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Tim Shannon

The river became a metaphor for some difficulties in the office space — issues of decision-making, authority, and process.

Title: Director of Operations

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What were your expectations for Altrec.com’s off-site?

I’ve been involved in several intense learning sessions and some ropes courses, and I guess I probably entered the off-site fairly skeptical of what it could actually do. I didn’t know my teammates that well, so I had some apprehension and anxiety about going camping and being isolated for several days with a group of people that I really didn’t know. I’ve seen that kind of thing turn ugly and I’ve also seen it work out great. Truthfully, this trip surpassed my greatest expectations.

The curriculum and the way that it was integrated with the experiences on the river accelerated a bonding process that was already ongoing. And for me, seeing people out of the context of the office in a learning situation and in a wilderness situation gave me some comfort. I knew the outdoors was my realm, and I was stepping into their realm of a startup. We found some common ground.

What specific elements of the curriculum fostered that bonding process?

At first, during the process of giving very frank feedback, people were reacting defensively. But once they accepted the process and built some trust, it wasn’t viewed as a personal attack, it was addressed as style and issues of interaction, how people interact. That, if anything, forced us to talk about hard issues that perhaps had been avoided.

The river became a metaphor for some difficulties in the office space — issues of decision-making, authority, and process. Everyone in the startup phase has participation in and expectation of input into a decision. As you get larger, it’s no longer reasonable to do that. On the Salmon River, two people had to make all the decisions, and at a point you have to cut off input. It’s like, “Thank you for the input, but we have to make a decision or we’re never going to get off the beach.”

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What specific off-site lesson has had the most impact on your work life?

Well that’s pretty easy — it is something affected me as much in a work life as my personal life. Almost drowning in the rapids. Once I was underwater and being held down a bit, it was very quiet and peaceful. Then my head popped out and the sound of the river hydraulics and the noise was just deafening. I’ve sailed across the ocean to Hawaii. I’ve been exposed to huge storms at sea, but nothing is like the power of a big river like that.

I came back and the first thing that I did was meet with my attorney and draft a will. It was a huge lesson in mortality for me. Even today, I think about it and my heart rate goes up. This could be my last day. I feel a sense of immediacy and a desire to achieve something, to leave a legacy.

Have you seen the off-site’s action items and lessons manifested in the office?

Certainly. The lesson that first comes to mind is the concept of the ladder of inference. It’s really interesting how that has become a shared vocabulary concept and how it has actually come into play. Many times, people see something that’s observable but then drawn their own conclusions from their filter. Now Altrec.com has a reference point around which it can say, “Hey, let’s talk about the experience or the data, and then let’s both rationalize the meaning.

When things get going fast, the human tendency is to reach, or draw conclusions without necessarily checking all the facts. You could easily get pretty far down a path of assumptions before you actually have to go back and check your original facts and data.

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Do you feel the trip helped acclimate you to the Altrec.com surroundings and to your coworkers?

I’m more comfortable with my coworkers because I met them on a personal level. Here we were interacting on a very deeply intimate personal level when we started talking about decisions making and personal styles. This was like a total immersion course in get-to-know-your-neighbor.

As far as a comfort level with my job or with the e-commerce world, I think only the paranoid survive. I don’t think you ever achieve a comfort level in this business. You’re seeking venture capital financing, you’re trying to control the Big Bang at the same time and keep everyone enthused and online. I wouldn’t let “comfort” enter into the vocabulary.

What have you done to pass on the off-site’s learning and objectives to Altrec.com employees who weren’t present?

Certainly our lives have become very hectic in the last few weeks with the shopping crunch. And I definitely feel like it’s helped to bring out and post our list of norms and values. We’ve accepted learning as an ongoing process. In our weekly meetings, we spend an hour talking about “The Nordstrom Way” — a book we’re reading together. We use it to talk the company. Specifically, how do we see ourselves in the customer advocate role. In my department, we’ve been pretty successful. Overall, I think we could certainly revisit our norms and values, and incorporate some of that stuff into a mission statement that could be discussed and reviewed on a regular basis.

Do you think that communication at Altrec.com is becoming more difficult as more people join the company?

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I wouldn’t necessarily characterize our growth as a problem because even if the norms and values are not articulated, the spirit is here. It resonates with people at many levels. Some people are able to run and look way down the road. A lot of people run and look in the next five feet to make sure that they don’t hit a tree limb or something. And I kind of liken it to that. We’re really running through the forest, so a lot of times we’re just focused on the next five steps. It will be a challenge to keep our vision focused farther ahead, but I’d like to say that mentality is evolving now.

On the topic of customer service, how are you finding your Returns@ease program with the United States Post Office?

People are literally not able to believe that e-commerce returns can be that easy. Sometime, we have to walk customers through the process over the phone. “OK, now click on this button.” When they print out their label, they can’t believe that’s it. And the program wasn’t that hard to do. I think it just took adopting the customer’s point of view.

Do you think Altrec.com would benefit from a post-holiday off-site or bonding experience?

I really liked an exercise that we did about personal styles. We each answered 28 questions designed like a personal profile system to measure dimensions of behavior. For example, we were supposed to choose the answer that best or worst described each of us: enthusiastic, daring, diplomatic, satisfied, etc. We found out our management team has 11 dominant personality styles. That explains a lot. That was a great tool for understanding people’s learning styles and how they best function. In a fast-paced business, it’s nice to come up to speed as soon as you can by recognizing all the individual styles at work in your organization.

What do you feel will be the real testing points for Altrec.com in the next six months?

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I’m most excited that Altrec.com is relating the theory of the business to the reality of the new economy. We’re seeing proof of the concept in our sales, which are skyrocketing. We are in a world of theory. It’s almost like being in school and academics. You’re like, “I can’t wait to get out into the real world and leave this learning behind.” And as soon as you get in the real world you say, “Gosh, it was sure nice to be in school.” I’m most excited to see where this thing will go and how we can keep it on the path that we’ve charted.

My biggest concern is that there’s a whole lot of venture capital money flowing into the e-commerce space. I wouldn’t call it a speculative bubble, but certainly valuations may be out of line. I think there will be some correction as the metrics for the industry solidify. I fear some kind of venture capital pullback and just don’t want the baby to get thrown out with the bath water at that point. You can’t turn back the Internet any more than you could turn back the Industrial Revolution, but it is possible to get ahead of the curve sometimes.

What Did Happen on the Salmon River?