Startup Brands I Love (and the Founders Behind Them)


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Given my time at Gumroad during business school and at Wanelo after graduating, I see and evaluate a disproportionate number of commerce-oriented investment opportunities — social commerce, marketplaces, direct-to-consumer brands, subscription commerce, new types of retail models, etc. About 25% of the investments I’ve sourced and led for Deep Fork fall into this category. Consequently, I spend a considerable amount of time thinking about branding. Branding, of course, is not limited to retail and brands themselves. For instance, I am a huge fan of the brand identities that Airbnb, Lyft, and theSkimm have cultivated. However, for the purposes of this post, I’ll focus on “traditional” commerce. What follows is an assortment of startups (Dia & Co, Pinrose, ShopJeen, Stowaway, and Walker & Co.) that I admire along with brief notes on why I believe they are building a brand in a thoughtful way by telling a compelling story and having a point of view.

It goes without saying that the founder is vital to the success of any startup, but when it comes to building a brand, I believe the founder is that much more important. A founder who authentically embodies the personality of the company, and deeply and personally understands the customers she is serving is essential. She simultaneously needs to be the soul and face of the company. Without this influence from the top down and strong founder-product fit, it is unlikely that the brand will develop a distinct identity, perspective, and point of view. The following brands are all led by founders who more than fulfill the aforementioned requirements.

DIA & CO. is tackling one of the most underserved markets in retail: plus-sized women’s fashion. Nadia Boujarwah and Lydia Gilbert are building a phenomenal company by creating an aspirational brand that caters to their target market in a way that no other retailer or brand ever has. Personalized service makes customers feel special — it’s a luxury that few can afford with the added benefit of discovering new designers and receiving a box of items hand-chosen for them. The pride that Dia’s customers have shines through on social media channels, as the brand has helped nurture its community of members to share their favorite looks, thereby fostering positive word-of-mouth and growth. For instance, there are over 1,000 posts on Instagram with Dia’s hashtag, and tons of unboxing videos on YouTube, as women show off the curated items they receive each month. This abundance of organically shared, user generated content underpins one of the brand’s objectives, which is to empower women to feel and look their best, and it’s clearly succeeding.

PINROSE is competing in the crowded perfume and fragrance market among a number of entrenched incumbents, but it’s doing so in a unique and effective way thanks to creative insights from Christine Luby and Erika Shumate (who spent two years doing research within olfactory studies). Quite simply, Pinrose is building a brand that simultaneously straddles approachability and aspiration. The company is able to walk this tightrope with clever on-boarding and strategic distribution channels, among other things. Pinrose’s on-boarding is a fun and quirky quiz on the site, which is applicable to a wide variety of customers. Additionally, a very straightforward naming convention for the scents (rather than flowery, obscure, or foreign names associated with many competitors’ products) immediately grounds the brand and allows it to resonate with a broad spectrum of customers. The company’s distribution channels also contribute greatly to the brand perception and story. Selling through QVC, Nordstrom, Sephora, and on the company’s own site allow the brand to strike the difficult balance of appealing to a wide swath of customers while also feeling fairly upmarket. Selling direct and on QVC allows Pinrose to tell its own story. Bright, interactive displays at Nordstrom also give the company this ability — something that is fairly uncommon when going through retail channels.

SHOPJEEN unquestionably has one of the most uniquely authentic voices and distinct brand identity of any retailer. While most retailers struggle to tell a compelling story because they carry a portfolio of SKUs, ShopJeen has managed to buck this trend. ShopJeen has amassed a legion of fans by speaking to, selling to, and engaging with its audience on virtually every social media channel—Instagram, Wanelo, Twitter, Facebook, Depop, Tumblr, Soundcloud, and Snapchat. The Geocities-esque website, which was built for $1,500, is as quirky and eccentric as the products that ShopJeen sells, whether they’re items the company has expertly sourced or they’re from its private label brand, Netgear 90, named unironically after the company’s office router. The brand’s voice, personality, and point of view is inextricably linked to and borne out of the company’s CEO, Erin Yogasundram, and Creative Director, Amelia Muqbel. As the face of ShopJeen, Erin has built a brand that is virtually synonymous with the company. Whether it’s unfiltered sharing on Twitter, speaking earnestly and passionately on Snapchat, or organizing a meetup at a Chick Fil A, she has made herself nearly as accesible to fans of the company as ShopJeen’s products themselves. She has a borderline cult-like following within the ShopJeen community, and that helps carry the brand that much further.

STOWAWAY is building a direct-to-consumer cosmetics brand. Besides having one of the most cleverly appropriate names I’ve come across, the company’s decision to manufacture and sell smaller-sized products serves as an anchoring point for its brand story. Their products stand out in a crowded beauty market and feed into the brand identity and value proposition: they are highly portable for busy women on the go, perfectly sized for a subscription service, made from materials that comply with the highest possible standards (i.e. EU compliant), and are easy to use up before their expiration date. These thoughtful, minimalist, and functional product attributes also shine through in Stowaway’s strong content marketing strategy with an on-brand blog and quick-to-consume tutorials and tips. Lastly, the founding duo of Julie Fredrickson and Chelsa Crowley has an ideal mix of brand marketing, fashion, and beauty brand experience.

WALKER & CO., of which I’m an unabashed fan, is a veritable extension of Tristan Walker himself, as he is not only the namesake of the company but also the face of the brand in much the same way that Erin is at ShopJeen. His consistent engagement on Twitter, evangelism of the company’s products, ad hoc customer service, and guerrila-style customer acquisition is second to none and has been a hallmark of his success since his days of hustling into his role at Foursquare. As if it’s not enough that Tristan embodies his company’s brand just about as well as any founder does, the company is also putting out some of the highest quality content of any startup, regardless of whether that’s their core competency. Bevel Code (and the associated work with influencers in the form of interviews) is a content destination that can stand on its own. Lastly, the product itself significantly contributes to the brand identity. The Bevel razor and trimmer and polished packaging (and subsequent unboxing experience) greatly augment the brand and make it feel aspirational. And similarly to Dia, these underserved customers get to have a borderline magical and unique purchase experience that they likely haven’t had before.