Need to Grow Your Business? Enter the Economy

Fast-growing joins an expanding list of flash sales sites that are putting the spotlight on small designers-- and helping them turn a hobby into a business.


It's the overnight success story heard 'round the start-up world: In June 2011, serial entrepreneur Jason Goldberg and interior designer Bradford Shane Shellhammer relaunched their struggling social network as, a flash sales site promoting housewares from indie designers. Fast forward six months, and Fab was valued at $100 million, had 2 million users, and had raised $50 million in venture capital.

But there's another success story here-- that of the independent designer.

From Etsy to Quirky, Fab joins a growing list of retail sites that use their massive memberships to give visibility to relatively unknown artisans and designers.

"We scour flea markets and talk to designers who know designers to get our products," says Shellhammer. "It's a very organic process, which gives us authenticity and gives the designer a launching pad."

A Fab sale, typically three days long, can put a product in front of millions of potential customers. It also has the potential to show off that same product to buyers from big-name buyers and merchandisers.

"The Walmarts of the world have created a sea of sameness for the consumer," says Paco Underhill, a retail analyst and the author of Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping. "Now, there's this layer of online retailers-- like Fab and Etsy-- popping up underneath the big guys that are bringing something different to the market.”

For some designers and crafters, that “something” can be enough exposure to turn a hobby into a booming business.

Jennifer Murse, owner of Plastique, says she was approached by the guys to sell her architecturally inspired jewelry in one of their earliest sales after their pivot. "I was skeptical that this would work," she adds.

She was impressed with the volume of sales ("About a month's worth in a few days," she says), but she was even more impressed when Barney's called a month later.

"Barney's wanted to have me design something for the holiday Lady Ga Ga Workshop," the New York-based designer says. "The buyer told me she saw my line on I typically sell through boutiques, but this flash sales avenue really got me some exposure." Murse’s custom GaGa rings sold out at the Barney's Workshop, allowing her to position Plastique as a higher-end brand.

Mj Barton, owner of Electric Picks Rock Jewelry, had similar success through the site. In November, Fab featured a few of her signature guitar pick bracelets. A day later, fast-fashion retailer Urban Outfitters emailed her about selling her jewelry in their retail stores.

"I was blown away. Urban has such a big retail presence," Barton says. "They asked me to send in samples, and within a week we came up with three exclusive bracelets for them. They wanted them on their site before the Christmas rush, so it all happened so quickly." 

Los Angeles-based designer Joey Roth, whose products are already sold in Anthropologie and on Amazon, didn't necessarily need to be discovered. But he certainly appreciates the volume a Fab sale can deliver. In his first Fab sale, the designer says that he sold over 200 of his sleek, hand-made $495 ceramic speakers. Says Roth: "That's typically what sells in two months."


Video Transcript

00:00 Jason Golberg: We got together in 2010 to start a company called, "Fabulis" which was a social networking site. And we did that for a year and at the end of 2010, we looked at ourselves at kind of what we'd done and had to think about, long and hard, did we see a future of that business? And where was it going?

00:18 Bradford Shellhammer: It was a gut reaction at first to go towards design but we weren't foolish enough to say, "Okay! We're just flipping to switch off and turning this one on." We did do research and many of our friends, both Jason and kind of the tech world and myself, in the interiors, and home and fashion worlds, designers and people who love design, are in our inner circles. And all of them, whether it's someone who would end up buying the products and/or someone who would end up selling their goods, were just ecstatic. Before we even had a logo to show them or map of what the site would look like. Just the idea and the promise was exciting to almost everyone we knew. I also think that just being in a down economy created a real opportunity to seize, both from... Consumers are still spending money. They're just spending it on a more authentic, lasting, longer products and are being more careful. They want to understand the products that they're buying, how they're gonna live with them and where they came from, and the stories being told behind them, and also creative people who have lost their jobs, businesses turn down. That means they have more time to actually make things.

01:30 Jason Golberg: The designer told us, "Look! I need a place to sell stuff. And what's happened with the economy in the last few years, a lot of my retail channels had dried up. I need a better place to sell stuff. I'm making things. If you'd get the audience, I've got the stuff." And then the audience was telling us, "Hey! We want more of this stuff."

01:50 Bradford Shellhammer: We've had people like Joey Roth, who's designed a line of speakers and we've sold his speakers. We've even commissioned limited edition colors of his speakers that were made exclusively for us. In three days, he saw, in sales, what he would find in his normal holiday season across all retail partners. There's a guy named, Scott Bennett, who's in Denver, who has this made by hand, made in US, from wood in the US, cabinet Company called "Housefish". And again, in three days, he sold as much as he would an entire year. And it's these kinds of stories where we're really impacting the lives of the people who were creating the products we're selling. I would say, probably, at least three-fourths of everyone on the site that is the case. The other 25% are bigger brands but for the large percentage of the people, these are merging designers. These one, two, six, 10-person design teams... We're making a real difference in their lives and that feels really good.