Image courtesy of True Fit
Jessica Murphy ’00, co-founder and chief customer officer of True Fit, discusses pitfalls and pure entrepreneurial joy with B-Lab 2019 cohort
Jessica Murphy ’00 spends most of her time racing from airport to airport on her way to solve problems on a global scale for True Fit Corporation. Understandable, considering the company boasts offices from Boston to London to Mumbai.
True Fit began as an idea during Murphy’s time as an MBA candidate at Babson College, prior to which she studied international commerce at Brown and spent a few years’ stint as a buyer for Filene’s (the department store later succeeded by Macy’s). After enough time on the work force and in business school, Murphy was ready to go “all-in” with True Fit. She threw everything she had at the idea — including $5,000 in repurposed student loans — and chose to forgo the typical post-MBA route.
It paid off. True Fit came into its own as one of the first data platforms for enhancing style and comfort in the retail clothing experience. Most recently, it secured a Series C round of funding for $60 million, no doubt due to Murphy’s combination of business acumen and pure grit.
Murphy visited the Nelson Center’s new Thayer Street building last week to deliver the keynote presentation to this summer’s Breakthrough Lab cohort on the opening day of the program.
Her extensive technical knowledge was evident as she fielded questions encompassing everything from the viability of startups in nascent markets, to evolving your solution through countless iterations. Yet the key takeaway of Murphy’s presentation was what appears to be the secret to her success: a seemingly innate understanding of the emotional workings of both consumer and employee.
“What is that pain point you’ll be focusing on?” she asked the audience of young venture founders. The pain point. The issue that ruins your customer’s whole day. The heart of the consumer’s problem that you can’t lose sight of.
The pain point at the center of True Fit after all these years? To “help people find clothes and shoes they’ll love and keep.” It’s a broad stroke mission statement that speaks to how shoppers’ self-image is affected by the struggle to fit into inconsistent, unrealistic sizing. Perhaps it’s this human desire for affirmation, granted by True Fit, that has enabled it to grow to its current user base of over 100 million worldwide.
Jessica Murphy ’00 with our 2019 Breakthrough Lab cohort
“I’m here to be transparent with you,” assured Murphy. And that she was. Moving on from her self-described “brag slides” that list the impressive numbers behind True Fit, Murphy described both joyous accomplishments and dark days as a leader responsible for the livelihoods of hundreds of employees. “It had to work,” she stated. “I had no choice.” From forgoing a salary for years to the challenges of attracting early investors for survival, there was no hardship of the entrepreneurial lifestyle that could not be broached. As a result, Murphy’s audience hung onto every word, eager for more of her candor.
In response to one B-Lab founder’s question, Murphy transitioned to personal challenges. She discussed the culture shock of arriving at Brown, feeling unprepared coming from a single-parent household, often moving from apartment to apartment while growing up in a blue-collar Massachusetts town. Today, these difficulties serve as reminders of where her family came from — something deeply embedded in the fabric of True Fit. Murphy shared, for instance, that her sales presentations to retailers often begin with a photograph of her grandfather who migrated from Colombia to Central Falls, Rhode Island, to work as a loom repairman. Her anecdote illustrates a lineage of builders adept at piecing solutions together — whether that solution is a piece of machinery or a way of reimagining the modern fitting room experience.
Murphy also keeps her immediate family close amidst the ever-present puzzle of work-life balance, another hurdle for entrepreneurs she touched upon. She lovingly refers to her husband (then-boyfriend) as her “first angel investor,” and jokes, “True Fit is my first baby. And then I had three real ones.” When asked what will come after her first brain child, Murphy said, “After True Fit’s eventual end… I will never not be an entrepreneur. It’s just too fun.”
The Better Pop is the only kombucha and fruit popsicle. It’s an alternative and enjoyable way to get probiotics into your diet. The distinctive shape has been designed to change the way you eat a popsicle. It allows for better sharing, biting, and an overall different eating experience. Many people have sensitive teeth when biting into cold foods, but this problem was solved by designing a geometric shape that allows each piece to come off easily. Unlike other popsicles, it’s made with no added sugar or fruit concentrate, just whole fruit and kombucha. The whole fruit provides fiber, unlike fruit juice, and the kombucha provides the probiotics.
The idea started when Ruby watched her mother struggle with her digestive health. After numerous doctor appointments, her mother became tired of continually being told to take probiotic pills. She was already taking a lot of pills, and had no interest in taking any more. Ruby began to wonder if there was a more attractive way to consume probiotics. Knowing that kombucha is packed with probiotics, she encouraged her mom to try it. However, her mom was uncomfortable with the idea of drinking fermented tea.
Earlier that summer, Ruby had stumbled upon a popsicle recipe after playing around in the kitchen. Coincidentally, popsicles are one of the only foods that didn’t upset her mother’s stomach. Could popsicles be the medium through which kombucha is consumed? Ruby decided to put this idea into fruition and The Better Pop was born.
After B-Lab, Ruby launched in New York City receiving orders online and personally delivering popsicles door to door after participating in B-Lab. She is now selling The Better Pop at Brooklyn’s Smorgasburg, an outdoor food market that is held every Saturday and Sunday that attracts 20,000 – 30,000 people each day. Interested in attending Brooklyn’s Smorgasburg? Read about what they have to offer (in addition to The Better Pop) !
By Chuck Isgar ‘20.5
On March 6, 2019, The Nelson Center for Entrepreneurship and Brown EP proudly hosted Laura Thompson ‘09 for a roundtable discussion as part of the Roundtable Discussion Series moderated by Chuck Isgar ‘20.5. Thompson shared lessons learned through her journey leading the growth of Google X.
An early non-engineering hire at Google X
When Thompson first came to Brown, she thought she would concentrate in applied mathematics. She approached her time at Brown as a way to take engaging classes, and many of these courses lay in the realm of entrepreneurship. She ultimately graduated with a degree in public policy, but not before successfully launching Runa, a tea company with a social mission of providing opportunities for Amazonian farmers.
After doing some work in London with Google’s budding consumer electronics group, Thompson joined Google X, Google’s “moonshot factory”. Thompson was a unique addition to Google X as she represented an early non-engineering hire for the team. When she joined, there were four projects in the works under the Google X umbrella: one being self-driving cars. And you’re probably wondering about those other three? Well, as much of her work at Google X, it was secretive.
So, what was a public policy major doing as one of the few non-engineers on a team trying to solve complex technical problems, ranging from combating climate change to the future of robots? Thompson shared that the fact she wasn’t an engineer is actually what made her so valuable at Google X. For example, Thompson helped teams think about the human consequences of their work and what it would take for projects to land successfully in the real world.
Leading Google X through the years
There is a growing need in technology to prioritize human-centered design and Thompson is pleased to see this movement progressing. Along these lines, Thompson explained that they thought about sustainability at every level of the project and ideation process in her time at Google X.
The goal at Google X is to create a culture of innovation that leads to development of ideas for the future. At first, Google X thought that the way to achieve the most success would be to have everyone together. Over time, they realized that this model wasn’t sustainable. Thompson was part of the transformation from the ‘everyone-in-a-garage-mentality’ to a more sustainable model where each project gets spun off and has its own business model, while still being under the Google X umbrella.
Analyzing ideas at Google X
To the budding venture capitalists in the room, Thompson shared a framework that they commonly utilized at Google X when deciding which new projects to undertake. For each potential project, they would make a list of all the reasons the project would be an epic failure. As the team worked on the project and overcame the challenges, they would cross them off the list. If a project could overcome one quarter of their challenges, the project would likely be a go, as the team had proven they have the ability to overcome the difficulties that will surely present themselves along the way.
Thompson explained another rule of thumb used at Google X when evaluating new projects: “is this going to affect one billion people in a meaningful way?” This message resonates closely with the Nelson Center for Entrepreneurship’s mantra: create solution with impact.
Despite the best intentions, many successful innovations come from random, happy experiments. It is for this reason that while they had rubrics in place, they also saw it was important to let teams run loose.
The innovators in the room were curious to get Thompson’s thoughts on what’s next in terms of innovative technology. Thompson explained that, for one, it is good to see a growing skepticism surrounding technology. She is excited that the next generation appears to be focused on technology being good for humanity.
Thompson thinks there are opportunities for disruption in the fields of personal finance, logistics of shipping and transportation, and sustainability. And her personal favorite, dog-related startups, too.
As the discussion neared an end, Thompson left students with some words of wisdom: “you’re only going to be great at something if you’re excited about it.” Along these lines, Thompson stressed the importance of pursuing things you’re excited about with people you respect and who you have shared values with and enjoy working with.
Mollie West Duffy has co-authored No Hard Feelings, which will be released on February 5. The book is a visual exploration of how to embrace emotion at work and become more authentic and fulfilled while staying professional.
When it comes to emotions at work, there’s rarely a happy medium. In some offices, your boss might send snaps of her weekend getaway in Vegas, or your coworker might send twenty texts about how Susan ate his clearly labeled lunch…again. Other offices are buttoned-up emotional deserts, where crying is only allowed in the bathroom and you suspect your coworkers might be robots. Either extreme hurts employee health and productivity.
Liz Fosslien and Mollie West Duffy take a charming and deeply researched look at how emotions affect our professional lives and how we can navigate emotions at work. The modern workplace can be an emotional minefield (Do I shake my boss’s hand or give her a hug? Did I forget to mute my phone on the conference call?) filled with unwritten rules. As our jobs become more collaborative, complex, and stressful, effectively embracing emotion is more important than ever.
The book combines practical advice and scientific research to give you the tools you need. A sample:
* Forget “unemotional” decisions; there are none. In fact, rational decisions require you to acknowledge and examine your emotions. For instance, fear often indicates anticipated future regret.
* Real, valuable feedback is not going to feel like a gift. Realize that negative feedback often means the criticizer cares about helping you improve and is willing to bear the awkwardness of a difficult conversation.
* Stop letting someone else’s bad mood ruin your day. Emotions are viral– we catch the feelings of those around us. If you’re stuck next to a constant complainer, mentally remove yourself from the situation.
* Learn to communicate and interpret digital messages. That “totally normal” email you sent may be seen as hostile because you didn’t explicitly state your positive emotions (e.g., “I love what you did here!”).
Thanks to Fosslien’s sharply funny two-color illustrations, No Hard Feelings is a romp through behavioral economics, psychology, and organizational design.
By Chuck Isgar ’20.5
On November 15, 2018, The Nelson Center for Entrepreneurship and Brown EP hosted Rufus Griscom ’91, Founder of Babble.com and The Next Big Idea Club, for a roundtable discussion as part of the Roundtable Discussion Series moderated by Chuck Isgar ’20.5
Griscom, a serial internet entrepreneur, inspired students about the potential for rapid growth of an online platform, speaking from personal experience as the founder of Nerve.com and Babble, which he sold to Disney. Griscom provided actionable steps, timelines, and frameworks to use when creating ventures, building user bases on platforms, and exploring acquisitions. It was an insightful discussion that ended with an engaging think-tank about the future of literature and content delivery to students as it relates to Griscom’s current work with The Next Big Idea Club.
Starting a venture: think about the interests of others
Griscom’s start in entrepreneurship was not successful. As a matter of fact, Griscom admits that his first few entrepreneurial ventures were failures. In these initial ventures, he gained a key insight: his tastes were not shared by everyone. He realized that while an entrepreneur must be personally passionate and invested in their product, they must also be creating something that appeals to the interest of others.
Griscom shared a framework with the roundtable participants that he suggests entrepreneurs use to evaluate their ideas and ventures: think about a venture in terms of three overlapping circles of a venn diagram. These circles include the world’s interest, the entrepreneur’s interest, and proven opportunity to monetize. Griscom learned in his initial ventures that he was focusing too much on the “personal interest” circle, and not enough on the world’s interest. Over time, Griscom realized the importance of working in spaces where there is a validated market and need for the product.
With this framework in mind, Griscom launched Nerve.com, a smart website about sex and culture with his then girlfriend in 1997. Nerve quickly grew to several million unique users per month, which led to a tv show with HBO and book deal with Random House.
Applying learnings from one venture to inform the next
Griscom was in for an educational ride with Nerve. Nerve was launched before the dot com implosion in 2000. Ad revenue cratered overnight, and Griscom explains that it was “like a meteor hit.” Nerve survived by creating a paid content subscription and launching Nerve Personals.
The personals business accelerated quickly, so Griscom spun off the technology behind it as a separate company called Spring Street Networks, which eventually powered online dating for 100 companies including AOL, Sony Music, Salon and The Onion.
Both Nerve.com and Spring Street Networks continued as businesses and were eventually acquired, but in the meantime Griscom was looking for a business model with a better potential to grow. Having lived firsthand through the dot com bubble, the experienced entrepreneur in Griscom knew that he needed to create something where advertisers would want to get involved.
Griscom learned, over time, that it is best to assume that you won’t cause people to shift their mindsets and desires for certain products. Advertisers follow the interest of consumers, so it is in an entrepreneur’s best interest to carefully interpret the market and recognize what advertisers are interested in. Griscom realized that advertisers were interested in parents, so in 2007 he and his wife Alisa Volkman launched Babble, an online platform for top mom bloggers to share more honest, contemporary insights and advice about parenting. Over time, he and his wife grew the platform to 15 million unique users, leading to an eventual acquisition by Disney. In this process, he learned about what it takes to develop a following on a platform.
Building up the user base on a platform
Early on in your venture, Griscom suggested that you engage in conversations with friends and watch when their eyes light up. When their facial expressions demonstrate an interest in what you’re saying, that’s when you might know you’re onto something. Overall, you want to be pitching your idea as often as possible.
Once live and online, Griscom suggested doing AB testing to see what is resonating. Most companies have a special sauce. For example, Nerve’s secret sauce was garnering a lot of press. Griscom explained that discovering your audience can take a lot of trial and error, but it is very important. In the case of Babble, the platform generated a lot of buzz early on for being an irreverent, hipster parenting site. This market positioning helped Babble grow from zero to a couple million visitors per month. Eventually, it was time to transition Babble, so that it was more broadly appealing — now a more honest, contemporary website for a new generation of parents — and not just geared towards the “hipster” parents.
Babble leveraged Pinterest, an emerging platform at the time. Babble became the third most pinned site on Pinterest, which helped to drive traffic over to the platform.
Creating connections with potential acquirers: start early
Griscom recommended that entrepreneurs should think about who the three to five most likely acquirers are for your business. Then, he suggested you do research and discover who the stakeholders are within those companies. Finally, and importantly, seek those people out. Griscom suggested that you should try to set up coffee with the people you’ve identified. By doing so, you will establish trust with potential future acquirers, which is of vital importance.
When having coffee with potential future acquirers, Griscom suggested that you should be way too honest. Griscom explained that most large companies are focused on their current business and are not very interested in stealing your ideas.
How should you approach these conversations? First, you should tell them where you are today with your business. Secondly, you should tell them where you want to be in six months. After the conversation, you should follow up six months later to meet up again. In that conversation, you should share what you’ve accomplished. If you’ve met many of the goals you outlined six months prior, you will impress potential future acquirers. With a few of his businesses, Griscom engaged in three or four conversations with the same people over a course of 24 months.
Griscom emphasized to the participants that when working on a future partnership or acquisition, you obviously need the product, but you also need to have the human component. Your future partner or acquirer has to like you. Ultimately, for something to happen, someone from within the company will have to push you through. The best way for this to happen is to create connections very early on so that you have a strong relationship in the future.
By approaching potential acquirers or partners early, you can have conversations with no angle. Then, many months or years down the road, you will have established relationships that are not predicated on your request for anything. These longer-term relationships are almost certainly more valuable and effective than reaching out to a potential acquirer or partner as soon as you’re ready to sell or partner.
Be honest and realistic when speaking with potential investors or acquirers
Griscom outlined a few essential components that you should have when fundraising: a business thesis, traction, and an “adequately compelling story.” Nothing crazy novel there.
But then Griscom suggested something that you might not hear very often. He encouraged entrepreneurs to be completely honest when speaking with potential investors, and to even share what’s wrong with their product. He suggested that when making and presenting a pitch deck to a potential investor or acquirer, the entrepreneur should include a slide about the top three to five reasons why you shouldn’t invest. When Griscom sold Babble to Disney, he presented a slide with the top three reasons why Disney should not acquire Babble.
There’s a reason why Griscom suggests being honest with investors. Investors get excited when they see the entrepreneur(s) get excited. They obviously want to invest in ambitious people. But they are also looking for what is wrong with your business; they want to understand the obstacles, and if you provide this information you demonstrate that you are not only trustworthy but also savvy in the process of overcoming the obstacles.
Creating the Next Big Idea Club
Griscom discussed The Next Big Idea Club (NBIC), his current project where he is the CEO and co-founder. NBIC was created in a partnership with Malcolm Gladwell, Susan Cain, Daniel Pink, and Adam Grant. The core thesis behind NBIC is clear: not everyone loves reading or writing long books. Given that the book business is a $28 billion industry, Griscom sees the field as being ripe for disruption.
In creating NBIC, Griscom asked lots of writers what their biggest pain points were. Figuring out the industry was not easy, as Griscom and his team tried twelve different business models and spent over $2.5 million without finding any success.
Eventually, NBIC landed on a subscription model, where they select groups of books and distill them down to 20 minutes of audio, visual, and text for each book. Through NBIC, you can purchase a package that includes just the distilled versions, or the distilled versions as well as the hard copy versions of the book.
NBIC boasts lots of big executives as subscribers, such as Bill and Melinda Gates. NBIC is getting traction, and they are now exploring other platforms and means to get literature, or summarized versions of it, in the hands of interested customers, in particular students. NBIC’s investors include The New York Times, Comcast, Bloomberg, and Bertelsmann, which owns Penguin Random House, among other media companies and VCs.
NBIC’s objective is to begin publishing original content from top authors in new formats, eventually evolving into a next-gen publishing platform.
Think tank: how do students feel about books? The future of literature and content delivery for students
While NBIC currently offers a student discount rate, Griscom wanted to take a deep dive with the entrepreneurial-minded students in the room about how NBIC can become more appealing to students. The discussion turned into a real think tank; Griscom was excited to get a variety of student’s takes on things, and the participants were enthusiastic to share their opinions.
The group discussed what would be engaging to students in terms of literature and means of delivery. Amongst ideas thrown around, students expressed an interest in hearing the actionable steps presented in books. Additionally, students showed interest in learning about the criticism of books, as well as the context and market for the book.
Some students expressed their interest in having books become more customized to them, or at the least having a framework for understanding how books can be more applicable to them. Participants seemed to be interested in having books referred to them by trustworthy sources, and authors within the NBIC, such as Malcolm Gladwell and Susan Cain, might be just the voices that students would like to hear.
It was also discussed what medium would work best to present content to students. Podcasts and email digests appeared to emerge as favorites amongst students. One thing was clear: students like things to be short. Participants expressed that a 20 minute summary/criticism of a book might be too long for the attention span of current students, even though the book might typically take several hours to read. While Griscom hopes you’ll consider subscribing to NBIC, he wanted all interested students to know that NBIC meetups are open to everyone.
A special offer for Brown students to join NBIC
Griscom would like to offer a rate of $9 per annual subscription to NBIC Express (which does not include the books, but does include all the e-course, podcast, and live video / community access), discounted from the normal rate of $89 per year (!!!!) for any group of three or more students who choose to get together to form their own Next Big Idea Club.
He is also happy to offer a student discount rate of $19 for NBIC Express for either personal subscriptions or gift. If you’re interested, email email@example.com, tell them you are a Brown student and she will set you up.