337: Building a Cooperative in Retail, with Lindsay Gaskins

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To build a cooperative in retail, it started with only 12 retailers, which quickly grew to 300 in one short year.

“Ten thousand mistakes can lead to the 10 right decisions.” Lindsay Gaskins, President, CCA Member and The Bike Cooperative, at CCA Global Members, is our guest this week. Lindsay started a brick-and-mortar business in 2008 during the financial crisis in the United States; in turn, she sold nothing in the first three months. Lindsay explains how she refined her business to have 45 stores open coast to coast. After her refined approach and did market research, they sold more in one day than in her first three months in business. These struggles and success brought Lindsay to help found a cooperative in retail, she shares her dos and don’ts, and the advice to retail storefronts to stay healthy.

Lindsay is a Senior Executive with deep retail industry expertise stemming from her experiences as a management consultant to top global retailers, as a head buyer for a large national retailer, as Co-Founder and CEO of a multi-channel retailer with 40+ stores nationally, and now as a top leader responsible for driving innovation and growth for one of the largest retail cooperatives in the world. Lindsay is currently leading the development of innovative technology solutions, services, and tools designed to empower and fuel the future success of small businesses. She is a charismatic, purpose-driven leader who possesses an innate curiosity for consumers, passion for team-building, and an unwavering entrepreneurial spirit.

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George: Coming up on this edition of the Conquer Local Podcast, I know you’re going to love it. We have a guest who I met a few months back and immediately I was thinking, how do we get Lindsay Gaskins on the Conquer Local Podcast? She started a chain of retail businesses in 2008 at the middle of the downturn. And we are gonna learn about how she built that up to 45 locations all over the US, and now she’s the Head of innovation for one of the largest privately held companies in the world. Lindsay Gaskins coming up next on the Conquer Local Podcast. 

George: It’s another addition to the Conquer Local Podcast. You know we love local and we love local businesses. And when we were thinking about guests for the summer editions of the Conquer Local Podcast, it was like, we’ve got to get Lindsay Gaskins on the show. And Lindsay and I met a few months back through business. And Lindsay, thanks for joining us on the podcast. I’m gonna get you to speak a little bit about your background because at one point in time you ran a retail business chain with 40 locations across the US.

Lindsay: I did. Thanks, George. Well, glad to be here. Yeah, so I know what it’s like to run brick and mortar retail. We had an e-commerce business as well in 2008, great time to start a brick and mortar retailer. I had the bright idea of taking this whole kinda concept around brain fitness or the idea that your brain can grow as you age if you exercise it, and turn it into a retail concept. So my first try was a kiosk in a large mall in Illinois at the Woodfield Mall, and we had 50 products. I had a kiosk. We sold about nothing over a three month period of time, and I almost packed up and went back to my day job. But we had an idea that we were gonna change it into a brick and mortar store, and we were gonna start in downtown Chicago. And we opened up that store in October of 2008. And in the first day, we did more business than we’d done all summer. And the concept was refined. The concept was much better and we proceeded to raise capital in a very tough market and opened, it was 45 stores in about seven years. And it was a really fun journey, but I know what it’s like to compete in this environment. We were a toy and gameplay competing with Amazon for share of wallet for kind of discretionary purchases. And we had to be very original and innovative in our approach and we were always trying something new. So it was a really fun company to build it was called Marbles: The Brain Store. And we never got to all across the country in the US but we got coast to coast. We never got to the South.

George: Well what an interesting story. And I remember when you first told me that story, it really struck me that I think it’s important for entrepreneurs to understand that all of us that have ever started a business and been entrepreneurs have had that moment where we’re like, I am throwing in the towel. What did I do? It’s a normal thing. And I think now we’re faced with something really interesting. You started this in 2008, because that was a slug, like 2008 was a rough, rough time. Maybe this will be similar or it won’t be yet. We just don’t know what’s gonna happen post COVID here. But it’s interesting that you were able to still make this thing work, but refinement was necessary and you had to pivot and kinda change the model, and what was that like? I’m hoping that you can really give us a glimpse into it probably wasn’t the first try I’m anticipating. There had to be multiple attempts at a pivot.

Lindsay: Yeah. I mean, what was so fun about it was that you’d wake up every morning and I still did this for the eight years I was running the business with an idea, and because we were such a fantastic team of go-getters, we would try it. And well, that’s what I love about retail is you try it, you get feedback for the consumer, and then you try something else. You have to start getting things right at some point so that you get some sales, but the retail environment, and now in digital as well, you can put something up, get feedback pretty quickly and adjust your strategy. I have made 10,000 mistakes and made like 10 good decisions along the road. But I think the thing that helped us is that we were willing to learn from the mistakes and transform what we’re doing and try new things. The reason we were able to get investment, the reason we are able to continue to grow is that as the world was changing and as a consumer was reacting, we were then reacting in concert with them. First we were brick and mortar. We always had an e-commerce presence. We then went into producing our own product to improve our margins and to increase our differentiation on the marketplace. We refined our sales process 10, 15 times about how we were gonna talk to the customer. Did a lot of market research with our own employees and our own customers to learn why they were coming to our store so we could refine our marketing message. So it was a constant transformation. What I think is so fascinating right now in this pandemic and this challenge is like you see some of these retailers and small business owners being so transformational where they, we service a bunch of bike dealers and they hated e-commerce. They hated the idea of having to sell a bike online. And now they’re delivering bikes to people’s homes from a purchase that was done through a different channel, and they’re seeing their sales grow. Those transformations are really hard to be able to do that as an operational challenge, but it’s kind of the life or death of their business is if they’re able to transform. And I’m just fascinated by those that are making, not just plans, they’re actually transforming how they go to market. And typically some you would think, I would think that there are challenges in kind of a mindset I’ve been running this business for 20 or 30 years, but this crisis has, I think, caused people to think differently and they’ve had to act and transform how they go to market. And I think they’ll be the ones that do the most here are going to be the ones that will be the most successful as we grow again.


Co-ops and Protecting Local Businesses

George: Well, we’re excited to get you on the podcast to get your knowledge around retail business and congratulations on the 10,000 mistakes leading to the 10 right decisions. I think that’s a great, it’s how it works. You gotta fail first. You gotta not be afraid to try. So great, thank you for giving that to our listeners. Number two, let’s talk about where you are today, and that is the head of innovation for CCA Global. And I remember when we first met, I was like, oh, I’ve gotta Google this company. And then I’m like, whoa, this is a big organization. Let’s talk about the CCA Global and the cooperative movement. And you talked about the bike cooperative, which you were the president of, can we get a glimpse into CCA and then dig a little deeper into the bike cooperative as an example?

Lindsay: Sure, yeah. So about 35 years ago now the founders of CCA Global were two owners of their own flooring, retail businesses in different parts of the country. One in Manchester, New Hampshire, and one in St. Louis, Missouri. And they were kind of legends in that industry. They had grown their business. They were very successful in the floor covering space. But they saw Home Depot and Lowe’s coming and they were coming fast and furious had a tone of capital. And they got together. They became really good friends during their growth in their businesses. And they said, “We gotta do something.” And they brought their other close friends in the industry together. And they got a meeting with the president of True Value at the time to learn about cooperatives, ’cause someone said, maybe you should make cooperative, I don’t remember the full story, but they ended up having this one-day meeting and they walk out of it and said, “That’s what we’re gonna do. We’re gonna build a cooperative.” And very quickly over a period of, I think it was one to three years, they went from 12 people to 50, to 200 to 300 retailers. We have 3,000 retailers that are part of CCA Global in terms of members of cooperatives, of different types of cooperatives. So they started floor covering. We have a lighting cooperative, lighting store cooperative. We have a construction company cooperative. We have a bike cooperative. We have a child’s care, shared service group, and we have a property management cooperative. And the idea of a cooperative is really unique and why I was drawn to it is I had started my own retail company, taking investors and trying to grow it and scale it. What’s so neat about a cooperative is you actually get all your investment from your members. And the members are the ones who stand up the business to support their own best interests. So our members own us. We’re not venture-backed. We’re not backed by any investor. Anyone who works at CCA today is not an owner of the company. There’s no ownership by the employees. It’s actually the members that started the cooperative own us. So every year there’s a shareholder meeting and they get to decide, you know, make some big decisions on where they wanna go with a company. So it’s a very fascinating concept. You’ll see it and, you’ll hear about it in farming, and in electric, in credit unions or cooperatives. There’s a lot of different models, but the retail one was really fascinating to me, especially since I had spent eight years competing with Amazon. I was intrigued in how we could bring retailers together to compete and with local, there are so many retailers, but we don’t all act as one. So how do you get independent small business owners or local business owners to not see everybody that’s doing their business as competition? How do we get us all to cooperate? So I was intrigued by the business model. I joined them almost three years ago to kinda drive the innovation of the company and see how we could service our members with more cool stuff to help them be successful and really, as you say, protect local. But I also joined them because I saw this as like, wow, it’s such a unique way to build a sustainable business because our members are part of us and they want us to be successful because we’re supporting them.

George: Well, it is a very intriguing business model. I’ve always been intrigued by co-ops coming from rural Saskatchewan and there were co-ops everywhere because that’s the way that this land was broken and homesteaded over the last 100 years or so it was with a grain cooperative and fuel cooperative. And so it’s part of the culture. And we see that across North America. Now, interesting Wikipedia told me that CCA Global was one of the largest privately held companies in the United States. It is a massive organization.

Lindsay: Right, yeah. Additionally too, and I think why our partnership is so unique and interesting is we have 3,000 members plus 3,000 members that are members of the co-op that are part of our groups, but additionally, we service all these other co-ops and buying groups and dealer networks. So part of what we do is service those that are our membership, and then we service other types of membership groups. So our expansive impact is across over a million small business owners. And that’s where like if you wanna do something at scale like CCA has that access. And so we’re really fortunate to have that access. And that’s why we’re working with Vendasta to kind of come up with solutions.


Dos and Don’ts for Salespeople From a Business Owner POV

George: So I really like it when I have a business mind like yours on the podcast. And I can ask this question because our audience are salespeople and they’re out helping customers and they’re looking for better ways to serve those clients. And I love having someone that was on the other side of the desk because I’m sure over those years, when you were running your retail business, you met a lot of salespeople. And I’d love to get maybe like a top 10 Lindsay don’ts or maybe top-five dos or something like that, because I’m sure you met lots of reps and there were some that you ended up doing business with and moving forward, and there were others that you didn’t. Could we talk about some that you did move forward with and what were the key things you were looking for in those relationships?

Lindsay: Yeah. I think that piece for me, and maybe I’m not typical, but I really love the discovery, myself, about the operation or the support service. So how can you get that in front of me? And there are many more novel ways in there every single day about how to do that. So the retargeting, the case study, the white paper that’s relevant to what I’m working on. All of that kind of content that is helpful benchmarking information about my industry, whatever that is like candy to me, because I definitely wanna know what’s happening. So like whenever a salesperson could provide a little bit of valuable information to me that would either be in a news article or something that might be relevant, that would open up a conversation for me ’cause I like that type of information. I think a lot of referrals are always great. Like someone knew them, someone else also got the email at the same time and was interested. So kind of, I know mass blasts aren’t really loved by everybody, but they’re effective because if you hit three or four people in the organization and one person picks it up, they might forward it to me and say, “Hey, I saw this idea. What do you think about AI for this? Or what do you think about that?” So I think there’s targeted like content to the CEO, but there’s also this like getting throughout the organization good ideas that other people can bring to the table because I’m not making the decisions on everything. On very few things am I making the decisions like what is my head of marketing bringing to the table and it might be that you got in touch with them first, and then it got introduced to me.

George: Well, and very interesting that you bring that up that there’s always influencers that are, you know, it’s not just one person. There’s an organization there and you’ve gotta get to the influencers. What about the train wrecks? I’m sure that there has to have been a few where you’re just like, what was that person thinking?

Lindsay: Yeah. I mean, I think that in this world and this, again, maybe personal opinion, like the million phone calls just stop, like no one’s wanting to have to delete another voicemail. So if you’re gonna be like trying a bunch of times on the touchpoints, don’t do it through voicemail because that’s just a pain. I think I saw some interesting stuff last year that I hadn’t seen when I was the CEO of Marbles, I saw like the video with the note spec like that, it said, “Hi Lindsay.” And then started talking to me. I opened that up because it was so novel. I think that’s now probably gonna become a little overplayed ’cause I’m starting to see more and more of that. But the novelty of the approach, if it like feels personalized is really intriguing. But I think when there’s no substance and it’s like too big of an organization and they’re not personalized to me and they’re just like, “Hi, I’m from Oracle. We should talk.” What should we talk about? I have no idea what you offer. Like you’re not talking about my bike business. You’re not talking about anything in particular, like doing a little bit of research about who I am and what my business is about before that email is sent out, it makes a huge difference. And I’m just gonna delete anything that’s just like, “I’m Oracle, we should talk.” No–

George: I love it. Like, listen, you hit the nail on the head. Thank you so much. You’ve gotta bring some value and at least do a little bit of research that I might be interested in your thing at all. Like that there’s even a fit because we’re getting inundated with information. Then the next question is, did you have someone that you maybe put them through the paces? Like my thing is, I just say no five times to see if they phone back, and not just the phone calls. Like I wanna see if you’re really in this and you’re gonna put the effort in. And because a lot of people say that they’re gonna do a bunch of stuff and then you don’t see that follow up and stay on top of it, did you experience that a lot?

Lindsay: That is another pet peeve for me. I agree with you. When you, let’s say you even get to an in-person meeting, that I allow for an in-person meeting or a phone call and you do not reply or come back with like these are the notes of what we talked about. Like I just am like, you’re not on top of your business. Like in any conversation where we actually have a conversation, the followup should be like within the next 20 minutes to an hour, this is what we just talked about, and here’s the next step and I’ll follow up with you next week. Like that is professional and that makes me wanna have a meeting with you if it’s just like, they’re like barely able to even respond with understanding what our conversation was about or just saying like, “I’ll contact you later.” Like that type of stuff, I just will wait and do nothing. But if you’re proactive in your approach, if I open the door a little bit, then that gets the conversation continued for me.

George: No, and thank you for that. It’s a matter of are you prepared to earn the business and then are you prepared to keep working after you’ve earned that business? 


Tips for Business Owners Going Back to Business

George: So you have all these businesses that count on you for leadership and guidance. What would be some tips that you would give a retail business owner as we move to going back to business? So I think that various jurisdictions will start going back to business in the next 60 to 90 days, maybe 30, if you’re lucky. What would you recommend as things that they should look at doing?

Lindsay: Yeah, good question. Stay healthy, first thing. I think this is a stressful and kind of impossible situation to be put in for any leader who has employees, who has customers they’re worried about. So hats off to them. And especially in the retail environment, I was talking to a CEO of a 30 person Garden Centre chain last week. And I was just thinking about the stress that he was under with the 200 plus employees and worrying about someone getting sick, or if they should keep the doors open or do curbside pickup. So like, just the stress in this situation is insane. So I feel for you, figure out how to get some help, all those things. So that’s the first part of it. Stress and health. You can’t imagine what everyone’s going through. On a kind of business side, I think I might’ve said this already, but I really think this is a time to jump on opportunity that is different than your plan from three months ago. The consumer is gonna change so much during this; this crisis is impacting us all differently. But the thing that’s consistent is it’s impacting us and there is no back to normal. There is back to the future or we’re gonna go to the future in this in a very fast pace, and you have to realize your business and their backs are in the corner. So that’s why they’re doing their best work, I think, that you have to come up with a way to meet the customer in a different way. So curbside pickup, delivery, the fulfillment of other web marketing channels, figuring out that you are gonna shorten your menu down to just pizza, but you’re also gonna include toilet paper, whatever crazy things that you might have to do to react to the consumer who is freaking out as well, but is looking for solutions. And the biggest concern I have right now is, and I’m against Amazon. So that’s my, if I get political here. That more people are gonna just go to the easiest solution, which is Amazon. It’s fast, it’s convenient and it’s low price in their view. And we have to figure out how to play their game locally, whether you’re in restaurant or retail or whatever you’re at; they have figured out convenience and they have figured it out fast, but local can be better than that ’cause we actually live in the communities. We actually can be more convenient and more and faster. We just haven’t transformed our business to do that because we’ve been doing enough business before this crisis that we’re like, well, I don’t wanna disrupt, I don’t wanna change everything. Our consumers like it this way. So who am I to predict, but I am challenging and admiring those that are taking swift action to transform and become even better than they’ve ever been.

George: Well in that, you know the curbside pickup thing is a really interesting thing. Is it something you should have been offering, probably, but things were going quite nicely, and I didn’t have to have the nice sign, and I didn’t have to have the person that went out to deliver it was a change. But yet I’m still hitting my numbers and things are going well, and we’re still adding new businesses we didn’t have, now we have this catalyst of “have to.” And I think what some businesses are finding is their customer base actually wanted that service layer and they didn’t have a reason to give it to them. So when we look at heading back to business, maybe there is a lesson in there that we should always be looking for a new delivery mechanism, or I’m using that just as an example, but we could look across the entire organization and really take a good look at what makes you different than the competitor, that this was all around competing in a market where you were able to offer something others didn’t, but now it’s this survival. So now it’s important, but it was always survival.

Lindsay: And I think because we’re in such disruption, that things held us all back. Like you already had, you had a lot of money in your brick and mortar rent. You like the size of your store made it so you were buying this much inventory. So that you then had to make these decisions because you had this overhead. And this is controversial. And I’m not suggesting this, but many businesses are realizing they can do the same amount of business with a third of the employees. And I’m not, I am looking for people to have work. So that’s not my recommendation, but what kind of productivity are you getting out of your team and how can you come up with other strategies to make your business more productive as we come out of this? So I think there’s just a lot to look at and determine, you know, restaurants is really interesting. You have like the waitstaff, you’ve got the hostess, you’ve got the bartender, you’ve got everything happening. And now we may not be able to be sitting six feet from someone in a restaurant. What are you gonna do? How is that gonna transform? You don’t want your host, it’s a total new game and I don’t have the answer. I’m not a student of restaurants, but I just imagine that transformation is gonna be huge.

George: Yeah, and it’s every category is going through this. 


COVID-19’s Effects on Transforming Business

George: I’ve gotta get my teeth cleaned. It was put on hold because of COVID. And now I’m gonna go to the dentist next week ’cause dentists are gonna open, but I’m not sitting next to somebody. We’re gonna be six feet apart. We’re gonna Purrell everything before we even sit down in the chair, like it’s gonna be crazy. But that’s part of the new norm. And then how do you make that patient feel comfortable in that environment so that they have a great experience? And because the experience is changing. So it really is going to be an interesting time. And what I’m looking for, Lindsay, from you is advice to those business owners. We go back to that very amazing quote that you had, you made 10,000 mistakes to find the 10 right things to do. Do you feel now you’re gonna have to make 50,000 mistakes? Is it you’re gonna have to even try more or where does it stand now?

Lindsay: Yeah. I mean, I think you have to try different things. I mean, I think that’s what I would encourage people to do. I think there are certain things that, like I can’t speak to the CDC requirements like health, all that stuff. I’m not an expert on that. So I’m not gonna speak to that, but I think that this is the time to really go into your brain, into your team’s brain of like, how can we react to this differently than how we are right now? How can we not just survive but thrive? And how can we try 10 new things this week that we didn’t think would work? And without, you know as I said, overwhelming the system because of the stress. So it is maybe that you can’t try everything this week and it feels like you need to, but can you try one new thing each week that makes you a little nervous, but this is when you have, especially with some of these government loans coming out and some, you may have a little cover to make some changes that then when you come out, you’re much better. So I would just challenge everybody to take advantage of their innovative ideas and the changing consumer landscape to realize, and also realize that we’re not going back to where we were. Yes, the country will open up again. But that doesn’t mean, as you said, we’re gonna go back to the dentist’s office and not worry about being close to someone or that they’re not wearing gloves, you know when they say hello or whatever it might be. It’s gonna change. And that’s unfortunate, but it gives the opportunity for innovation.

George: Well, and I think the perfect person to speak about innovation is the Head of innovation of an organization that deals with over a million local businesses and Lindsay I’ve always appreciated your passion for local business. And I thought that it was very fitting to have you on this episode when so much attention is being paid to something that we paid so little attention to; it was just part of our daily fabric, but now we are faced with, “Oh. That business is gone and that business.” And I’m kind of like, am I on the Avengers and Thanos snapped his fingers? Like what the hell happened? It’s going to change. And the businesses that will be here at the end of this will be the ones that are prepared to make 10,000 mistakes to find the 10 things that work correctly. Thank you for joining us. And thanks for that great quote. I’m gonna use that a million times now and probably steal it. No, I’ll continue to give you credit for it. Lindsay Gaskins, thanks for joining us. I appreciate your time and some great lessons in there on retail, local business, being innovative. We really appreciate it.

Lindsay: Thanks, George. Lots of fun. Stay healthy.



George: Well, in that episode, there are a number of lessons. Number one, for entrepreneurs, you will fall way more times than you will stand up and it’s the getting back up and it’s the trying, and it’s the failing quick and all of those lessons. Like it just, it boggles my mind when I hear stories about people who started companies in the middle of an economic downturn and built them into amazing organizations. So the lessons that Lindsay has from those 45 retail locations around scale and super-serving customers, and thinking outside the box, you heard all of those little nuggets from her insights, and then to be now deployed at one of the largest privately held companies in the US and to be dealing in the very intriguing world of co-ops in all sorts of different verticals, you know, carpet stores, bike cooperatives, arborists and even HOAs like it just it’s incredible to me how that industry is touching local businesses and we need CCA Globals now more than ever. And we need the companies that they support because of COVID-19 and what it’s meaning to local businesses. So thank you for taking time out of your day to listen to this podcast and thank you to our guest, Lindsay Gaskins, for all of her great insights in this edition of the Conquer Local Podcast. We welcome your feedback at the Conquer Local community and on our LinkedIn profile. And we look forward to having you join us again right here on the Conquer Local Podcast. My name is George Leith. I will see you when I see you.


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