Mike Edwards

Retail and E-Commerce Executive

Mike Edwards was born and raised in northern Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He paid for his own college education, majoring in marketing and ultimately graduating with a bachelor’s degree in business from Drexel University in 1983. From there, he went straight into retail, having been recruited by May Department Stores into their executive training program. Mike Edwards continued to work at May for five years, before becoming a store manager at Target. Beginning in 1990, he rose through the ranks at CompUSA, starting out as an assistant store manager and achieving the position of senior vice president before leaving the company in 1998.

Mike has held the president and CEO positions at Lucy Activewear, Borders Inc., eBags.com, and Hanna Andersson, and has held various senior leadership positions at Golfsmith, West Marine, Jo Ann Stores, and Staples. He now lives in Portland, Oregon, where he is the independent director and digital technology committee chairperson of the publicly traded company Central Garden & Pet.

Where did the idea for your career come from?

One of my professors at Drexel University influenced me to attend an overview on retail given by a few of the executives at May company who also happened to be at the university for recruiting purposes. I spent some time listening to them describe what they do and getting to know them better, which sort of led me down the road of eventually joining the company.

What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?

Well, my day starts early. I usually start by 5 am, and I conduct research for a couple hours on topics dealing with whatever projects I’m working on at the moment, or just to generate new ideas. Then I typically look over and crunch a series of numbers, glance at some investments, and then set aside time to take a break and either walk or work out. And then my meetings start. I try to end my meetings by about 3 pm—at least, I don’t schedule any meetings after that. Then I try to summarize or develop my to-do list for the following day, week, and month. It’s a routine that I haven’t really changed in years, and it generally keeps me on track.

How do you bring ideas to life?

I like to brainstorm as many ideas as possible, and I like to work with my team during that process. I’ll sometimes bring in outside experts to help vet the ideas, in terms of what ideas are the most important, what problems we’re trying to solve, and what the economic benefit is of pursuing these ideas. We agree on typically no more than 3 out of 10 ideas. Once some kind of agreement is achieved, we build an execution plan around the ideas. The execution plan consists of details that ensure we have the right people, talent, and resources allocated to accomplish our stated goals. We then stay focused on accountability relating to the execution plan, how we measure it, what the guideposts look like along the way, and ultimately, the successful execution of the idea.

What’s one trend that excites you?

I think that the proliferation of e-commerce and global consumerism is super exciting to me, because it’s influencing and changing everything that we do. So I’d say that the fact that we’re in the midst of a genuine technological revolution is the most exciting trend to me—especially considering all of the possibilities of how it could affect every aspect of business.

What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?

I think it’s just discipline and consistency coupled with adaptability. I stick with a plan and I work on it intensely, but I’m not afraid to pivot or abandon it if I see that it’s not working or that it’s never going to work. That’s what it’s all about—discipline and consistency while still maintaining flexibility.

What advice would you give your younger self?

I would tell my younger self to be a little more patient, and to never lose sight of the long-term. And always, always, always surround yourself with great people.

Tell us something that’s true that almost nobody agrees with you on.

Embracing paranoia is a good thing, and assuming the world isn’t safe isn’t a bad thing. Also, personal failure can be a wonderful asset because that is how people learn, evolve, and grow. That is a view that’s often seen as counter-intuitive by many people in society. A lot of times, when I interview people for employment, they have these perfect resumes and these perfect educations, and then when I talk to them, I can tell that they’ve just led this charmed life. When that happens, first of all, I don’t believe it, and second of all, I’m not sure I want to hire that person anyway. Because what happens when the going gets tough, as it inevitably does from time to time? How will these people who have never faced any kind of adversity deal with a tough situation? I much prefer to hire people who have had to overcome some obstacles and challenges in their life.

As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?

I’m a ‘readaholic.’ I believe in personal education, and that continuous learning and commitment thereto keeps your mind sharp and keeps you relevant. I’m over 60 years old, and people may judge me for my grey hair, but they can’t see what’s going on in my brain. I think that a curious and inquisitive mindset is imperative for success. I see it consistently among so many great people I’ve met.

What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business?

The one strategy I’ve always wholeheartedly embraced from the first day of my career is just to work harder than everyone else. Just put in the work. Even 10% or 20% more work than anyone else is willing to put in is enough to separate you from the pack.

What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?

I think the biggest challenge I’ve had throughout my career is dyslexia. I’ve had it my whole life and I’ve often been judged on my poor spelling. But I think my condition forced me to develop strong people skills, to really connect with people in a credible way.

What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?

I’m still toying with these ideas, but I think that they actually go back to how I feel about the university and college system. I think universities have become archaic, and they’re not teaching the most relevant information. Professors get tenured, so there’s a lack of incentive to really bridge the gap between what’s actually happening in the world and what’s being taught in the classroom. And post-secondary education is very expensive, to boot. Not a lot of American families can afford it without going into debt.

I think we can take this problem on the one hand, and take the recent acceptance of remote video technology on the other hand, and combine them to create new marketplaces of bright and talented people teaching in the digital space. I’m talking about talented people that are either professional teachers or experts in their given professions that can engage with students virtually and teach them in real time. Teachers could still cooperate with different centers of learning, but they could do it in more of a flexible and digital way that’s a nice bridge between whatever they’re passionate about and furthering the education of students. So, I think a solid business idea is to revolutionize the college infrastructure, but it would definitely take a lot of work to break down the existing barriers. It’s just in the back of my head for now. But just think—if everyone who wanted an education could get one and wouldn’t have to worry so much about the financial aspects of it—what that could do for our world.

What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?

I recently spent $100 on someone that rewrote my bio and completely updated my LinkedIn profile in a way that really reflected my values and what I wanted. While it didn’t cost a lot, it’s had a really strong impact on my brand. So, investing in my own brand was a great use of money.

What is one piece of software or a web service that helps you be productive?

I don’t know that there’s just one piece of software that I use specifically more than any other. If I can be a bit broad with my answer, I would say that I use quite a lot of news services. Staying up to date with current events is important when you hold a leadership role.

What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?

I tend to read nonfiction quite a lot. Textbooks, academic works, autobiographies—anything that I can learn from. I’ve read every book that’s been published about Sam Walton and every book that’s been published about Jeff Bezos. Considering my line of work, I find them both incredibly valuable figures to learn from and study. And even though they’re businessmen, I find them almost inspirational as well. Way back when, I read a book called Who Moved My Cheese by Spencer Johnson, and I found that pretty inspirational, as well. But I’m constantly interested in leadership models. Whether it’s CEOs, JFK, or Mother Teresa, I’m super interested in how certain people have changed their industries or changed the world, and that’s what I like to learn about.

What is your favorite quote?

“Dream as if you’ll live forever. Live as if you’ll die today.” — James Dean

Key Learnings:

  • Success comes from discipline and consistency.
  • Work harder than those around you if you want to set yourself apart.
  • Don’t stop learning and don’t let yourself fall behind the times.
  • Never lose sight of your long-term goals.
  • Don’t give up when you face setbacks. Work just as hard, if not harder, to get through the bad times as you worked to advance through the good times.