Rock star entrepreneurs

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One of the highlights of Sunday morning at NRF 2018 was a presentation called “Rock Star Entrepreneurs and the Next Generation of Retail.” Moderated by Rachel Shechtman, founder and CEO of STORY, the panel included beauty and footwear entrepreneur Marcia Kilgore, most recently the creator of Beauty Pie and Soaper Duper; Michael Lastoria, co-founder, CEO and creative director of &pizza; Dan Levitan, co-founder and general partner of Maveron; and Manish Vora, co-founder of Museum of Ice Cream.

Shechtman began by giving the audience a quick overview of STORY, a 2,000-square-foot store in New York that has the point of view of a magazine, changes content like a gallery and sells things like a store. It actually is a store, but one whose entire inventory is centered around a certain theme and changes as the theme (or, as Shechtman puts it, the story) changes. Stories at STORY have included Home for the Holidays, Love, Well Being, His, Making Things and numerous others.

Maveron is a venture capital company that focuses exclusively on consumer- oriented seed and early-stage companies. Dan Levitan traces the beginning of his interest in entrepreneurial consumer companies to a 1991 meeting with Howard Schultz, founder and now chairman of Starbucks, who, he said, “changed the psychological contract between a company and its employees.” Inspired by Schultz’s passion and focus — and, not coincidentally, his success — Levitan co-founded Maveron in 1998.

At the stage when Maveron gets involved, it’s much too early to know — or even have a solid guess — as to whether a company will go on to become a success. In determining who gets funding, Levitan and his colleagues look most closely not at pro formas but at the entrepreneurs themselves. “The idea matters,” Levitan said. “The execution matters more. The team matters most.” Successful entrepreneurs, he said, tend to share key traits.

One is speed: They work, as he put it, ridiculously fast. They recruit strong people.

They are obsessed with product quality. (He told the story of a founder whose company got one bad review out of hundreds of good ones. The bad review was the subject of a series of painful meetings, not just with senior staff but with the board: How can we change to make this better?) and they manage to have a balance between obsession and analytics, or, as Levitan put it, head and heart. “The ones who are all heart,” he said, “never manage to scale. The ones who are all head never manage to become an important part of their customers’ lives.”

Museum of Ice Cream is the brainchild of co-founders Manish Vora, who previously worked at a Manhattan equity research firm, and Maryellis Bunn who, while a student at Parsons School of Design, found museums and other cultural institutions unable to engage and capture her generation, the Millennials. Museum of Ice Cream, an interactive art exhibition with ice cream- and candy-themed exhibits, was launched to remedy the lack of such engagement. The first exhibition appeared in New York in 2016; 30,000 tickets, priced at $12 to $18, sold out in a week.

A Museum of Ice Cream opened in Los Angeles last summer, and has been visited — and documented and praised via social media — by Katy Perry, Kim Kardashian, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jay-Z, Beyoncé, Drew Barrymore and others. “In 2017,” Vora said, “we had 500,000 visitors. In 2018 we expect a million-plus.”

&pizza is a chain of 30 boutique pizza shops based in the Washington, D.C., area with locations in Philadelphia and New York City. Michael Lastoria, co-founder, chief executive and creative director, notes that the company is an “anti-establishment establishment” based on the renown of its creative pies and craft beverages, localized shop design and the strength, unity and vibe of its workforce. &pizza prides itself on this latter; it offers, to all employees, competitive pay, flexible scheduling, medical and dental insurance, a 401(k) program and a “no ceiling policy” — you can start sweeping the floor and go as high as your ambition and abilities will allow. A number of employees, Lastoria said, have had themselves tattooed with an ampersand to demonstrate their sense of belonging and commitment to the company.

Marcia Kilgore, by far the most experienced creator and launcher of businesses among the morning’s panelists, is frequently described as a serial entrepreneur. In 1996 she founded the Bliss Spa chain in New York City; it was acquired by LVMH in 1999 and is currently owned by Steiner Leisure. Since then Kilgore has founded Soaper Duper, Soap and Glory and, most recently, Beauty Pie, which she describes as “the Netflix of luxury cosmetics.” Beauty Pie acquires products and materials from global third-party manufacturers and sells them direct to consumers “without,” she said, “the thousand-percent markup.”

See a video from this session at NRF 2018 here. For more from NRF 2018: Retail’s Big Show, visit the official recap.

Photo by Jason Dixson Photography.

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