Have you subscribed to the Buoy Brown newsletter? Buoy Inspirations LLC is a social impact company that was started by Jordan Evans ’14 as a first year at Brown.
“In December of 2010 my world almost collapsed. It was the winter break of my freshman year at Brown University and I found out I FAILED Principles of Economics…
Never in my life had I experienced that much stress, anxiety, and depression. Fortunately, I had my peers and teammates who picked me up with motivational and encouraging words that gave me the confidence that I could make it…and I DID!
After reflecting on my experience I wanted to create an authentic resource that would enable Brown University students to inspire, motivate, and encourage one another on a regular basis. Today that resource is an authentic, fun, and encouraging monthly email newsletter with over 900 Brown University student subscribers!
The mission of Buoy is to enable diverse student communities across the country to inspire one another through authentic student-centered testimonials.”
Jordan has interviewed and featured over 75 Brown students and most recently launched a Buoy network at the University of Michigan School of Dentistry partnering with their Diversity & Inclusion Office.
Jordan loves connecting with inspired Brown students interested in entrepreneurship so please don’t hesitate to reach out to him at email@example.com. He has been actively involved with the Nelson Center most recently participating in focus groups for the Center’s Diversity & Inclusion Action Plan. #staybuoyed
On October 30, 2018, The Nelson Center for Entrepreneurship and Brown EP hosted Steph Korey ‘09, co-founder and CEO of Away, for a roundtable discussion as part of the Roundtable Discussion Series moderated by Chuck Isgar ‘20.5.
Participants at the roundtable were excited to learn more about Away, as well as Korey’s prior experiences. After an hour of close discussion, students walked away with valuable insight into building a successful direct-to-consumer brand. Korey shared practical advice about the importance of gaining in-the-field entrepreneurial experience before launching a company.
Building a D2C brand
Participants were interested in Steph’s experience launching a direct-to-consumer (D2C) brand. Being a D2C brand has allowed Away to bring their various luggage products to consumers at a lower cost than if they used a retailer to sell their products. Cutting out the middleman is only one part of the advantage of being a D2C business. Very importantly, by being a D2C brand, Away owns their customer feedback and relationship loop. As a customer-conscientious brand, Away heavily uses input from customers to tailor future decisions.
While the D2C model has worked well for Away, Korey explained that running a D2C brand has its host of challenges, most notably the fact that many operations must be done in-house, such as the web platform for selling product, user experience design, and more.
More than a luggage company
Away is highly regarded for its effective marketing strategy. Korey attributes much of Away’s branding and marketing success to her Co-Founder, President, and Chief Brand Officer Jen Rubio.
The principle behind Away’s branding is quite simple. According to Korey, they “treat people like people.” You’ll never see an Away product say ‘best in the world.’ Rather, their branding and advertising takes a focused effort to connect with people who care about experiences. Korey explained that their customers don’t have any one thing, such as age, in common. Instead, the Away brand focuses on tapping into traveler’s shared passion for the unknown.
Away is a travel brand, not merely a luggage company. This notion was clear from the inception of the company. Korey explained that in the summer of 2015, when they knew they wouldn’t have inventory until the spring, they made a book about travel that customers could purchase in conjunction with a gift card that would be redeemable for a carry-on once the product launched in the spring. It was an impactful strategy for several reasons: it helped bring in orders before the product had even launched, and most importantly, it set a precedent that Away was a brand focused on travel, not just luggage.
In discussing how Away raised its first venture round of fundraising, Korey explained that she and Rubio had a very carefully-planned strategy. In knowing that they would be meeting with many VC’s in a short period of time, coupled with the fact that the world of VC is a well-connected community, they arranged to meet with many VC’s in the course of one week. By doing so, Korey knew that they would create buzz around Away, and even ignite some “FOMO,” or ‘fear of missing out’, amongst venture capitalists.
It worked. And this past June, Away closed on a $50 million Series C round.
Setting yourself up for entrepreneurial success Participants at the roundtable wanted Korey’s take on how they can set themselves up for entrepreneurial success. Korey emphasized her belief in the value of gaining experience at growing startups before launching your own company. Prior to launching Away with Jen Rubio, Korey was the Head of Supply Chain at Warby Parker as the company grew from 30 to 300 employees.
Following her experiences at Warby Parker, Korey consulted for Casper, of which two co-founders are Neil Parikh ’11 and Luke Sherwin ‘12. In these roles, Korey gained invaluable experience about building brands and companies, especially how to navigate the supply chain and waters of being a D2C business. Korey explained just how valuable every year of work at a startup is before launching your own business.
Participants were interested about the types of startups at which Korey recommended they look into interning or working. While Korey didn’t recommend a certain industry, she did emphasize that you should seek to join a company led by founders with a strong vision for the future. She explained that over time, you develop pattern recognition when it comes to figuring out whether or not founders have a vision for the company.
Cultivating a company culture
Korey has learned her fair share about trying to create a company culture from the inception of the business. Korey expressed that creating a clear set of values is very important. Everyone needs to be on the same page, and having established values will make this easier. Korey explained to the new and aspiring founders in the room that despite best intentions, drama within the company is inevitable, but you can learn how to minimize it.
Hiring based off “culture-fit?” Not at Away, according to Korey. Away places a strong emphasis on having people with various ways of thinking, and hiring based off “culture-fit” would create a homogenous way of thinking. Korey explained that they strive to hire employees whom are a “values fit, but culture add.”
What’s next for Away
The group was eager to learn about what Away has planned for the near future. Korey shared that we can expect to see the brand and community platform expand in bigger ways. Additionally, you can expect to see a continued rise in the media division of Away. The company recently forayed into the media space with their release of Here Magazine. The early success of this initiative indicates that media production could become an important component of Away’s efforts to create the ultimate travel brand.
Korey warned entrepreneurs in the room that not everything is going online, and that roughly 80% of purchases still happen in stores. To this end, Away has been recently developing select in-person retail locations, including a new store in London.
Korey is an advocate for having a vision and relying on your strengths to achieve your goals. When starting Away, Korey admits that she knew nothing about suitcases. She relied on her detailed knowledge of supply chain that she had gained in earlier roles. By having a vision and knowing what to ask for, she and Rubio were able to build the Away brand without very much product-specific knowledge. This serves as a valuable lesson to entrepreneurs who might be fearful to get going on their business due to a lack of product-specific knowledge.
The roundtable was a special opportunity for participants to learn about the facets of creating a lasting brand, as well as the importance of connecting with customers. Korey helped students to better understand the pro’s and con’s of being a D2C business. Participants left the roundtable full of practical knowledge that will be beneficial as they plan their summers and years ahead. Most importantly, they walked away inspired and excited about the many pathways that entrepreneurship can provide.
Environmental Studies concentrator and visual artist, Isabella Giancarlo ‘14, never imagined cosmetics would be her future, but in creating the first genderqueer beauty brand,Fluide, she may have found her calling. Giancarlo’s foray into beauty emerged as she was working as a brand strategist and designer in NYC, and saw an opportunity to “create something new and empowering for people of all gender expressions—to locate makeup outside of the paradigm of cis-female beauty opens up the potential for makeup to be an empowering form of self-expression for all people, rather than a representation of all the ways you don’t measure up.”
Launched in January 2018, Fluide is a collection of colorful, cruelty-free makeup available online and through a growing list of U.S. retailers. Founded in Brooklyn, New York, with business partner, Laura Kraber, Giancarlo explains that Fluide was created with the belief that makeup is a tool of transformation and a powerful means of self-actualization. “From a personal place, I wanted to ensure that queer folks like me were both in front and behind the camera as much as possible. I knew that a younger me was dying to see queer beauty represented by queer people and I know the process of coming into my queer identity would have been a lot easier had I had more gender-expansive role models, says Giancarlo.
Fluide has been well-received by the media and covered by outlets fromTeen Vogue toBuzzfeed toFast Company and is looking forward to increased distribution and continuing to make the world a little bit sparkly-er in 2019.
More About Fluide:
A mission-driven startup, Fluide donates five percent of profits to organizations that support health + legal rights in the LGBTQ community. Fluide’s collection includes liquid lipstick, lip gloss, nail polish, eyeshadow, and glitter free from potentially harmful and/or endocrine-disrupting chemicals including phthalates, parabens, formaldehyde and triclosan. By naming lip and nail shades after queer spaces around the globe, Fluide seeks to pay tribute to the importance of safe spaces for the LGBTQ community. Get in touch with them here – firstname.lastname@example.org.
I wrote The Navigator because I wanted to help new entrepreneurs start their venture well prepared in their founder role. I am a firm believer that new entrepreneurs need to develop their business idea in tandem with their founder skills.
I’ve spent two decades in the startup trenches as a serial founder and collaborator with founders and co-founders. I’ve worn different hats during my entrepreneurial career: startup strategist, brand strategist, product developer, researcher, team builder, client relations director, operations manager, and crisis manager.
Time and again, I’ve witnessed first-time founders fail not because they didn’t have a great product idea. Some did. There was a founder-CTO who developed a software that was the precursor to Google Street View. Another founder came up with a community-building platform called Circles, a few years before Google added Google+ to its product portfolio. A third founder developed a service that delivered private and trackable messages.
These entrepreneurs failed because they had spent most of their time in the Product room and missed the big picture: a successful startup operation comprises many components that need to synchronize and move forward as one engine.
Most first-time founders employ the conventional product-centric startup approach, placing most if not all their efforts and resources on their product idea. They believe that if they can build a prototype or even a complete product (whether this is a physical product, a service, or a software) and show that they can sell, scale and raise money, they’re on their way to entrepreneurial success.
They’re either unaware of or choose to delay the need to create a structure and processes to support their product and operation through their entire entrepreneurial journey. By the time they decide to focus on infrastructure building, they have to backtrack to incorporate all kinds of data and knowledge into their execution plans.
More important, product-centric founders overlook the need to develop their founder role to lead and build not just their product team but their entire company successfully. Most new entrepreneurs don’t know the questions to ask and don’t perform self-analysis to determine their own competency for the founder role. Many are insecure about taking the helm so they have this default plan to improvise in their founder/CEO/President role until they can afford to hire a qualified individual to take charge. They often believe that they are smart and can figure things out as they move along, but the startup environment is not a dress rehearsal; it can be very unforgiving.
The one major difference and advantage that successful serial entrepreneurs have over first-timers is experience: seasoned founders know how to take short-cuts and be effective. For new entrepreneurs who decide to wing it, it’s like taking command of a vessel and leading a crew without having studied seamanship and planning resources for the long journey.
After one of my startups that I was advising failed in spite of possessing many winning attributes, I took time off to reflect and review my experiences in the trenches with founders and co-founders. I decided to share my insights to help new entrepreneurs prepare well for their founder role and avoid many common missteps committed by product-centric entrepreneurs.
The Navigator employs the metaphor of an entrepreneurial journey as a sea voyage with the founder at the helm as skipper. The book reflects my belief that a new entrepreneur needs to allocate time to take stock of where she’s been; what qualities, skills and resources she’s bringing onboard as captain of her own startup vessel; and what she needs to cultivate and prepare well for the journey.
A product idea may evolve or change completely over time. The one constant in each venture is the founder, who shoulders immense responsibility and wields great influence over outcomes. The Navigator offers an integrated process to help new founders train and develop competency prior to launching their venture. Proper planning prevents poor performance.
On Friday, April 13, 2018, Chuck Isgar ‘20.5, a student member of Brown EP proudly hosted the inaugural Roundtable Discussion with Grant Gurtin ’12, founder of Fanium and Trend.io. It was an exciting opportunity for student entrepreneurs on campus to have a candid conversation with an active angel investor and fellow student entrepreneurs.
Several students discussed marketing difficulties involving their products and services. To this point, Grant emphasized the importance of having someone on your team whose specialty is marketing. He explained that in this day and age, marketing is very quantitative, which helps to explain why it’s all the more important to have a team member or advisor who can help a startup talk through how they can best market their product or service.
Students at the roundtable also shared their own startup perspectives, such as their positive experiences with Facebook ads as a means of testing marketing strategies. It was a unique environment to have students receiving advice not just from Grant, but also from fellow student entrepreneurs.
Grant revealed that his experiences have taught him that to be a successful entrepreneur, you don’t need to reinvent the wheel, but rather do something better and market it well. A common issue is that there’s often a lack of authenticity in a certain space, which presents itself as a ripe opportunity for an entrepreneur.
Right now is an extremely exciting time for entrepreneurship. Grant encouraged all students who have a passion for entrepreneurship to consider working at an early stage venture this summer. He explained that the experience of working at a startup will throw one right into the mix of the daily madness that occurs in the exciting and unpredictable environment of launching a new business.
Grant explained to students that being on College Hill is a unique place for entrepreneurship — he encouraged students to appreciate the array of talented students on campus, and to take advantage of the “bubble” of entrepreneurial energy and skills that surround them.
Students were left with not just specific advice for their businesses, but also some words of wisdom from Grant: he emphasized that students should not worry about their lack of entrepreneurial experience, but rather focus on their passion for creating something new. He explained that you have to believe wholeheartedly in your passion to make a startup succeed.
About Brown EP: Brown EP is the student-run entrepreneurship group on campus, overseeing the planning on various entrepreneurial-related events on campus. Brown EP supports student entrepreneurs by connecting them with resources and mentors on campus.
About the Jonathan M. Nelson Center for Entrepreneurship: Our mission is to make entrepreneurship an essential part of the Brown University experience. We offer curricular, co-curricular, and venture support to students, staff, faculty, alumni and the local community. Learn more here.
On October 12, 2018, the Nelson Center for Entrepreneurship and Brown EPproudly hosted Rip Pruisken ’10, co-founder of Rip Van, for a roundtable discussion. The discussion is a part of the Roundtable Discussion Series moderated by Chuck Isgar ‘20.5.
As Rip discussed how he got his business started at Brown, a clear theme emerged: the importance of experimentation. Rip advocated to students that they should think about entrepreneurship as a series of scientific experiments. At the start of the process, an entrepreneur should view their idea as their hypothesis.
Pruisken explained that early on, the entrepreneur is in the information gathering stage to determine whether there is data out there signaling that the hypothesis has merit and is worth testing. Once convinced of the hypothesis, Pruisken recommended to students that they should go into ‘doing’ mode quickly into their process to test their hypothesis.
Based off the outcome of tests, the entrepreneur should continually be asking themself whether the process or the hypothesis needs improvement. In other words, the entrepreneur needs to determine if they have discovered a real need, pain point or problem and solution thereof. Pruisken explained that business strategy can also be viewed through the lens of experimentation, where measuring the results of a strategy implemented can help one assess whether the strategy needs to be improved or the execution thereof. Doing this over and over again will help the entrepreneur get better at operating their business.
Not only are Rip Van Wafels products tasty with 55% less sugar than a candy bar, but they feature intriguing branding. Many participants were interested in the brand that Pruisken has built. He explained that the packaging of Rip Van Wafels products has been designed to match the consumer’s expectation of the product. He suggested that entrepreneurs ask themselves: “does my packaging represent the value proposition?”
When asked by a participant what his motivation was, Pruisken explained his love for building great products that are impactful. He suggested that entrepreneurs ask themselves: “what’s my drive? Do I have a clear definition for myself?” According to Pruisken, if you want to excel, you’ll have to go through a lot of hurdles to get there. As such, he encourages entrepreneurially-minded students to really think through what it is that drives them so that it will help them persevere through thick and thin.
Pruisken acknowledged that a distinct part of the success of Rip Van Wafels has been positioning the product as a better-for-you sweet snack for on the go and uniquely delivering on that value proposition. The Rip Van Wafels positioning is especially relevant because there is an increasing demand for better convenient foods to meet the needs and health preferences of students and professionals with increasingly busy lifestyles.
Pruisken is constantly innovating, and shared with the participants that his business seeks to improve their product every two years. He made it clear that even if the business is doing well, you have to continually be reinventing your brand in order to remain fresh in a competitive marketplace.
So far Rip Van has launched 3 Rip Van Wafel iterations, reducing sugar levels from 14g to <9g, without sacrificing on taste.
The next iteration, which is slated to launch in Q1 of ’19 will only have 3g of sugar!
Whether you’re just starting your venture or well into development, Pruisken emphasized that you need to take your ego out of the process. He explained, for example, that if you haven’t done something before, such as branding, you probably don’t have the experience to effectively do it on your own. Along these lines, Pruisken shared the importance of surrounding yourself with others who are experienced in their respective fields. Pruisken emphasized the opportunities that students on College Hill have to collaborate with other students, Professors at Brown and RISD and Industry Professionals.
We will soon be having Rip Van Wafels available at a variety of Brown campus dining locations, including the Blue Room and Jo’s. Perhaps the next time you bite into one of the tasty snacks, you’ll have a better appreciation for the experimentation that went into creating the treat.
If you are interested in participating in a future roundtable discussion, visit the Nelson Center for Entrepreneurship’s event page and sign up for the next one!