The Way I Work: Alison Pincus of One Kings Lane
The life of an entrepreneur can be hectic, but Alison Pincus is taking it to a new extreme. Pincus, 36, is co-founder of One Kings Lane, a fast-growing online business that offers private sales on high-end home décor. Three years after its founding, the San Francisco-based company has 130 employees and more than one million subscribers, who receive daily e-mails with discounts on furniture, lamps, rugs, throw pillows, and other furnishings. About once a week, Pincus hops on a plane to meet with interior designers, host events, attend trade shows, or visit One Kings Lane's other offices, in Los Angeles and New York City. Adding to the chaos: Pincus's husband, Mark, runs his own company (Zynga, the online gaming company behind FarmVille), and the couple has twin daughters, Georgia and Carmen, who will celebrate their first birthday this summer. Juggling it all takes a lot of energy—and multiple calendars.
I'm always on e-mail. I love it. I do everything on my BlackBerry. But my husband and I have a policy: When we're with our kids, BlackBerrys down.
I usually get up at 6:30, so I can send some e-mails before my girls get up at 7:15. One Kings Lane has three offices, and e-mail is the main way we communicate. My husband and I have breakfast with the girls and play with them until we leave for work. I leave around 9. Mark usually leaves earlier so he can work out. He's very diligent. Plus, he's OK with showering at gyms. I'm not.
Most of the time, I work in our main office in San Francisco. The majority of our people are there, including our software engineers, operations, business development, customer care, the marketing team, and our CEO, Doug Mack. I speak with Doug a few times a week. He joined us last year. Having him run things frees me up to focus on business development and strategy.
I also talk with my co-founder, Susan Feldman, every day. She and I didn't know each other before we launched the business. We met over e-mail. A mutual acquaintance—Lisa Stone, the co-founder of BlogHer—introduced us. There was this unbelievable chemistry. Susie and I both really wanted to change how people bought home and lifestyle products online. I worried that if we had this idea, somebody else might, too. My husband said, "It's all about speed. The first one to the market can make it." We took that advice and ran. We launched the company from our respective homes—I'm in San Francisco, and she's in L.A.
Susie is the queen of merchandising. She was on the executive team at Warnaco. My expertise is in marketing, business development, and digital media. I grew up on the Web and worked at NBC.com and on the digital team at Hachette Filipacchi. It's a strong partnership. With everything we do, there's always a leader, but we also collaborate. When I wrote the marketing materials, Susie would edit them. And I've always helped her source brands. In the beginning, we'd make a list together and divvy it up. She'd say, "I want to call this brand," and I'd say, "OK, I'll call this one." I conquered San Francisco, and she took L.A. And whenever we were in the same city, we'd go together. We were on the phone nonstop every day, and we still are.
I don't have an assistant—no one at One Kings Lane does. I keep track of my meetings, phone calls, and travel arrangements in Outlook. I also carry a paper calendar with me everywhere, and I keep a separate calendar at home. Mark and I both write in the one at home. We'll say, "OK, let's do the calendar now." We are both extremely busy, but we want to be with each other—have family time and see our friends. We also do a book of life, an annual scrapbook, so the paper calendar goes right into that each year. That way, we can look back on previous years and say, "Oh, remember when we did that?" Mark got me into it—he's been doing it forever.
I travel a lot. I'm literally on a plane every week. Since I became a mom, I've made a point of doing shorter trips—two nights, max. Mark doesn't travel as much as I do. And when he does travel, he tries to do day trips. We have incredible help at home—plus, our parents are very involved—which allows me to get on the plane knowing my girls are in the best of hands.
I never check bags. If I have a lot of stuff, I'll send a box via FedEx. I often carry my One Kings Lane tote bag, which holds my ThinkPad, so I can respond to e-mails on the plane. I also take magazines with me. I love shelter magazines, as well as Real Simple and Martha Stewart Living. I rip pages out and take notes. I'm always on the lookout for interesting designers, cool products, and trends. I clip recipes, too.
I go to New York City once or twice a month. Our sales force and creative team are based there. We call everyone in our sales department buyers. They work with the different brands to construct the deals. Every vendor is different—some won't discount as much as others—so our buyers negotiate each deal individually. It's a great business model, because we typically buy the products only after the consumer pays us. And some brands ship directly from their warehouses to the consumer. When I'm in New York, I always check in with my buyers, and I occasionally go on sales calls. I also schedule meetings with interior designers.
Interior designers are my rock stars. We go after them the way Nike goes after athletes. A lot of designers are shopping on our site and telling their clients about us. It has helped us market to the right people. We wanted to create an area on the site in which they could market their own merchandise. Last year, we launched Tastemaker Tag Sales, biweekly sales of merchandise curated by famous interior designers. Our general manager of designer sales, Andrea Stanford, oversees them. Before the launch, we already had commitments from many designers, including Nathan Turner, Kathryn Ireland, and Ann Getty. These designers open up their world to our users. Not many customers have the access or the resources to work with a designer like Michael Smith. But through our Tastemaker Tag Sales, they could hypothetically buy something he sourced for the White House.
We approach each designer in an individualized way. I sold Michelle Nussbaumer, a design legend, on our first call. We talked about getting her involved with One Kings Lane—doing an event in Dallas together and hosting a Tastemaker Tag Sale that would benefit a local cause she cares about.
I have chutzpah. I started pitching the national edition of DailyCandy three months before we launched—before we even had one retailer sign on. In January, I saw Martha Stewart, my business idol, at the Winter Antiques Show. I ran up to her and told her I was a fan. Afterward, I sent her a cashmere throw and a note. Six weeks later, I got a letter from The Martha Stewart Show, asking to interview us on the program. Susie and I went on her show in April. From the start, whenever Susie and I would go to meetings, we would leave behind a gift and follow up with a handwritten thank-you note. We really like to be personable—our company has been built on relationships.
Malcolm Gladwell talks about connectors—people who somehow know everyone. I am a connector by nature, and I love connecting industry luminaries with One Kings Lane. I'm constantly looking for interesting people to collaborate with, including lifestyle icons, up-and-coming designers, and experts. I want One Kings Lane to become a place where people get expert advice as well as shop for their home. Gwyneth Paltrow is a good example. She's an actress turned tastemaker—when she writes about brands on Goop, her website, it's like fairy dust. She wrote about One Kings Lane in 2009, and we had a conference call with her a few months later. I knew Gwyneth was working on a cookbook, so I said, "I want to sponsor your tour."
In April, we hosted an event for the launch of her book, My Father's Daughter. It was an elegant dinner party for 60 inside Palazzo Chupi, artist Julian Schnabel's development in the West Village. A few days later, One Kings Lane members could buy all the items Gwyneth Paltrow had picked to set the tables. We usually do about one event a month. The same night as that dinner party, we also hosted another event in New York, a container sale, which featured a collection of housewares and accessories that Susie and designer Nathan Turner had brought back from a trip to India.
I make sure we're always very respectful to the key players in the industry. We were planning a party for Westweek, an annual design conference, last year, and everyone else wanted to hold our party the same night as another big party a magazine was hosting. I said, "No way; we don't want to make enemies." Susie thought I was making too big of a deal about this, but I really held out.
If I'm not traveling, I'm with Mark and the girls every night. I like to be home around 6 p.m., so I can spend two hours with my girls before they go to bed. I'll have dinner with them, read stories, and give them a bath. I love to cook, but it's hard during the week. So there's a lot of takeout.
Mark and I sometimes coach each other. We help each other see the big picture. I've learned a lot from him. But I don't like to bore him with the details or complain about work. I don't think that's a good use of his time.
I work in the evenings sometimes, but my husband likes me to shut down my computer by 11. I don't always listen. Sometimes, I'll get up in the middle of the night and sneak my BlackBerry into the bathroom.
Mark and I both do a lot of working dinners, but we also try to find time just for each other. We have date night once a week. Mark will write DATE NIGHT in big letters in my calendar. We might go out to dinner or just take a walk around Nob Hill, where we live. I want to start doing indoor climbing on date night. I'm also interested in this new trampoline place in San Francisco called House of Air. We do dinner parties, mostly on the weekends. We like to cook with our friends. Mark is great on the barbecue. I make a great spaghetti Bolognese, and I love making tacos.
I'm not very good at carving out time for personal activities. I have a big list of things I want to do. I want to run on the beach. And really learn how to cook. I'm really diligent about my job, but I need to be much better about being organized in my personal life.
When you have twin babies, and you're on the road one or two days a week, it's hard. There are times I feel exhausted. I wish I had time for girlie things—pampering. When I get my hair cut every four months, it's a big treat.
PRINT THIS ARTICLE