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How Trust & Empathy Build Strong Companies (with Victor Tam from Monos)

Victor built several companies before founding D2C luggage brand Monos. Here are the two values that have guided his entrepreneurial journey.

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Audio Transcription:

Tim Reitsma

Imagine building a company based on two main values: Trust and lead with empathy. Today’s conversation with Victor Tam, founder of Monos. We dive into how these values have really guided him throughout his entrepreneurial journey. It’s a fascinating story where he started at a young age as an entrepreneur, built a number of companies, and in his current venture is really disrupting the online luggage market. Stay tuned for fascinating insights on how his co-founders and himself have structured their team, how they use their values to really guide their decisions. 

Tim Reitsma

Hey, Victor, welcome to the podcast. Thanks for thanks for joining us today. Yeah. Thanks to them. 

Victor Tam

Glad to be here and hoping. Yes. Some really interesting discussions. 

Tim Reitsma

Yeah. I think, you know, we’ve known each other a little bit through a mutual acquaintance or a mutual friend for just over a year. And when I first heard your entrepreneurial journey, your story really piqued my interest and their love for you to share with our guests a little bit about your background, what you’re up to, and what you’re up to now. 

Victor Tam

Yeah. So I come from a background of, you know, purely digital. I think those kinds of all the way back to eight or nine when I first got my computer, just, you know, just like any kid. When you get a computer, you’re most likely looking for games. And you spent countless hours just gaming on the P.C. But what I did notice was when I did get signed up to the Internet for the first time, I think around a great 10. That was those. What changed everything for me? I notice, you know, from then on, everything that I wanted to learn and find out was available online. And, you know, just with a natural, curious mind, I learned a lot during that first few months. Being able to search the Internet from there, I you know, just like any anyone else I looked for, you know, for games and applications to download online. And just really gone down interest into just Web pages in general. And, you know, one thing led to another led to me just learning how to build my Website, learning how to you know, at that time, it was a hobby of building sites where people can download games and applications. So it’s kind of my own site. And it was just really fulfilling, just having visitors go in. They will track it. And one thing led to another. I was able to monetize that first Website. And from there, I noticed, you know, I didn’t have a desire to. I noticed my grades started to dip, you know, in school. But at the same time, what I was learning and earning during the days in high school was getting to a significant amount. Yeah. So, you know, I actually decide to not proceed to post-secondary from there as I was running already multiple businesses online. And, you know, ten years, ten years of having a few companies and several exits from them. So the previous companies that again were very small in scale. Right. These were companies where I could work from home by myself and might have one or two partners during that time then. And yeah, it was easy in the sense of, you know, there’s no one really to answer to. There’s no one that you’re managing. And they were all fairly successful. It wasn’t until 20, 2010, we came up with a new concept of coming up with a direct consumer furniture store where we design, manufacture, and import everything and, you know, have our own Website, our own marketing, and logistics. And from there, you know, same thing. It was kind of the same business model where it was just the three that are to other partners. There’s just three of us. And, yeah, we you know, that that was a point where we grew to size three years and we was a very important moment in there where we were we could have just, you know, left the company as it is. And it was doing very well. You know, we would each, you know, take, you know, dividends every month. I was very, you know, a business. I would. Well, for the three of us or, you know, we see on the flip side, we saw a tremendous potential if we reinvested everything back in and actually scaled the company, because, during that time, direct consumer models were still quite new. There was not a lot and there weren’t a lot of competitors. And, yeah, we thought, you know, I think this was the first time we actually gave it a shot and tried to call for that whole run play. And from there, you know, after, you know, eight years. Fast forward eight years. A Rove has grown to a company of over 80 people across three countries and doing a fair size revenue, you know, mid-eight-figures. By the time I exited in 2018. And that’s kind of led to today, where I am now founder of a new company, a direct consumer model for travel and lifestyle goods called Monos. And yeah, that’s where I am today. 

Tim Reitsma

Yeah, it’s a fascinating journey. I think one thing I appreciated about you is just your mind for, like, looking at potential opportunities to disrupt a market. So with Rove Concepts, the direct to consumer model of furniture, I know we’ve got a couple of chairs in our living room that we bought from Rove before we knew you. And it was just that’s such an easy way and simple way to buy great furniture. And then you had mentioned you grew that organization and you exited not that long ago. And instead of sitting back and going, okay, well, I’m just going to relax for a little bit. You decided, hey, let’s start something else. And that’s how we ended up with models. So you know, what is Monos?

Victor Tam

Monos is a you know, there’s I think there’s really two sides to Monos. I think these days with brands, you can just be a brand that is purely focused on business. You know, a business model where, you know, there’s, you know, huge margins. It’s a great product. And I think, you know, with the competition these days, a brand has to have both, you know, it’s own its values, that it communicates to customers where they become fans of your brand, not just because of the business model, but because what the brand believes in. Right. And so Monos has kind of created what’s kind of both of these in mind. You know, on the business side, we saw a huge opportunity to kind of disrupt the market of suitcases. You know, typically, I think suitcase buying hasn’t really evolved. You know, I think most people so, you know, go to a department store, a Costco and the and there is a ton of suitcases, tons of selection. No one there really to help you. There’s no product knowledge at all. You know, there’s no information as to what makes a good suitcase. And Yelda, the people are just expected that they use a suitcase. It breaks down and they get a new one. And we saw an opportunity to kind of, you know, build a billion-dollar brand that creates awareness into what makes a good suitcase and also kind of. And also incorporate what looks good right now and what appeals to people just like in fashion. Right. You know, when you walk into a clothing store to the mannequins and or magazines and things like that kind of gives you the inspiration to or what you aspire to look like. Right. And so we that’s I’m assumption we saw in the travel space for suitcases and on the brand side. We kind of saw an opportunity to kind of communicate the message of mindful travel. And that’s kind of where our name comes in, Monos. It actually is a Japanese phrase. It’s short for, you know, from the Japanese phrase. Essentially, it means the appreciation of beauty, fleeting moments. And to can expand that. It’s really, you know, during your travels, you know, we’re always, You try to pack a lot of things into a trip. Right. You know, you might have, you know, five places you want to go to, you know, landmarks or whatnot. And you’ve got to catch this train and maybe hop on this bus and meet. Tour guide there and now LA Times, when you’re doing these things, you really don’t stop to appreciate what’s around you. And it just doesn’t allow for these very present. It doesn’t allow me to be present. And what we found were during our travels. One of the most fondest memories that we had were when we were very present in moments where, you know, whether it’s just sitting in a cafe and, you know, listening to music or people talking. And I think that’s kind of what we try to inspire people to do when they connect with our brand. 

Tim Reitsma

Thanks for taking us down that journey for Monos. And it’s the website Monos.com. It’s just that Hickley beautiful website. And it does draw you into that journey of travel but not travel from a place of care. We need to escape her life. We travel from a place of beauty and there’s beautiful places. And so this company is relatively new. It’s not hasn’t been around for very long. And you’ve started the business with a few founders. So there’s, I think, belief three co-founders in the organization. Yeah, three including myself. Yes. The three including yourself. And so I think what is interesting to me is when you sit down with a couple of other friends and decide, hey, we’re going to launch a new business. How did you decide who’s there to focus on what? 

Victor Tam

Yeah. So I think it has to start with, you know, when I decided to get back and creating this brand, I, I already knew the people that I wanted to work with already. You know, just to give an example, Cuba, one of the co-founders. He’s a longtime friend. You know, I’ve known him since high school, actually, elementary school. And he’s always been, you know, super creative, very talented, really amazing with, you know, words and copy. And I just knew if I was to build my Next brand, I would love to work with him. And just speaking with him over the years, whether it’s, you know, over dinner or lunch. he’s always shown an interest into kind of building something for himself as well. He’s worked at a boutique design firm as a senior designer for the past decade. So, you know, right off the bat, that cedar, that was just very it was just very easy and collaborative there because he felt a very important part of the company. BI leading the creative part creative department. 

Tim Reitsma

Yeah, that’s great. Yeah, it’s it’s so important to, you know, when you’re thinking about starting something new, you do it on your own and just hire in for talent or sit down and look at, you know, people that you trust, admire and talk about opportunity to build something. And I could just imagine that conversation of, hey, I’ve got this crazy idea to disrupt this market and a U.N. You want to come along for the journey? For the ride. 

Victor Tam

Yeah. And then I think I’ve been pretty lucky throughout this journey that the partners that I’ve had, I’ve known before. So it wasn’t, you know, something new where we didn’t know each other personally with, you know, BI previous two partners and the current two partners. We’ve all known each other personally before. We got into business together. So there’s a, you know, a layer of trust and a layer. And already we can communicate. It’s fairly easy. And, you know, Daniel, you know, my third partner was really easy about that. He’s almost like a rapper. He’s almost a duplicate of myself. He’s built and ran several successful e-commerce stores over the years after he actually dropped out of university and he started his first store there. So, you know, we both had the same skill set in the sense of knowing connecting all the dots from A to Z in building an e-commerce business. But what separates us is just the way we think we’re very two different people in the sense he’s very analytical and loves the operational side of the business, whereas I guess a more focus on the overall vision, the brand and marketing with the company. So that’s how we kind of split our roles. But at that but at the same time be able to understand each other because we’ve done kind of all parts of it. 

Tim Reitsma

Yeah. It’s so important to really understand the skillset. Right. What gets people excited? And if, you know, if operations don’t excite you, you probably need to find someone who is excited about that operations. And so kind of leads me into, you know, the growth of the organization. I’ve been following Monos for a while, and I know your company is growing month over month. And with the growth of an organization comes the growth of people and needing to add resources to the team. And so this is a common question that I get in. Some of the consulting I do is who do I hire as I’m growing? Do I hire in HR resources or do I hire first for customer success or where do I start? And so where did you guys start as you start to build up the team of more than just the three of you? 

Victor Tam

Yes, some. The unique part of our parent, well, our company. And that’s what gives us, I think, an edge over any other wall. I shouldn’t say any other staff because I think, you know, there could be a lot of teams there. But what’s unique about us is just our past experience, having two founders knowing, you know, from A to Z, how to do a lot of the marketing and a lot of the logistics side of things were. So we pretty much were very self-sufficient right from the beginning. We didn’t really need to outsource the marketing, the, you know, shipping and logistics, you know, the buying, manufacturing overseas, everything we knew how to do. And that lets us lets us be able to really be hands-on with a lot of equality aspects of each of those departments. Yes. So so really building up the team. You know, when we first talked about this company, we really wanted to be very focused in that in the teams, how we felt. So we didn’t want to have, you know, five or six different departments and and and try to build in scale those teams. We wanted things out. We were really good at overseeing. And we can narrow that down to customer service. So the customer experience and the creative design team was the two departments that we are hoping to only really have in our company and to scale that. 

Tim Reitsma

Wow. So that’s even disruptive in a traditional model of scaling a business where so often organizations, you know, years down the road look backward and figure out, try to figure out how did they end up being so siloed? You know, it sounds like that’s not the path you’re choosing to go down. It’s would you say it’s a fairly flat organization from a hierarchy perspective? 

Victor Tam

Yeah, it’s definitely fairly flat. I think that comes from where we’ve decided early on as the culture that we wanted. You know, when we first started, you know, I think of our companies will come up with several Common Core values. I think I think it does shift with time, depending on the size of company. But, you know, the two that we found really resonates a lot right now for us is trust. And leading with empathy. So so elaborating on that. Every team member that joins our company on the first day, we go over these two values. Trust being, you know, there’s a 100 percent complete, full trust between everyone on the team. There’s trust in them having the company’s interests in the decisions they’re making and there’s trust in each other, trusting in your teammates to know that they’re also gonna be doing their best work. I think a lot of times when when when there’s that the trust isn’t there. And, you know, I like people like all you need to earn the trust. I think when you start to micromanage a lot because you start to oversee too much because you don’t trust them. Right. So I think, you know, being able to tell them upfront, out, you know, there’s a complete trust in there. It kind of gives that, you know, the person that we’re hiring, the best chance of success in our opinion, because they will do their best work knowing, you know, we we have complete faith in them. And leading with empathy is a big one for us. Within our own organization, we actually don’t have time in, time out. We don’t actually clock anybody. And the leading with empathy plays in the trust part, too. We have starting and kind of end times each day. But there’s a window where, you know, you you’ve come in 10 minutes later. And, you know, we have we kind of trust that perhaps you wanted to, for example, do a morning yoga and you told us, you know, we I’d like you know, it’s really helpful for my mental health or my whatever it is. You know, how this class in the morning, can I come in later? You know, there’s kind of four trust that that’s your intention or if someone on the flip side needs to leave early because they just aren’t having the best day. For example, there’s no judgment that we always kind of lead with empathy. And we want to empathize to, you know, the well-being kind of everybody. So there’s no judgment, you know, if someone needs to go home because they have a family or whatnot. So I think that’s kind of the culture that we’re we’re trying to build is where people aren’t looking over their shoulders. 

Tim Reitsma

It’s so important to lead from that place of core values. And I think we’ve had a conversation quite a while ago about values and the intention behind them and recorded a number of podcasts now on values. And so, you know, for those entrepreneurs or people who are listening, who may not be bought into y values are needed, are hearing a real example of how to start an organization, seemed out with your co-founders and really, really fleshing out what it would do We stand for. What does it mean? Because I’m sure that has made the hiring process as you bring people on a little bit easier. 

Victor Tam

Oh, yeah, much easier. I think for us. We knew getting that first person that really aligned with our values was very important because that it. I think once you get the first few hires. Right. And they’re all born in it, you know, that’s hyper energy and positivity kind of just it exudes to the Next kind of, you know, the people Next people. Right. And that’s your Next hires. And that’s very important to get right early. So that’s something that we’re very we were very mindful, not rushed. 

Tim Reitsma

Yeah. And so so as you build up your organization for Monos and keeping in in that kind of mindset of keeping it flat, organization’s really building out the two teams. And how does that work in terms of responsibility for managing people? So as you bring people on, you know, there’s almost this unsaid expectation from employees that, hey, I’m going to get a performance review and then my salary is going to increase or, you know, where am I going to go next in the organization and setting out growth plans. So is that a collaborative effort between the founders or is there one specific person who has taken that on?

Victor Tam

Currently, it’s pretty collaborative. You know, there was something funny enough. There was something we were just about to get into because we had our first kind of big team meeting in February. And, you know, shortly after COVID happened. And so we actually haven’t even gone down that path because, you know, once it happened, it was kind of very much on the secondary just to put it, just to really dove into the company itself and the health of it because of the impact of the coronavirus. 

Tim Reitsma

Yeah, and I can imagine. Yeah. But I know you’ve pivoted Monos being a travel. Company and suitcases where everything has been or had been shut down has an impact on business and being a small team. I think it’s allowing for that agility and ability to pivot. And so I’m sure building on a culture of trust and leading with empathy, everyone in the organization understands it’s like, OK, we’re going to go down there, but we really need to ensure that this organization stays around for the long, long haul. So, yeah. And so, you know, when when the company did have to pivot and you’ve released a new product, how did the team rally behind that? 

Victor Tam

Yeah. You know, for us. I think being pivoted to a new product first. There’s a sense of excitement for sure. Right, because it’s just like creating anything new when you’re creating. You know, you get creative. And then and there and there is a certain you know, the team gets a renewed sense of purpose now. Right. You know, luggage was definitely something that’s that was there that wasn’t selling or moving at all. So it was very important for us to look for a pivot point to us to have the team rally behind and to get a renewed sense of purpose and motivation. And now that’s that we were, you know, luckily, you know, was pretty successful in doing so. And that’s kind of allowed us to not only, you know, stay, you know, survive this period. We’ve actually seen a growth scene, you know, growth in April and May from March while and the knee part was, you know, we were able to actually continue on with our promise of, you know, employee benefits. That was something we were working on. Priority holds it. And it was definitely something we were looking into right after it all happened. But, yeah, now we’re in May. And, you know, we realize things are kind of turning around for us. And we’ve. Yeah, we’ve actually just signed on to, you know, our efforts plan and we’re very excited for the team. What kind of outdated in there? And I know a lot of people, you know, that’s an important, important aspect of joining a company is some of these benefits. 

Tim Reitsma

That’s that’s fantastic. Congratulations on that. In the midst of you know, we’re recording this in the midst of the pandemic and you know this. So, you know, being able to still grow an organization, a travel brand organization, as well as take a look at employees and say, hey, you know, we’d need people for the long term. They’re buying into the product, but let’s invest in our people as well. So that’s that’s fantastic. 

Victor Tam

Yeah, that’s you know, those really began what we decided on early on was absolutely kind of going above and beyond for our team and really taking care of them. And and and yeah, I think everything else kind of. And, you know, just going deeper into why we decided to create a team and the customer service becomes very black or white when we’re managing these teams. Right. For example, you know, with our customer experience team, it’s very easy to track different KPIs numbers in terms of, you know, ticket solved and customer feedback on, the customer, that it’s the interaction with our customer’s team. So these things are all very easily you know, you can look into someone decided to take advantage of our, you know, our company and take advantage of the situation where we’re giving them that full trust. Right. And so it’s a very easy decision for us when we do these reviews, you know, if someone were taking advantage of that. And the same thing on the designing side, you know, creative is a department where you can just say, hey, why don’t you work faster, works, you know, won’t. Why is this taking so long? Because it’s something we do value, you know, the creators, you know, the design team where it does take time to come up with great ideas, you know, and the cool part is, again, you know, all our projects and things can be tracked and funny enough, you know, as we’re. Moving along was, you know, being working in our office and having everyone work from home. The productivity has actually skyrocketed, especially with the designers kind of knocking out all the different things we need to do. And it was, you know, really kudos to them that you’re able to launch and pivot so fast with our new products. 

Tim Reitsma

It’s an amazing ability. And I think it’s inspiring. And it should be inspiring for any founder who might be listening to this podcast is listen to the team, listen to the needs of the team. And as well as, you know, what do we stand for as an organization? You talk about the creative side of the business and giving freedom in that. It’s not like, hey, we need a new product by tomorrow in order to pivot. It’s allowing that space. But also, you know, that trust from a customer service perspective and trusting the team in that. So, you know, as you know, I’ve kind of mentioned a few times there might be founders or managers or leaders or individual contributors listening. What would be a piece of advice you’d offer to an entrepreneur, you know, as they are adding resources to the team or growing the team or maybe pivoting their organization? 

Victor Tam

I think it’s. Well, I think, you know, I think listening to podcasts, they actually do help a lot. You know, I you know, looking back to, you know, the things we’re doing now, it just all came from experience. Right. And there’s it’s really hard to substitute that sometimes in the last year. You’ve done it before. So definitely, you know, finding a mentor, listening to, you know, podcasts like these where you could kind of expedite that experience, learning, you know, without actually doing it and just hearing kind of these case studies of, you know, what’s working, what has it really. I think, you know, prior to this, you know, I think, you know, in 2011, there weren’t really podcasts where there were podcasts, but it wasn’t, as you know, in one the in the mainstream. Right. And then there were, you know, several books out there. But it could be outdated by the time it’s published, you know. So I think that that’s hopefully, you know, something I found tremendous value recently. Even, you know, right now I’m always looking for new, different podcasts. The conversations seem what? What kind of things I can tech help because. Yeah, just there’s nothing that can substitute it. And that’s why I always value the opinions and of people. That’s travel. And done a lot more than done. Lots of fun. 

Tim Reitsma

Yeah, it’s. I appreciate you saying that. I think, you know, we in 30 minutes or so, it’s really hard to get into the nuts and bolts of what makes an organization or real detailed plans or hard detailed advice for entrepreneurs. But there’s a plethora of data and information out there, whether it’s, hey, I need to research adding benefits for my employees. Right. There’s lots of great places to go and sources of information and also people to reach out to. Right. It’s I I’ve recently had an entrepreneur reach out to me and LinkedIn. I don’t know the person. We have no mutual connection and was just seeking some advice on something. And so we’d be amazed at how our world is, is more than willing to give advice and give their thoughts and opinions on things. So yeah, definitely. Yeah. And so, you know, I think as we kind of wrap up here, I really appreciate you, Victor, for coming on today and. Yeah. And just talking us through your journey from, you know, starting really just at a young age and developing a couple businesses and then to Roaf Concepts and now into Mondo’s, as well as your thoughts just on structuring your co-founders and adding people and what really keeps you grounded and focused. And, you know, those two core values, trust and lead with empathy. I’m sure that there will be other organizations that will now borrow those as core values. 

Tim Reitsma

So, yeah, thanks again. And for those who are listening. Thanks for tuning in. And we hope to hear from you again soon. Take care. 

Victor Tam

Yeah. Thanks for having me, Tim.

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