In 1991, Sunny Kobe Cook founded Sleep Country USA, a Washington and Oregon mattress retailer celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. Before selling the chain in 2000, Sunny was named Inc. Magazine’s Northwest Women Entrepreneur of the Year and was featured on the cover of Washington CEO magazine when her company was the first retailer to be recognized as a “Best Place to Work.” Now, as the author of “Common Things Uncommon Ways,” Sunny offers advice on how business can improve through focus on customer experience, employee recognition and motivation.
Q: You started out your career as a secretary. What inspired you to found your own mattress retail business?
Sunny Kobe Cook: I love retail and I love the home furnishings business. While working as a secretary, I took a part-time job at a local furniture store where I learned the business from the inside and made all the contacts I would later need to start my own chain of stores.
Q: What were the most profound obstacles you faced, and how did you overcome them?
Sunny Kobe Cook: Like most entrepreneurs, I did not have the money to start my business – at least not in the way I had envisioned. I wanted to start a furniture store but that was too capital intensive. Instead, I studied what made money in a furniture store (mattresses) and what appealed to me about the furniture store idea (it was pretty) and I adapted; I made a pretty mattress store.
Q: Why is it important for businesses to focus on customer experience and employee recognition, and what tips can you offer other women entrepreneurs who aim to improve their businesses in these areas?
Sunny Kobe Cook: No business can afford to advertise for every customer it gets. You have to do a good enough job with the customers you get to earn customers from their referrals. That means you have to deliver not only great products and services, but great customer experiences as well. Typically, customers don’t interact with the owner of a business – especially as a business grows. So motivating people who represent you with your customers is critical. Understanding what motivates people and how to tap into that on a daily basis is key.
(This is the focus of my book, “Common Things Uncommon Ways” and one of the regular topics I speak on.)
Q: At Career Woman Inc. we value the importance of mentorship in career development. Describe your most important mentor and how they helped you achieve success.
Sunny Kobe Cook: I worked for the BEST BOSS when I was a secretary. He intuitively knew how to motivate and inspire people. The last chapter of my book is about what I learned (and what everyone else can too) from working for him.
Just remember, mentors come in all forms – positive and negative, male and female, intentional and accidental. We never talked about him being my mentor; I just watched, listened and learned. We would love to have a chance to work together again. Of course now, the joke is, who would be working for whom?