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Where the Land Ends, and the Change Begins

Former Lands’ End CEO Mike Smith is striking out on his own, straying from a paved corporate path to travel the rocky startup route. Yet, somehow, he maintains a sense of relaxed ease while crafting the change effort of his life. Here’s how.

“What’s the worst probable outcome? I do this, have fun, make a mistake, then move on.”

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This is not the mantra of your typical high-powered executive. Then again, former Lands’ End president and CEO Mike Smith is far from typical.

Last year, the 38-year-old Midwesterner engineered a personal change initiative that delivered him from the Lands’ End boardroom to the startup madness of LifeSketch.com — an Internet company that chronicles keepsake memories. Seemingly risky, Smith’s career shift came with the natural ease of acting on personal intuition and the relaxed confidence of knowing that there’s no time for upheaval like the present. Perhaps that is because, as Smith says, his brand of change has never revolved around corporate strategizing or staid expectations.

“People in general are afraid of change,” says Smith, who founded LifeSketch.com in Madison, Wisconsin, last July. “They find their comfort zone and stay there. Even though failure is a very real possibility, I focus on the potential for this company to be great. The Internet presents a once-in-a-generation opportunity. Tremendous possibilities entirely outweigh conceivable risks.”

Smith’s burning restlessness to start a company — a dream first realized in high school — exemplifies his calm self-assurance to move beyond long-chartered constants and embrace change. And if ever there was an opportune moment to pursue that dream, Smith says it was in late October 1998, when disagreements with Lands’ End’s board of directors prompted him to resign as CEO and strike out on his own. Though the incentives to change were great, so were the risk factors — Lands’ End is the only employer Smith has ever known. He joined the company as a post-college intern in 1983, and worked there for 15 years. His career identity was synonymous with Lands’ End.

Plus, Smith lacked a compelling idea for a startup. He considered offers to buy existing companies, but never found an opportunity that rivaled the gutsy venture of starting his own company. Finally, five months after leaving Lands’ End, Smith had one memorable conversation that led to LifeSketch.com. Asked what gift he would most like to receive, Smith’s colleague Brad Johnson named an unforgettable present recently given by his brother: a CD photo album that chronicled the life of his maternal grandparents, who immigrated to the United States from Switzerland. Johnson’s grandfather and grandmother both died more than 25 years ago, but the CD brought their spirit and story back to life by detailing a collection of photos that pieced together the story of his family genealogy.

The power of a meaningful idea, the thrill of dot.com mania, and the fear of a missed opportunity persuaded Smith to launch LifeSketch.com. The concept behind the company strikes a charmingly personal chord. The customer tells a story and LifeSketch.com records it online, offline, or in the combined click-and-mortar world by providing the professional tools to preserve, build, and capture life memories. In short, users can create a digital photo album accessible to friends and family members worldwide. So compelling was that initial vision to chronicle memories — so raw in form, so intangible, yet so filled with potential — that Smith says the only feasible choice was to fiercely pursue the idea of LifeSketch.com.

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“Many people drift though life and ultimately retire untapped dreams by waiting for somebody else to fulfill them,” he says. “We have to broaden our sense of social responsibility and act on our dreams. I’m not in business just to cash in on my return on investment.”

More than six months later, the fledgling startup has become much more than Smith’s original blueprint vision. The LifeSketch.com team is comprised of Smith and two other former Lands’ End employees. The team launched the company Web site November 15 and is now engaged in the hackneyed startup scramble to forge strategic business partnerships. Because the company is built around memories, relationships, and preserving precious moments for future generations, Smith says rallying potential partners and customers will be easy. The concept has personal selling power.

Beyond products and services know-how, Smith also brings a basic human-values philosophy to LifeSketch.com. It’s the same core idea that drew Smith to Lands’ End and kept him there for so many years: an earnest commitment to people — customers and employees — and financial success. Most companies choose either one or the other, Smith says, but the very best companies maintain both and refuse to compromise. Not to say that tough decisions don’t come up — they do, but they can be shaped according to a company’s culture and call on employees’ input. “It’s not managers against employees,” Smith says, “a distinction that draws artificial and unnecessary divisions.”

Meanwhile, the fast and furious, ever-changing rules of the virtual world stand to test Smith’s years of business experience. For the former Lands’ End CEO, the “land-grab” mentality of the startup revolution commands a shift in management priorities. Profit margin, cash flows, and return on investment aren’t really in the picture right now, he says. These days, Smith is more focused on the frenzied race to stake virtual space, leverage market presence, build a brand, and generate consumer awareness and trust.

And that race is fierce in the digital marketplace, taxing on even the most change-minded change agents. Rules are defined, then redefined — and evoking change often becomes an individual crusade. For Smith, professional and personal risk melded together in the formation of LifeSketch.com, a change initiative that required him to leave a comfortable, successful role at a major corporation and accept an uncertain future. At the end of the day, however, Smith says he had no choice but to forsake everything in the name of change.

“Not pursuing LifeSketch.com would’ve been the biggest failure of my life — a disappointment that would stick with me forever,” Smith says. “Fearing failure only makes you less aggressive and less focused on all the possibilities within reach.”

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