Joe Stefani Of Desert Cactus: Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times

An Interview With Fotis Georgiadis

My number one tip is to be flexible, things might change week-to-week or even day-to-day. You need to be flexible and be open to a new way of doing things.

As part of our series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times,” we had the pleasure of interviewing Joe Stefani.

Joe Stefani is the President of Desert Cactus, an e-commerce company focused on licensed products. The company has licensing deals with a handful of lifestyle and entertainment companies, the NBA, NHL, Armed Forces, and 675 colleges and universities.

Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

Years ago, I owned and operated two summer collegiate baseball teams in the Chicago market. Along with three other individuals, I actually was instrumental in founding that league. Prior to starting Desert Cactus, I always held the belief that businesses I worked for were run the wrong way, or they took the traditional way of getting from A to Z. I liked the idea of doing it my own way, but also doing something in an area that was up-and-coming, like e-commerce. When we started, many people thought, “that’s nice,” and I still have friends that think we’re not big time or see this as a hobby of mine, even though we have 27 people who work for us full-time.

We started our business with a small subgroup of products (five) and we grew very slow at first (from $250k in revenue the first year to $750k the second year). With our first product line, we set a goal for revenue and profit. When we hit those numbers, we added a handful more products, and continued to repeat the process. As of 2021, we’ve raised no outside money at all; in the past, we’ve had businesses with investors, and we’ve had to try what they’ve proposed because of their investment. I think people sometimes raise money for the wrong reasons, but also they get tied up with things that don’t make a difference- such as raising money for flashy things like new offices, personal assistants, etc.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?

When we first started selling on Amazon, we were preparing the initial shipment of our product for their warehouses. Unfortunately, we labeled all of our products wrong and didn’t realize it- until the very end before the order was about to ship out.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

My husband Josh keeps me on my toes and makes me second guess my reasoning.

Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?

For us, the idea to start our Amazon store was a lightbulb moment, but we wanted to prove our concept over multiple lines before we really dove head first with investing a significant amount of money in the company and in hiring outside employees. I had a handful of years of experience in the e-commerce world, but the concept we were putting into place (using Amazon as a marketplace for licensed goods) wasn’t yet being done in that way. We aim to fill this void with a great selection of licensed products. Over the past two years, it has turned into a much larger venture than I expected.

Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?

My leadership style is to lead by example, and that’s important to me. If you’re not willing to do a job that you’re asking others to do, how can you ask them to do it? I’m always helping other doing their jobs and tasks, from packing orders to taking out the trash.

Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?

I’ve been challenged, but I always treat that as an opportunity to show what our team can do. They haven’t let me down yet. I’ve never thought of giving up.

What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?

It all circles back to leading by example. In the valleys, your team needs to see that you are there with them; that you’ve not left them behind to advance to the next peak alone.

When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?

We never could have anticipated what our business would look like when we began selling with Amazon. When your team is looking to you to provide them with a picture of the future, it can be intimidating. Luckily, we’ve always kept our team focused on the short game while my partner and I managed the bigger picture. It is difficult to find the right combination of motivation and inspiration, especially during a busy holiday season. We do our best to communicate expectations clearly and ahead of time, while also giving the team something to look forward to (for example, we announced the date of our holiday celebration back in the beginning of August).

What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?

I have had experience in this, and what I’ve learned is it’s best to be honest and get straight to the point.

How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?

This can be challenging. If you change the horizon, the “future” becomes a shorter period of time, and is easier to navigate.

Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?

My number one tip is to be flexible, things might change week-to-week or even day-to-day. You need to be flexible and be open to a new way of doing things.

Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?

We’ve built our business on trying not to repeat mistakes we’ve seen other companies make. This includes thinking too far into the future; thinking things are much worse than they really are; and not giving employees the benefits they deserve. When COVID hit, we made drastic changes to our business to conserve cash and prepare for the worst. What we discovered was that the pandemic made consumers rethink how they shopped, which benefited e-commerce companies like ours. When it comes to employees, we do the right thing by offering competitive pay, company-paid health insurance, substantial 401K accounts, other retirement options, etc.

Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?

We are always stashing away money for a rainy day. One strategy we use is to keep challenging ourselves: even when business seems “great,” see if you can outdo yourself and take your business to the next level, even if it’s small things like new images for your products, or new content. Each step brings you closer to legitimacy and stability.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Work hard, Travel harder.”

How can our readers further follow your work?

The best way to do this is to follow me on LinkedIn:

Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!

Joe Stefani Of Desert Cactus: Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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