Episode 5: The Story Behind GiftBasketsOverseas.com

 

Have you ever thought about Long Distance Relationships as something that can happen at work? Maybe it’s between your boss and you?  Or this can be your client and you? It’s no wonder if the answer is “yes” since professional relationships are something that we take for granted and dedicate most of our efforts in, even without realizing it. In our new episode of Long Distance Short, we open up the founding story of the International Gift Delivery Company GiftBasketsOverseas.com as well as define the best ways to navigate these kinds of long-distance professional relationships. 

Intro

Hello and welcome to another episode of “Long Distance Short” — GiftBasketsOverseas.com’s podcast where we talk to real people about the triumphs and tribulations in all kinds of long-distance relationships. Your host is Ally Winters, an international gift consultant who’s found success in her own long-distance romances and friendships.

And here’s today’s topic: The Story Behind GiftBasketsOverseas.com. Here at GBO, we’re all in long-distance professional relationships. You’ll hear from the CEO, Dmitriy Peregudov, about how it all started, including tips about hiring freelancers and remote workers, and making long-term, long-distance employment not only plausible, but highly successful. Let’s jump right in, Ally!

 

ALLY

Good afternoon, everybody! I’m Ally, your loyal host of the most relationship-related podcast on the web, Long Distance Short. Today’s episode is really special, and our guest is Dmitry Peregudov who is the founder of the most successful international gift delivery company, GiftBasketsOverseas.com. Dmitry kindly agreed to share his experience with us, and it’s a real honor to have you today, Dmitry!

 

DMITRY

Hi, Ally! Thank you!

 

ALLY

How’s it going today?

 

DMITRY

It’s great — it’s sunny autumn here in Boston, and the leafage is about to end, we’re getting into the holiday winter season, so it’s exciting.

 

ALLY

Do you like this period of time?

 

DMITRY

Yeah! Always love this time of the year… Yeah, definitely.

 

ALLY

Same here. All right! So, I think, there is a question that many listeners would be interested in, specifically, how did it all start with GiftBasketsOverseas.com? I’m really excited to learn more about your relationship story at GBO.

 

DMITRY

Sure! Yeah, a long time ago, my business partner and I, started the company back in 2002. And the way it came about is, I’d had a personal experience sending flowers to my motherland, to Russia, and there was a delivery company that did the job, and I felt that their service wasn’t really that great. And I’d had a girlfriend there at the time, and also had my parents living in Moscow, Russia at the time, and I’d been sending gifts and flowers to them quite often. And the experience that I had was not up to par with what I would expect — for, as an American consumer at the time, I’d already lived in the US for a while, and I felt that they weren’t doing a good job.

 

ALLY

Interesting; what specifically made you think: “This was bad service, and I would provide a better service?”

 

DMITRY

Great question — yes, so they forced me to scan my credit card, to take a scan of it — and at the time, there were no smartphones to take a picture with, and it was actually quite cumbersome to scan your credit card, and also kind of scary to provide your passport information to someone in Russia — because the company was actually there, overseas, and I was quite scared to do that. It took a while to get the order approved with them, and eventually, the delivery was not timely, and my parents weren’t that excited because the gift came very late, and my girlfriend also didn’t receive the flowers on time for Valentine’s Day, so I felt it was quite a negative experience overall.

 

ALLY

Uh-huh, makes sense to me. So, everything started with only two people, you and your partner, right? So, how did your team expand or evolve with time?

 

DMITRY

Sure — initially it was just me and my business partner for a while, and we were just building the business, understanding how this was going to work, and what sort of team we would need. We started the business on a part-time basis, working for [another company] at the beginning, and then, later, focusing on the business more full-time, starting to understand that we need a customer service team — a strong team that would provide the best service to the end customer. So we started hiring multilingual customer service representatives, starting from just several of them: only two at the beginning, then we had five at some point, and it sort of grew to the size we are today.

 

We have around sixty people today overall, between the customer service, sales, the customer order processing team, catalog, marketing, tech — there are many departments now, and each and everyone is well-resourced, and we have been growing over the last 17 years fairly well; so that’s where we are today — sixty full-time people.

 

ALLY

Sounds impressive!

 

ALLY

But back then, you knew that you wanted to make an international gift delivery company, so it wasn’t just for Moscow — like, between Moscow and Boston, let’s say… But it was across the globe.

 

DMITRY

Sure. Yeah, definitely — I mean, at the beginning, we were just focusing on the particular cities where we had the connections, and gifting suppliers, and florists; those were, in the beginning, just mostly Moscow, Russia and Saint Petersburg, Russia, and then we expanded to other locations, such as Ukraine, and other cities in Russia, and eventually, all the countries of the former Soviet Union — that was done under different brands: like, the Moscow brand was called Flowers2Moscow.com, the Saint Petersburg brand was called FlowersToPetersburg.com, and FlowersToUkraine.com, and so on.

 

We’ve had several websites focused, geographically, on particular delivery locations, and eventually, we created a brand called RussianFlora.com, which was an international brand, really focusing on all the countries of the former Soviet Union, and also other locations worldwide. And that was really a more flower[-oriented] brand, not as much a gift basket brand, even though we had some gift baskets there — but all the customers were really romantic gift senders who have some romance overseas. So, your podcast is, I believe, close to them — the long-distance relationships; so those were really our customers, who were dating online and finding their love overseas, and they were using our service to send a flower arrangement or a gift to someone far away. And we were right in the middle of that, and that was our beginning of where we are today.

 

And eventually we sort of moved away from just personal gifts, and we’ve gotten into gift baskets and more business[-oriented] gifting, so GiftBasketsOverseas.com is more of a corporate gifting company, although we do have a lot of personal gifts there as well. But a gift basket is, really, not just a romantic gift, but often an appreciation gift, a thank-you gift, so our company is far beyond being just a romantic gift sender-focused, but also has a focus on a business sender.

 

ALLY

So, I know that you have hired freelancers; freelance is associated with long distance, right, and long-distance employment — like, maybe for some specific projects. So, what is the main difference between them in terms of, maybe, management? Because I think that it’s a really interesting idea to think about.

 

DMITRY

Sure. Yes, so, freelancers are generally people who want to work by themselves, and in the US, this sort of people would usually be called self-employed, so they employ themselves in that sense. They are, like, their own animal, if you will: they have a certain style of how they want to work, they want to have less structure in their job, they want to decide when and where they do the work and what kind of work they do.

 

Generally, freelancers are more frequently found in the area of foreign languages, translations, we see some of them in our customer service today. There are many fields today where you see freelancers and consultants that work remotely. So we really don’t distinguish between them too much, but when we were starting, freelance was not as popular — today it is much more common; now, there are websites where freelancers work and look for work, and where we generally look for those types of people.

 

And oftentimes, when we find people to join us, they are freelancers, and we sort of groom them into becoming more permanent contractors — they still have projects that they’re working on, and those projects change from time to time, and sometimes they don’t change as much. But a lot of these people become permanent team members; they still enjoy a lot of flexibility of their freelance engagement, but with us, they also [need to] have a very different fit, what we call a culture fit. And we look for the type of people who would really enjoy not just being a freelancer, but being a part of something bigger. And I believe our team gives them that; our company provides that sort of environment.

 

ALLY

Interesting; and if, for example, you want to hire somebody — yes, for our listeners: if you want to become a part of GBO, — what criteria do they need to meet, in order to fit in this team, this organism, so to speak?

 

DMITRY

Sure; in the early years, we’ve had a lot of hiring based on the skillset, so, for example, we looked at particular languages — does the person speak English, does the person speak Spanish, does the person speak Russian, or are they able to operate a computer, are they quick with it, are they great on the phone with customers, do they like this…

 

So, a lot of this stuff was, really, a skill-based hiring process, and a lot of companies — I think the trend has changed in the last five to ten years, where we see a lot of companies and leaders teaching us that today, hiring on a skill is not enough. And we heard a lot from CEOs of companies that are famous for their customer service, such as Zappos; Zappos is a company that sells shoes, and their CEO has hired a lot of people based on fitness and core values, as opposed to just hiring on skills.

 

ALLY

What values, for example?

 

DMITRY

Yeah — so, like, each company has its own core values that they feel are important to them, and several things are important to our team, and not just the founding team but also those who’ve joined the company over time. And those values are really focused on several things.

 

Such as flexibility — you know we all work from our own locations, and a lot of people work from home, a lot of people work from very flexible office environments, where they feel like they’re at home. So we want the people to feel like they’re home — we want the people to feel flexible with us. We are flexible with them, so, flexibility is one of the core values we have, we cherish that, and we want the people who work with us to also be flexible, so we need them to work more than they initially planned to — sometimes they stay longer, and people really do this for us, they remain flexible for the company. And we are also trying to do the same with them, trying to offer them flexibility.

 

Ownership is another part, we put a lot of importance on ownership — we want people to really own their job and be responsible for the parts they have. We don’t really have a high degree of control over them, so everyone is independent to a high degree, a much higher degree than they would be if they were working in a big office where everyone is in their place.

So, someone who has those sort of aptitudes, they would be the right people for us to attract.

 

ALLY

Yeah, it makes sense!

 

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ALLY

So, speaking about this change — from a contractor to a permanent member of your team — what are the signs of a great worker, so to speak? What shows, first of all, that this is your person, that you are ready to work with this person for a long period of time?

 

DMITRY

It’s really hard to know at the beginning — you’re hiring someone over the long distance, they’ve never done this, they’ve only done their work, worked for themselves; how do you know that they’re going to fit? So, we don’t know that, but a lot of times, our managers — at this point, it used to be mostly me, and now there’s mostly team leads and managers of particular departments who make those decisions; they’re definitely much better than I was when I was starting, and now they have more experience than I had when I was starting.

 

But we all have a sixth sense, and I think it’s not only skill-based or value-based hiring — you can’t really judge how well someone is going to own something when you’re first talking to them, how do you know that. How do you know that the person is going to be a good team member and communicator, how do you know they would be a good team player, can you really know if they’re going to be as flexible as you?

 

So, asking some questions is sometimes helpful, we try to get those, but an interview isn’t really enough. When we start working with someone, the first one or two weeks generally make it very clear: when you have something, when you need the person to do something extra, go an extra mile, do something for you — you can sometimes ask for that favor and see how they react. It’s not something they have to do…

 

ALLY

So, you like to test people. (laugh)

 

DMITRY

We don’t really test them, like, on purpose, but there are situations, right, when you need something from someone and it isn’t something they’d expect to be asked.

 

ALLY

In a natural way, like…

 

DMITRY

Yeah, sometimes we do that — and of course, the first couple of weeks is mostly training, but still, you can sometimes see how dedicated someone is. Enthusiasm is something we really look for because enthusiasm is not really… a value necessarily, it’s something that — someone has that at the beginning, and later they may not necessarily have it, but they have a skill at that point, and then they still may have enough motivation to keep going.

 

But enthusiasm at the beginning is a must-have: if a person doesn’t have enthusiasm and is not enthusiastic about the job, about joining the team, if you don’t see that, then that’s a very bad sign — we really need that when a person is starting out, regardless of how young or old a person is, regardless of how emotional they are. You should look for signs of enthusiasm, and if that’s not there, you should run away — you should really, you know… expel that sort of person. (laugh) They need… they need to have that, that’s a must-have.

 

Other things… really, how nice the person is to work with — at the beginning, of course, we try to put our best face on, and we do our best, but those types of things, they may come out later — maybe in a month or two, when we start seeing some signs that maybe that person isn’t really nice to work with, and other people start complaining about this person. They’re really not our type of person.

 

Some people fit very well in an office environment, in a traditional office where they come to work, nine-to-five, they come at nine, they leave at five, they have their coffee and lunch, and they talk to you, they’re sort of nice. They work perfectly in a big company. With us, not always, right? We still have kind of a start-uppish feel, we’re not a start-up anymore, but we have a lot of innovation happening — every… every day, really. Or every month, for sure, we do new things, we launch new projects, and we need someone who would enjoy that sort of environment. It’s a little bit chaotic, a little bit hectic, we’re a bit disorganized — and definitely more organized than before, but still, not 100%, like a big company would be.

 

So we need someone who’d enjoy that sort of environment, we need someone who would fit in this sort of environment, who would be part of that — gladly. And not be… you know, irritated by that — so, some people who’ve worked in the big companies, they come in here, and they’re like… where am I? What am I doing here? So, that’s not the right person for us; we enjoy having people with experience, but we prefer someone who would be open to an experience we’re able to give, and experience we… we will enjoy.

 

We also have a lot of cultural things that we do — we can talk about those if you’d like; we get together every year, and we go on a trip. We get about half of the team joining those trips, and every time it’s a new place, a new country, and the company pays for those trips, for people flying to some new place. So, again, that sort of thing — when you go, if you are a first-timer joining the team, and you go to that kind of trip, you don’t know anybody in person, you have to basically be ready to jump from a very tall building somewhere into deep water: you don’t know how deep it is, you don’t know exactly who you’re going to go with.

 

And this sort of aptitude for risk, aptitude for a little bit disorganized, chaotic environment, where you don’t know people necessarily, and you’re ready to go with them, socialize and learn together, I think we’re looking for those people who would be comfortable to go on those sorts of trips, comfortable to socialize and communicate with a bunch of strangers initially — and then those who would become friends eventually, and really, you continue your relationship over a long distance after meeting them in person. That’s part of the experience.

 

So I think that kind of comes to our culture, right and speaks to how a long-distance relationship really comes into a physical world where we have a connection as well — so we have those two dots connecting: from long-distance to physical.

 

ALLY

Yeah, sounds really great! And when you meet these people — some of them for the first time — I think your corporate trips, they kind of show the way the company works, in general? And we usually get a lot of pleasure: something new, from visiting some new places…

 

DMITRY

Some people do — some people… To your point, yes, so you’re saying — “yes” because you’re probably a person like that, you can speak for yourself, and…

 

ALLY

Yes, of course, it’s very subjective.

 

DMITRY

Because we attract people who are similarly aligned, so we say “we” because that’s who we are, and I’m glad that you share that — but some people aren’t like that, so that’s what I’m saying: that a fit is not always about skills, a fit is sometimes about what kind of person you are, are you really the type of person who would enjoy the things that we enjoy? Are you a friendly person who would enjoy a new experience, or would you be uncomfortable about that?

 

And if you feel uncomfortable, we really don’t want you to be uncomfortable — we don’t want you to be here if you’re not going to enjoy what you do, right? And we want those people who would not only enjoy the work but also enjoy the social part of this interaction. And that really comes to the culture, and we want those people to be happy with us, we want them to be themselves with us.

ALLY

But with the time, we can lose this fire, we can maybe get accustomed to what we do. How do you manage to keep people motivated and focused on work? Some people need some kind of motivation, and they need their asses to be kicked, right?

 

DMITRY

(laugh) Yes, definitely! Yeah, we’re great with ass-kicking, that’s what we do. But… (laugh) To be honest, more specifically, burn-out is an issue for any company — I believe it’s probably more of an issue in companies where people don’t connect well, where the communication chains are broken, and people don’t notice that this happens. When and if this happens with us — and we do have situations like this as well, from time to time — someone is close to a burn-out point, and at the beginning, when it’s just starting, we don’t know what it looks like, and the first signs of it…

 

ALLY

And maybe everybody experiences it in a different way, right?

 

DMITRY

Yeah, definitely, but you can see how that person is changing, like someone who was really excited to do this work, and they’ve really done so well, and all of a sudden, you don’t see that. Sometimes people have temporary… You know, life is full of stripes: we don’t know what our next period would be like — if it’s a short period, it’s not a big deal, but sometimes a person just permanently becomes a different person. And they just don’t enjoy it anymore, they’re just not the same — they’re really not part of the team to the level we’d expect them to.

 

And in our team, it’s very noticeable — because the customers are the best judge. When someone works in customer service, sales, or customer order processing, these people are on the front lines of customer interaction — and a customer would generally notice something, and they would complain to someone about something, and to the team. And sometimes those people would do less work, or would leave earlier, or ask someone else to do their work for them — and eventually, it just becomes… a thousand people have to do the work for them, instead of them.

 

And sometimes this is really when the person needs a different job, right? And that’s one of the solutions — you have to… In our case, we sometimes find those opportunities: when someone who is no longer able to successfully do the job they’ve been hired to do, we would transit that person out of that job, and try to find them something else. Luckily, we now have a lot of opportunities within the team where we need good people; if they fit in our culture, finding them a different job may be possible. Sometimes.

 

In general, we’ve been lucky, I must say — we’ve been lucky to have a very low turnover: a lot of people who come to us, they stay with us for a long time. We have a number of people who’ve stayed with us for ten to twelve years now, and I’m very excited to have those types of numbers, and a big part of the team [has been with us] for three to five years. So that’s a good number, and we do have quite a few of those who joined — fresh meat, so to speak.

 

ALLY

Toddlers!

 

DMITRY

Yeah, toddlers. We call them Christmas virgins — that’s a term that some may understand, but… We basically have the Christmas season, right — that’s the most difficult, and the most exciting at the same time, the period when most people want to send their gifts, and we work ten times harder than normal. And get about fifteen to twenty times more orders than in a normal month, so that really makes it difficult for a lot of newcomers. So those who have never been through Christmas, they’re called Christmas virgins, and they need to get through that difficult period where they get the experience of Christmas, so that’s when they become a true part of the team.

ALLY

Yes, that really makes sense. And towards the end, what advice would you give to entrepreneurs and managers about building business relationships over a long distance? And maybe not only long distance, but basically, how to do it in the best way possible?

 

DMITRY

I think being honest is a big thing. Being very honest and open — over long distances, well, people may find a lot of shady experiences, where you go and you meet someone online and the person turns out to be a scammer, or you go and you date someone, and the person turns out to be not the right person for you, or you try to find a job online and you find it, and you start working for someone and they don’t pay you, right? Or things like that. There are so many hidden stones in the long-distance world, that, in general, a lot of people put a stigma on getting involved with someone over a long distance.

 

I believe in honesty and openness from the very beginning, so when we interview people, we tell them, right at the interview, that it will not be an easy job. It’s not — and a lot of people, they say: oh, I’ve done this and that, I’ve been around, I’ve tried these jobs, and I’m cool, I can do it; but oftentimes, people underestimate the difficulty, underestimate the commitment that we require. Because what we have is not just another freelance gig, it’s a commitment to be part of the team, and to share successes and failures of the team, and to be a part of it all the way.

 

And I believe it’s very different from freelancing, it’s a person having to basically transition out of thinking like a freelancer into thinking as being part of the team and being part of what we do, sharing our values, sharing our goals, our mission of being the company that is number one in gifting worldwide. And this is what we do, this is what… We have an audacious goal of five million interactions of gift senders and recipients, and this audacious goal is to happen within the next couple of years, and this is really the big step forward.

 

And I believe, in order to be part of that big idea, part of the big mission, people need to believe in what we do. And to believe, they need to trust us, and trust is a big thing that I believe in. We didn’t talk much about this in this interview, but trust is really what makes it all work. And we’re trusting a person joining us to work with us and be honest with us, and we want to be honest with that person: we tell them upfront about all they can expect, we tell them upfront what is going to happen. And we try to be very honest from the moment we have an interview and all the way through the relationship. And that builds true trust.

 

Now, obviously, over time that’s how we build a reputation as one of the best places to work online, and this is where we are today: after having trusted so many people enough — to getting trust from so many people. So I think this mutual trust is what makes it all work.

 

ALLY

Yeah, it should be mutual, one hundred percent.

 

Thank you so much, Dmitry, for such a warmhearted interview! It was a big pleasure for me, and I think this will be a really informative and interesting piece of information for our listeners. So, once again, thanks a ton, it’s a pleasure to have a guest like you!

 

DMITRY

Thank you so much for having me, Ally, and good luck with the podcast — you have a great thing going with Long Distance Short, and if any listeners would like that, I’m happy to share a coupon code just with your listeners, so that they can take advantage of our gifting service. And perhaps, in the spirit of the recent discussion, let’s call the coupon TRUST25. And this will be for $25 off any gift they can buy on GiftBasketsOverseas.com within the next month. So, next 30 days, any listener can save $25 with the coupon TRUST25. And thanks again for having me!

 

ALLY

Yeah, thanks so much for giving this opportunity to our listeners!

 

This has been the fifth episode of Long Distance Short; if you want to listen to more of them, just check out our blog posts, and there you can find not only the episodes, but also the transcripts, and you can reach out to us. Thank you so much, and we’ll see you in a month’s time!

 

Thanks for listening to “Long Distance Short” — GiftBasketsOverseas.com’s podcast with real people in real long-distance relationships. Make sure to subscribe, and keep tuning in for a new episode every month. If you have any questions or ideas for a future podcast, make sure to drop us a line at [email protected] — that’s [email protected].