When Alexandra Grigore stepped out onto the stage at the London Premios Creator Awards, she couldn’t have been more nervous. Winning was crucial to her nonprofit Simprints, which works to improve healthcare in developing nations. “It was pretty incredible,” says Grigore, the organization’s lead product manager. “When I heard people cheering, all the nervousness went away. I thought, ‘Let’s do this.’” She went on to win the top prize at the competition, taking home $360,000 for Simprints.
The team’s breakthrough is a fingerprint scanner that tracks mothers and children when they come in for healthcare—a must in far-flung regions where most people don’t have any form of identification. Simprints started as a side project among a small group of scholarship students at the University of Cambridge. But after working on it for a year and a half, they received their first grant in 2014. That helped fund a pilot program in Bangladesh, which proved the need for an inexpensive, rugged, and reliable device to track patients.
“People don’t think of engineers as creative people. But being in the same competition with artists and people from all sort of fields was really, really inspiring.”
Grigore says she’s thrilled that the Creator Awards will help them take their project to the next level by hiring seven new staffers. They’ll be able to expand their work in places like Zambia, Nepal, and Malawi.
“I’m a scientist, a researcher, but above all, a builder,” says Grigore. “I want to build technology that works for the poor, not in 20 to 30 years, but right now. My colleagues and I founded Simprints for that purpose: to create a world equipped with the tools necessary to stop preventable suffering.”
But Grigore says the money will also let her team start thinking about where they will be years down the line. “It’s hard for us as a small, lean startup to put money into research and development knowing that it might not lead to huge rewards down the line,” Grigore says. “Now, because we have this money, we can afford to invest in the future.”
Nicola Piercy may have co-founded a clothing label, but that doesn’t mean she has a particularly keen eye for fashion. “I don’t weigh in on the designs,” she says, “apart from me going, ‘Oh my God, really? That’s a horrible color!’” To which her business partner, Katie Lopes, usually responds, “Trust me. It’s cool.”
The two founded Stripe + Stare, a U.K.-based brand that sells striped designs like Bretons and knickers (aka underwear), in August 2017, with a £70,000 ($90,000) investment from one of Lopes’s fashion-industry contacts. (Lopes owned a designer boutique, Austique, for more than a decade.) “She’s the creative and sales, and I’m the so-called sensible person,” Piercy says. “I do all the finances, purchase orders, sales analysis, etc. It’s a good balance.”
Piercy had just left her job as managing director of a cooking school in London when Lopes approached her about starting the business. They’d collaborated a decade prior at Austique, where Piercy helped out with operations for a bit, so “it was a pretty easy decision,” she says. “We make a very good team.”
With their financing secured (“The investor had come to Lopes a couple years ago and said, ‘If you ever have a business idea, I’d be interested in backing you,’” Piercy explains), they hired design firms to create their logo and website. The goal was to launch their debut collection atSpirit of Christmas, one of the biggest Christmas shows in London, at the end of October 2017.
“It was total chaos,” Piercy says. But they got the collection done in time, and even managed to follow the show with two more.
It helped that Lopes had been working with a manufacturer in China since her Austique days, using modal, a sustainable fabric made from beechwood trees, to develop the perfect pair of buttery-soft knickers. “When she was running her shop, everyone said, ‘You’ve gotta get the brand Hanky Panky in,’” Piercy tells it, in reference to the lingerie line. “And then she was amazed at these women who came in and bought armfuls of them at £20 a pair.”
So Lopes set out to make her own knicker equivalent. Now her skivvies, which have been tweaked over the years, are the company’s best-selling items, available in more than 30 boutique locations across the UK, U.S., and Germany, and on Shopbop.
“The knickers are what everyone gets excited about at all the shows,” Piercy, a member at WeWork 184 Shepherd’s Bush Rd in London, says. “The moment anyone feels them it’s like, ‘Oh my god, this fabric is insane!’” This year, Piercy and Lopes started manufacturing all of their products, with the exception of cashmere sweaters, using modal. “It is the best fabric,” she says. “So why use anything else?
Below, Piercy shares the details of a recent workweek.
7 a.m. I get up to let out my 4-month-old puppy, Penfold (she’s named after the wine). Shower, change, have a cup of tea, and walk out the door.
7:45 a.m. Head to Ravenscourt Park to take Penfold for a walk. I usually listen to podcasts such asHolly & Co orBusiness of Fashion—I always learn something hearing other entrepreneurs’ stories.
8:45 a.m. Arrive at WeWork, grab a coffee and some breakfast (fruit and cereal), and head to my desk.
9-10 a.m. Catch up on email.
10 a.m. Call with Katie. Although we speak about 10 times a day, this is our “official” time to go over things. We talk about what happened last week, what’s happening this week, sales targets, financials, production, PR, and marketing.
11 a.m. Emails. We raised £130,000 before Christmas by going directly to happy customers.Now I’m able to email all the shareholders their share certificates.
We’re using the serviceSeedLegals for the process, which saved us thousands of pounds and the headache of dealing with lawyers. So many new platforms like Xero (accounting),Vend (point of sale), andShopify (e-commerce) make our lives easier.
12:30 p.m. Walk Penfold and grab some lunch from the salad bar downstairs.
1-2 p.m. Chase any of our unpaid accounts, reconcile money, pay bills. We have an accountant, but I do this day-to-day so I have a tight handle on everything at all times.
2-3 p.m. Go through all of our sales reports and learn that we’ve sold 13,000 pairs of knickers so far this year!
3 p.m. Penfold gets fidgety, so I decide to head home and carry on from there.
5 p.m. Katie arrives from Devon, where our head office and warehouse are based, and where she lives. She comes up to London every couple of weeks, and I go down every few months. The distance (a 4.5-hour drive) is not the most convenient, but cloud systems make it manageable—and everything is cheaper there.
5-10 p.m. We prepare for a big meeting we have tomorrow withSelfridges [a high-end UK department store]. Knickers and clothes are strewn all over the place as we try to assemble them into sensible piles. We need to be able to pull them out of the bag in order, labeled, and looking great at our meeting with the buyer.
In December, we sent some knickers to Selfridges creative director Alannah Weston, and her office called us immediately asking us to come and meet the buying team. We told them we wouldn’t have our collection for the year until the end of January, so we’ve been working hard on the sample collection for months. Fingers crossed!
8:45 a.m. After taking Penfold for a long walk, arrive back home and smarten myself up. Katie and I jump on the tube and head into town.
9:45 a.m. Arrive at Selfridges HQ ready to meet Rosie from the Body Studio team, which does lingerie, sleepwear, and more. To win Selfridges as a wholesale account would be a big deal. It would place us amongst the great brands.
10-11 a.m. Have a great meeting with Rosie. She loves everything and completely gets the brand. You need all your numbers at your fingertips in these meetings. The product makes up 50 percent of the pitch, and then the margin, terms of trade, promotional strategy, etc. make up the other 50 percent.
Promotion-strategy-wise, if I let Katie have her way, Gigi Hadid would front our next campaign. So I have to keep tight control [of the budget]. We need to spend on promotion without breaking the bank.
11:15 a.m.-12 p.m. Meet Alannah Weston’s executive assistant, Charlotte, who takes us on a tour of the beautiful offices.
12-3 p.m. After stopping by my house to pick up Penfold, I meet with Ruth at Indian Summer, a top independent store in London. She’s been buying from us since the beginning, so it’s more a lovely chat and a gossip over clothes and knickers. Great to be in these meetings—you get feedback and find out your bestsellers.
4-5 p.m. Head to The Cross in Notting Hill, to show them the new collection. It’s a London institution, so it’s a real badge of honor to be stocked here.
6 p.m. Get home exhausted but elated. It’s the first day we’ve shown the new collection, and it’s gone down really well. We’re on a high.
7 p.m. We’re both talked out so we go and see the movie The Favourite to spend a couple of hours not discussing work.
9 a.m. Get home after a yoga class, shower, and send a few emails before heading out the door.
9:30-11:30 a.m. Head into town to meet with the gynecological-cancer charity Lady Garden. We did abespoke box of knickers with them last year and donated £5 of every box to them. This meeting is to catch up on sales figures, discuss where we could sell the rest of the stock, and talk about doing a new box this year.
11:45 a.m. Grab a quick lunch with my cousin-in-law.
1-6 p.m. Walk Penfold in the park and then write our newsletters for the week, letting our followers know about new stock and promotions.
7:30 p.m. Host a friend for supper.
7:30 a.m. Penfold gets picked up for doggy day care and a run-around in the country.
8:45 a.m. Attend an event at Google’s offices titled “How Will Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning Affect Retail Marketers?” It’s an amazing presentation from the team at Google and some other industry experts.
2 p.m. Meet Robin Howard, who has just come on board as our chairman. We met him through Julian Granville, the chairman of the catalog companyBoden. We initially went to Julian for investment, and he couldn’t invest because it would have been a conflict, but he offered to go to regular breakfasts with us and be our unofficial adviser. So when we needed a chairman, he suggested Robin, who was a huge success atBoden for 25 years.
So we met with Robin last year and just clicked. He’s going to invest, but he wanted to see how we work together first. He’s put loads of tasks together for us, like books to read. It’s fantastic to have someone so experienced help us step back and look at the bigger picture, strategy, and what is and isn’t working.
5 p.m. Meet withChloe Loves to Shop to discuss a Valentine’s Day promotion. It’s so important to work with influencers who enhance your brand. She has 60,000 followers who are incredibly engaged. When she first posted about us, our sales went berserk. We were on [a major influencer’s] Instagram Stories recently, with millions of followers, and we got barely anything from it. So you’ve got to find the people with the right engagement.
7.30 p.m. Walk to the local pub for supper with friends.
9 a.m. Head into WeWork with Penfold after a walk in the park.
9:30-10 a.m. Catch up with a merchandising agency that’s helping us with a new display concept. The idea is to create a beechwood tree where we can hang our knickers and packaging—that way people can instantly see the provenance of the fabric. It will be fantastic to take to events.
10 a.m. Receive an email from Selfridges saying they love our products and we should receive a purchase order next week!!! BEST NEWS EVER!!! They want to launch ASAP, so there is going to be a lot to plan, from a launch event to ensuring the product comes in on time.
11 a.m. Get a call from Katie, who is having a meltdown—our part-time warehouse manager is on holiday and Katie cannot cope with all the orders coming in from Instagram coverage we’ve gotten from Dolly Alderton. Exciting times, as we now need to consider hiring more staff, but taking steps like this is always scary—you’re committing to bigger monthly overheads.
12 p.m. I always use Friday afternoons as a tidy-up and planning day.
When you have your own business you have to be prepared to be involved in all areas of it. I’m also quite optimistic, and that always helps if you’re an entrepreneur. You can’t get down when something awful happens or things don’t go as expected. Just stay positive and passionate about what you do.
Seven years ago, Allbirds co-founder Tim Brown was living a very different life. A professional soccer player in New Zealand, Brown was on the brink of retirement from the game with only an inkling of what might come next. But that inkling became a product that is the backbone of a reportedly $1.4 billion business.
While playing soccer, Brown found himself yearning for a sneaker that was simpler than the ones he wore on the field—one that was as straightforward in its design as it was to manufacture. As it turned out, it didn’t exist. Could Brown create one?
“I literally went on Google, found a shoe factory, and visited it in the middle of one of my off-seasons, just because I was curious,” Brown told Benjamin Landy, senior editor at Vanity Fair’s The Hive, during a recent talk at Made by We in New York. “This whole thing really started as a curiosity project—to solve a problem that was only my own.”
Enter Allbirds, which in just three short years has spearheaded the direct-to-consumer (DTC) retail disruption. For Brown and his co-founder, biotechnology engineer Joey Zwillinger, less has always been more. The sneaker startup launched with just one product (its now-signature Wool Runners) largely composed of one material (wool) sourced from Brown’s native New Zealand. It didn’t release a second shoe until a year later, and a third and fourth a year after that. Today, Allbirds has grown to more than 200 employees, moving into a 13,000-square-foot headquarters in San Francisco’s Jackson Square neighborhood last fall.
Brown says none of this would be possible if Allbirds hadn’t committed to simplicity from the beginning. But no matter what stage a business is in, entrepreneurs can incorporate that mind-set into their own operations. Here’s how.
Seek answers to simple questions. Brown stumbled into the world of footwear when he wondered why the simplest things were the way they were—and wasn’t satisfied by the responses he received.
“I started asking really, really simple questions, and no one could give me a good answer, like, ‘What’s a size 9?’ ‘Well, it depends. It’s different for Adidas and it’s different for Nike,’” he remembers. “I was going down this rabbit hole of understanding the industry through fresh eyes.”
Brown claims that his and Zwillinger’s inexperience became a competitive advantage as they worked to clarify some of the more convoluted aspects of traditional footwear, like, yes, sizing.
Don’t overcomplicate gut decisions. Before teaming up with Zwillinger, Brown enrolled in a 10-week entrepreneurship course at Northwestern University, where he began to hone his idea for a wool sneaker. His professor wasn’t convinced by the concept but, witnessing Brown’s drive, encouraged him to pursue it.
“‘For whatever reason, of all the other 50 young people in this class, you seem to be driven to try to solve this particular problem, so you should throw it out into the world,’” Brown recalls him saying.
That gut-check led Brown to move past his initial doubts, but it wasn’t until he teamed up with Zwillinger that the pair decided to build Allbirds full-time. They made the decision to launch the company over the course of just one weekend spent together in San Francisco.
“It was one of those quick decisions—usually the best ones are,” says Brown. “We made that decision without raising any money, but we decided that the vision was big and we wanted it to have a maximum impact.”
Live or die by doing one or two things exceptionally well. In retail, the direct-to-consumer experience is all about specialization. Allbirds brand launched with just one shoe and sold that same one shoe for the first 14 months. To even get to that point, though, Brown recalls the product going through “more than 200” tweaks and variations.
“That insane focus is probably something more akin to a specialist butcher, or a florist, or a cheesemonger,” he says. “We were coming in to solve a particular problem and we were going to curate our experience in a very, very specific way. We were going to live and die by that solution.”
Do more by delegating. When Allbirds raised its first round of funding in 2015 and the company began to scale, Brown and Zwillinger were still touching every nook and cranny of the business, from answering phones to packing shipments. That couldn’t last.
“The idea is that you hire really smart people who know what they’re doing better than you, and you’ve got to somehow find a way to do more by letting go,” says Brown. “I think anyone who’s been through that process probably finds it a little bit hard. “
Make business decisions simply because they’re the right thing to do. Allbirds’ shoes are sustainably crafted throughout every step of the process, from the Merino wool that’s sheared in New Zealand to the final pair of shoes that hit the shop floor. But Brown argues that’s hardly the most interesting thing about the company.
“Don’t make a sustainable product. Make a great product and make it as sustainable as possible, and look for the competitive advantages where you can do that,” says Brown. With the reality of climate change, Brown believes businesses must be part of the solution by finding better ways to make the things we use. “If we can put a man on the moon, we can find a way to make a T-shirt more sustainably.”
Get comfortable with the word “no.” Brown attributes the brand’s success to saying no to “97 percent of things”—97 percent of opportunities and partnerships and meetings and coffees—so as not to stray from the path he and Zwillinger forged back in 2015.
On the micro level, that includes setting up boundaries between their work and the rest of their lives. Particularly because both co-founders are new fathers, this has been of utmost importance as Allbirds has scaled. “There’s always going to be too many things on your to-do list, says Brown. “Work out which ones you should be doing and give it your best shot throughout the week. When it comes to the end of the day on Friday, park it. Try to keep something that’s very, very complicated very, very simple.”
The odds didn’t start out in Marcus Samuelsson’s favor. Orphaned at 3 when a tuberculosis epidemic in his birthplace of Ethiopia took his mother, Samuelsson and his older sister were eventually adopted by a Swedish family. But, as the chef and restaurateur put it during the “Team Awesome” session at WeWork’s Global Summit in Los Angeles in January, “sometimes the worst thing that ever happened to you can be the best thing that ever happened to you.”
Not only did this life-changing event take him from a place where food was scarce to where it was abundant, Samuelsson says, but he and his sister found a home with an eclectic brood of different faces and personalities (including a grandmother who taught him to forage and use the best parts of the land for sustenance). This environment forever put him at ease around people of different backgrounds, and also instilled in him a lack of fear of failing or asking for help—which proved useful when Samuelsson eventually launched his restaurant business.
Samuelsson says his upbringing is why he gravitates toward open-minded and forward-thinking people. As a young man, he worked his way up the ranks in some of Europe’s toughest kitchens before breaking into the New York City restaurant scene. There he connected with Andrew Chapman, his eventual restaurant co-founder and investor. When the celebrity-chef trend hit big in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the two of them hatched a plan to open an eclectic comfort-food restaurant in Harlem that was about more than “filling your restaurant with more than the 1 percent of the 1 percent,” he says, a place “where people of all colors and beliefs can come.”
So Samuelsson made the leap—going from executive chef at Aquavit to opening Red Rooster uptown on Malcolm X Boulevard. “Entrepreneurship is about how high are you willing to dream, how low are you willing to go, and can you execute?” Samuelsson says. “Urban America operates with tons of entrepreneurs. Living in the community made me extremely aware of this.”
Samuelsson was more than willing, but he admits there were rough spots: He remembers being intimidated to seek out an established architect or designer because of their limited budget. So he reached out to other small-business entrepreneurs, asking for their help with these searches as a cost-cutting measure that would yield exposure and clients for everyone involved.
Samuelsson and Chapman knew it wasn’t enough to have delicious, innovative food—with Red Rooster, they also wanted to move the media needle. So they hosted dinners for brands like Nike and Bon Appetit magazine. They also started a food website, Samuelsson says, rather than wait for the occasional drop-in from The New York Times and other mainstream outlets. “Most black narratives and conversations aren’t told by us; they’re told by others,” he says. “It was important for us to do our own storytelling.»
Red Rooster opened in December 2010, and in short order, it became a favorite destination for locals and celebrities and created jobs for the people who live there. Nearly 10 years later, Samuelsson says that 60 to 70 percent of Red Rooster’s staff still lives in the area. Attributes he looks for in team members include “passion and a level of attitude [that they] bring to the table.”
“You take the staff with you on your journey,” Samuelsson says of his team. “Building the tribe [is important], but also taking people with you is key. And listening to the staff.”
Samuelsson notes that Red Rooster and the WeWork Harlem location have something in common: “WeWork isn’t just improving your community; it’s about building other communities,” and likewise, “the good thing about a restaurant is you touch more communities. Breaking bread will always be a fresh idea.”
“As [society] gets more tech-savvy and as we get more people on the fringes not talking to each other, this idea of making stuff, telling stories through food, and listening to different narratives—that is still an incredible idea,” Samuelsson says.
It’s one that keeps Samuelsson busy. “You can never sleep on your business,” he says. “You have to have this constant idea of ‘how can I work in my business?’”
Luckily, Samuelsson can always find the good, even in the bad.
While its millions of customers were looking for romance, one of the largest online dating apps in the U.S. changed its status to “in a relationship.”
Hinge, a dating app that says it’s “designed to be deleted,” announced a couple of days before Valentine’s Day that it is now wholly owned byMatch Group. The terms of the sale were not disclosed.
This news means that almost all the big-name dating apps—includingMatch,Tinder, andOkCupid—are now owned by the same company. The only major player Match Group hasn’t scooped up isBumble, where women are the first to swipe right. (Match Group sued Bumble last year, alleging that it stole its intellectual property; Bumble countersued for harassment.)
All this consolidation isn’t necessarily bad news for those looking for love. Match Group has been hands-off with the companies it acquires, encouraging them to maintain their own cultures. Each of the companies it’s bought attracts a certain demographic—Hinge, for example, does well with urban, educated millennial women—that Match Group wants to capture.
Tim MacGougan, chief product officer at Hinge, says Match Group made it clear it wants Hinge to be distinctive from the rest of its portfolio.
“Tinder celebrates single life,” he says. “Match feels matrimonial. Hinge is different. Our members are people in their 20s and 30s who are looking for meaningful connections with other people.”
Breaking away from the pack
In two separate panel discussions held this week at WeWork—one hosted by Flatiron School, the other co-sponsored by the nonprofit Out in Tech—engineers, executives, and founders of a range of dating apps talked about how they distinguish themselves in an increasingly crowded field. Hinge, for instance, considers itself an expert on what makes a good date. It even reimburses its employees up to $200 a month if they’ll post about their dates on the app.
“People here have been very creative,” McGougan says. “They try something new and share it with our members.”
Hinge, which has had an estimated 3 million downloads, even sends followups to members who have met through the app, asking how things went. This information will eventually allow it to make better matches.
AtOkCupid, the staff puts a lot of effort into making sure members are compatible before they even meet. It asks members hard-hitting questions that might be a deal-breaker for others scanning their profile. One example: “Is climate change real?”
“In the past few years, people have shown they care a lot about politics,” says engineering manager Jordan Guggenheim. “So we have been asking members questions like, ‘Do you prefer that your date shares your political views?’”
It’s a hot-button topic, but one that reveals a lot about people. “These simple questions carry a lot of weight in terms of who people choose to date long-term,” Guggenheim says.
Guggenheim—a graduate of Flatiron School—says he’s proud that the company remains ahead of the curve on issues like gender identity.
“We absolutely take the stance that we support more than the binary gender options,” he says. “We were one of the first apps to offer 22 different genders and 12 different orientations. We want you to be able to best express how you identify.”
Creating a safe space
As the larger apps are all being gobbled up by the same parent company, smaller apps see a chance to distinguish themselves.
Morgen Bromell, CEO of a newly relaunched dating app “for queer people of all genders” calledThurst, appreciates that mainstream platforms are becoming more inclusive. But being able to check a box isn’t enough.
“I was bummed that there wasn’t a platform for queer people, trans people, and nonbinary people,” says Bromell. “We needed a place where people didn’t feel fetishized, where they wouldn’t be targeted for who they are.”
Bromell launched a beta version of the app in 2016, but almost immediately, trolls lashed out at users. The team spent the next year working on creating a more secure space for their community.
As the app has developed, it’s also become a social network where members create close friendships.
“I want to dispel the idea that the relationships you make on an app are less important than those you make in person,” says Bromell. “A relationship you start online can be just as valuable.”
Eric Silverberg, CEO of Scruff, says that the gay dating app fulfills several different purposes.
“Is Scruff a hookup app? Yes, absolutely,” he says. “Is it a social network? Yes, absolutely. And it’s everything in between.”
When the platform launched in 2010, Scruff was among the first gay dating apps. The field has gotten a lot more crowded since then, so Silverberg has to keep attracting members with new features.
“We’ve been beta testing a live queer quiz show on its app called ‘Hosting,’” he says. “When we sawHQ launch a little over a year ago, it got us excited about the notion of doing something live. What if we got everyone on Scruff to log on at the same time and have a shared experience?”
Silverberg says that the app’s most important function is perhaps to be a kind of virtual community center, providing its members with access to information they might not otherwise know how to find.
“We’re very proud of the fact that Scruff has partnered with thousands of LGBTQ nonprofits and health organizations to get their messages in front of our community,” he says. “One of our responsibilities to the gay and queer community is to forge those connections.”