The disruptors are coming of age, facing new realities and still ready to change as they feel their way forward.
The flunky flair, break-the-rules business models and growth are all still there. And some companies have built significant businesses — think jewelry firm BaubleBar which has its own stores, web site and a line at Target dubbed SugarFix by BaubleBar.
Now the valuation mismatch is starting to correct, with fashion companies that took venture capital money at tech valuations getting a truer sense of what the market will bear. The process started with Bonobos, the bottoms-brand that was sold to Wal-Mart Stores Inc. for $310 million this summer.
More transactions are seen in the offing.
Citi, which advised Bonobos on the transaction, gathered a group of digital natives and interested investors for the “2017 Consumer Disruptive Growth Conference” in New York this week to put the sector under the microscope.
The panel discussions made clear that digital natives remain keenly focused, intent on building a broader sense of brand and that haven’t lost their willingness to shake things up and to keep evolving.
Take Annie Thorp, chief marketing officer at MM. LaFleur, which sells workwear to women who don’t love to shop.
The brand has “showrooms” in New York and Washington, with more on the way. While many newer brands see their bricks-and-mortar locations as an opportunity to make a statement, Thorp said MM. LaFleur has a more pragmatic take.
“For us, it is actually just a revenue center,” she said. “We do close to $2,000 a square foot in our locations, we are not really interested in making it a brand marquee experience.”
But don’t hold her to it.
“If in two years, we’re doing something on Madison Avenue, please forget I said that,” Thorp said.
That could be the most important characteristic of the breed — the ability to pivot.
Joey Zwillinger, cofounder and co-ceo of wool shoe company Allbirds, noted that the company started out with one style to hone its approach and has tweaked its product 17 times over the past couple years, taking feedback directly from consumers and incorporating it quickly in design. That’s a timetable that’s much quicker than traditional brands.
The sector hasn’t lost its pluck either, and is still setting out to disrupt.
Neil Parikh, cofounder and chief operating officer Casper, which has reenvisioned how mattresses are sold, said, “It’s a sleepy industry that we thought it’d be fun to go after.”
Likewise, Eric Korman, founder and chief executive officer of fragrance sampling firm Phlur, said the way department stores sell fragrance, with a spritz on a piece of paper, is at the least very outdated.
“It actually changes on your skin relatively meaningfully over time,” Korman said of fragrance. “You’re not made of paper and your skin is going to react to it really differently. That whole discovery and sampling process is bankrupt from the beginning.”
Phlur lets its users try out fragrances at home and over a longer period of time to create a direct relationship with customers.
The digital natives, as a group, are also starting to change how companies view branding.
J.B. Osborne, cofounder and ceo of Red Antler, a branding company catering to the quick-growing digital natives, companies that “see everything as a brand” succeed, while the idea that brands reside in logos and ads has “completely been blown up.”
“What is different is that brand is now more complex,” he said. “Customers have direct relationships. Customer service is brand advantage today, not something you outsource to another country.”
With retailers continuing to struggle and the digital natives so keen to test and push forward, more change is on the horizon even as the sector matures.