Josh Axelberd created a culture of transparency in his family business Displayit. Now at its largest capacity to date, he share’s how “letting go” of the control has made all the difference in Displayit’s company culture! Now there’s transparency, strategy, and Growth!
CEO of Displayit, Inc.
As Displayit’s CEO, Josh is at the heart of the company’s strategic planning and business development initiatives. Like a loving parent (minus the yelling), he concentrates on challenges that the company will face in the future, then lays the groundwork for our long-term success.
In 1995, shortly after graduating from Georgia College and State University, Josh went to work in advertising for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Soon, the trade show industry beckoned, and Josh heeded its call, gaining experience in sales, marketing, and project management. He grew to love helping others succeed at their marketing events, and, in 1999, he jumped at the chance to build a small business called “Displayit” with his father. Josh eventually took over the company reins in 2005, expanding the business and boosting sales with a thorough knowledge of social media and paid search engine marketing.
After more than a decade under Josh’s leadership, Displayit continues to create jobs and enjoy strong growth. Pretty remarkable, when you realize that everything began with a father, his son, and a 10-page catalog.
My favorite part of my job is… “Watching everyone work together as a team and live out our core values.”
When I’m not working, I’m probably… “Rooting for the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets or serving in my church.”
Little-known fact: Josh has a photographic memory when it comes to numbers.
Based in Metro Atlanta, Displayit. is the original online superstore for affordable, high-quality trade show and event display products. Displayit makes it easy for exhibitors to get ready for their next trade show. Displayit provides display products, services, and strategies that take the anxiety out of exhibiting for their clients during their quests for trade show success. With a national footprint, Displayit works to deliver affordable and creative exhibit solutions to Clients all over the country. Displayit’s company purpose is to be a blessing to all those they come in contact with; clients, vendors, fellow Displayit team members and community.
From the Podcast Booth:
Series Quick Links
Speaker 1: Welcome to the Epic Company Culture podcast where your host, Josh Sweeney, will give you, the business leaders, HR professionals and company culture aficionados the knowledge you need to take your company culture to the next level.
Josh Sweeney: Hello fellow culturists and welcome to the Epic Company Culture podcast. Today is part of our culture champion series. Before I get started, I would like to thank Prototype Prime for this amazing podcast space. We are joined by Josh Axelberd with Display It. Welcome.
Series: Culture Champions
Josh Axelberd: Thank you. I appreciate you having me, Josh.
Josh Sweeney: Yeah, thanks for coming in. So tell us a little bit about yourself and your company.
Introducing Josh Axelberd with DisplayIt
Josh Axelberd: So Display It is a company that provides trade show displays through the internet to customers. So we were really the first company in 1997 to create a website with prices on it to sell trade show displays direct through the internet. And my dad started the company in 1996. I was working with another trade show company at that time and in 99, I left the company I was working for to go work for my dad and the guys I was working with said, “We got this Y2K thing coming up and I just think it’s all gonna be messed up. You can’t do this, don’t leave. It’s a really bad idea.” But I think we proved otherwise.
Back in the MySpace Days
Josh Sweeney: Yeah, it seemed to work out. And I mean, when I think through nineties websites, the first thing that comes to my head is when Myspace was invented. But I think of lots of blinking ads and pretty interesting formats.
Josh Axelberd: Yeah. So when I started in 99, we had to focus on driving traffic. And so we’d have our white page with our slightly gray keywords down at the bottom, about four paragraphs of keywords stuffed in so that you’d rank well on Altavista and Dog Pile and Yahoo was top dog at that time.
Josh Sweeney: That’s awesome. Good old keyword stuffing to drive everybody in. Doesn’t quite work the same anymore, does it?
The Leader in Portable Trade Show Displays
Josh Axelberd: No. It’s a much more complicated game. But today, we’re really still the leader in the online world of portable trade show displays. We try to focus on the standard exhibits, repeatable designs, so that we can offer them really easily, efficiently, at great prices.
Josh Sweeney: So you said that you quit another job to come work with your dad in this new organization back then, right? With the roles that you had in the past, what were some of the things that you ran into, what were some of the company cultures you ran into that you really enjoyed?
Past Culture Experiences
Josh Axelberd: So I really only had two real jobs before working with Display It, and the first one was with a big newspaper company in the mid nineties right when I got out of college. And it was really hard at that time to find a job. And so they wanted to hire me, I said, “When do I start?”
Culture was NOT Even a Word
That was a miserable place to work. A long timer there would be one year’s time with the company and I was in sales, it was a difficult product to sell even at that time. And in my mindset at that point, the thought of a great culture, culture was not even a word that was really even used.
Everybody hated working and you just tried to get through it Monday through Friday and you made it to the weekend and life was about the weekend. The thought of, could a place be a good culture, could it be a good place to work, just never even crossed my mind at that point.
A Great Place – Before Culture
The next job that I went to was a small business and I learned a lot there, but again, there was never any kind of mindset of how do we make this a great place for people to work? And so I can’t say I really had any experience of thinking about a culture in a positive way.
Josh Sweeney: Yeah, when you look back through those and you said just not a good role for you, not a good place to work, what were some of the aspects of that that just weren’t good?
Past Culture Mis-Matches
Josh Axelberd: I think that in the first job, the task that we were being asked to do, nobody thought was possible. So when you get ready for a Monday and you come to work and your boss doesn’t think you even have a chance to be successful, it’s a pretty miserable feeling.
How to Fill Time
So I’d go out on sales calls in a territory that was old and dying, and really the goal was to figure out how to fill these eight hours. I had some customers that I’d interact with, but I’d have three, four hours everyday where I didn’t really have any good idea how I was gonna use my time. And that’s a really dreadful feeling on Sunday to go, “I’m gonna go spend the next five days killing time.”
Josh Sweeney: And they weren’t giving you the facility to do it or the training and they didn’t think it was gonna be successful so it was just miserable all around.
Failure to Recognize the Industry Shift
Josh Axelberd: Yeah, I think that’s a great day they could’ve done, recognize, “Our industry is shifting.” And this was the early time of it shifting. But all of us that worked there were right out of college and there was no focus on really doing things to at least help us grow, so at least we felt like we were picking up skills and gaining knowledge.
Josh Sweeney: Got it. So those are some of the bad experiences. Was there anything in those prior organizations that you just really loved about the culture?
The Smaller Company Connection
Josh Axelberd: It’s sad to say that I had in the smaller company, I think you’re more connected, you believed in what you were selling and what you were doing. But it was very much a culture where it’s kind of every man for himself. Not that anybody was trying to undercut you, but there was not an idea that other people were there to help you grow and help you discover how to be successful. I think people would help you if they thought it was in their interest. And it wasn’t a mean- spirited culture, it was just very business like and there was no thought given to how do we make this a great place to work.
Josh Sweeney: Kind of show up, do your job, go home. That’s about it? Got it. So Display It now, so fast forward a little ways, right? What are some of the things you love about the culture now that you implemented?
Displayit Culture Today
Josh Axelberd: Yeah, so in Displayit, and I’ll kind of go back a little bit because I think it sets up where we are today, when I started with my dad late 99, I had the idea that, “Gosh, dad, I’m looking at these healthcare rates for benefits and I don’t think we can ever afford to hire any employees.” I was developing these games to try and figure out how to avoid ever having an employee.
Josh Sweeney: It still feels the same way I think. [crosstalk 00:06:34].
The Pivot to Employees
Josh Axelberd: What I wouldn’t do to have those rates. But so from about 99 to 2004, it was just my dad and I. But then we started to have some success, we started getting better at the internet marketing game and we hired our first employees. And at that point, I was going through some experiences in my personal life where I’d go, “I really wanna make my life matter. I wanna make it really count beyond just making trade show displays.”
Finding the Purpose
And so I decided, kind of inspired from Chick Fil A and co opted their purpose a little bit, the purpose of Displayit is gonna be to be a blessing to clients, vendors, community and team. That’s why I come to work. I really wanna take care of customers, but more than that, I wanna make this a great place for people to work so that they can grow and they feel that they’re a better person from having interacted with our company.
Displayit Team Today
So that leads us to where we are today. And we have a team of about 90 people now. And it is the kind of place where people really feel valued. They feel that they’re cared about by their co workers and the ownership as well. So I’m extremely proud of that. We have 10 core values that are really important to the organization and we really try to embrace them and dig into them. So that’s my motivator. Sales is important, that’s what keeps us going, but if people don’t feel like they’re cared about, then I feel like we’re not being successful.
Josh Sweeney: So with those core values, how do you inject those into the day to day operations?
Josh Axelberd: It is very, very difficult. When you have 10 of them, I think in hindsight, I go back, I might have a shorter list. Might go five. But when you have 10, it’s really hard to teach them all and what they really mean. And we have a diverse workforce. We have sales and marketing and then we have production. We have people printing graphics, doing sewing. So it’s people from really diverse backgrounds. So the values can mean different things to different people. But what we try to do is when instances come up, conflict, tension, challenge, we try to look to those and go, “Okay, what value is relevant here and how do we make the right decision based on those 10 values?”
Josh Sweeney: So out of all 10, what’s your favorite one?
Favorite Core Value
Josh Axelberd: I don’t know if I’d call it my favorite. I would say the most important is, we believe the best about our teammates. So I believe that’s the most powerful one. And what I try to teach my team with that is that it does you no good to assume the worst about the intentions of your teammates, even if their intentions are bad. If you assume the worst, you build up tension, resentment, anxiety about the issues at hand, and then you don’t go and discuss it with that person.
Assume the Best
But if you choose to, we’re very ready to make excuses for ourselves, but we don’t have a lot of patience with other people. And if we try to assume the best about our teammates, we’re more willing to go to them with an open mind, discuss what the issue is in a calm way. So a productive solution can be found.
Make a Positive Assumption
Josh Sweeney: Yeah, that’s a great value, a great way to look at it. I think it’s come up before on the podcast and I can’t recall where it originated, I think it was in some book where they went through the psychology of that and how it can change other things in your life, not just the business of making that positive assumption instead of a negative assumption.
Josh Axelberd: I picked it up from Andy Stanley at North Point Church and he talks about that a lot.
Josh Sweeney: Awesome. That’s a great message. With the company culture you have now, what are some other aspects that you just really enjoy that you didn’t get to experience early on in your career?
The Secret Weapon
Josh Axelberd: Fun is our secret weapon is another one of our values and we do a lot, we’ve got a great team member on our team who is just incredible at throwing parties and showing people those little extra touches to help them feel appreciated. So when we have, we had the Waffle House food truck out. If we’re gonna have Valentine’s Day, we’re gonna have a scavenger hunt where you can find different treats around and things like that.
The Little Touches
And those little touches, those special days that go extra where people don’t expect, it’s more than just, “Hey, we’re gonna bring some food in.” But it’s summertime, we have a beach bash and we’ve got decorations up. And so I think just embracing that work should not be stale, it should not be boring. It should be a place where we come and it’s hard, it can be challenging, but it’s a lot of fun and it doesn’t have to be stuffy.
Best Team Building Activity
Josh Sweeney: Out of all of those team building type activities and events you have, is there one team building event that you thought was just the best? Everybody gelled or it was super memorable for a certain reason? Is it normally the holiday party or did you do an outing or anything like that?
Organic and Unexpected
Josh Axelberd: I think when they’re just unexpected and they have a special angle to them, when people really appreciate it and they go, they didn’t just do this to check something off on a to do list, I think those are really special. But I think the ones that have the biggest impact are the more organic ones, when they just come about naturally A group of people say, “Let’s get the softball team together or let’s do this,” I think the ones that come organically are the ones I’m most proud of and have the biggest impact.
Head of Culture
Josh Sweeney: And do you have, you mentioned there was one person in your organization, do you have a head of culture, do you have a culture team? How do those things come about organically? Who makes that happen?
Josh Axelberd: So in this case, this particular individual is really, runs one of our divisions from a marketing standpoint but just has a passion for the Displayit culture and being a blessing to other people. And so I said, “Okay. I want about 75 percent of your job to be your marketing tasks and 25 percent of your job is pour that blessing, that love into the group and the culture in unique ways, show people that they’re cared for.” And so that’s kind of how that happened. And I think I never set out to say we’re gonna put, allocate some time to this as a position, but the person who most cared about it kind of got the job because they showed they wanted to do it.
Josh Sweeney: I’ve heard that time and time again where it seems like somebody kind of self selected into a head of culture role and it was a portion of their time was allocated towards it and sometimes it ends up being more and more of their time and sometimes it ends up becoming their full time job as the company grows. So I think it’s a natural progression to have somebody throw their hand up and say, “I’d like to coordinate all of this.”
Josh Axelberd: Yeah, absolutely. And then she’s a great example for other people. And so it looks more organic than somebody else, “Hey, I wanna take something on, I wanna do something to add to the culture here.”
Find the Right Person
Josh Sweeney: I don’t know about you, but I’ve found that there are people in my organization that are just much better at that than me. You find the same thing?
Josh Axelberd: Absolutely. I love the idea of a great culture but I think sometimes I’m so focused on what I wanna get done that I’m not always as great on the one on one and the little moments and slowing down as I need to do. I want the culture but it’s just not at the core of who I am. I really care about people but I am more of, “Let’s go, go, go and do stuff.”
Josh Sweeney: I’ve definitely found the same thing for myself. So to have somebody take care of that is amazing at it. So for the new year, we’re into 2019, well a good bit into 2019 now so far, a couple months, what are you most looking forward to enhancing from a company culture perspective?
2019 Culture Enhancements
Josh Axelberd: I think that we’ve done a great job of showing our people that we care about them. I think the part that’s been missing and this kind of goes back to, from the very beginning, when our small company, I took the attitude that I want this place to be a great blessing to people who work here and I need to make that happen. I need to do this stuff. I need to make the company be successful and I’m gonna take care of everybody.
The Challenge of Culture
But what was left out from that is the challenge aspect that I think is needed to truly have a great culture. And really just in this year, we’re trying to bring that to the forefront. So what I mean by that is, I would be more apt of, “Hey, I want this to be a great place to work.” I’m not gonna give my team, individual people, really big challenges that I think may be difficult, may bring stress, may even bring some tension or conflict. I’m not gonna bring that because that’s gonna make them uncomfortable. Or maybe that’s gonna bring too much stress.
We’re Going to Learn, Grow, and Move Forward
But I think I’ve learned that that’s unfair to do to the team because they’re here, they’re like, “I wanna take on a big challenge. I want to have the chance to try something and I might fail, Josh. But that’s okay, we’re gonna learn something and we’re gonna grow and we’re gonna move forward from that.” So this is a really new concept.
Establish Clear Goals
So when I start to communicate with my team, in my past I probably haven’t done a really good job of establishing real, clear goals. And so when I share, “Hey guys, we’ve come short of a goal,” it’s weird to them. It’s like, Josh is talking to us and he’s not all rainbows and sunshine here. And so they may over correct to that and get, and I have to figure out how to find that balance and go, “Look, I’m the same person. I want the same things, but I am gonna challenge you a lot more than I have in the past because I believe that’s what’s good for you and that’s what’s gonna help you grow.”
Josh Sweeney: So just a recap, the next goal is really to be able to set and communicate the goals more efficiently and then have goals that challenge the team to grow individually and as a team to hit those milestones.
Growing and Creating Strategy
Josh Axelberd: Absolutely. You know, our company, when we hired our first employee in 2004, and then 2011 we had about 10 employees at that time. And then I got really good at Google AdWords and each year, I was cranking up the online, digital marketing span, the business is growing, I didn’t really have to have dialed in strategies and goals because there was enough traffic coming in to keep the business growing. And then in the last couple years, I’ve kind of maxed out the tools that I had been using for growth.
Creating the Plan
And so 2018 was really all about analyzing what we are best at, where are the opportunities, and what are the things we need to accomplish to get where we need to go? And really, it took the whole year to really figure that out. And now I think we have very clear direction of where we need to go. So now 2019 is absolutely about okay, these are bite sized pieces that we need to accomplish step by step to get where we wanna be at the end of this year, 2020 and beyond.
Josh Sweeney: Yeah. It may just be me, but I’m also hearing a little bit of a parallel in the challenge of, you wanna set out the challenge for your team, but in you maxing out the tools that you had used for years, there’s new challenges for you as well. So it kind of happened in congruence there.
Beyond One Person
Josh Axelberd: Yeah. I think part of that too is that when we’re a small business, up until the last two or three years ago, the things that made me a good leader of the company that I could myself jump into Google AdWords, I could get on the website with product, I could make some things happen. I could move the ball forward. It’s not really the case anymore that we are at the size organization we are with 90 people. So now it’s about what can other people accomplish and how can I help them accomplish it?
And so last year, I didn’t fully understand that yet. I felt like I could still work harder, spend more time myself making stuff. I jumped in a situation, “Move out of the way guys. I got this. You just do what I tell you to do.” And I discovered that’s not gonna work anymore. And so for this year for me, it’s about focusing on how do I take my knowledge and my skills and help multiply that through other people and them having a success, them accomplishing the objectives?
Plan to Move the Needle
Josh Sweeney: So what’s the plan, how do you plan to evolve as a leader to hit that objective to go from, I think in the past I’ve heard it as kind of the genius with a thousand helpers kind of model where you can really move those needles in the business and now you really have to help other people do it? So how does that look for the future for you?
Letting Go of Control
Josh Axelberd: I think that for me, wanting to have control of too many things has been a weakness. It was probably a good thing earlier in the company but now it’s a weakness. The other aspect for me is, I’m very defensive about the things that I’m passionate about. So when I set out to have a great culture, I want this place to be a blessing. If anybody was ever upset about the culture, how can you be upset? This is really my number one motivator, which was true. But that defensiveness never allowed us to really tackle and talk about things as a group and really truly figure out, let me hear from my team to figure out what we need to consider to improve things. So that’s the focus on me is that I have got to go, “You know, I am not the only force of Displayit.”
Open to Feedback
Now I’ve always appreciated my team. They’ve worked really hard. But you kind of have this thing that it’s on me to make it happen. It’s not on me to make it happen and I don’t have control and I have to accept that. And then the next piece of the puzzle is that I have to, forgive me, I lost my train of thought, but you heard where I was going with that point of being open to the feedback. Forgive me. Open to the feedback of listening to other people, not being so quick to get defensive that I stop good ideas from rising to the top.
Defending the Blood Sweat and Tears
Josh Sweeney: Well I definitely found over the years as an entrepreneur, there’s just different challenges. It feels like there’s different challenges on us. If things go wrong then payroll doesn’t go out and we have a lot of people depending on that. So I feel that there’s easy ways to get defensive, especially when you’ve built it up over many, many years too. There’s a lot of work and blood and sweat and tears that go into these things. So it’s good to hear that it’s recognized and there’s ways to work through those.
Let that Pressure Go
Josh Axelberd: It absolutely is but you have to let that pressure go. You can’t be the bottleneck in the organization. And when you get to the size of company that we are now, you’ve got to take some risks and you’ve got to go out there and you can’t have your hands around everything all at once. The only way you can really let the organization grow is to let go of it.
Josh Sweeney: Well thank you so much for joining us and for the vulnerability today. There was a lot of great shares. I appreciate it.
Josh Axelberd: Thank you. I enjoyed it.
Josh Sweeney: Yeah, thanks for coming in.
Thank you for joining us on the Epic Company Culture podcast. This has been a culture champions series. We’d like to thank Josh Axelberd for coming in with Display It. Have a great day.
Speaker 1: Thank you for tuning in to today’s episode of the Epic Company Culture podcast with Josh Sweeney. If you enjoyed this content, please subscribe on iTunes, SoundCloud or Stitcher. For additional content and transcripts, visit EpicCulture.co. If you have questions or topics you would like us to address or expand on, tweet us at EpicCulture1 or email at podcast@EpicCulture.co.
Podcast Highlights and Resources
- In my mindset at that point, the thought of a great culture, culture was not even a word that was really even used.
- When you get ready for a Monday and you come to work and your boss doesn’t think you even have a chance to be successful, it’s a pretty miserable feeling.
- I really wanna make my life matter. I wanna make it really count beyond just making trade show displays.
- I wanna make this a great place for people to work so that they can grow and they feel that they’re a better person from having interacted with our company.
- We have 10 core values that are really important to the organization and we really try to embrace them and dig into them.
- What we try to do is when instances come up, conflict, tension, challenge, we try to look to those and go, “Okay, what value is relevant here and how do we make the right decision based on those 10 values?”
- It does you no good to assume the worst about the intentions of your teammates, even if their intentions are bad. If you assume the worst, you build up tension, resentment, anxiety about the issues at hand, and then you don’t go and discuss it with that person.
- Fun is our secret weapon is another one of our values and we do a lot, we’ve got a great team member on our team who is just incredible at throwing parties and showing people those little extra touches to help them feel appreciated.
- I think just embracing that work should not be stale, it should not be boring. It should be a place where we come and it’s hard, it can be challenging, but it’s a lot of fun.
- For me, wanting to have control of too many things has been a weakness.
- That defensiveness never allowed us to really tackle and talk about things as a group and really truly figure out, let me hear from my team to figure out what we need to consider to improve things.
- When you get to the size of company that we are now, you’ve got to take some risks and you’ve got to go out there and you can’t have your hands around everything all at once.
The Entrepreneurs’ Organization (EO) is a Global business network of 13,000+ leading entrepreneurs in 185 chapters and 58 countries. Founded in 1987 by a group of young entrepreneurs, EO enables business owners to learn from each other, leading to greater business success and an enriched personal life.
We educate, we transform, we inspire and we offer invaluable resources in the form of global events, leadership-development programs, an online entrepreneur forum and executive education opportunities, among other offerings designed for personal and professional growth.
At its core, EO is a collection of like-minded entrepreneurs focused on business growth, personal development and community engagement. In addition to our mission, vision and core values, our global makeup is comprised of nearly 13,000+ individual member stories.
Prototype Prime is a 501(c)3 non-profit incubator focused on early stage software and hardware technology startups. Our mission is to provide startup companies with the support they need to launch & scale.
Our suburban location within a 500-acre commercial office park, adjacent to a custom- built intelligent mobility test and demonstration track, is the ideal place to envision what smart cities of the future will look like.