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Carey Smith of Big Ass Fans: Building a $500M Business

Daniel ScrivnerLast Updated: October 21, 2020

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“I think in some ways it’s trite, but you really do learn an awful lot from failures. And the other thing you get from a failure — or certainly I did — was the fear of completely wasting my life. That was a much greater fear — to imagine that you wouldn’t accomplish much of anything was just more than I could bear and what it moved me to was looking for other opportunities.” — J. Carey Smith

In this episode of Outliers, I catch up with Carey Smith, the founder of Big Ass Fans, an industrial, commercial and residential fan manufacturer. We discuss where the name “Big Ass Fans” came from, how his company evolved and catered to its customers and employees, and his simple but brilliant secrets to finding success.

Carey founded Big Ass Fans in 1999, and over the span of 20 years, he grew the company from $0 to $500 million. During that time, the company was lauded for its stellar treatment of employees, impressive growth without outside investors, and amazing customer service. After selling the company in 2017, Carey moved on to found the business incubator Unorthodox Ventures, where he helps disruptive founders build successful brands and companies. 

Topics Discussed

  • 00:01:17 – Carey’s childhood and first forays into business
  • 00:06:24 – What Carey learned from the failure of his first company
  • 00:11:42 – How Carey started Big Ass Fans
  • 00:21:00 – Why humor is so important in business and customer service
  • 00:23:56 – Learning about the manufacturing business
  • 00:32:46 – Focusing on excellent quality when selling a higher-priced product
  • 00:36:51 – Receiving and listening to feedback to constantly improve a company
  • 00:40:49 – The importance of owning mistakes and striving to fix them
  • 00:45:40 – Carey’s investment philosophy with Unorthodox Ventures
  • 00:55:28 – Carey’s book recommendations (and why he doesn’t recommend business books)
  • 00:59:31 – Carey’s daily exercise habit
  • 01:01:41 – Inspiration from one of Carey’s first supervisors

For more, explore the full transcript of this episode. Transcripts for all episodes can be found here.

Links from the Episode

Key Insight

True success for a company isn’t just measured in dollars. Focusing on excellent customer service, seeking and responding to feedback, and ensuring that your employees are well-paid, respected, and happy are true indicators of success.

Actionable Ideas

  • “Getting a pat on the hiney is no big deal. Somebody telling you how to do your job better — that’s a big deal. You should pay attention to that. You shouldn’t be taken aback by that. That’s something that’s valuable.”
  • “When you make a mistake, you have to tell the customers, of course, but you have to tell all the employees. And you have to tell them, ‘This is how we’re going to fix it. This is what we’re going to do.’ And we did that on every single thing where we made a mistake. We made a big deal about it.”
  • “Part of our culture was taking care of our customers, but the other part of that was taking care of the people who worked with us — that interfaced with these customers — and the customers recognize that. It always amazes me [that] you could have a company that says, ‘Oh, we think about our customers; that’s all we care about.’ Then they underpay their employees and they treat them like crap. If you have a company that doesn’t treat their employees properly, then that’s a company that’s not going to treat you as a customer properly.”
  • “When you make a mistake, you have to realize that, you have to accept it — you have to pay the consequences. And that is part of the culture.. … If you want people to think outside the box, you’re going to have to recognize they’re going to make mistakes.”

On Outliers, Daniel Scrivner explores the tactics, routines, and habits of world-class performers working at the edge—in business, investing, entertainment, and more. In each episode, he decodes what they’ve mastered and what they’ve learned along the way. Start learning from the world’s best today. 

Explore all episodes of Outliers, be the first to hear about new episodes, and subscribe on your favorite podcast platform.

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