Don’t overthink and overplan – most learning will come from execution, not from more planning.
James Thomson is the president and co-founder of PROSPER Show (Professional Retailers Online and Solution Providers for Education and Research) – a conference organized by ten former Amazon insiders, focused on providing best practices on how to build a successful Amazon seller business around solid business processes and outsourcing.
Mr. Thomson is also a Partner of BuyboxExperts.com, a consulting firm for large brands and online sellers seeking to establish their Amazon business presence. Prior to this, James spent nearly six years at Amazon, where he served as the Third-Party Category Manager for the Sports business, as Amazon’s first FBA Account Manager, and finally as the head of Amazonservices.com – the platform responsible for recruiting 100k+ new sellers and $1 billion dollars of new revenue per year. Prior to Amazon, James was a management consultant, banker and academic.
James earned his Ph.D. in Marketing from Northwestern University (Kellogg), and an MBA from Vanderbilt University. He is a regular contributor in internet trade journals on Amazon business practices and has guest-lectured at more than a dozen business schools around the world.
Where did the idea for PROSPER Show come from?
Having watched of thousands of sellers that I recently recruited to the Amazon.com marketplace fail soon after starting their journey on Amazon, I was struck by how unprepared so many of these sellers were – unprepared for the competition that awaits them on Amazon, unprepared for the business requirements of Amazon, and unprepared for the repeated business processes needed to be effective. Combine this with my experience attending too many conferences where I repeatedly saw attendees unaware that they were being subjected to speakers who were either average-skilled, self-declared experts, or who had paid for the right to stand up and focus on selling their solution rather than first educating the audience, I became frustrated and disillusioned by conferences as a fair and effective form of broad-based education. Working with my business partner, Joseph Hansen, we decided to create a conference that focuses on educating sellers first on the wide range of issues involving each business first process, then introducing them to solution providers to assist them in solving these issues. Recognizing the hunger for insight on how Amazon really works, we added the layer of bringing together ten former Amazon business insiders – the very people who built the programs and policies that impact Amazon sellers’ businesses today.
What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?
While the tasks within any given day may fluctuate greatly, every day involves a review of my running checklist of to-do’s and their interdependencies with other longer-term to-do’s. I try to keep myself honest by making sure I am moving all parts of my business forward at least a little bit each week.
How do you bring ideas to life?
My time at Amazon taught me well about the importance of thinking big, and then executing against those ideas. Why work with 5 clients if there is a way to document and scale those ideas to help 500 clients? I’m very fortunate to be working with Joseph Hansen at Buy Box Experts, with whom I can bounce ideas around, and move quickly to testing out the ideas. The more I document processes needed to make an idea come to life, the faster I can train others to execute against those ideas – and this makes it easier to scale using the help of others.
What’s one trend that really excites you?
I am excited to see inventory/order management software solutions becoming cost effective for small and medium size Amazon sellers to use. Having watched far too many sellers focus on growing their topline sales just so they could get to be big enough to afford expensive inventory/order management solutions, I’m pleased to see so many less expensive, yet robust options now available to sellers, thereby democratizing these tools to more sellers. A couple of years ago, I was asked to become an advisor to Skubana, a startup inventory/order management solution, and I’ve been very excited about being part of this journey to helping so many sellers succeed at tasks that often end up crippling the fast-growing seller.
What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?
Test, measure, repeat. Being an entrepreneur is about solving problems that matter, and rarely is the answer obvious. So I’ve had to become more agile about testing out ideas quickly so I can learn from the initial flaws in my rationale, and use those learnings to update and improve my ideas about how to solve particular business problems.
What was the worst job you ever had and what did you learn from it?
I poured cement one summer, building driveways and sidewalks all day long. While the physical aspects of the job were tough on my body, I didn’t enjoy the job because there was little room to make process improvements, or treat the task at hand like a seemingly unsolvable puzzle that would take time and focus to solve. I like big challenges that require me to develop a clear understanding of the key drives in order to build a proper solution.
If you were to start again, what would you do differently?
I would have figured out how to scale my consulting business faster. Initially I started with the assumption that all work was to be done by me, but eventually I realized I could get suitable help handling many of my daily client tasks, thereby freeing me up for the more critical tasks that only I can solve.
As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?
Get out there and test your ideas on a small scale all the time. Make sure you know what you’re testing, so when you more often than not fail, you can figure out what you’ve learned and apply that to your next test. Don’t overthink and overplan – most learning will come from execution, not from more planning.
What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business? Please explain how.
Get out there and test your ideas, even if they are not fully baked. I find that I learn much faster this way about issues that I have overlooked or misunderstood – I find that putting ideas to the test is much more insightful than putting more time into the idea on paper. Besides, an idea on paper is likely to have a lot more nay-sayers than an idea in execution. Ideas getting tested are much more likely to get the attention and respect of others than ideas still in blueprint form.
What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?
Being an entrepreneur is all about fully expecting some failure, but leveraging it as a learning opportunity. In prior corporate roles, I had to manage this form of failure much more carefully than I have to as an entrepreneur. It’s taken me more than two years to get my head around the idea that controlled failure is a very powerful learning opportunity that I need as a lifeline to making new ideas succeed.
What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?
Develop a service that educates high school students on how to use Microsoft Excel really well, so they know how to manipulate data and gather insight from even the seemingly simplest data collection efforts. I believe every new college student would be much better off – both for class and internships – if s/he has expert Microsoft Excel skills.
What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?
I started using Uber instead of taxis. Talking with each Uber driver, I have learned a lot about the power of providing an outlet for anyone to be a small business owner. I’ve heard first-hand some intriguing stories of drivers figuring out when is the most profitable times and places for them to be located when they are driving – these insights coming from people who find themselves otherwise in jobs too structured for innovation or experimentation.
What software and web services do you use? What do you love about them?
I love Docusign because it makes it so much easier to transfer and sign legal documents. I’m also a big believer in Keepa.com and CamelCamelCamel – both of these free tools are basic product research tools that every Amazon seller should be using as a starting point for inventory sourcing.
What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?
The book “Checklist Manifesto” by Atul Gawande – the concept is easy: create a clear checklist and then follow it carefully. It turns out so much of the ugly variability in our lives is caused by not following an implicit or explicit checklist. Fantastic case studies in this book, a must read for any entrepreneur.
What people have influenced your thinking and might be of interest to others?
I love the app pulse.me, which has helped me stay on top of the most current news and technology issues that I have decided to track. I’m also a big fan of blog “Electric Thoughts In A Digital Era”, where author Hendrik Laubscher consolidates all the global e-commerce news of the past week into a summary of most relevant developments.