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The Modern Retail Podcast
30 minutes | Jun 24, 2021
‘The Shark Tank effect is real’: Copper Cow Coffee’s Debbie Wei Mullin on growing a modern CPG brand
It’s been a crazy year for brands in the CPG space.That’s what Debbie Wei Mullin, founder and CEO of Copper Cow Coffee, said on this week’s episode of the Modern Retail Podcast. The home-brewed Vietnamese coffee company has been around since 2017 and has been growing over the years. But the pandemic changed some strategies, as well as many of its revenue channels.When Copper Cow first started out, it relied heavily on wholesale. It inked deals with both grocers the department stores as a way to get its name out. In those early days, it only had one SKU of pour-over coffee -- and 90% of Copper Cow’s revenue came from wholesale accounts, including Williams Sonoma and other high-end stores. Over the years, as Copper Cow built out its digital marketing and grew its product line, the revenue mix has changed. Today, only 20% of Copper Cow’s revenue comes from wholesale.The pandemic accelerated that revenue shift -- before the coronavirus first hit, department stores made up 50% of Copper Cow’s wholesale revenue. But when stay-at-home quarantines first began, that channel completely dried up.“We had purchase orders that were sitting on the dock,” Mullin said. Going forward, she said, “I don’t see [department stores] being a core part of the business.”But even with department stores closed, Mullin said wholesale revenue still spiked. “Our wholesale sales grew immensely, even even with the department stores falling off -- just because the grocery opportunity suddenly became much larger,” she said.Direct-to-consumer sales have also been growing -- the brand appeared on the show Shark Tank recently, which gave it a boost.For now, said Mullin, the focus is on growing -- both sales and Copper Cow’s SKUs. The e-commerce business, she said, was “the number one place for us to be able to really form community -- and to be able to experiment with our products.” With that, she went on, “we’re excited to be launching some new products, to be able to try out a lot of new exciting flavors.”
28 minutes | Jun 17, 2021
Harry’s Labs’ Tehmina Haider on how the CPG giant is building out a portfolio of brands
Last year, when razor startup Harry’s backed a cat food company, it was -- in part -- due to the work of Tehmina Haider.Haider is the head of Harry’s Lab, which both launches new CPG brands as well as invests in and acquires existing ones. Haider described the operation as being a “diversification engine.” She joined the Modern Retail Podcast and explained how she’s built out the program over the last three years.Haider’s background is in consumer investing, hailing from L Catterton where she helped fund brands in the beauty and personal care space. She joined Harry’s in 2018, around a year after Harry’s Lab first started. Her mandate was to take her past investing experience and put that toward the task of building out an expansive Harry’s umbrella.The idea, she said, is that “we, at Harry’s, can really help brands that are focused on the same things that we are: Disrupting categories and serving consumers better, scale and successfully grow.”So far, Harry’s Labs’ work has materialized in a variety of ways. The first company Harry’s Labs launched was Flamingo, a women’s body care brand. But the company also invested in Cat Person, a DTC cat food company. Harry’s Labs began as a way for the company to launch its own brands, but has evolved into a growing M&A engine.This work, of course, is easier said than done. Much of Haider’s day to day is finding the next big brand to either build or acquire. This, she said, is where her work differs from her investing past. While investors are focused primarily on the economics (something Harry’s, of course, is also focused on too), her team is also looking for companies that have long-term ambitions. She’s not trying invest in a company and make a quick profit.“We’re buying to own,” she said.
35 minutes | Jun 10, 2021
32 minutes | Jun 3, 2021
How Farmer’s Fridge pivoted to home delivery during the pandemic
Sometimes, businesses start out as direct-to-consumer. Other times, they’re forced into it.That’s essentially what happened with Farmer’s Fridge, a company best known for its salad vending machines. Since 2013, the company has been growing its vending machine presence -- first in the Midwest, and then beyond. Its core customers were workers looking for quick and healthy lunches on the go. But the pandemic changed all of that.Over the last year, Farmer’s Fridge focused less on its vending machines as fewer people commuted to the office, and more on building out its own home delivery program. According to founder and CEO Luke Saunders, this pivot worked. Farmer’s Fridge now has three primary channels: vending machines, business-to-business and home delivery. This year is [about] getting back to growth,” said Saunders on the Modern Retail Podcast. “We’re doing [that] across all three channels.”For most of its life, Farmer’s Fridge didn’t need to spend much money on advertising. The vending machines were billboards unto themselves and sales grew pretty organically. But over the last year, the company has invested in some performance marketing. “That’s probably one of the biggest transformations for the businesses,” said Saunders. “Now we do a considerable amount of performance marketing for that delivery channel.”Things are now beginning to open back up and Farmer’s Fridge is going from defense mode to offense. While it grew its delivery network, it is now also ready to focus on its B-to-B and vending machine business.“It’s now an omnichannel business,” said Saunders. “The idea is we’re gonna bring the food to wherever the customers are.”
32 minutes | May 27, 2021
‘We’re a growth brand’: Tillamook’s CEO on the dairy company’s eastward expansion
It’s tough transforming a local brand into a national name. But that’s what Oregon-based dairy company Tillamook is trying to do.Over the last few years, the company began an eastward expansion -- going beyond the Pacific Northwest as far as the East Coast. And, according to CEO Patrick Criteser, it seems to be working. In 2017, he said on the Modern Retail Podcast, 95% of Tillamook’s sales were made west of the Rocky Mountains. Today, “we’re about 10% to 15% east of the Rockies.” The dairy company added 4.6 million new households to its customer base this past year, most of which, Criteser said, were on the East Coast. Even during the pandemic, Tillamook was still able to grow.Tillamook launched in 1909 as a local dairy cooperative, and recently became a certified B corporation as well. Despite the company’s storied history, it’s never seen a year quite like 2020.According to Criteser, there were many demand spikes -- as well as supply chain hiccups. “There were certainly a lot of challenges in the last year,” he said, “but a lot of opportunity for us to play an important role in making sure the food supply stayed there and reliable for folks as they went to the grocery store.”One big change he noticed was the rise of home cooks testing out new ingredients. “We definitely saw people cooking more at home, certainly eating more at home [and] experimenting with ingredients.” These constant fluctuations meant Tillamook had to re-strategize throughout the year to handle the ebbs and flows. Ultimately, Criteser said, “it played out pretty well for us as a business.”With all that in the rearview mirror, the focus is now to continue expansion. “We’re a growth brand,” said Criteser, “and we’re continuing to gain new distribution and make sure that we can sell through that distribution and keep it.”
30 minutes | May 20, 2021
‘We very much see retailers as acquisition channels’: Caraway CEO Jordan Nathan on the cookware brand’s growth strategy
It’s been a good year to be a homewares brand.Indeed, cookware startup Caraway was a hot commodity during the pandemic. According to its founder and CEO Jordan Nathan, the company’s popularity created some headaches. Many items were out of stock more often than not in 2020, and supply chain issues continue to persist. But, “we were very fortunate to be on the right side of the equation,” Nathan said on the Modern Retail Podcast.According to Nathan, part of what made Caraway especially successful was its specific niche in the cookware space. Right now, there seem to be endless online brands hawking aesthetically pleasing pans. But, as Nathan described it, most cater to home chefs looking for professional-grade tools. Caraway instead focuses on people looking for good, sturdy equipment -- but not necessarily the restaurant stuff. “We really felt like there was this just massive gap,” he said.As a result, sales have been booming. Now, Caraway is trying to grow even faster. One way it’s been going about that is through retail partnerships. The brand has forged partnerships with a number of retailers and marketplaces, including Crate and Barrel, West Elm and Food52.In Nathan’s eyes, DTC is a great channel to start out -- but it’s imperative to find more eyeballs. When it comes to being available on other retailer’s shelves and websites, he said, “we very much see them as acquisition channels.” What’s more, he said, is that retail collaborations “give us the ability to offer different assortments than what’s on our website.”In a sense, it’s about catching customers’ eyes and then reeling them into the other sales channels.
31 minutes | May 13, 2021
‘We can be a lot faster’: Levi’s Marc Rosen on how the denim brand’s business has evolved
Marc Rosen has worn many hats -- or, perhaps, pants -- at Levi’s.Today, he’s the president of the apparel brand’s Americas business. But he’s been at the company for seven years -- first joining to grow Levi’s e-commerce business. As such, he’s seen a lot of changes, both within the company and in retail as a whole. On the Modern Retail Podcast, Rosen spoke about what he’s been observing, as well as how his role at Levi’s has changed both over the years and during the pandemic.Thinking back to the retail landscape almost a decade ago, Rosen said, “I think almost everything has changed.”But, of course, many of the most drastic changes happened in the last year. And that also coincided with a new position for Rosen. Instead of just leading the online business, Rosen began overseeing all of Levi’s Americas business -- including wholesale -- in January of 2020. As such, the pandemic was certainly a crash course in navigating a new facet of the brand’s business.“The wholesale world, to some extent, for me was new,” he said. “It was really a learning experience about building that relationship.”Much of that learning experience was focused on figuring out where and how people were shopping. For example, while Levi’s is available in many brick and mortar stores, it also has wholesale relationships with online retailers. “Consumers moved so quickly into digital,” Rosen said, and the first part of the pandemic was working both inside Levi’s and with partners to try and navigate that shift.This also brought about a big change in how Levi’s as a company rolled out new products. For large companies, it’s hard to adopt a startup-like ethos of test and learn. But during a global pandemic, that’s all retailers were able to do. They had to adapt in an instant, launch and figure things out from there. The big lesson Rosen learned, he said, is “we can be a lot faster.” Instead of very slowly building something internally, more programs can see the light of day faster and be iterated upon.The pandemic, he said, brought about these lessons. Normally, he explained, “we probably would have built [out a new feature or program], and waited until it was perfect to roll it out. But in a pandemic, you don’t have that luxury.”
33 minutes | May 6, 2021
‘We’re not trying to be a retailer’: Google’s commerce president Bill Ready on growing the shopping ecosystem
Google wants to make it crystal clear that it’s not a marketplace.True, people can buy things on Google, but it also lets sellers link out to other marketplaces. On the Modern Retail Podcast, Bill Ready, the company’s president of commerce and payments, discussed this important nuance. “We’re not a retailer, we’re not a marketplace,” he said. In his estimation, Google is about helping shoppers discover products (and sometimes letting them transact with in the platform). While the site looks and feels like a marketplace, he insisted that Google’s utility provides something markedly different.Google’s shopping capabilities have had quite the evolution. Its offerings have had fits and starts, to say the least. Currently, any merchant can upload products to be listed on Google’s shopping website. They can use Google’s commerce options -- called ‘Buy on Google’ -- or they can link out.Last year, the company made the decision to make its listings completely free. Before, merchants had to purchase an ad in order to surface on the platform. All these moves, according to Ready, are because of Google’s belief in the open web. But making product listings free also meant more merchants tried out the platform; the company saw 80% more listings in 2020 compared to the year before.The focus now, according to Ready, is to continue making services and products for merchants and get more brands comfortable with selling on Google. This includes testing out shoppable ad units on YouTube.Of course, continuing to grow the ad business is also important. And who remains a big advertiser on Google? Amazon. “We partner with retailers of every size, including the largest and you know, Amazon is a partner that we work with quite closely as well,” said Ready. “It can oftentimes be a good storyline to say ‘hey, is this a competitive thing?’ [but] it really is a return to first principles for Google.”
24 minutes | Apr 29, 2021
‘Disproportionately benefited’: Ocean Spray CEO Tom Hayes on going viral and expanding into new categories
It’s been a crazy year for Ocean Spray.The 91-year-old cranberry product company not only saw an increase in sales over the last year, but went viral on TikTok. It saw increased demand in 2020, according to CEO Tom Hayes. “Ocean Spray as a category leader has probably disproportionately benefited [from the pandemic],” Hayes said on the Modern Retail Podcast.This episode was recorded live at last week’s Modern Retail Summit. There, Hayes gave a fireside chat -- talking about the company’s product development strategy and how it tried to ride the TikTok wave. Last year, a TikTok user named Nathan Apodaca videotaped himself on a skateboard listening to Fleetwood Mac while drinking Ocean Spray cranberry juice. It went viral, and the company’s products flew off the shelves.The Ocean Spray team was forced to react. Before going viral, Hayes said the company’s social media strategy was more traditional. “If I were to put a picture on it, it might be that Norman Rockwell Thanksgiving,” he said. Now the company is “trying to move the brand to be a little more edgy, and to be a little more attractive to the younger consumer.”TikTok aside, Ocean Spray has other big plans. It recently unveiled new products -- including a dried fruit snack and a caffeinated sparkling drink -- and is trying to establish itself as a category leader outside of just cranberry juice.
29 minutes | Apr 22, 2021
‘A rich tapestry of interests, affinities and geographies’: Crocs president Michelle Poole on the shoe brand’s influencer strategy
It’s been a big year for Crocs.The popular shoe brand, known for its ubiquitous plastic slip-ons, saw revenue grow 12.6% year-over-year, hitting $1.39 billion. E-commerce was a big driver of its business, growing 92%. About half of the company’s revenue comes from digital channels. According to the company’s president Michelle Poole, this success was thanks to the brand keeping its ear to the ground and remaining scrappy.“I’m most focused on how the brand comes to life across the globe, in all channels,” she said on the Modern Retail Podcast. Poole spoke about how the company dealt with all the changes brought on over the past year, as well as how it approaches large branding campaigns and influencers.Part of Crocs’ growth was thanks to its varied marketing campaigns. The company has unveiled a number of collaborations with companies like KFC and celebrities like Justin Bieber. These campaigns are a way to keep the shoe brand relevant. A few years ago, Crocs was less choosy when it came to celebrity partnerships. “At the beginning, we were just frankly, we were grateful to have someone to partner with,” said Poole. “And we’ve now really got the opportunity to be more strategic.”A Bieber-branded Croc isn’t Poole’s only focus. Currently, she’s thinking about international expansion. “We actually have three key markets that we’re really focused: China, Japan and Korea,” she said. “I would say that the playbook we are really focused on in Asia... is [to] really establish icon status.” This is how the company has approached growth in all its regions, she said. Poole added that “where it does need to be tailored is in our marketing strategy.” That is, the campaigns -- and influencers -- Crocs work with in Asia are slightly different than those in North America.Despite the recent growth, things haven’t been a walk in the park. For the last year, Poole said, Crocs was in defense mode. But now, she went on, “I think as we move out of Covid, [we] move back into I would say is offense mode.”
36 minutes | Apr 15, 2021
Taika CEO Michael Sharon on growing a coffee brand during the pandemic
If you text the phone number on a can of the coffee drink Taika, chances are that a human will respond. This is by design.The company, which boasts a caffeinated canned drink that contains so-called adaptogens, launched in 2020 -- right when the pandemic hit. And it’s used a text-based branding strategy to help it connect with customers.Co-founder and CEO Michael Sharon joined the Modern Retail Podcast this week and spoke about how the company has been able to grow over the last year.Sharon’s background is in tech, hailing from companies like Facebook. His co-founder Kal Freese was a barista champion. Together, they are trying to build a coffee beverage that wasn’t tailored for snobs. “Most of the ways coffee is marketed, is focused on the origin -- like, where does this thing come from? Is it from Honduras? Is it from Guatemala?” said Sharon. “These are just marketing labels and definitions,” he said, adding that most people can’t tell the difference between coffees based on their country of origin.The thesis behind Taika, he explained, is “to focus on a destination.” That is, “how does the coffee make you feel, how’s it gonna make you feel after you drink it after you consume it?”The company also aims to have approachable marketing. That includes having a phone number prominently displayed on the can that people can text at anytime with product questions. While some companies, like Iris Nova, use text as a means for ordering. Sharon said that the SMS strategy was more about fostering a connection with Taika’s customers. Texting, he explained, “is a brand experience touchpoint for us more than anything.”In 2019, Taika began beta testing its selection. Then, the company focused predominately on selling to local businesses like co-working spaces and using those customers to get direct feedback. But when the pandemic hit, the coffee brand had to pivot. It launched both its DTC business, as well as started selling in retail stores around the country.After a rough month or so when the coronavirus first hit, Taika is now seeing the business take flight. According to Sharon, Taika has been growing around 30% month-over-month. He is forging new retail partnerships, but is also focused on growing the DTC channel, which currently represents 40% of its business.It’s a difficult but important channel to grow. “It’s really hard to scale beverage to DTC,” he said.
28 minutes | Apr 8, 2021
‘This is a land grab’: Vivino CEO Heini Zachariassen on the growing wine e-commerce market
The Shazam for wine had quite a big year.Vivino, an app that lets users search for wines by taking a picture of the label and read customer reviews, raised $155 million last February. The app now has over 50 million users worldwide, and says it facilitated around $250 million in sales last year. Founder and CEO Heini Zachariassen joined the Modern Retail Podcast, and spoke about this newfound growth.The app is over ten years old, and only a few years back began adding commerce to the mix. Before getting users to transact, the first order of business was getting people to use it. “This is a land grab,” said Zachariassen. “We want to be the biggest wine app in the space.”In its early days, Vivino was focused on being an intuitive app that people would use for wine research. The idea was to build a user habit -- people would pull out the app while they were perusing bottles at the wine store. Commerce, said Zachariassen, would come later as it’s “a bit of a complex thing to do.” The focus at first, he said, was to “learn about the user.”But since 2016, the company has been building relationships with wine retailers to make it easier for Vivino users to buy wine. The pandemic, however, was when wine sales really began hitting their stride. Said Zachariassen, “2020 has been really a breakthrough for us.”With more people using Vivino to buy wine, the focus now is to find more app users -- and add more retail partners to the mix. Zachariassen said that this latest investment is about growing the 200-person team and putting marketing on the front burner. Now, he said, he wants to prove how big the online wine business can grow.“If this reaches scale, there is money to be made,” Zachariassen said. “This is a real business -- now we’re going to push the accelerator.”
31 minutes | Apr 1, 2021
‘We never had to pivot our message’: Lands’ End’s Sarah Rasmusen on comfort coming back in style
Comfy clothes certainly had a moment last year.Indeed, as Sarah Rasmusen, chief customer officer at the apparel brand Lands’ End said, “it could not be a better time to be in the elastic waist business.” While the company’s revenue slightly dipped year-over-year according to its most recent earnings, online sales grew nearly 8% and the company is bullish about its products remaining in demand.Rasmusen joined the Modern Retail Podcast and spoke about how the decades-old company has been navigating the changing tides. It began as a catalog business, and even made the jump to online quite early. Lands’ End, in fact, launched its website the same month as Amazon. But in the mid-2000s, the apparel brand lost its way.Now, Rasmusen has spent the last four years trying to right the ship. That meant completely reimagining Lands’ End’s online experience, as well as testing out new ways to keep customers engaged. Indeed, last year the brand launched its own marketplace. Why would other brands want to list their products on Lands’ End? “It’s the pay to play equation,” she said. That is, on a site like Amazon a sandals brand will be competing against tens of thousands of other listing. But on a smaller site like Lands’ End, where people are there to buy similar items, there are much fewer.For now, the strategy is to continue building on earlier momentum. Digital innovation is a big part of that. “If you are not going to invest in your digital property,” said Rasmusen, “you fall behind.”
32 minutes | Mar 25, 2021
‘Game-like experiences have just exploded’: Tophatter’s COO on the future of entertainment-based commerce
It’s been a big year for online shopping -- not just for Amazon.The live auction site Tophatter, in fact, had a record year. The 12-year-old company saw sales grow 20% year-over-year (and said that were it not for supply chain bottlenecks, that growth would have been even higher). According to COO Andrew Blachman, Tophatter’s focus on entertainment and discovery is what helped its popularity surge.Blachman joined the Modern Retail Podcast this week and spoke about all things digital commerce. More people are buying online, and customers are increasingly looking for new ways to discover items. Said Blachman, more people are open to entertainment-based commerce. This change has impacted how he’s been building out the marketplace.Tophatter considers itself somewhat of a fun pastime for customers rather than a utility to buy necessary goods. Users scroll through its app or website (though most people use the app), which features thousands of low-cost auctions for random items. The average item costs around $10, but they go as low $1. It has hundreds of thousands of registered sellers, but only about 5,000 are usually active at a given time.The focus for the last year has been on perfecting the platform. While Tophatter has been around for over a decade, the company has gone in a few different directions that didn’t work out. A few years ago, for example, the company tried to operate more like a traditional e-commerce platform by having sellers upload items for static prices, rather than risk selling them in an auction format where they could get undercut. “That was a huge mistake,” said Blachman. Why? “While we gained a lot of inventory, or a lot of access to inventory from sellers that were afraid of risk and wanting to just price things at a fixed price, we lost their engagement,” he said.Now, the company doesn’t offer such a program. Instead, sellers are part of the auctions themselves, and Tophatter keeps them engaged by offering incentives -- like better product placement -- based on past performance.According to Blachman, the plan now is to continue growing while ensuring that it can handle all the back-end logistics. He also believes that user interest in the U.S. will only increase, as game-like commerce experiences continue to explode overseas.Right now, he’s focused on getting more Americans on board. “It’s a complex but a really fun business challenge,” he said.
29 minutes | Mar 18, 2021
‘Grocery will maintain positive growth’: King Arthur Baking’s Bill Tine on the new CPG landscape
The coronavirus changed the way people shopped for groceries, and King Arthur Baking Company was no exception.The 230-year-old company had one of the hottest pandemic commodities: flour. And while it did face huge supply chain constraints early last year, King Arthur has been able to see historic sales growth and consumer behavior changes. On the Modern Retail Podcast, Bill Tine, vp of marketing, spoke about all the curveballs thrown at the company over the last year -- as well as why it decided to rebrand from a flour company to a baking company last summerKing Arthur’s marketing approach was upended overnight when the country went into lockdown. Over the last five years, he said, the brand has “built out essentially our own media company.” It published recipes, partnered with influencers and focused on growing its audience. Some of that was in person at its own baking schools. While King Arthur’s marketing strategy didn’t necessarily change during coronavirus, the underlying system did.“When Covid hit and people really shifted their media consumption, we were a place to turn to because we had a lot of assets already in place,” Tine said. “We had a team internally of bakers that could create [content] at home with their iPhones. And I think having that in-house was something where we’re able to really react quickly.” Indeed, King Arthur’s website got over 60 million unique visits in 2020.Reacting quickly helped boost King Arthur’s sales. Most grocery stores sold out of essentials like flour during the early days of the pandemic. With that, more people bought all-purpose baking items on King Arthur’s website. The online business doubled over the last year, and Tine thinks that momentum is going to remain.For now, the focus is on staying relevant with its customers. “One of the things that we really hone in on and rely on is the consumer insight for what the consumer wants,” he said.
31 minutes | Mar 11, 2021
BenchMade Modern’s Edgar Blazona on getting customers to buy high-end furniture online
When the New York Times writes about your product, sales inevitably explode.That’s at least what high-end sofa company BenchMade Modern experienced. It was featured in a trend story in 2016 and then, in 2019, became highly rated on the newspaper’s review website the Wirecutter (it remains the site’s top choice). When the Wirecutter review hit, said founder Edgar Blazona, “our web numbers spiked.”Blazona joined the Modern Retail Podcast and spoke about how he’s grown his company over the years. This isn’t his first furniture foray. In the 2000s he began selling modern children’s furniture online on websites like Wayfair. But he decided to get into the sofa game in 2015. BenchMade Modern makes furniture that averages between $3,000 and $6,000. It focuses on having as short of a lead time as possible while still being custom made. Currently, its lead time time averages five weeks, but Blazona said it can be as low as three.Unsurprisingly, the last year was big for the company. Sales did nosedive in March, which caused BenchMade Modern to temporarily pivot to manufacturing PPE. But in May, things picked back up as people were stuck at home and in need of nicer furniture. According to Blazona, revenue went up 100% year-over-year in 2020.The focus now is on keeping this growth. Blazona said the company is still facing some supply chain hiccups, but he doesn’t think demand for furniture is going to dip post-pandemic. The company has slowly been adding new products like rugs and lighting. The strategy, he said, is “just fine-tuning all of that and adding these new categories so that we can be a little bit more of a one-stop-shop.”
33 minutes | Mar 4, 2021
‘A slightly different voice’: Casper’s Emilie Arel on how its branding and product line has evolved
Emilie Arel joined mattress brand Casper for a personal reason. “I have two little kids -- they both slept on a Casper before I worked at Casper,” she said. “The way I realized how great a Casper was, I would fall asleep on their bed every night.”Arel joined Casper in late 2019 as its president and chief commercial officer. She oversees all the disparate and growing parts of Casper’s retail business. Arel spoke on the Modern Retail Podcast about what she’s focused on during her tenure, as well as how the pandemic through everything into disarray. “I don’t think we recognized how much people would invest in their home so quickly,” she said. “We had no clue we’d still be sitting in our houses almost a year from then that was not on the horizon.”Her first mandate as CCO was to tie all the business threads together. Casper has over 60 stores around the United States and is sold at retailers including Target, Nordstrom and Raymour and Flanigan. Wholesale specifically has been a real emphasis for Arel. True, Casper began as an online brand, but it needed the help of national chains to really grow.“The majority of beds in the United States are still bought in a trial location somewhere you can lay down in the bed,” she said. So Arel has spent the last year thinking about which retail partners would be best for Casper. One of the most important aspects of the wholesale retail experience, she said, is making sure every sales associate is armed with the proper training -- “so that they understand our product, and they understand our focus on sleep.”But Casper’s real focus right now is making a name for itself beyond just mattresses. The brand has launched a bunch of new sleep-associated products, including blankets and pillows. And Arel said Casper is seeing huge growth from these ancillary products.The intent now, she said, is to continue to launch new sleep products, while making more people -- not just hip millennials -- aware of the brand. “Soon we’ll be talking to consumers in a different way, with a slightly different voice,” she said.
30 minutes | Feb 25, 2021
‘We break down those barriers’: How Lightship Capital’s Candice Matthews Brackeen has grown her fund
Candice Matthews Brackeen is looking outside of typical Silicon Valley circles for the next billion-dollar company.She’s a general partner at Lightship Capital, which raised a $50 million fund last summer that’s focused on companies from the Midwest that have Black, Indigenous or People of Color (BIPoC) founders. “Right now we’re trying to build the best portfolio possible to return capital to the LPs,” she said on the Modern Retail Podcast.Matthews Brackeen first got the investing bug when she began working with startups in the Cincinnati area. She had difficulty raising money for her own company, and made a group for other Black entrepreneurs to talk shop. This group gave proof to how difficult the landscape was for non-white founders. With that, she launched an accelerator program five years ago. Slowly but surely, those experiences led helped Matthews Brackeen launch a venture capital fund.On the podcast, she talked about how the investing landscape has changed over the last year. Following last summer’s Black Lives Matters protest, funds like hers began to get more noticed. Institutional investors began reaching out looking for funds in which they can participate. “We’re not a social impact fund, but there are investors who are involved with us for a social impact reason,” she said.Part of her role as at Lightship involves helping both portfolio companies and other investors. Matthews Brackeen and her spouse, fellow Lightship co-founder Brian Brackeen, have spent weeks living nearby to founders to get a sense for their daily rhythms. They would have portfolio companies come out to Cincinnati or Miami and spend time together -- eating all meals together and spending most of the daylight hours working on business development. “I think that it’s important that we break down those barriers,” she said. “That’s the way that we grow relationships with our founders.”Over the years, Matthews Brackeen has also found herself to both a liaison and a teacher at both ends of the table. She’s instructed other VCs about their invisible biases, and coached founders about presentation styles. “Not only are we teaching our LPs, but we’re teaching our founders, like, how to have grace when people screw up,” she said.Ultimately, it’s about positioning Lightship as a fund that should be considered alongside every other top VC firm. “I want to be a VC,” she said. “I don’t want to be a Black VC.”
42 minutes | Feb 18, 2021
“An unspoken understanding between our customers and our brand”: Fly By Jing founder Jing Gao on how to build community
2020 was the year the Fly By Jing soared to new heights.The company, which is best known for its array of Chinese sauces, has taken the direct-to-consumer food world by storm. It’s been written about in major publications like the New York Times and Eater, and has become a popular pantry staple in many Instagram kitchen posts. Before the coronavirus first hit, founder Jing Gao told Modern Retail the company was growing around 30% month-over-month. Then the business exploded last spring thanks to pandemic stocking and heightened media attention. “We ended 2020 about 1000% up from 2019,” Gao said on the Modern Retail Podcast.On this episode, she spoke about how Fly By Jing started as a pop-up restaurant concept, her branding and marketing approach as well as what the company’s future plans are. “I feel like there’s an unspoken understanding between our customers and our brand,” she said.Fly By Jing first got off the ground because Gao had a core group of friends and followers who supported her vision. She raised an initial Kickstarter (“the highest-funded craft food project [on the platform],” in her words) and was able to grow the business in its first year as a result of this community.Now, Gao is putting herself more front and center. When Gao founded the brand, people knew her as Jenny -- an Anglicized version of her given name. And over a year after the company launched in 2018, she decided to go by Jing. For her, this was a way for her to present both herself and her brand in their true lights. When Fly By Jing rebranded last fall, Gao unveiled her new first name, making herself more of a focal point of the brand.The idea behind Fly By Jing is to be a food company that doesn’t try to fit within traditional U.S. brand parameters. So far, it’s worked. Demand outstripped supply for most of 2020. Gao’s current mission is to continue the growth by creating new programs and ways to keep customers engaged. Earlier this month, for example, Fly By Jing launched an OnlyFans account that lets people see pictures and videos of “hot noods.”For the founder, the most important part is to make sure she has a direct line to those who love her products. “We are putting a lot of thought into how do we create a real community around our biggest users,” she said.
34 minutes | Feb 11, 2021
‘The beginning of a new era’: How Zenni harnessed its vertically integrated business model to reach record heights
Even during a pandemic, people still needed glasses. As a result, online eyewear brand Zenni Optical has been riding a rocket ship.After an initial slowdown in March due to supply chain constraints, Zenni says it saw record growth in 2020. With people stuck at home, the company received an influx of new customers trying to avoid going to the eye doctor. And since most were working from home, Zenni’s line of blue light blocking lenses grew at an unprecedented clip.According to chief product officer Bai Gan, this past year was “the beginning of a new era” for eyewear brands. He joined the Modern Retail Podcast this week and talked about why.Zenni, which was founded in 2003, makes very affordable eyewear -- glasses as cheap at $7. According to Gan, this is because the company uses a vertically integrated business model. Zenni owns much of its supply chain, meaning it cut out middlemen most other brands deal with daily. It owns a one million-square-foot manufacturing facility outside of Shanghai, and works directly with suppliers to get the best rates. For its first decade as a company, Zenni focused on creating this infrastructure. “Originally, we just focused on that core competency -- the backend,” said Gan.Now, Zenni is in hyper-growth and trying to make more people aware of its products. It wields, however, a double-edged sword. “It was a little bit harder to really communicate quality to customers when the price was so exceptionally low,” he said. As a result, over the last few years the company has been on a marketing blitz trying to introduce itself to more customers.One of Zenni’s big PR approaches is influencer marketing. The company has worked with online personalities and well-known designers -- including Rashida Jones and Coco and Breezy. On the podcast, Gan describe the brand’s “sector by sector” approach. This includes working with gaming personalities to evangelize Zenni’s blue light blocking lenses.According to Gan, the growth is only beginning. For years, online glasses sales stagnated, but the coronavirus changed all that. Now, he said, Zenni is trying to implement a growth strategy its slowly been building. “That vertically integrated business model,” he said, “now seems to be giving us a lot of edges over the competitors.”
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