PetSmart's 2017 acquisition of Chewy was a historic moment – at $3.35 billion, it's the largest e-commerce acquisition ever. But this historic moment would never have happened if it wasn't for the small, routine kindness Ryan Cohen experienced at his local pet store: Its warm customer service would serve as the bedrock for his fledgling e-commerce company.
"We're optimizing a relationship with a customer, not a transaction," said Cohen, one of Chewy's co-founders. "We're bringing a human element to something that doesn't really fit anymore within e-commerce."
Chewy, a pet e-commerce site that offers pet food, toys and other accessories, is one of the largest pet retailers in America. Cohen, who was originally working on an e-commerce jewelry store concept before starting Chewy, realized that if he could replicate a personalized experience at scale, he and his team could build a successful online pet empire. It turned out his moment of inspiration was the start of a long journey where hardship, ferocity and, eventually, victory would take shape.
Mission drives everything
By sticking to the original company mission of offering personalized customer experiences, Cohen and his team built a company that piqued the interest of PetSmart. When deciding whether to sell the company, Cohen said it was a natural next step for the organization – it was already reaching a major audience, and partnering with PetSmart would mean reaching even more pet owners.
"Part of the reason why we were so successful was we were really good at staying focused … [and] doing the simple things really well," said Cohen.
Sticking to the original mission wasn't an easy feat. During his time with Chewy, Cohen helped send more than a million handwritten holiday cards each year and answered customer calls within six seconds of a query. This tenacious drive was only the tip of the iceberg for Cohen but was something that separated Chewy from other e-commerce ventures.
When it came time to raise funding, Silicon Valley initially balked on Chewy: Its business concept wasn't overwhelmingly novel or unique. Cohen said doubters underestimated the execution of the model, chalking it up as just another customer-centric e-commerce operation. Cohen and his team wouldn't settle for anything less than excellence when it came to working with customers. The Chewy drive is apparent in the way Cohen talks about acquiring initial funding, which took him a handful of trips to Silicon Valley to achieve.
"I had a choice to make every single time they said no: Do you go home or do you prove them wrong?" he said. "The more people that told me no, it fueled me, because I was like, 'I am going to prove them wrong if it's the last thing I do; I'm going to figure out a way to finance this business.'"
Who you hire further defines your mission
Cohen said Chewy's mission to provide a personal customer experience no matter the cost is the result of the great team that makes up the company. Cohen's talent as an entrepreneur lies in his commitment and willingness to do whatever it takes to accomplish his goals. He said Chewy hired "more for will than for skill," meaning if someone was committed to the company's ideology and mission, finding a practical role for them on the team would be simple.
"When you hire people like that, who are willing to go to war with you, you can do just about anything," Cohen said. "We hired … people who were as relentless as I was, who believe in the business, who came on board, drank the Kool-Aid and weren't going to stop until we were successful."
This team is how Chewy has reached new heights, from hundreds of millions of dollars in sales each year to a recent IPO valued at $9 billion. When the company was acquired by PetSmart in 2017, Cohen stayed on board for the year – not because of a contract requirement, but because he wanted to ensure a proper transition.
Chewy's success is a story of proper execution
Cohen no longer has a role at the organization, instead filling the shoes of what he describes as a "cheerleader" for the company and its recent successes. Staying focused on the core mission throughout each phase of its lifecycle, Cohen said, gave Chewy the ability to execute a core belief and stand out from other companies.
"When you look at the execution of the model and how well we delighted our customers and kind of became the ecosystem of the pet industry, I think that people really kind of underestimated how well we would execute with the team we put together," he said.
Even if you have an idea that isn't novel, if you're behind what you believe, and your execution is better than everyone else's, you're bound to succeed. For Cohen and his team, this meant countless late nights, intense stress and a relentlessness that only they can fathom.