Slice CEO Ilir Sela on empowering small businesses: Our mission connects all of us

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Sela shares his playbook on taking care of employees and supporting America’s smallest businesses.
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Slice CEO Ilir Sela knows a lot about pizza. Nearly 30 of his extended family members own pizza shops. His father and grandfather bought a pizza shop in Manhattan in the 1970s on 75th street. His uncle owned a pizza shop in Brooklyn. Sela spent weekends at his best friend’s pizza shop on Long Island.

“It’s a really difficult business to operate,” Sela says. “It’s grueling hours. Owners show up at 9:00 AM to start preparing, and then they don’t leave until 10:00 or 11:00 PM. That’s often seven days a week.”

Sela built Slice — a platform that provides software and economies of scale to 13,000 independent pizza shops — to give small business owners a fighting chance.

“We enable them to work for themselves, not by themselves,” he says.

Slice is a fast-growing tech company. Its consumer app, which allows customers to order pizza online from its local shops, has four million users. This month, Slice raised a $43 million Series C led by KKR. The company has raised over $82 million in total. It employs 700 people.

But Slice’s mission isn’t big; it’s small. Sela’s focus is on serving the smallest businesses in the US, the family-run restaurants that pepper our city blocks and strip malls. They take orders on landline phones. They hire neighborhood kids as delivery boys.

As the coronavirus shuttered doors and kept consumers inside, those restaurants worried for their survival.

“Early on, when the prospects looked really bleak for small business owners, the №1 piece of feedback we heard from our partners was ‘We just need to survive,’” Sela says. “The only way to do that is if there’s demand; sales coming in. [Shop owners] said ‘We can try to push off finances, we can try to furlough employees, but at the end of the day, without business, without sales, nothing really matters.”

Slice put together a plan to help. It partnered with non-profits Slice Out Hunger and Pizza to the Polls to create an initiative called “Pizza vs. Pandemic.” Donations collected online would be used to buy pizza from local shops for frontline workers at hospitals, shelters, and community centers.

“We spun it up pretty quickly,” Sela says. “We raised $10,000 within the first three hours. Now, I think we’re close to or about to surpass $600,000 raised. Every single penny is going towards generating more sales for small businesses, at no cost to them.”

“We’re really mission-driven at Slice. An initiative like this was super easy to execute because everyone understood exactly what it meant and what we were doing,” he explains.

So how does Sela foster that mission with employees? How do you focus a big company on small business? Sela shares his playbook below. His answers have been lightly edited and condensed.

How do you approach management and leadership at Slice?

At the end of the day, the business, the business model, the brand, all those things don’t really matter.

What matters is your team and the people that are in that fight with you. Recruiting and nurturing relationships with your team; there’s nothing more important.

A business is a journey of many mini-pivots, which are decisions that the business has to make whenever there is a fork in the road. And it feels like there is one almost on a daily basis, right? You have to make decisions for how to continue to grow and to create value.

The greatest teams 1.) recognize those decisions that need to be made and then 2.) make the right decisions. That’s what leads to success. Everything else is really a byproduct of that.

How has Slice communicated with employees around Covid-19?

We also have a global team of nearly 700 people across five different offices. Our first order of business was making sure that every single person at the company was okay. And we were super early in making it mandatory to work from home, including our front lines, which are our customer service teams and restaurant support teams.

We found a way to get everyone on a laptop, and we found a way to get folks broadband internet in parts of the world where it’s not as easy or as accessible, like Macedonia. Nothing else mattered until our entire team was working in a way that was safe for them and their families. You can’t sacrifice that at all. People remember that.

For any manager, or leader, or owner, whether they’re running a small business or a large enterprise, the team and the people around you are the reason why the company will succeed or fail.

So make that your highest priority — always.

How do you balance transparency with managing new information?

Outside of confidential information about the business that could pose any sort of legal complications, I am insanely transparent. The position I take is to just be very real, very open, communicate very frequently, and answer any questions that come our way.

We did twice a week company all-hands meetings. Every moment that I had that was open on my calendar, I made myself available. I would go on Slack or Google Hangouts and do an open AMA multiple times a week.

Anyone that had a question, anyone that wanted to chat; I made myself available to the entire team as often as possible. I can say the same for our leaders as well. Whether it was our CFO who has his own ‘Ask Me Anything’ channel on Slack, or our CBO, I can go down the list.

I think transparency is really important. Obviously there are some things you can’t speak to, but generally being transparent and authentic is super important. Weekly communication is super important. And repeating talking points.

Especially with a large team, don’t make the assumption that saying something once is enough. Speaking to the data points multiple times, to the point where, for me, it almost feels like I’m crazy in terms of how often I’m saying the same thing, that really helps. You can’t assume everyone is at every conversation.

How do you build trust at Slice?

Trust is the ultimate goal. I think it’s just having a culture where communication is really open and feedback loops exist across the board. For me, the most important thing is making sure that everyone feels empowered to raise their hand and say, “Look, I don’t like the way this is going,” or, “I love what we’re doing here.”

Ultimately that’s the only way to improve and that’s how you build trust.

I personally took the position that if that’s what I want from our team, then I need to display that behavior as well. The goal for me is that my frequent communication hopefully also creates frequent communication in return from the rest of the org.

How do you keep Slice focused on its core mission while scaling?

First, it’s hiring mission-driven leaders. As we scaled the team, we’ve been focused on hiring leaders and team members that share the same values in terms of being mission-driven. It’s making sure that that’s not something that you would sacrifice even for the greatest talent.

Along with that, it’s never forgetting that at the end of the day, communicating that mission and telling the stories of our partners and telling the stories of the impact we’ve made is what connects all of us.

At weekly all-hands, we don’t start that meeting without going through our mission and sharing some stories around that. Then we’ll get into the metrics and all the important business things.

So it’s hiring and aligning yourself with like-minded leaders who are mission-driven, and making sure that you continue to refine, craft, and tell a story that is really authentic; something you really believe in that resonates with the rest of your team.