The Best Team Wins Podcast: Ciara Stockeland, founder and CEO of MODE

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Our Entrepreneurship Week celebration final guest is Ciara Stockeland, CEO and Founder of MODE, an innovative franchise concept out of North Dakota. She speaks with Adam about how her business has changed, how important it is to invest in your team, and what 2017 looks like for her.

Adam: Welcome to The Best Team Wins Podcast were we feature business leaders whose exceptional approach to the people side of their business and talent management has led to outsize result. My name is Adam Robinson. For the next 25 minutes, I’ll be your host as we explore how to build your business through better hiring. Today, on the program, I’m excited to welcome Ciara Stockeland, founder and CEO of MODE, a retail franchise concept out of Fargo, North Dakota. Ciara, welcome to the program.

 

Ciara: Thank you for having me. I’m really excited to visit with you today.

 

Adam: Ciara and I had the opportunity to connect at a franchise capital conference in Chicago earlier this year. I am really looking forward to catching up with you about the business and talking about the people side of it. First, let’s start off on the right foot. As is the tradition here on The Best Team Wins Podcast, we always start off on the right foot which is the best news business or personal that’s happened to our guest in the last seven days. Ciara, what’s your right foot for the last week?

 

Ciara: I have a great right foot actually. We opened our 11th store yesterday.

 

Adam: Congratulations.

 

Ciara: I was very excited. Williston, North Dakota– it’s a small market and we’re so excited to open another business here in the state of North Dakota.

 

Adam: Congratulations.

 

Ciara: Thank you.

 

Adam: Very cool. So, tell us the story, what is MODE?

 

Ciara: MODE is a designer outlet in a boutique environment. I started retail back in 2006 with my first small boutique here in Fargo, North Dakota. No retail experience but came through from a family of entrepreneurs and had the small business bug. We opened that first store. Then six months later, we had the opportunity to gain two full truckloads of damaged or salvaged designer goods and had the opportunity to set up a pop-up shop next door to the first retail concept. We opened those doors and planned to just sell through those two truckloads and be done, call it a day. We really saw that the consumer absolutely loved a designer deal. MODE, which was our second retail concept, took off. We merged the ideas in 2008 and created that outlet environment in a beautiful boutique space. Then we began franchising in 2011.

 

Adam: Wow, that’s great. What a story. You were in retail but tell us the story about that first truckload of jeans. I just think that’s such a great story and communicates just the kind of operator that you are.

 

Ciara: I think my husband was in trucking at the time. When we opened Mama Mia, which was the first store, high-end maternity boutique, my husband was in trucking and his boss came to me and said, “Hey, Ciara. You have a retail store. I have two truckloads of stuff I have no idea what to do with it. Would you put it in your maternity store and sell it for me?” I said, “Absolutely not. That would be very odd to put housewares, and dishes, and perfume in my maternity store.” True to entrepreneurial form, I rarely say no to an opportunity so I said, “Let me think about what I could do with it.” There was just this little hole in the wall space next door to our store. I thought, “You know what? Let’s just bring it in. We’ll unload it. We’ll do what we can. We gathered some friends and we parked those two semi-trucks on Main Avenue in Fargo and just unloaded 44 palettes of grab bag, no idea what was in them.

 

Adam: That’s incredible.

 

Ciara: Yup. Brought it in and we said, “You know what? Now, we got to figure out how to sell it.” It was actually great because it really taught me how to watch consumers, and visit with consumers, and see how they responded to product and price point. It really made me a very creative business owner.

 

Adam: Absolutely. That led to MODE. Walk us through that from that first truckload to your first store. Take me through.

 

Ciara: Yes. We had this ugly child, this ugly store full of lots of goodies. Every Saturday, we bring more things out from the back and customers would line up. They’d come in. They’d buy it. They loved it. Then I had this beautiful boutique child next door, my maternity store. That was really appealing to a very concentrated niche in the market. As MODE started to do better and better, I really got to that crossroads point of figuring out do I want to do what I love and my dream was or do I want to do what make sense and makes money ultimately? Right? Decided that MODE was the better route to go.

 

Because of my creative thinking, I thought, “Why can’t I have a little bit of both?” That’s why we decided … You know what? Let’s bring that outlet. Let’s take that product out of that ugly space and let’s put it in a beautiful environment so that women can come in and they can get a designer deal that they can great customer service in a clean, friendly, organized space. That really led to MODE as you would see it today which is pretty exciting because there is really no other concept like ours in the country.

 

Adam: You’re competing against larger footprint designer discount stores. How are you different? Why shop with you?

 

Ciara: Yeah. I think a couple pieces really make us different. First the size and space of our stores. A typical store size for MODE would be about 1,500 to 2,000 square feet so very much an intimate boutique setting. Then you layer in just that classy, clean, beautiful feeling. Often, we compete with T.J.Maxx, Marshalls, those big warehouse type outlet concepts. You often hear women say, “I don’t want to go into T.J.Maxx. It’s unorganized. There’s no customer service. I’m never going to know what I’m going to find. It’s a mess.” We really combat that because you can walk into a MODE store. You can find your size. You have a beautiful fitting room with people there to help you. Those are some of the pieces.

 

Then on the product side, we only buy first quality. We don’t buy shelf pulls or customer returns for our stores. Everything that you would find in a MODE store has never been on a shelf before. That really sets us apart as well from a bigger box outlet concept.

 

Adam: Fantastic. You clearly had success opening your 11th location just yesterday so congratulations.

 

Ciara: Thank you.

 

Adam: We’re talking about the people side of the business. In the franchise business, there’s the people that work with you at the franchisor. Finding the people that would be your franchisees, that is every bit the challenge, if not, more so. I know that can be hard. Talk about what the right kind of person who can operate a MODE location. How do you go about finding them and defining what makes them successful?

 

Ciara: Well, I would love you to help me with this even more because that’s always the everyday challenge, right? Finding the right people. I think I’ve made a lot of mistakes, not always knowing exactly what I needed. What we’ve seen over the last 10 years are some certain key characteristics to a successful MODE franchisee or franchise store owner. Some of those pieces are women or men who are very involved in their communities. They understand the people around them. They get out and they contribute to, whether it be organizations or charities, things like that. They’re very involved in their communities.

 

We look for potential store owners who are people who just want to roll up their sleeves and work. That they understand that things aren’t going to all fall into place day one when you open your business doors and that people aren’t just going to come to you. You have to go out constantly and look for them, so that work ethic and that drive. Then we really look for people who are very engaged and very bought into our concept because while we are a beautiful boutique, we are an outlet store. We need franchisees who are okay with owning an outlet store and selling discounted products. That’s not for everyone. We want someone who just really has that Midwest value sense of I want the goods of good quality but I want to pay a reasonable price for them.

 

Adam: Has that changed over the years? Has that been a trial and error process or has this been the blueprint from day one?

 

Ciara: No, trial and error. I think because when I sold that first store, and even the second, and third, I just figured everyone was me. Right? If you own a small business, why wouldn’t you want to be in it working? Why wouldn’t you want to know your consumer and why wouldn’t you want to be hands on deck with your team? I soon came to realize that not everybody is me or has that mentality. As we would make mistakes or we would have wins, we would start to chart those and put those things down whether it be in a book that we’re putting together on the brand or just in team discussion. What made that person successful or why did that fail? What did we do right or wrong? Have just started to really narrow down that blueprint of what is the anatomy and physiology of the perfect MODE franchisee.

 

Adam: Let’s look internally then. I know every company is different. One of the things we find most helpful here on the program is for other entrepreneurs to hear about the ways that their peers have structured their teams. When you look around your leadership team table at the company, how are you structured? Who is at the table with you? How do you work with your team to keep the business on track?

 

Ciara: I think this has changed a little bit, too. This part has changed more so because of the growth of the company. My mentality has always been to hire for attitude and train for skill, whether that be right or wrong, that’s how I think. I’m always willing to give somebody with a great attitude the opportunity to grow a career at MODE. I have no college degree so just out of high school. I have my high school diploma and that’s it. I know that people could do great things without a formal education and particular pieces. Just putting together a team of ladies who really believed in the concept, and are willing to sit next to me, and work with me on whatever project we have, and then developing them into a position where they can best use their skillset.

 

Adam: So, how are you doing that as your company evolves?

 

Ciara: I think a lot of conversation. We’ve always been really focused on communication. I love the input from those around me. I’m very much a leader that would say, “Let’s try it. If it doesn’t work, that’s fine because we’ll just switch courses and we’ll figure it out.” As an example for that, one of my first managers actually came in right out of high school, worked on the retail floor with me. I said, “You know what? You have a great way with people. I would like you to be my first store manager.” I gave her a task of putting together some mannequins and doing a window display. She just looked at me. She was petrified like, “What if I do it wrong?” I said, “If you do it wrong, I’ll go up and change it. We’ll talk through it and we’ll figure it out.” She was with me for several years just growing and changing with me. I guess that’s my philosophy is finding those people who are willing to just step out and do it and try it.

 

I will say that as we’ve grown, and we have more particular needs because we support all of our franchisees now, we have hired people that have more particular skillsets whereas when I started, it was kind of we’ll figure it out together. We still have that mentality but my director of ops is someone who came with retail experience. We are looking for a little bit more of that as we’ve grown a bit.

 

Adam: Great. You’re moving from maybe it’s attitude towards great attitude but with some retail background.

 

Ciara: Correct, retail background or a customer service background if we need them to be on that side of it or the financial acumen for the accounting person, things like that.

 

Adam: Well, certainly as you grow locations, the complexity of what you need to run the business increases. It sounds like you’re on that path right now.

 

Ciara: Yes. It is definitely all about the people. I often get so much praise from people that I know because they look at me or they look at … “Wow, that’s great. You’re doing great. It must be wonderful.” Our people get forgotten because I couldn’t have grown this without my people. You can’t grow a business by yourself. I just like to say that it’s so important to have those right people in the seats next to you and then in the right seats as you learn them and they learn the business, putting them where they can best make the most impact.

 

Adam: That’s a great statement you just made. I mean, you can’t build a company by yourself. You have to find great people. Then you have to keep them. You talked about cultivating the people in your organization. Describe the culture at MODE either from a core value standpoint, or the feel of the office, or the company that you’re building. How would our listeners best understand what it’s like to work for you?

 

Ciara: I think that culture piece is thrown around so much. I think often when we think of a good culture at a business, we think Google like having fun and playing, or having nap time, or those different things that are definitely perks to certain businesses. I would say that I made a little bit of the mistake for a while thinking that I had to do what other companies were doing in order to be a great company.

 

I would say just in the last couple of years I came to realize that every company’s culture can be its own. I would define the culture at MODE as a place where it’s a very safe environment to work. You can express your ideas. You can express concerns. You can come up with strategies and plans, and they’re always listened to with very open arms and open ears. I think it’s just a safe environment to grow your career. We work really hard. When we get to work, we hit the ground running and that’s not a culture for everybody. The people that we have love that because they feel like they’re accomplishing a lot and they’re building something together.

 

Then we do have those fun things at the end of a workday or on a weekend, those team building pieces that we add and layer in too. I would say just a place of a lot of transparency, a lot of communication and we just really encourage each other to learn and to grow.

 

Adam: How do you keep your best people? Retail is notorious for turnover even the highest quality hires. I think the average tenure I read somewhere last week in retail management is somewhere around two and a half to three years. What are you doing to build and keep the team that you’re working so hard to build?

 

Ciara: Actually my very first employee, the very first gal I hired, she’s still with me working in the store. I haven’t been able to keep everyone. People come and go as well. I think some of the key pieces are giving people the opportunity to grow their career. I know I mentioned that a couple of times. To me, that is if you would like to work behind the counter 20 hours a week, and that’s fulfilling to you, and that’s what you want, then let’s keep you there, and let’s make it engaging and exciting. If you want to manage, and operate, and run all of the franchise training system, then let’s get you there. I’m very much about listening to what my team members want, like how they envision their future at MODE, and then trying to figure out a strategy to get them from A to Z so that they constantly feel fulfilled and challenged.

 

Then I think also we’re very much about bringing everyone into the loop all the time and that’s that transparency piece. Colleen who’s been with me since the beginning, I’ve shared hard stuff, easy stuff, wins, losses, everything with her so she really feels part of the growth and part of the brand.

 

Adam: As you prepare for scale, what are some of the things that you’re thinking about as you go from 10 to 20 to potentially 50 or more locations, which I know is a plan that you have? Talk about that. What’s the next chapter for you and how do people play a role in it?

 

Ciara: One thing that’s been a challenge for me as the leader or the founder of the brand is where do I fit? I don’t think often founders … I don’t know if they don’t want to be transparent because it’s a humbling thing to say. Sometimes I feel with the growth that I don’t exactly know where I fit. My plan as we grow is to find a place where I fit in a way that I can support and enable the people underneath me to grow and to have authority and to have that position that they want.

 

The last year or so and going into 2017, our strategy has started to be to … Again, looking at the people that we have, putting them in the right seats where we can maximize their talents and then giving them more leadership opportunities so that there are a little bit of layering pieces between let’s say the franchisees and myself or the retail part-time staff in my corporate stores and myself. How do we layer those pieces in so that I can do more of the forward-thinking and the strategy pieces? Then that gives my team members opportunity for their own growth as well.

 

Adam: It’s the right approach. I love it. Let’s switch gears a little bit here. We always like to hear about what other entrepreneurs are reading. What book is on your nightstand right now and would you recommend it to listeners?

 

Ciara: Yes. I have a couple. Actually Good to Great, which I know a lot of people are reading that. I read it before but I’m just taking a different look at some of it. I’m rereading it and thinking how it can apply to me in 2017 versus how it applied to me maybe last year.

 

Adam: Any early ideas there?

 

Ciara: I think just more of that leadership piece and then putting people in the right seats. That’s been our game piece I guess for 2016. Really thinking about do we have this … We know we want this person. They know they want MODE but do we really have them in the best place? That’s a takeaway for me.

 

Then going into 2017, my slogan for the year is “ground game” which dawned on me one day I think because of all the political chatter and they keep saying those that win, win off their ground game. I was like, “I think MODE needs to get back to its foundation.” We need to get a ground game and that means to the consumer, that means to potential franchisees, finding and identifying those and then also our team. What made our team so amazing the first four years and what did we forget? What aren’t we doing? I got that from the book as well.

 

Then the other book that I have and I reread constantly is, at the end of the day, It All Goes Back in The Box. I just love that because it really sets my priorities straight. I think as business owners and entrepreneurs we can get so caught up in winning and we forget that, at the end of the day, everybody is the same and it all goes back in the box. How are we impacting people along that journey to win?

 

Adam: That’s great. Well, as we round third here to the closing question, this is something we ask of everybody. We’ll put this one to you, Ciara. If you were to come back on this show one year from today and report on whether or not you accomplished the most important thing on your plate for the next year, what is that thing?

 

Ciara: I would say that thing is making sure that the franchisees I have today are more successful in the year than they are right now. As a franchise company, you’re always looking to bring in more store owners, more franchisees. I don’t want to lose sight of the fact that there’s already 11 who trusted us enough to be part of our brand and we have to make sure every day that we’re driving them forward in success.

 

Adam: That’s Ciara Stockeland, founder and CEO of MODE, a retail franchise concept growing rapidly out of Fargo, North Dakota. Ciara, thank you so much for being on The Best Team Wins Podcast today.

 

Ciara: Thank you. I enjoyed the visit.

 

Adam: All right. Thanks for tuning in to The Best Team Wins Podcast where we’re featuring business leaders with exceptional approach to talent management that’s led to outsize results. My name is Adam Robinson. Thank you for being with us today and we’ll see you next week.

 

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