From Cold Calling To Running a $2B Business: Former Overstock President Shares Her Selling Secrets


The year was 2001. Amazon sold only books, Netflix was but a dream, and even the smallest piece of furniture was not sold digitally. When Stormy Simon joined the team at Overstock, it was a different, much less hyper-connected world, but this future-focused executive saw where the retail game was going. Simon, who went from a role in B2B sales in 2001 to the company's President in 2016, was a pioneer in a still unchartered space.

When asked what lead her to digital sales, Simon's answer is simple; “I placed an order online and the light bulb went off. I was so excited to get the package, and it just hit me that traditional retail, the way we are all programmed to shop, was about to change. I knew this was going to stick, this was going to work."

Simon, who imagined and executed Overstock's well-known “The Secret Of The Big O" campaign, had an unconventional route to success; one that involved such potential career-deterrents as teenage pregnancy and forgoing a college education. Although she joined Overstock as an entry-level temp, thanks to a steady stream of promotions Simon went on to generate almost $2B for the company. What got her there was a blend of tenacity and foresight, as well as a penchant for scrappy innovation.

“I have a really nontraditional path," says Simon, who was on welfare for a short amount of time before landing the job at Overstock. “I was a mom by the time I was 18, had my second at 21, and was divorced soon thereafter. My biggest fear was not providing for my boys (Austin, age 31; and Dylan, age 27). I knew I had to succeed, because as a teenage mom, people would tell me I was going to ruin my life. Those naysayers fueled me to think I have to do it."

After attending Salt Lake Community College for a year, Simon decided to take on a job in the home video distribution industry, with the hopes of learning through a hands-on approach, rather than sitting in a classroom.

“I chose to stay with the job instead of going back to school," says Simon, who was quickly promoted to Manager of Sales Accounts and Advertising within the company. “In the early 90s, home video was becoming very big, and I viewed the job as a stepping stone to that education I decided to forgo."

With a plan to relocate to Las Vegas for an event management startup, suddenly on September 11, 2001, the wheels fell off Simon's plan.

“I was out there for 90 days then suddenly everyone stopped coming to Vegas," says Simon. “I decided to do some soul searching. My boys were 15 and 12 and I thought I would maybe go back to school. I thought I had to serve the world, not be in business."

After a brief stint wrapping presents, which Simon picked because it felt uncomplicated and happiness-imparting, Simon took on a temp job at Overstock, making outbound calls for bulk sales, not knowing that the gig would later blossom into a full-fledged passion project.

“We were buying things like vacuums, sunglasses, dishes, luggage, sheets and rugs and selling them as they came in," says Simon, adding that at the time Overstock was truly offering "overstock," AKA warehouse bulk inventory. “I was detached from the job; just killing time before figuring out my life's work, but what happened was that I came in and killed it. On a team of four males and myself everyone was trying to sell a million dollars of luggage, and I did it."

Simon says that when the CEO at the time asked if any employee would be interested in buying stocks in the company, Simon put $800 in, leaving her bank account nearly empty. The move caught the attention of her supervisor, further propelling her forward at Overstock.

Possibly one of Simon's biggest achievements while at Overstock was her conception of “The Secret Of The Big O" campaign in 2003, which would go on to take the company from $250M to $500M in 18 months. Simon says she approached the CEO with the idea to advertise the company on television, something she noticed other dot coms at the time were avoiding.

“I had a feeling [television advertising] might be cheap since no one else in our space was doing it and that it would really make us stand out," she says. After winning the approval of the board, Simon wrote the commercial, hired the talent, and flew to LA to oversee the entire process.

“That campaign killed it," says Simon, who to this day, remembers the script verbatim. “It went; 'Have you discovered the secret of the big O? Overstock.com, an online outlet where everything is always on sale. Buy best-selling books 25 percent below Amazon with $2.95 shipping and live customer service 24/7. It's all waiting for you."

After the commercial hit the airways, Simon says revenue went into triple digit growth, helping fuel her next appointment to Vice President of Branding, where she oversaw the video, books, and music departments.

“I grew the business to $20M in 3 years," says Simon. "Because I had been in video distribution business, I started calling studios I knew like Paramount, Columbia, and Sony, bringing in those relationship and ultimately I grew the business to $100M"

The next focus for Simon was bringing customer service in-house, and focusing it on care, rather than simply servicing clients.

“I wanted to lower customer service costs while bringing it in house," says Simon, who within eight months brought on 450 customer care (a term Simon coined) agents, and dropped costs by a full percent. “Changing from 'service' to 'care' was a big cultural change. Now it was about servicing, not upselling. The industry followed. We lead a shift; suddenly everybody wanted to care."

Simon said as she navigated her career, she was always confident, but that along the way there were challenges, and even overt offenses launched her way, simply because she was a woman. “Being a woman has always been something of an issue, especially when I was younger," says Simon. “Compliments are one thing, but there are underlying tones that can hide behind it and make you feel creepy. And in my 20s, as someone cute with no college degree, I always felt like I had to prove my smarts."

Simon goes on to say, “ I had no idea I'd be smacked on the butt by my boss, and then have guilt thinking maybe I tolerated it. I would think 'I'm learning so much, advancing and is it really worth it? As a single mom I couldn't disrupt my income, so I'd bit the bullet and just accept that slap on the ass."

Ultimately Simon believes her experiences were all learning lessons, and she is thankful for the fact that they made her stronger. “It took me a long time to really get it, to really understand that yes [gender equality in the workplace] is an issue," she says. “As you get older you can put out an energy where that kind of behavior will just not be accepted. You create the hands-off armor. There are a lot of men out there who admire strong women (and search for those) and let them fly which is a beautiful thing."

The Amazon Effect

In today's online shopping-obsessed world, SWAAY asked Simon her thoughts on how brands can innovate their digital sales model now. Amazon, was unsurprisingly, the topic of the day. “Amazon is a good race to watch," she says, adding; “I think there's a lot to be done actually."

With rumors that Amazon is going to get into the furniture business, Simon believes a revolution may be afoot for Overstock and other similarly-positioned digital retailers.

“If Amazon goes into furniture, I feel it could really change everything," she says. "They have the infrastructure, and their purchase of Whole foods gives them that a unique insight into neighborhoods that tend to be more affluent. If they get that data and if they can bring online furniture to local markets that would be brilliant. It would mean ordering a couch online and getting it the next day. It would mean teaming up with local furniture stores using geolocation services then pushing the sales through Amazon. It would be revolutionary."

Looking to her own future, Simon, who now lives in small farming community in Utah, says she is expanding her horizons. To that end, she is currently on the board of a cannabis company that is dedicated to highlighting its medical properties, and working on several projects, including a local startup incubator for women. “I needed a time out," says Simon, who left the company in July of last year. “I'm entertaining ideas and opportunities right now, and my eyes are wide open."

3 Min Read

Five Essential Lessons to Keep in Mind When You're Starting Your Own Business

"How did you ever get into a business like that?" people ask me. They're confounded to hear that my product is industrial baler wire—a very unfeminine pursuit, especially in 1975 when I founded my company in the midst of a machismo man's world. It's a long story, but I'll try to shorten it.

I'd never been interested to enter the "man's" world of business, but when I discovered a lucrative opportunity to become my own boss, I couldn't pass it up—even if it involved a non-glamorous product. I'd been fired from my previous job working to become a ladies' clothing buyer and was told at my dismissal, "You just aren't management or corporate material." My primary goal then was to find a career in which nobody had the power to fire me and that provided a comfortable living for my two little girls and myself.

Over the years, I've learned quite a few tough lessons about how to successfully run a business. Below are five essential elements to keep in mind, as well as my story on how I learned them.

Find A Need And Fill It

I gradually became successful at selling various products, which unfortunately weren't profitable enough to get me off the ground, so I asked people what they needed that they couldn't seem to get. One man said, "Honey, I need baler wire. Even the farmers can't get it." I saw happy dollar signs as he talked on and dedicated myself to figuring out the baler wire industry.

I'd never been interested to enter the "man's" world of business, but when I discovered a lucrative opportunity to become my own boss, I couldn't pass it up.

Now forty-five years later, I'm proud to be the founder of Vulcan Wire, Inc., an industrial baler wire company with $10 million of annual sales.

Have Working Capital And Credit

There were many pitfalls along the way to my eventual success. My daughters and I were subsisting from my unemployment checks, erratic alimony and child-support payments, and food stamps. I had no money stashed up to start up a business.

I paid for the first wire with a check for which I had no funds, an illegal act, but I thought it wouldn't matter as long as I made a deposit to cover the deficit before the bank received the check. My expectation was that I'd receive payment immediately upon delivery, for which I used a rented truck.

Little did I know that this Fortune 500 company's modus operandi was to pay all bills thirty or more days after receipts. My customer initially refused to pay on the spot. I told him I would consequently have to return the wire, so he reluctantly decided to call corporate headquarters for this unusual request.

My stomach was in knots the whole time he was gone, because he said it was iffy that corporate would come through. Fifty minutes later, however, he emerged with a check in hand, resentful of the time away from his busy schedule. Stressed, he told me to never again expect another C.O.D. and that any future sale must be on credit. Luckily, I made it to the bank with a few minutes to spare.

Know Your Product Thoroughly

I received a disheartening phone call shortly thereafter: my wire was breaking. This horrible news fueled the fire of my fears. Would I have to reimburse my customer? Would my vendor refuse to reimburse me?

My customer told me to come over and take samples of his good wire to see if I might duplicate it. I did that and educated myself on the necessary qualities.

My primary goal then was to find a career in which nobody had the power to fire me and that provided a comfortable living for my two little girls and myself.

Voila! I found another wire supplier that had the right specifications. By then, I was savvy enough to act as though they would naturally give me thirty-day terms. They did!

More good news: My customer merely threw away all the bad wire I'd sold him, and the new wire worked perfectly; he then gave me leads and a good endorsement. I rapidly gained more wire customers.

Anticipate The Dangers Of Exponential Growth

I had made a depressing discovery. My working capital was inadequate. After I purchased the wire, I had to wait ten to thirty days for a fabricator to get it reconfigured, which became a looming problem. It meant that to maintain a good credit standing, I had to pay for the wire ten to thirty days before my customers paid me.

I was successful on paper but was incredibly cash deprived. In other words, my exponentially growing business was about to implode due to too many sales. Eventually, my increasing sales grew at a slower rate, solving my cash flow problem.

Delegate From The Bottom Up

I learned how to delegate and eventually delegated myself out of the top jobs of CEO, President, CFO, and Vice President of Finance. Now, at seventy-eight years old, I've sold all but a third of Vulcan's stock and am semi-retired with my only job currently serving as Vice President of Stock and Consultant.

In the interim, I survived many obstacles and learned many other lessons, but hopefully these five will get you started and help prevent some of you from having the same struggles that I did. And in the end, I figured it all out, just like you will.