08/14/2013 11:37 am ET

This CEO's Secret To A Happy, Productive Workplace -- And Game-Changing Innovation


The words "Delight the user" are inscribed on a wall in the foyer of Polyvore's Mountain View headquarters -- a guiding value that have led the style e-commerce site, under the leadership of 30-year-old CEO Jess Lee, to become a force to be reckoned with in the fashion world.

Lee, a Hong Kong native who studied computer science at Stanford, was working as a product manager for Google Maps when she caught the attention of the founders of Polyvore, a growing fashion e-commerce site that allows users to create collages and mood boards showcasing their personal style. But Lee's success at Polyvore has been about much more than turning out a great product -- she's also put a major focus on making sure that employees are happy and doing work that they're proud of.

And she values one quality in particular: simplicity. In January, Lee implemented a company-wide "simplification month," during which all employees took stock of their daily tasks, identified the most significant, and then cut everything else. As Lee tells the Huffington Post, "You're able to focus relentlessly on the one goal, the thing that really matters."

Here's how it works:

"To get the company down to its simplest possible state, I asked everyone to make a list of all the work they do, identify what was most impactful, and then cut, optimize or simplify everything else. In that one month, the product engineering team deleted some of the product features that were less used, we changed some of the ad programs, we simplified some of the communication processes inside the company, we refactored a lot of code and we streamlined our user support processes. I think we got the company down to a simpler state and people had a clearer mind because their to-do lists were cleaner and simpler."

It was a major undertaking that required the company to put some projects on hold while they went back and figured out what was working -- and what wasn't. But according to Lee, it was worth it, since the experiment yielded insights and discoveries that would have been impossible to come by otherwise. As a leader, Lee wanted her employees to know the company wanted their input, and was willing to make changes based on their feedback. And in some cases, employees moved into new positions based on the talents and passions that emerged -- for instance, an account executive became Director of Brand Strategy after she proved to be skilled in product development.

Lee's own career at Polyvore is also a testament to Polyvore's emphasis on encouraging employees to learn and grow with the company. Lee became an "obsessive" user of Polyvore when she first discovered the site, pitching ideas to the company for how it could be improved. Nine months later, she had joined the team as a product manager, and soon after she rose through the ranks to become Polyvore's CEO. Eighteen months after taking the helm, the young CEO has turned Polyvore into a profitable business, and Forbes has credited the company with "cracking retail 3.0." Benchmark Capital partner Peter Fenton told Wired that Lee is, "clearly developing to become one of the great leaders of Silicon Valley."

Lee also shared her thoughts on how she measures herself as a leader:

"When I look back on my career when I'm 100 years old, a couple of the numbers I'm going to look at to see if I did something useful with my life are, 1) How many people I've worked with would ever want to work with me again if I were starting a new company?" says Lee. "And 2) How many of the people I worked with, who learned or grew up at companies I started, have gone on to be successful entrepreneurs? How many people have said they learned something useful at Polyvore? I'll be really, really proud of that."



7 Apps To Make You More Productive