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From left, Niraj Shah ’95 and Steve Conine ’95 speak with Lance Collins, the Joseph Silbert Dean of Engineering, April 19 during Entrepreneurship at Cornell Celebration.

Wayfair founders share story of company’s rise

Cornell drew Niraj Shah ’95 and Steve Conine ’95 together even before they enrolled here as students.

The founders of Wayfair, honored April 19 as the 2018 Cornell Entrepreneurs of the Year, met at Cornell during a special six-week summer program for high school students. A year later, they serendipitously ended up just a few doors away from each other in their freshman dorm.

The pair told their story during a question-and-answer session with Lance Collins, Cornell’s Joseph Silbert Dean of Engineering, at the Entrepreneurship at Cornell Celebration two-day conference.

As freshmen, the pair became fast friends, discovering common interests, a similar dedication to work, and the ability to be honest with each other, even when that meant being critical.

Now, they’ve been partners for the past 23 years, creating a host of businesses and 250 niche websites in total before Wayfair, and planning for the continued growth of their business.

“When you think about it, you spend more time with the people you work with than you do with your spouse,” Conine said. “You need to be sure that you believe in and trust those people.”

After forming their first company, Conine and Shah discovered they had complementary skills in technology and sales. Shah thought he would be the tech guy, with Conine as the sales and marketing person, but they soon found that the opposite was true.

During their Q&A, it was evident that they have an easy rapport with each other.

At one point, as Conine explained that he had emerged as the visionary for tech in the company while Shah handled other duties, Shah piped up to add, “I like to think I’m good at both the software and the sales.”

As students, Shah and Conine both took Professor David BenDaniel’s popular entrepreneurship class, which they said changed the course of their lives.

“I was headed to graduate school or law school, and Steve was on a trajectory to join his family’s business,” Shah said, but after writing a business plan in that class, “we fell into starting our first business instead.”

That business, racksandstands.com, which sold stereo stands, helped them hone their ability to analyze internet search patterns and discover what consumers were looking to buy online. In response, they launched a host of other websites for people searching for specific items, such as grandfather clocks and barstools. Eventually, the number of website they hosted grew to 250.

So, in 2002, Shah and Conine combined those websites into one and co-founded Wayfair, rapidly growing the business to become the largest online retailer of home furnishings, housewares and home improvement goods in the U.S. Wayfair has extensive operations in the U.S. and Europe and employs more than 6,800 people.

Both Shah and Conine said their exposure to a diverse group of people and a varied set of classes at Cornell set the foundation for their growth as entrepreneurs, helping them become more innovative and open to new ideas.

“It gave me the confidence to say, ‘I could try that,’ because I know a person who already does that,” Conine said.

The pair also shared some of the keys to their success as entrepreneurs.

“Hire smart people and be rigorous about creating a culture where you can give good feedback,” Conine said.

“Only pursue ideas that you are really passionate and excited about,” Shah said. “Because even when something succeeds, it’s not a nice straight line, so the way you get through the really tough patches is when you believe in something. That’s what keeps you going.”

Kathy Hovis is a writer for Entrepreneurship at Cornell.

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