineering backgrounds so that was what they worked on. My role was to do everything else that needed to get done. That included operations, but also finance, accounting, sales, and marketing. In a new startup, you wear all the hats that you need to. 
 
As the business grew, I settled into operations. When we went on a massive M&A path, I was focused heavily on expansion and acquisition. That included acquiring competitors and potential businesses to integrate. I handled the operational integrations, partnerships, and strategy there. That was my role then on until our IPO in three years, which was very accelerated for our business.
 

On Being a Leader

 
How did that experience culminate in your role today as a CEO?
 
It sent me off wanting to solve problems and wanting to work with a great team. I love identifying problem-solutions in markets and finding new market opportunities. I think the CEO role that I have now mainly consists of that and identifying amazing people to work with. So I naturally fell into that CEO role.
 
You mention selecting great people as a major part of being a CEO. What strategy do you follow when building your team?
 
I’ve always felt that talent is all over the world. It’s not limited to someone that’s able to drive to a single office. In the past, we had a designer that was working from a ski town in Colorado. He was an amazing designer who wasn’t going to move to Los Angeles. He loved it out there, but we didn’t want to limit ourselves.
 
We also have a sales rep in Hong Kong and France that sell to the US market. They’re selling to brands in international markets that also sell into the US. We have engineers in Uruguay, and customer support team members in Minnesota and Michigan. There’s amazing people everywhere. I always wanted to make sure we had the infrastructure to support that. We set that up pre-pandemic and it’s paid off even more now.
 
Surkus team, pre-pandemic.
 

On Working from Home

 
On that note, as you work during the pandemic, do you jump from bed to desk to couch or do you have a full office setup? 
 
I don’t have my own office since we’re staying with family for now. I’m also sharing a room with my wife and newborn baby, so I definitely avoid the bed. We don’t want him looking at a lot of screens so that’s a no-go. Instead, I’ll get up and work in a different room at a desk. I do love the constant movement I had when working in the office and going to meetings. And I absolutely hate sitting in the same spot for hours. I try to get up and change scenery whenever I can. That movement helps me stay creative. I also try to walk around when I have calls. When it’s nice out, I’ll move around and sit down to work outside.
 
Can you walk us through your typical work-from-home day? 
 
My days follow a similar path:
 
At 7:00 am, I like to get an early start so I can begin the day with some personal time. I’ll wake up, get my son up, and spend some time with him. Then, I’ll read the news and lots of articles. That’s usually an hour of my day. 
 
8:30 am marks the start of work. Every morning, I have a video call with my leadership team. It’s like our daily morning coffee meetup. Sometimes we’ll touch on ongoing strategy conversations, but usually we’ll discuss the day’s work and any urgent business that we need to take care during the next eight to ten hours. 
 
After those calls, around 10:30 am, it’s time for personal work. That’s time going through my own work. I’ll be on the computer, phone calls, or video calls. I might be focused on growing the business or growing as a leader. It depends on the day. When I am business-focused, I’ll talk to potential partners, potential or existing inventors, as well as potential and future candidates for growing our team. If I have time to focus on my leadership, I’ll talk to some advisors, my mentors, or some peers.
 
Around 1:30pm, in the early afternoon, I try to take some time for my mental health and happiness. I’ll take a break and spend a little bit of time with family. I wish I had more time for that, but usually it’s 30 minutes or maybe an hour. I’ll also go for a walk, run, or get some exercise if I have time. 
 
From 2:30 pm, it’s back to work. I’ll keep at it up until dinner or the end of the day.

"Know that you don't always have the right answer, that you're not the smartest person in the room. So listen, be humble."

 
How has the way your team works changed with the pandemic? 
 
We actually communicate a lot more now. Morning leadership team video calls are a daily ritual. There’s this “let’s just Slack them really quick and have a quick conversation” trend now. Sometimes you need more context and you need to play off of faces and a little back and forth. Just picking up the phone and having a quick video chat or phone call can save you 10 minutes of typing messages. We try to over communicate in that way. I always tells the team to not be scared to collaborate on video calls. Just because we’re at home doesn’t mean that it’s bothering someone. Before you would just walk up to their desk or jump in a conference room and have a little brainstorming session. So do that. 
 
We have all the tools to collaborate remotely. We use Google Meet for video calls, Slack, and tools like JIRA, Miro, and Notion. It’s allowed us to maintain amazing documentation on every department. If someone joins our company, even remotely, they’ll be able to get up to speed just going through the shared materials.
 
Besides virtual tools, do you have any other tips or tricks you use to work to the best of your ability? 
 
I don’t subscribe to “zero inbox” goals or to-do lists, but we have principles that are guidelines for the team and myself on how we should work. These are values that I have either always lived by or want to live by and am trying to.
 
1. You need passion. 
 
2. Empathy. Empathize with team members, with clients, with our members, our users. Just be empathetic. 
 
3. Be humble. Know that you don’t always know the right answer, that you’re not always the smartest one in the room. So listen, be humble. 
 
4. Adapt. You need to adapt to the current needs. 
 
5. Never ever give up. That’s an important one. You will get shut down by clients. You’ll get treated poorly by individuals. Investors will tell you no. Everyone will tell you no. You might have to adapt for it to work, but never give up.
 
6. Always operate as a team. You’re never going to win on your own. I’ve never heard of a one person company being successful and becoming a unicorn. I’ve heard of small teams, but it’s still a team. 
 
7. Create positive change. Everything you do should create a positive change. We use that to think about how we spend money and what we invest in. Is it creating a positive change? 
 
How Surkus works.
 

On Adapting

 
Following on principle #4, to adapt, can you tell us about how you adapt and grow as a leader?
 
I’m always growing and learning. It’s a lot of learning. There’s books you can read, but I find that continuous conversations are best. Particularly, being able to bounce ideas off of people that are not inside the business I’ll do that either through mentorship or with fellow CEOs and founders. I think it’s critical to maintain those networks and constantly keep in touch. The same with the investment world; they’re looking at so many companies within a given space. 
 
Learning consistently is the best thing I can do for my team whether I’m learning how to grow our business or lead our team better. That means taking time where I’m just reading, where I’m joining certain webinars, or speaking with other CEOS and founders.
 
Readers might not know that Groupon began as a totally different concept. Can you tell us about the adaptation that happened there?
 
Originally Groupon was called the Point. We were a social platform for collective action, where we were going to boycott businesses and fundraise for other businesses. When we ran out of money, it was in the middle of the Financial Crisis. We made the transition to use that original tipping point idea, that collective power, for a discount. So many companies evolve. It’s natural, and in many cases, a good thing.
 
Amazing Brands started with Surkus back in 2015. Could you tells us about Surkus and how it has evolved from then to now?
 
Surkus has changed a lot over the last few years. We first focused on experiential activations where we brought brands and consumers closer together through live experiences. Our members would be invited to events and the brand would get valuable feedback and content. That transitioned with the pandemic. When we did live events, the brand was spending a lot to create that consumer-product connection. Now, it’s that same experience, in the form of samples of products. 
 
Consumers can use the Surkus app to interact with products in the safety of their homes. Members identify the products they like, purchase it, and give feedback or create content for that product in return for a pretty substantial discount. In many cases, our users will get the product for free or a cash reward. That’s what Surkus is today and will continue to be.
 
That has really taken off for us this past year. We’ve actually grown exponentially this year from last year. I think a lot of companies have struggled to make that transition while staying within their core discipline. When I think of expanding and transitioning our business, I think of how we can evolve within our purpose. 
 

"What else can we do to support brands and businesses? And how can we bring consumers closer to build that connection?"

 
You’ve also been working on another adaptation of your brand this past year with Amaze. Could you tell us more about how that happened?
 
There’s about 15 million out of 32 million small business that are under 5 million in revenue in the US. Those are the ones that are the most underserved. They have the smallest budgets. On average, 60% of customers that spend at a local business don’t come back. That’s really expensive. Small businesses can’t afford to continue acquiring new clients. So that’s been on my mind for the last 12 years. Similar to Groupon’s focus on small businesses in the beginning.
 
We’re focusing on loyalty and customer retention with Amaze. It’s a discovery-centered app with cash and non-cash rewards given for transacting repeatedly at a local business. There’s going to be a lot of functionality that we know small businesses need and that they’re spending money on multiple platforms for. We want to provide that as a single service.
 
It sounds like perfect timing with this current pandemic. Was that the final push to create Amaze?
 
We actually started development before the pandemic, but it forced us to make a lot of adjustments. One of those is a big hook for us: storytelling. If you think back to Surkus in its early days with the experiential focus, that’s all about telling the story and experiencing the brand. When you go to a physical business and shop at a brick-and-mortar shop, you get to connect with the owner, with the lead designer, with the head chef. You build a connection. Emotion is involved. We want to bring that to life through Amaze, by connecting nearby consumers with businesses where you can build a longer relationship. We’re working on that storytelling component especially, because that has suffered with this pandemic and the inability to visit businesses in person. 

On new furniture, exclusive sales and more.

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