Niraj Shah ’95 and Steve Conine ’95, co-founders of Wayfair, returned to campus for a Q&A session on Thursday for a presentation to students on their business — an entrepreneurial endeavor shaped by their time at Cornell.
Shah and Conine met after their junior year of high school during a six-week summer program at Cornell and coincidentally ended up as hall mates during their freshman year of college.
“We were friends for four years, and then we started a business together,” Shah said. “Now, we are on our third business together and we have been working together for 23 years.”
Wayfair is one of the world’s largest retailers of home furnishings, houseware and décor, and the company generated $4.3 billion in net revenue in the year preceding September 2017, according to the event’s page.
The company, which employs more than 6,800 people, has extensive operations in both North America and Europe.
Shah and Conine agreed that the undergraduate entrepreneurial program, although small during their Cornell career, was foundational in setting them on the path toward becoming business partners and ultimately leading them to their current success.
“I love the fact that this campus was a place that you could wander around and trip across all kinds of different skills,” Conine said. “You could get exposed to a huge variety of thinking in different areas of expertise.”
Because of the variety of individuals at Cornell, Conine said he was constantly influenced by new perspectives and opinions, which helped open up his mind to innovation.
“What it gave us was the comfort to say, ‘I can try that,’” Conine said. “As an entrepreneur, you are kind of a jack of all trades, and having that exposure was certainly beneficial.”
Shah advised aspiring entrepreneurs in the audience to pursue only the ideas that they are really excited and passionate about, because it will encourage them to endure through the tougher parts of self-starting an enterprise.
“Most of the time, even if something will succeed, it’s not a nice, straight line,” Shah said. “You get through the tough patches because you really enjoy and believe in it.”
Conine echoed Shah’s advice by adding it is actually beneficial to create a culture where failure is both celebrated and “made in the open” so that employees will be comfortable to receiving all forms of feedback.
“It lets you iterate so much faster so that you can get to better outcomes,” Conine said. “That’s where you learn.”
Shah also emphasized that it took time for him and Conine to get to where they are today at Wayfair, as often is the case when gaining experience and building a skillset.
“In hindsight, we think we could have launched a year or two earlier but, you know, hindsight is not really a fair lens to evaluate with,” Shah said. “I think today we’ve gotten quite good at learning how to hire and knowing the traits that we care about, but we learned that through iteration and time.”