“Vulnerability is an incredible strength,” NPR’s Guy Raz recently told WWD.
The host of NPR’s How I Built This podcast — one of the 15 most-downloaded podcasts in the United States — Raz has interviewed innumerable executives across technology, fashion, beauty and other categories. And as he prepared for the second installment of How I Built This Summit in San Francisco, he reflected on the power of vulnerability and how it contributes to the Stitch Fixes, Glossiers and Rent the Runways of tomorrow.
“When leaders and founders can show vulnerability, and really surrender and just bear it all — the ups and downs, the good and the bad — it helps us not only understand the process that they went through,” he said, “but it actually contributes to a wider knowledge of what it takes to start a business.”
This mentality set the tone for the summit, whose theme this year is kindness and collaboration. In itself, that sets this business-oriented conference apart from most of its ilk. Another is the summit’s remarkable composition: Last year’s inaugural conference drew in more than 600 people. This year, the number jumped to nearly a 1,000 attendees. And most of them were not only women, but women of color.
According to Raz, NPR’s most-requested speaker was Sara Blakely, founder of Spanx. The executive hit the main stage to recount her insecurities, going from a door-to-door fax saleswoman to an entrepreneur.
At the time, she said, she intentionally kept her business idea from friends and family to head off any naysaying or concept-sinking negativity.
“It’s our inclination as humans to immediately turn to our right or left and say to our friend, co-worker, husband or wife and say, ‘Hey, I have this idea. What do you think?’” she said. “And out of love and concern, they’ll say, ‘Well, you know, if it’s such a great idea, why hasn’t anybody done it?’ Or things like that. And when you do that, you Invite egos into the process really early on, and then you end up spending all of your time defending it and explaining it rather than pursuing it.”
Blakely, who famously started the business with the simple act of cutting down pantyhose for the upper shaper portion, worked on her business in secret for a year, alongside her day job, before telling her loved ones.
For Katia Beauchamp of Birchbox, the challenge came when she noticed that no one else in her Harvard business class was even looking at the beauty market — a $500 billion industry that was extremely ripe for disruption, she said. So she dove in.
“At that time, 2009, [just] two percent of beauty was sold on the Internet,” she said. “And as best as we can tell, that was replenishment — which means somebody buying something that they know they already want.” Selling on the Internet for a product that consumers want to touch, feel and try on was a vexing task then. But the founder saw another way and wound up creating a brand that gave rise to the subscription-box trend.
Her two pivotal insights: The Internet was too large, too intimidating, for some consumers. So curation was key. The other “a-ha” moment came when she looked inward, as well as outward at the sheer numbers.
Beauchamp described Birchbox as a beauty company for people who don’t love or ever intend to love beauty. “We started a beauty company because we, as women, felt smart. We had some money to buy beauty. And we were not super interested in doing the research,” she explained. “It felt like we had to really do research to buy beauty well. And that seems like bulls–t.”
By her estimation, the beauty industry focuses on enthusiastic beauty fans — women who thrill at stores with 75,000 SKUs and can’t wait to try things and ask questions.
“That consumer is so important to the industry because that consumer spends so much money on product — they can’t get enough,” she added. “And that consumer represents about 20 percent of the market. There’s about 70 percent of us that consume a fair amount of beauty, and have been no one’s priority.”
The stories, anecdotes and insights aren’t necessarily intended to be tutorials or how-tos. These are notes from the field from high-profile entrepreneurs who’ve done battle and won.
Not that some kernels of wisdom didn’t come through, of course. From Blakely and her refusal to open up to negativity to Beauchamp’s intuition and research, there’s plenty for budding moguls to take stock of.
Jame Reinhart, founder of hit online consignment store ThredUp, dished about a crucial moment in his early operation: ThredUp, which first focused on children’s apparel, initially struggled to get interest from venture capitalists. It’s a common story among early fashion startups. VCs tend to be men, and it dawned on Reinhart that he was spending a lot of time and energy explaining the business to them.
“So I totally switched my strategy,” he explained. “I focused on female venture capitalists, specifically those who have children. And I remember the first time I talked to Patricia Nakache at Trinity ventures, who was the first one to ever take a bet on me.
“I was barely into her office and she’s like, ‘I totally get this problem,’” he said.