How Wayfair’s CEO hires employees, builds office culture and unwinds at home

Niraj Shah co-founded Wayfair with Steve Conine in 2002, and the pair quickly grew the business to become the largest online retailer of home items in the U.S.

Wayfair is a Boston-based e-commerce company that sells home furnishings and home items.
Wayfair is a Boston-based e-commerce company that sells home furnishings and home items. –Ryan Breslin/Boston.com Staff

If you’ve recently purchased a throw pillow, ceiling fan, fire pit, or bar stool, there’s a decent chance it’s from Wayfair.

The Boston-based online retailer sells every manner of home furnishing and household item, and it’s growing at a rapid pace. Since Wayfair’s founding, the business has become the largest online retailer of home furnishings in the U.S., surpassing $2.25 billion in annual sales in 2015.

Wayfair's Boston offices.
Wayfair’s Boston offices. —Ryan Breslin/Boston.com

Shah co-founded Wayfair (formerly known as CSN Stores) with former Cornell classmate Steve Conine in 2002 when the pair had an inkling that the e-commerce industry was going to boom. The first domain name they bought was “racksandstands.com.” It sold racks and stands.

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“It took off,” Shah said. So Shah and Conine started buying up niche domain names to sell other types of home goods. There was simplydogbeds.com, justshagrugs.com, and even dinnerplates.com, but by 2011, the business had grown too large. They wanted to become a branded retailer, so they consolidated the domains to just one — Wayfair.com.

Four and a half years later, Shah oversees nearly 4,000 employees globally, with about 2,000 based in Boston at 4 Copley Place.

Boston.com met with Shah recently to hear more about what it’s like building an e-commerce site from the ground up.

About 2,000 employees work at Wayfair's offices at 4 Copley Place.
About 2,000 employees work at Wayfair’s offices at 4 Copley Place. —Ryan Breslin/Boston.com Staff

Describe a typical day for you.

They tend to vary. I travel about 40 percent of the time. When I’m in the office, I’m usually here by 8:15 a.m. and leave a little after 6 p.m. The majority of my day is scheduled. I’ll have meetings with my direct reports, and meetings with different teams. Occasionally, I’ll meet with an investor or suppliers. We’re growing a lot in team size, so on any given weekday, I’ll have interviews with people who I’m getting close to extending an offer to.

Did you always know you wanted to be an entrepreneur?

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When I was growing up, it wasn’t clear that being an entrepreneur was a thing you could choose to go do. I was that kid that had the lawn mowing business and the paper route and the baseball trading business. So I had the entrepreneurial thing, but I didn’t know it was an option. This was before it was an option in colleges.

I was an engineering student at Cornell, and there was only one entrepreneur class. Now there are 300 classes on it at Cornell. So at the time, in that one course, Steve Conine and I started a business plan and started our own business. We kept growing it, then sold it, and we enjoyed it. We weren’t sure what to do after, so we poked around and then started [Wayfair].

It was easier for us because we were young at the time. It’s much easier to take risks when you’re younger.

Wayfair employees get a discount on the company's home goods.
Wayfair employees get a discount on the company’s home goods. —Ryan Breslin/Boston.com Staff

What is the most rewarding part of your job?

We keep growing. We just added 1,000 desks, and I love the high energy level a lot of young folks have. We’re trying to make new things and make things come to life. I love the ambition and the energy level of our employees.

What do you look for when hiring workers?

There are four key traits. People have to be intelligent, hardworking, team-oriented, and quantitative — interested in using analytic insights. I value those traits far more than job experience.

I often prefer to hire someone who we think would be good at something but who has never done it because they don’t feel burdened thinking there’s one right way to do something. I like people who are willing to be creative and think about what is the best idea they can come up with.

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There’s so much data available in our business, so I also want people who can measure how business is going and see if what they’re doing is working. The problem with trusting your gut is that if you can’t measure it, how do you know the portion of the time you’re not right?

Shah said his two homes are decked out in Wayfair products.
Shah said his two homes are decked out in Wayfair products. —Ryan Breslin/Boston.com Staff

Describe the culture at Wayfair.

I really think it’s fun. People want to work where they feel like they’re learning things and enjoying what they’re doing and meeting people. The best talent want all of those things and the truth is, they can have them. I think we have a good culture where there’s not a lot of rules, just having fun but doing a good job for the customer. Every team has their own metrics to make sure they’re doing well.

I’m generally hands-off. I count on leaders of teams to make things happen. I want folks to be very creative and try things; whatever they think will work. Working with great people only pays off when you give them freedom.

You can tell it’s Friday today because at 4 p.m. some groups will be having cocktails. It’s just organic, and there are regular pod outings for each group that happen once a month. Some do laser tag, others do “escape room,” others just get drinks and bond with their team.

What is the hardest part of your job?

Generally I enjoy my job but the tough part is when you’re talking to someone who is a great person but might not be succeeding in their role. They have to deal with it because other teams are relying on them. That’s probably the toughest thing.

It’s also tough balancing opportunity with the right amount of ambition. You want the engine not in the red, but not in the green too much; asking yourself whether you’re really being as ambitious as possible without being too risky.

How do you unwind?

I try to sleep as much as possible, and spend most of my time either working or with my family. I have a 9-year-old and an 11-year-old. Those two things take up most of my time.

Hobbies I don’t have that much time for. I enjoy reading but don’t do it as much as I’d like. I have a naïve ambition to become good at golf, and I enjoy playing tennis in the summer.

Is there anything unique about running a startup in Boston?

Boston is an incredibly good market. Silicon Valley is hyper-competitive and the truth is all those companies are trying to hire thousands and thousands of people. You don’t want to not get the best talent.

Boston has to be one of the top markets because it has all these universities and a diversity of industries — healthcare, academia, and retail. It’s one of the best places to be in terms of hiring people across different skill sets.

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