August 06, 2019

How To Be An Astronaut, An Explorer, & A COO (And Why it’s Key to building Innovative New Products)

Sean Foy

Sean Foy
Chief Operating Officer/Shift Technologies Inc.

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I grew up in a small fishing town on the North Sea coast of England. As a kid, I wanted to be two things: An explorer or an astronaut. I wanted to create new solutions to time-tested problems, explore the unknown, and help us as a society go farther than we’ve ever gone before.

And turns out, that’s exactly what I ended up doing — just not as either of those professions. I oversaw the creation of the first on-demand home delivery and set up for phones and other technology at Enjoy; for Amazon devices, I launched the Kindle, Fire TV, and Echo, bringing disruptive, customer-centered technologies to homes across the world. These products, commonplace as they may seem now in 2019, reinvented how ordinary people could live their lives and helped them to explore and chart their own new courses in life — whether through a book that could whisk them away to worlds unknown or a virtual assistant that helped them through their day-to-day.

Through all of this, I still consider myself an astronaut at work. I’m always trying to invent new things, do what’s never been done before, and create products that will take people to their own journey into the unknown. Now, I’m doing this for Shift: an e-commerce platform that’s reimagining the car buying and selling experience. With this platform, I’m helping give average people the means that will take them to new places and embark on new adventures in life.

Along my own path, I’ve learned a few things about how to be both a business leader and an astronaut at the same time, much of it thanks to my old boss Jeff Bezos himself. They still serve as my guiding stars today.

Focus on the Customer

When we first started building the Amazon Echo product, we were shipping them to our most loyal Prime customers by invite-only. But when we started shipping them by boat to the West coast, the docks went on strike. We were stuck with product bobbing in the Pacific with nowhere to unload product. Jeff emails me with, “Why didn’t you just move the boat to Canada and truck it down by road?” The guy is amazing about customer obsession. He didn’t care that people were on strike, he cared that we kept our promise to the customer at all costs.

To Move Forward, Work Backward

Start with the customer first and work backward. Bezos did it with Amazon, Ron Johnson is doing it with Enjoy, and now Shift is doing it with used vehicles. Only this way can you create new products that are truly innovative.

This is why George Arison and Toby Russell’s idea for Shift really chimed for me: it’s not about used car sales; it’s about an innovative experience that reimagines what we’ve always known to be an uncomfortable marketplace and putting the customer first in the process. Enjoyable, honest, and transparent aren’t what you think of when you imagine buying a car, but Shift has made that possible.

Celebrate When You’ve Made It

You’ll have to work hard to get to the point where you’ve done something truly historical. So once you’ve gotten there, sit back, relax, and appreciate what you’ve been able to accomplish together. As you set off on your next mission, don’t limit the possibilities of what you can do.

So that’s why I’m thrilled to start at Shift. I may not have a spacesuit on, but I am humbled by the brave explorers all around me and look forward to the places we’ll go together on this journey. To the other leaders out there in their respective fields: embrace your inner astronaut, and keep pushing each other to do what no one else has thought possible. I can say from experience, you’ll go far.

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