20VC Why Hire Great People and Get Out of the Way is Total BS, Why Your Upbringing Can Make You a Worse Leader & A Bentley, Two Nissan Cubes and Becoming One of Macedonia's Largest Employers; The Story of Slice with Ilir Sela

Summary Notes


In this episode of 20vc, host Harry Stebbings interviews Elia Seller, the founder of Slice, a platform that has revolutionized small business operations for over 18,000 independent pizzerias and has become one of Macedonia's largest employers. Seller shares insights from his journey, from bootstrapping a profitable business to the strategic use of mini pivots in decision-making, emphasizing the importance of not "getting out of the way" but rather staying involved to ensure alignment and success. He also discusses his approach to building a board, the role of hard work over luck, and the unique challenges of running a business with teams across different geographies. Additionally, Seller touches on the potential impact of a recession on independent pizzerias and his aspirations for Slice's future growth and possibly going public.

Summary Notes

Childhood Lessons and Entrepreneurial Damage

  • Childhood teachings can inadvertently cause harm rather than good.
  • The speaker dismisses the notion of stepping aside for others in a company's growth.
  • Company growth involves numerous minor adjustments rather than a single, large pivot.

"Things that we've been taught when we are young, actually, I believe, sometimes create a lot more damage than good. Okay, higher grade people get out of the way. And I've done that. It's complete bullshit. A company's growth trajectory is a collection of mini pivots."

This quote emphasizes the speaker's belief that conventional wisdom learned in youth can be misguided, particularly in the context of business growth and leadership. The speaker advocates for continuous involvement and decision-making rather than stepping aside for others.

Slice's Success Story

  • Slice transitioned from a bootstrapped, profitable business to a transformative platform for small businesses.
  • The company has significantly impacted independent pizzerias and employment in Macedonia.
  • The founder's previous venture, Nerd Force, was sold in 2008.

"Have for you today. A company that went from bootstrapped and profitable with the founder buying a Bentley, to changing the way a generation of small businesses work and being one of the largest employers in Macedonia."

This quote introduces the success story of Slice, highlighting its evolution from a modest beginning to a major influence on small businesses and its notable position as an employer.

The Loneliness of Small Business Ownership

  • Building a small business is a solitary experience, filled with unexpected challenges.
  • The speaker chose to be a sole founder despite the inherent loneliness of the path.

"The biggest takeaway is that building a small business is an incredibly lonely journey."

This quote captures the speaker's reflection on the isolation that comes with starting and running a small business, which is a personal observation drawn from their family's experiences.

Sole Foundership and Business Philosophy

  • The speaker's approach to business was shaped by a focus on providing value and making a profit.
  • They identify more with being a small business owner than a typical Silicon Valley entrepreneur.

"I was just raised to build businesses by creating something that the world needs. If that cost me a dollar, charge $2 for it and do that as many times as possible."

The speaker explains their fundamental business philosophy, which is rooted in practicality and sustainability, rather than the pursuit of building a multibillion-dollar company.

Influence of Upbringing on Ambition

  • The speaker's move from a small town in former Yugoslavia to New York City expanded their sense of possibility.
  • The speaker's parents emphasized the importance of not squandering opportunities in the U.S.

"When I was ten years old, my family moved back to New York... And I remember one of the things my dad said was think about what's possible here."

This quote illustrates the contrast between the speaker's humble beginnings and the opportunities presented by moving to a place like New York City, which shaped their ambition and drive.

Financial Security and the Bentley Anecdote

  • Financial security is acknowledged as important, but not the speaker's primary motivation.
  • The speaker recounts a moment of indulgence in buying a Bentley, which led to a strategic business decision.

"I think, look, financial security is important, and I will tell you the Bentley story in a moment."

The speaker admits the importance of financial security but places greater value on the process and challenges of business, as revealed through the story of an impulsive luxury purchase.

Twitter as a Catalyst for Growth

  • Twitter was used effectively by the speaker to connect with influential figures in the food tech industry.
  • The speaker's outreach on Twitter led to significant business connections and opportunities.

"So that same month, February of 2015, I realized that there was an opportunity for me to really restart what was then called my pizza ultimately became sliced."

This quote describes the speaker's strategic use of social media to network and pivot their business, which was instrumental in the evolution and growth of Slice.

Turning Down an Acquisition Offer

  • The speaker declined an $18 million offer to sell the company, choosing instead to explore its full potential.
  • The decision was driven by a desire for learning and growth rather than immediate financial gain.

"The offer to sell the company for $18 million would have been awesome. Sole owner, no debt, $18 million would have been great. I turned it down."

This quote reveals the speaker's decision to reject a lucrative acquisition offer in favor of pursuing a larger vision for their company, demonstrating a long-term strategic mindset.## Seeking Leadership Over Investment

  • Ilir Sela approached Wiley not as an investor but as a leader in the food tech ecosystem for networking to scale his company.
  • He was looking for people and leadership, not money, due to the profitability of his company at the time.
  • The conversation with Josh Copelman led to venture backing as a means to get the right people involved.

"I didn't need money at the time. We were very profitable. The last thing I needed was money, or what I needed was people and leadership."

Ilir explains why he sought out Wiley, emphasizing the need for leadership and connections over financial investment due to his company's profitability.

Creative Problem-Solving Due to Capital Constraints

  • Capital constraints forced Ilir to find innovative solutions, such as building a team in Macedonia.
  • He capitalized on the high unemployment and low average wages in Macedonia to build a cost-effective team.
  • The team in Macedonia grew to 650 people, becoming one of the largest employers in the country.
  • English courses were created to overcome the shortage of English-speaking employees.

"Not having money forces entrepreneurs to become incredibly creative in order to solve problems."

Ilir discusses how financial limitations led to creative problem-solving and unique business strategies, such as hiring in Macedonia.

Establishing English Courses

  • Ilir set up physical schools with English teachers to offer free language courses.
  • The initiative was aimed at both benefiting the community and finding qualified employees for his company.

"We started creating English courses. If someone passed a course and they got a certificate, they would then be qualified to work at Slice."

Ilir describes the creation of English courses as a solution to the shortage of English-speaking employees, which also provided community education.

Reflection on Go-to-Market and Product Development

  • Ilir regrets the slow scaling of sales due to limited funds, which restricted the hiring of salespeople.
  • Product development was also hindered by having only one engineer for five years.
  • The engineer, Sam Kennedy, became a key figure in developing tools for the team in Macedonia.

"It was really mostly probably in the go to market side of things."

Ilir reflects on the areas where lack of funds had the most impact, particularly in market expansion and product development.

Leadership Philosophy and Involvement

  • Ilir believes in active involvement with his team rather than stepping back, based on past experiences of failure when not engaged.
  • He emphasizes the importance of aligning on details and decision-making in a company's growth trajectory.
  • Mini pivots and decisions require close attention and alignment among leaders.

"It's my job to make sure that leaders are successful at the company."

Ilir explains his hands-on approach to leadership, ensuring that leaders within the company are aligned and successful.

Decision-Making and Cultural Influence

  • Ilir admits to not being as decisive as he wishes, attributing it to a consensus-driven approach and cultural influences.
  • He discusses the challenges of decision-making with a strong-minded team and the need for a clear vision.

"I used to really try to run companies with consensus, right?"

Ilir shares his past approach to decision-making and the evolution towards being more decisive as a leader.

Effective Communication in Management

  • Frequent communication and clarity on the 'why' behind decisions are crucial for effective management.
  • Ilir learned the importance of repeating key messages and providing a clear rationale to enable team members to make informed decisions.

"The same thing really needs to be communicated incredibly frequently, especially as the company scales."

Ilir emphasizes the necessity of frequent and clear communication within a growing company to ensure alignment and understanding.

Managing Geographic and Cultural Silos

  • Ilir has embraced the existence of silos due to geographic and cultural differences.
  • Separate communication frameworks are established for teams in the US, Macedonia, and Belfast.
  • Recognizing and respecting cultural dynamics has been key to managing diverse teams.

"What motivates people in Macedonia and the cultural differences there are incredibly unique."

Ilir discusses the approach to managing teams across different geographies and cultures, acknowledging the uniqueness of each.

Fundraising Experiences

  • Ilir's fundraising success was correlated with the company's performance.
  • He faced challenges in raising funds during a period when the company's numbers were not strong.

"I was really good at it when our numbers were great, and I was very bad at it when our numbers were bad."

Ilir shares his experience with fundraising, noting how the financial performance of his company directly impacted his ability to raise capital.## Raising Capital and Setting Expectations

  • Raising capital can help scale a business faster but also sets high expectations.
  • The influx of capital leads to rapid hiring and team expansion.
  • Growth in the early stages must be exceptionally high to secure further funding.
  • There is a common misconception that performance issues are due to market size limitations (Total Addressable Market or TAM).

"What I didn't realize is that that raises the stakes. I'm not coming from the world of like, let's go raise all this money. It was just like a moment in time where I felt like capital would be able to really help us scale faster, but it set expectations that were even further beyond my own realization of what the company needed to accomplish in order to then raise more money in the future."

The quote emphasizes the unexpected consequences of raising capital, such as increased pressure to meet high growth expectations, which were not initially anticipated by the speaker.

Founder Involvement and Leadership

  • A founder may need to reassess their level of involvement in decision-making to ensure company success.
  • Companies can achieve a lot with fewer resources by imposing constraints on hiring.
  • Founders should question the necessity and full-time status of roles within their organization.
  • Leadership styles and the degree of founder involvement are subject to debate and depend on the company's stage.

"I needed to stop getting out of the way. I basically outsourced a lot of the decisions internally to other leaders, and so I got involved again."

This quote reflects the speaker's realization that stepping back too much and delegating decisions led to suboptimal outcomes, prompting a return to a more hands-on approach.

Product Expansion and Market Segmentation

  • The timing for introducing a second product depends on the success of the first product and customer readiness.
  • Not all customers should be approached with a new product at the same time due to their different life cycle stages.
  • Introducing multiple products can expand the TAM but may overwhelm small business owners if done simultaneously.

"It's a great question. I think this is one where once you get enough scale with your first product and you have a cohort of customers who are adopters of that first product that have realized success with that first product, it's probably time to introduce the next product."

The quote outlines the speaker's strategy for product expansion, which is based on the success and adoption rate of the initial product among customers.

Revenue Models and Metrics

  • Averages can be misleading when assessing business performance.
  • Focusing on the number of merchants beyond a revenue threshold provides a clearer picture.
  • The goal is to increase revenue for merchants and subsequently for the platform.
  • Understanding the revenue makeup for clients is essential, as it varies widely.

"I don't like measuring averages, Harry. Averages hide the truth."

This quote highlights the speaker's preference for more granular metrics over averages, which can obscure the true performance of individual merchants on the platform.

Addressing TAM Concerns

  • Founders should rigorously study their industry to understand their actual TAM.
  • It is important to consider both the current TAM and the potential for expansion.
  • The speaker's business, Slice, aims to increase both the sales per store and the number of stores.

"The reality is you want to take a step back and look at what exactly are you solving for and what is your real tam, not like what you make up."

This quote advises founders to critically evaluate their true TAM rather than inflating it unrealistically, as it is crucial for building a scalable business.

Impact of Economic Factors

  • Pizza is considered a staple in the US and tends to thrive even during economic downturns.
  • In recessions, consumers may prefer ordering pizza at home over dining out, potentially increasing sales for pizza businesses.

"In recessions, in fact, consumers will tend to turn their nights out in, and instead of going out to restaurants, they'll order pizza at home."

The quote explains how pizza businesses can benefit from a recession as consumer behavior shifts towards more economical dining options.

Founder Reflections and Advice

  • Founders should be aware of their company's weaknesses or blind spots.
  • Sharing a business's weakness may have no benefits and could expose vulnerabilities.
  • It's important for founders to have a support network or community.
  • Reflecting on the journey, a founder might advise their past self with insights gained from experience.

"I'm not going to answer the question, but one of the questions very few people ask is, if I wanted to compete with slice, where would I start?"

This quote reveals the speaker's awareness of the importance of understanding one's business weaknesses, yet also the strategic choice to keep such information private.## Expectation vs. Reality of Business Growth

  • The initial assumption is that business operations will become easier with growth.
  • Hiring new staff and reaching new levels is often expected to ease the burden.
  • In reality, growth brings increased challenges and difficulties.
  • The speaker has learned to enjoy the pressure that comes with these challenges.

"I actually enjoy that now that that expectation has been set for myself in terms of my own experience."

This quote highlights the speaker's shift in mindset from expecting ease to embracing the challenges of growth.

The Increasing Challenges with Business Scaling

  • As a business scales, the stakes become higher.
  • There is a greater potential to disappoint a larger customer base and investors with each decision.
  • The pressure to perform well and limit mistakes intensifies with growth.
  • The speaker feels responsible to their customers, investors, and team members who believe in the company's mission.

"It gets more challenging because I think the stakes are just much higher."

This quote emphasizes that business challenges escalate as the company grows due to increased responsibilities and potential impact of decisions.

Pressure and Performance

  • The speaker acknowledges feeling pressure but views it positively.
  • Pressure is seen as a motivator that prevents complacency.
  • Enjoying pressure is tied to thriving under challenging circumstances.

"Yes, but I like it. I thrive with pressure. I think a lack of pressure creates complacency."

This quote reflects the speaker's belief that pressure is beneficial and necessary for maintaining a high performance and avoiding stagnation.

Personal Reflections

  • The speaker would choose to have dinner with their late grandfather to express gratitude for instilled values.
  • The grandfather valued the ability to work and saw it as a privilege, which left a lasting impression on the speaker.

"I'd love to just have one more dinner with him because I don't think I've ever really sat down with him and just say thank you."

This quote reveals the speaker's desire to acknowledge the personal influence and values imparted by their grandfather.

Luxury Spending and Brand Legitimization

  • The first luxury purchase mentioned is a Bentley, a reflection of the speaker's love for cars.
  • The speaker sold the Bentley eventually.
  • To legitimize their brand, the speaker used Nissan cubes, branding them and strategically parking them to create an illusion of scale.

"And the best way to do that, in a very hyper local way, was to buy cars."

This quote illustrates a creative strategy for brand legitimization by creating a visible presence in the local market.

Hard Work vs. Luck and Timing

  • The speaker believes that hard work is the most significant factor in success.
  • Hard work enables one to recognize and capitalize on timing and opportunities.
  • The speaker disputes the common belief in luck and timing, emphasizing the importance of effort and understanding the market.

"So I would say, I don't know that luck and timing really exist. It's really mostly hard work."

This quote conveys the speaker's conviction that success is primarily the result of hard work rather than luck or being at the right place at the right time.

Organizational Autonomy and Oversight

  • The speaker has reconsidered the idea of creating a highly autonomous organization.
  • They believe that stepping back too much can be detrimental.
  • Maintaining some level of involvement and oversight is deemed crucial.

"Creating a very autonomous organization. While it's helpful, getting out of the way is a huge mistake, in my opinion."

This quote indicates a change in perspective regarding the balance between autonomy and leadership involvement within an organization.

CEO for a Day and Pizza Preferences

  • Given the choice, the speaker would want to be CEO of Madison Square Garden due to their passion for the Knicks.
  • The best pizza experience described involves an upside-down pizza from L&B Spumoni Gardens in Brooklyn, coupled with the ambiance of a summer evening.

"These are sports teams. But I am a diehard Knicks fan. I would love to one day be in charge of that team."

This quote reflects the speaker's personal passion and a hypothetical desire to lead an organization they are deeply invested in as a fan.

Advice on Creating a Board

  • Founders should be thoughtful when raising capital, as it also involves constructing a board.
  • Balancing the board with operators, not just investors, is crucial.
  • The speaker highlights the importance of having board members who focus on the company rather than financial returns.

"And a board is really, these are the stewards of a business."

This quote stresses the role of a board in guiding a company and the importance of having members who can contribute meaningfully to its direction.

Future of Slice and Public Company Aspirations

  • The speaker hopes to continue supporting small businesses and maintaining focus to be the best partner.
  • There is an aspiration for Slice to operate as a public company to reward those who contributed to its success.
  • The speaker looks forward to potentially restarting the journey, likening it to the company's early days.

"I would hope that we continue to accelerate the success for small businesses."

This quote outlines the speaker's future vision for Slice, focusing on growth and the potential transition to a public company.

Appreciation for the Discussion

  • The speaker expresses gratitude for the enjoyable and free-flowing conversation.
  • The speaker prefers the informal discussion over a structured schedule.

"It was great. Thank you so much, Eric."

This quote shows the speaker's appreciation for the conversational style of the interview and the interviewer's approach.

Conclusion and Additional Resources

  • The conversation concludes with a mention of additional tools and services that can aid in productivity and financial management.
  • The interview can be found on YouTube for further listening.
  • The speaker looks forward to future episodes and guest appearances.

"If you want to see the full conversation, you can find it on YouTube by searching for 20 vc."

This quote provides information on where to access the complete interview for those interested in the full discussion.

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