The unstoppable entrepreneur, Tina Sharkey, lets Unfiltered co-founder and CEO Jake Millar in on her latest venture, Brandless, a business built on kindness.
In 1995, American entrepreneur Tina Sharkey co-founded media company iVillage; a little more than a decade later, she sold it for US$600 million. She’s served as chairman of online parenting resource BabyCenter, the most-visited site of its kind, and last year co-founded e-commerce company Brandless, which sells environmentally and health-conscious food, household and beauty products direct to consumers for just US$3 a pop. Jake Millar met Tina at Brandless HQ in San Francisco.
Jake: How did Brandless come about?
Tina: Of the top 100 US CPG [consumer packaged goods] brands, 90 were in decline. People don’t want to buy the products their parents use, they’re rejecting government, they’re rejecting everything. I thought, ‘What are they moving towards?’ At the same time,
my co-founder, Ido Leffler, was saying to me, “I can’t sleep at night. People don’t really know what things cost versus what they pay for them.”
We thought, ‘Let’s build a community that’s brand-tax-free, so we’re not paying ridiculous amounts, and let’s build a community where everyone deserves better, based on kindness. Let’s reinvent what it means to be a brand.’ The idea of Brandless was to live more, brand less, be in touch with the people you serve, be totally transparent, and walk that walk along with the people in your community.
Jake: There’s a lot of talk out there about the power of brand loyalty…
Tina: We’re seeing a massive transformation in what people expect from the companies they do business with. They want prices to be fair, and they want companies to be transparent with the products they’re making and also socially, in terms of how they
treat their employees and how they’re giving back.
It wasn’t making sense. Products got built up by mad men on Madison Avenue, advertising with false narratives and putting commercials on television with actors telling you things that weren’t true. But those days are over. A brand isn’t what an actor or Madison Avenue tells you – it’s what a friend tells a friend. So you have to act like friend, and you have to be real.
It was time to build a brand in the spirit of friendship. We looked to all the signals around us: 77% of millennials were saying they don’t want to use the products their parents use. And then we looked at the prices in the ‘better for you’ and organic space going up, and up, and up, while the distance between those who wanted them and those who could afford them just got bigger. We knew we wanted to close the gap, and we knew others would want to, too.
Brandless launched [last] July, and 60 hours later, Ido and I were in New
York doing some press when we got texted a number: 48. And we were like, “We shipped 48 boxes?!” We were so excited, but they were like, “Oh my gosh, way more than that, to 48 states!” We shipped to every state in the continental US within the first 60 hours – and it hasn’t stopped. So what’s interesting is that there’s a thirst not just for the products, but also for the promise and positivity of what we’re trying to do.
Jake: How did you use data to decide which products to launch?
Tina: There’s so much data behind all this. First of all, you look at household-penetration rates: how many people eat mustard or chocolate cream cookies? Then you ask: if X% of households eat mustard, how often do they buy it? And then we figure out what’s called
the category complete: can we actually launch an ‘everyday essentials’ line across all these departments and be complete? We thought, ‘It won’t be exhaustive, but it’ll be what matters.’ We took an ocean of data and analytics, and boiled it down to what matters by department for non-perishables. We looked at what people buy every week, or seasonally, or twice a year, and developed the [tools] to do that.
The most important thing is that at Brandless, outside of all the data science, and all the insights, and all the numbers, we have extraordinary people. Our merchant and product-development teams scour the globe. Between them they have decades and decades of experience creating and selling extraordinary things.
Jake: In the first 100 days of a business journey, what would you say are some of the fundamental things an entrepreneur should be obsessing about?
Tina: It really depends, but I’d say that the most important thing is people. Whether it’s your partners, your staff, your team or your investors, work with incredible people. When times are fantastic, they’ll be fun to hang out with, and when times are tough, you’ll want to be with good people first and foremost.
Second of all is cash management. Cash is king, so manage your cash, understand what you’re investing in, be as frugal as you can, and invest in the places that are really going to matter.
Jake: How important do you think PR companies are for early-stage businesses, including those with limited resources?
Tina: If you’re supported by a PR firm, great, but I think even if you have the best one in the world, you still need to do the work. You need to be buttoned up, you need to know your stuff, you need to be reading the articles and you need to be pushing, because they don’t live in your business every day. They can help you scale it, facilitate it, set it up, follow up, but you can’t outsource [it all] to somebody else – it has to be [you].
Jake: Giant companies like Google, Amazon and Facebook offer so many perks – how can smaller companies compete when it comes to culture?
Tina: One of the things that makes me so proud is that when I ask people in an interview why they want to work at Brandless, they say, “I want to work somewhere I can be proud of; somewhere I can have meaning; somewhere I can have an impact, where I know my contribution will affect not just the people in this zip code and area, but everywhere.” We’re attracting [people] who believe that by joining our movement, they can be successful
and, more importantly, significant.
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