Did you ever wonder who in their right mind would go on a reality television show — especially what founder and CEO would agree to put his company at the center of the show?
Michael Rubin, one of the true characters of the e-commerce world, has wondered — and he’s a guy who actually did it.
“The person who was in charge of PR for GSI came in and said, ‘We’d like to talk to you about doing a reality show,’” Rubin, the founder of GSI Commerce, said from the main stage at the Shop.org Summit 2014 in Seattle. “I looked up and said, ‘Get out of my office. I have negative interest.’”
The show was “Undercover Boss,” a CBS offering that has company leaders take on fake identities to go work in the trenches with their employees. It’s mild by reality show standards (do they have standards?) — no nudity, no eating disgusting plants and animals, no one proposes to anyone after having met just days before. The episodes tend to ultimately focus on one of those workers in the trenches facing some personal hardship and the bond that grows between the boss and the grunt.
But what’s the upside? Where’s the message control? Think of all that could go wrong.
Rubin says he went home that night in 2009, where he received an email from CBS. The network folks wanted him to take a look at the trailer for an upcoming show. He was impressed.
“I had tears coming out of my eyes,” he told the crowd and Sucharita Mulpuru, the Forrester analyst who was interviewing him on stage. “I was pretty emotional. I looked at it and said, ‘You know what? This could be really neat for me. I really hadn’t done many of the jobs in our company.”
And there were plenty of jobs to do at GSI, which provided the infrastructure for e-commerce, including marketing, customer care, billing and running the warehouse operations on the fulfillment end of things. Rubin, who is now CEO of Kynetic, an umbrella over Fanatics, Rue La La and ShopRunner, launched GSI in 1998. GSI sold to eBay for $2.4 billion in 2011.
So, how did Rubin convince his board of directors that the reality show approach was the right way to go, Mulpuru wanted to know.
“We actually didn’t ask our board,” he says. “We thought it would be a great experience to do it and I would learn a ton.”
Mostly what he learned is that working in fulfillment center, lifting boxes, packing trailers, finding orders, is hard. A lot harder than he thought.
“I’m a young guy,” he says he told the show’s producers. “I’ll be pretty good at these jobs. If you need me to play along a little bit for TV, let me know.”
It turns out there was no need for embellishment.
“The first day I went down there, they had planned, how are we going to kill Michael Rubin,” he says. Rubin figured if he had a heart attack, that would be good for ratings. If he stressed out and killed somebody? Good for ratings.
The show never came to that, though it didn’t go off without a hitch. The peak of the drama came during one long day when the exhausted undercover boss was helping a coworker load an enormous trailer with hundreds of boxes. At one point, Rubin lifted a box toward the top of the stack and smacked the co-worker square in the head.
“GSI is done,” he remembers thinking. “We’re going bankrupt and the litigation is starting right now.”
Well, it didn’t come to that and Rubin did learn a lesson.
“They asked me to do it again,” he says of the CBS producers, “and I said no.”
Photos courtesy of the National Retail Federation
Mike Cassidy is BloomReach’s Storyteller. Contact him at email@example.com; follow him on Twitter at @mikecassidy