In 2013, Chieh Huang and his three co-founders were feeling ambitious. They decided to take on Amazon and big-box retailers.
They launched Boxed, a company that is dedicated to shipping bulk groceries and home products to customer’s doors at competitive prices.
“We just identified a problem we had in our daily lives,” explains Huang. “Before, people would drive an hour for price, but with technology, value is a function of price and convenience now. That changing of the formula allows us to come in and take advantage of that.”
Four years ago, Huang was running the business out of his garage. The first item the team ever shipped was some rolls of paper towels. Today, the company operates four fulfillment centers around the country, including its home base of Edison, New Jersey. Boxed has raised more $100 million in funding and surpassed $100 million in annual sales.
Boxed has also been in the news for some of its company wide initiatives, like a college fund for employee’s children and putting money towards the weddings of employees.
We caught up with Huang for our 20 Questions series to find out what motivates him and makes him tick.
Interview was edited for length and clarity.
1. How do you start your day?
I start the day just with the family. I don’t check emails until my commute, and I make sure my phone isn’t close to me until I’m out the door. I’m guilty just like everyone else. When you’re at the dinner table with family and checking email, you make nobody happy. I try to keep true to that and that’s why I don’t check it.
2. How do you end your day and
I end my day reading a [physical] book. It is the way I actually wind down. It gives me a little bit of clarity on things. I do it because I read this article about how right before you go to bed, the blue light [from mobile devices] disrupts your sleep. I do think I wake up more rested, but it could be the placebo effect.
3. What’s a book that changed your mind
50 Strategies That Changed History by Daniel Smith. It just basically went down this list of interesting moments in history. It kind of changed the way I thought about people who do things that change the arc of history. When I read the book and how they did what they did, most of these people were random people who had to step up and make a strategy to make it happen. You don’t have to be a superhero to change the arc of history.
4. What’s a book you always recommend
The Hard Thing About Hard Things by Ben Horowitz. Every entrepreneur out there has challenging days. What you read about what he’s gone through, you think it is tough, but he still got through it. Definitely recommend that one.
5. What’s a strategy to keep focused?
Having a chief of staff. They aren’t just managing a calendar, they can fill in the gaps for you. My chief of staff writes me an email at the end of every day, and makes a list of the decisions that I need to make that people are counting on. Having someone to send that every day has made my life better and made things here a lot clearer for everyone.
6. When you were a kid what did you want to be when you grew up?
I knew I did not want to be a doctor, my parents kept talking to me about that. I wanted to be an NBA player but around freshman and sophomore year I stopped growing, so that was the end of that.
7. What did you learn from the worst boss you ever had?
I learned just what not to do when it was my turn to be the boss. When it comes to running a business and interacting with people, you need to be very transparent.
8. Who has influenced you most when it comes to how you approach your work?
I think it would have to be my mom. My mom started off as a cashier at a fast-food restaurant and ended up being an EVP of a decent sized company. Throughout that time, she never complained once. She just got up and did what she needed to do. In the morning if I’m sluggish I think if my mom could do that, I could do this.
9. What’s a trip that changed you?
Emotionally, it was a trip to Tibet. I definitely saw not only the beauty of the place but what some folks in life are truly going through. I didn’t have an easy childhood but compared to kids who are growing up in poverty in China and Tibet, that changed the way I thought about opportunity.
A trajectory changer for my professional life was teaching English in Japan for two years. I was sent off into the countryside. I felt like I wasted those two years at first, but it turned out that our first investor in Boxed actually grew up in that area. Without that initial spark, I don’t think we’d be here today.
10. What inspires you?
The folks in our performance centers who do a very difficult job. My life at Boxed started there — the CEO was packing boxes at the start, too. There are a lot of people counting on us to make the right decisions to make sure that we do well, so they can put food on the table and that inspires me.
11. What was your first business idea and what did you do with it?
When I was in fifth grade I sold candy to all the kids on the block. I saw how much they loved the ice cream truck, but it only came around once a day. So, being outside with the kids from the neighborhood, I was always around. That was my start.
12. What was an early job that taught you something important or useful that you still use today?
One of my first jobs was an internship with this consulting firm going through international strategy for them. Even big companies needed help with strategy. On the outside it would seem like they have it figured out, but on the inside there’s a lot of things that need figuring out.
13. What’s the best advice you ever took?
It’s to trust your gut. It’s what got me here today, and it seems like it’s served us pretty well, so why change that.
14. What’s the worst piece of advice you ever got?
When I was working at a law firm, I was thinking about leaving, and a co-worker said not to leave the comfort of the job to start my first company. I didn’t take that person’s advice, and I’m better for it.
15. What’s a productivity tip you swear by?
I try to do inbox zero. I get pretty close most nights. That allows me in the morning to not have to get to emails and know that nothing really pressing is waiting. In the morning I’m sharpest. I can use that time to think about how to make things better for the company, instead of focusing on email.
16. Is there an app or tool you use to get things done or stay on track?
It’s a little cliche, but honestly it’s Uber. Uber has a pick up at a certain time feature that is really helpful. It gets me where I need to go on time.
17. What does work-life balance mean to you?
It means that you’re not having regrets on either front. You got to this point where you’re not worrying about what you should have done with your job or your family.
I’m not perfect and sometimes I do have regrets, but that is what it means to me overall: getting to that place where you don’t have them.
18. How do you prevent burnout?
I don’t know if I’m built differently, but I found something that I love and enjoy and I’m decent at it. When you find that marriage in life, you don’t feel burned out. I could do this all day, and it’s what I want to do during the waking hours.
19. When you’re faced with a creativity block, what’s your strategy to get innovating?
I separate myself from email and internet and sit down with pen and paper. Some of my most productive time is on airplane. Being forced to sit down with just your thoughts is really helpful to me.
20. What are you learning now?
A few years ago we were a tiny company in my garage. I have to learn something new every day. I can’t even enumerate them. Every day is something new.