David Rosenblatt on the Start-up Culture at 1stdibs

The CEO of 1stdibs fosters an environment of ambition and doesn’t worry about the investors.

You don’t have a design background. So how did you get involved in the business?

My exposure to design is less as a professional and more as a customer. I knew the investors in this company. They called me in abut working here, which coincided with my wife and I decorating a new apartment. So I was actually spending quite a bit of time in and around 1stdibs—but as a customer. That whole experience really elicited an interest in both the design world, for the sake of the design, and also in the business of design.

You mentioned that you chose the art in this office, and right now the space is all decked out for Halloween, and “She Wolf” is playing. You guys seem to have fun. How would you describe the company culture?

In many respects, the design of the office is a metaphor for the culture of the company. We’re equal parts a design company and a technology company. Because of the former, the aesthetic of the office itself is important, and I think all of us are highly sensitive to the appearance and presentation of what we do and how we do it. We need to have many of the beautiful things that we offer for sale on the site in the office. On the other hand, half of our company is engineers and product managers, so a lot of how we run the company is reflective of Internet culture. We’re unstructured in terms of when people come to work, when people leave work, and we’re much more focused on what they do than how they do it. We try to create an environment where they can be as creative and productive as possible.

So it’s kind of like a West Coast start-up?

Yeah, I think there’s a West Coast vibe to this company.

Would you consider it a start-up? It’s actually been around for 14 years.

We’re as entrepreneurial as any six-month-old mobile app company, but we have millions of customers and thousands of dealers and galleries who really depend on us to do their jobs well. I think we’re kind of equal parts an entrepreneurial, early-stage company and an established presence. Balancing those two things is what we’re about—and what makes life interesting. 

I guess every company has to be a start-up now. You raised $50 million in venture capital this year. When you get that much money, what’s the end game?

We don’t plan specifically for achieving a financial return. My belief is that it’s much more important to focus on our mission and our strategy. If we accomplish that, because we’re in a big market, we will create value. I don’t spend a minute thinking about how that value is realized by our investors.

What do you look for when you hire?

What people always say about stocks is that past performance is not an indicator of future performance. It’s the diametric opposite with people. I look for a record of success, and intelligence. My high school basketball coach used to say you can’t coach height. If you have height—if you have curiosity and you have intelligence—that helps a lot. The third thin I look for is loyalty and commitment. What I don’t look for is a domain-specific experience—meaning people who have worked in this industry. If you have the three things I mentioned, you can figure almost anything out over time.

Since you mentioned culture again—what do you think is essential to company culture for success?

What’s important to me is having a culture of curiosity that rewards questions and skepticism—and a culture of ambition, meaning a desire to change this industry rather than just be successful by operating within the industry. To define it requires a level of vision and ambition that’s above the norm.

How do you create that collegiality from the top down?

It’s really a combination of two things. The most important is to hire people who themselves believe in that and therefore can propagate it among their different teams. I also try hard to set an example through my own behavior. 

What’s the best advice you ever got?

My first manager at DoubleClick [the internet ad company, sold to Google in 2008, where Rosenblatt was CEO] asked me, about a month into my job, to write down my top three priorities. I did, and then he said, “Okay, now draw a line through No. 2 and No. 3, and that’s the only thing I want you to do for the next month or so.” I had never thought that way, and it taught me the value of focus. I now try to apply that sort of orientation to everything from my own time to the time of people on my team, to the priorities of the company itself. Focus wins.

You said 1stdibs is 50 percent design and 50 percent tech. How do you make people joining one side of the business care about the other side?

By focusing the company on a small set of very clearly defined goals. Many of those are kind of internal to what we do; some of those are external and strategic. But if people are working toward a common goal, then that serves to unite them, and actually the differences between them becomes highly additive. It’s really the differences of people on the team that creates that special sauce. If everyone were the same, it’s very difficult to create anything truly new.

What advice would you give to someone for success in life and work?

Find the intersection of what you love to do and what you’re good at. If you only do things you love to do and it turns out you’re not as effective at that as at other things, it’s going to be hard to be successful. If you conversely only do the things that you’re really good at but you don’t love, then you’re not going to be happy. If you find the intersection of those two things, your life will take care of itself.

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