Aaron Alpeter is a graduate of Unilever’s prestigious Supply Chain Management Program where he spent 5 years gaining direct experience working in planning, manufacturing, international logistics, and continuous improvement.
He’s personally built or rebuilt over a dozen startups and has held C-level leadership positions at companies as Hubble Contacts, Sustain Natural, The Flex Company, and Mirror and has advised companies as diverse as The Farmer’s Dog, Grove Collaborative, Banza, Ettitude, Sunsoil, and Kind.
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Table of Contents
Let’s learn a little about you and really get to experience what makes us tick – starting at our beginnings. Where did your story begin?
Aaron Alpeter: I’m a supply chain guy through and through. I studied Logistics at Ohio State University and was lucky enough to be accepted into Unilever’s Supply Chain Management Program. The program was very competitive and consisted of three one-year rotations where I worked in planning, manufacturing production, and international logistics. I graduated from the program and was promoted to be a manager and got to do some really cool workaround business waste, MAP pricing, and international diversion. I honestly thought I was going to be at Unilever for 25-30 years. I had an itch to get into eCommerce and did my best to try to network with the groups who were working on those problems but they weren’t interested in me given my lack of eCommerce experience. Upon further reflection, I realized that as great as Unilever was, their business was built around full pallets to Walmart and they weren’t yet leaders in eCommerce.
Around the same time, I realized that I would most likely need to get exposure elsewhere, a colleague of mine put me in contact with Ben Cogan and Jesse Horwitz. Ben and Jesse had been pitching an idea for a DTC subscription business for contact lenses and had secured some initial funding and we’re now trying to figure out how to pull it off. We met at a restaurant in Port Authority where they shared their idea and asked “how do we supply chain?” One thing lead to another and I decided to consult for them while still at Unilever and in the process of building out a complete greenfield supply chain- selecting a factory in Taiwan, building inventory models, standing up a DTC fulfillment network- I got the bug and decided to join Hubble Contacts full time and oversaw their customer service, quality, regulatory, and supply chain teams while there.
Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
Aaron Alpeter: I’ve been lucky enough to have had several mentors, friends, and coworkers who have helped me along the way, but there is one constant person who has been vital to my journey and that is my wife Olga.
She was the one who encouraged me to take my first startup job with Hubble; waiting until my last day at Unilever to let us know we were expecting our first kid. Through all of the ups and downs, she’s been a constant source of grounding and encouragement and has given me the space I’ve needed to try new things.
When I first got started with izba there were a lot of very lonely days between clients and projects. There were months where despite 12 hour days I really wouldn’t have much to show for it and things were tight as a result. She reminded me that my worth as a husband, father, and person isn’t tied to a title, bank account, or resume. This was a vital lesson that I’m glad I learned before things really started coming together.
What are the most common mistakes you see entrepreneurs make and what would you suggest they do?
Aaron Alpeter: Strictly speaking about supply chain mistakes, the single biggest mistake that I see founders make is that they build a supply chain that is geared towards launching a product vs building an ongoing operation. It’s as if people get surprised by their success and end up having inventory or customer service issues as a result.
The best advice I offer is for a startup- big or small- to adopt sound Sales & Operations Planning (S&OP) principles. Each month they should review all of the assumptions they have as a business that will determine the next 18-24 months. These assumptions and forecasts are going to be wrong, but there is enormous value in comparing what you want to have happened with what you think is going to happen on a monthly basis. From there you can start to look around corners to determine when you may need to raise more money or increase capacity.
This challenge is so common that we’ve actually built a proprietary software platform called Capable which distills Fortune 500 S&OP principles for startups and helps them forecast cash flow, inventory, and capacity needs.
Has the pandemic and transitioning into mostly online shopping affected your company positively or negatively?
Aaron Alpeter: With most of the lockdowns and even some mask requirements behind us in the US, it’s clear that the lasting impact of the pandemic is that it advanced our adoption of technology and eCommerce by at least 10 years. With this has come a realization that businesses can’t rely on a single sales channel (D2C is no longer enough and Retail is quickly becoming a must-have even for start-ups) and the importance of building resiliency into your supply chain.
One of these days I’ll write a book on what it was like running 4 supply chains simultaneously during the early days of the pandemic. We had clients who had entire markets shut down, who saw retail volume completely dry up, and had Amazon offset that revenue, we saw extreme pricing volatility in nearly every aspect of the supply chain. With many of these challenges it wasn’t necessarily figuring out how you were going to avoid these speed bumps, but more scenario planning and understanding your optionality as the entire market hit turbulence.
All in all, the demand for supply chain expertise has been a net positive and it has forced us to figure out how to grow and scale earlier than we may have planned on doing so otherwise.
When you think of your company, 5 years from now, what do you see?
Aaron Alpeter: I hope that 5 years from now that Izba is the name brand that people in the startup ecosystem associate when they think of supply chain expertise. We do a lot of mentoring and offering free advice to founders and genuinely believe that if you’re putting good vibes and knowledge out into the world that the business part will work out.
We’re also looking at expanding into the services we’ve offered beyond just supply chain consulting when the timing and opportunity are right.
Delegating is part of being a great leader, but what have you found helpful to get your managers to become valiant leaders as well?
Aaron Alpeter: I think the single most important thing that someone can do to be an effective delegator is to provide context on why you are asking them to do something and making sure that they are aware of what the success criteria looks like. I’ve found that if you’re clear on the “why” and the “what” that you don’t really need to be overly concerned with the “how”. Don’t get me wrong you still should be there to help show people what to do if they ask, but you don’t need to micromanage.
How important do you think it is for a leader to be mindful of his own brand?
Aaron Alpeter: In my case as a sole proprietor, my personal brand was izba in the early days. I remember being pretty proud the first time I heard someone say “izba does great work” instead of “Aaron and his team do great work.” As we’ve grown I’ve found myself trying to live up to the standards we’ve set as a company vs the other way around.
I’ve also recognized that there are several different facets of my personal brand that I need to make sure that I magnify in certain situations. Throughout any given day I may need to be a teacher to our team, a confidant to a CEO, or a partner to a supplier. Each of these aspects is a core part of who I am even though I may be called upon to play a specific role at different times.
What advice would you give to our younger readers that want to become entrepreneurs?
Aaron Alpeter: I would encourage people to focus on getting on base vs trying to hit a home run from the beginning. Success in business rarely hinges on a single moment or decision but is instead the sum total of lots of smaller decisions (some good and some bad) that lead you to where you are.
I’d also encourage people to reframe how they think about failure and making mistakes. If you’re used to things always going your way- you’re not ready to be an entrepreneur. Since most startups fail, you need to be ok with that as an outcome before you start. If you’re able to view being laid off, not closing a deal, or losing money as a learning opportunity vs an existential crisis then you are on the right track.
As Rocky Balboa said “It’s not about how hard you hit. It’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward.”
What’s your favorite “business” quote and how has it affected your business decisions?
Aaron Alpeter: There is a Swedish proverb that says that “Every ship has a good captain in calm weather” which has always stuck with me. To me, that quote suggests that you really don’t know what you- or your company- are made of until you’ve gone through difficult times.
This has helped me stay grounded and collected when I’m in the eye of the storm and be able to evaluate options, take a long term view of the issue, and avoid activity for activity sake (sometimes the best course of action is to do nothing and let things play out).
Another key principle that I’ve learned is that any time there is a mistake, inefficiency, or just overall stress in a business it’s because you’re missing something in your process or some asset in your business that allowed the issue to happen. An example would be having a new consultant put together a network optimization analysis for a client in a format that doesn’t feel quite right.
The problem isn’t the new consultant – the issue is that we didn’t take the time to provide a template, guideline, or training needed to make sure they know what success looks like. Whenever we find one of these, we are always having discussions about what we could build or do to prevent the issue from happening again so that we don’t make the same mistake twice.
Jed Morley, VIP Contributor to ValiantCEO and the host of this interview would like to thank Aaron Alpeter for taking the time to do this interview and share his knowledge and experience with our readers.
If you would like to get in touch with Aaron Alpeter or his company, you can do it through his – Linkedin Page
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