To mark its 40th anniversary, Inc. is matching 40 aspiring founders with 40 experienced mentors in the Founders Project. The most recent mentor-mentee pair comes from the world of direct to consumer: Tina Sharkey, co-founder of the online grocery and homegoods seller Brandless, and Eliza Blank, founder of the indoor-plants seller the Sill. 

Tina Sharkey has built a career connecting people. After co-founding the online woman's community iVillage, she was a senior leader at AOL. She was also chairman and global president of BabyCenter, a digital parenting resource where new and expectant moms swap hopes, fears, and potty-training tips.

Then, in 2015, Sharkey co-founded Brandless, a direct-to-consumer company offering a carefully curated assortment of products supporting healthy lives. The company creates and packages all of its own products with a simple, consistent design system across categories. Brandless was valued at more than $500 million when it raised $240 million last year in a round led by the SoftBank Vision Fund.

For Brandless, Sharkey turned once more to community. Among other things, she asks customers what products to create and engages energetically with affinity groups who come together over topics like food allergies and wellness. That strategy builds emotional bonds with customers and turns them into advocates. (In March, Sharkey stepped down as CEO of Brandless to co-chair its board. She remains closely involved with building the brand and its community.)

Eliza Blank also founded a direct-to-consumer business: The Sill, which sells potted plants. She hopes to leverage similar strategies as her company enters a new phase of growth.

When Blank invariably killed the plants her mother sent to brighten a series of New York starter apartments, she tried to replace them. That meant lugging plants back on the subway from Home Depot and up six flights of stairs. A marketer for companies like the beauty brand Living Proof, Blank realized there existed no consumer brand in the plant space that would bring greenery right to her door.

In 2012, Blank raised $12,000 on Kickstarter; she then bootstrapped for five years. Initially, she chose every plant herself and commissioned pots from local artisans. The company launched on Shopify and began attracting notices from media like Daily Candy and Refinery29 and from influential blogs.

For four years the Sill's revenue was largely corporate sales. But Blank's love is consumer brands, so she wound that business down. Now she ships nationwide and has opened four brick-and-mortar outlets in New York and California. The company, which employs 70 people, had seven-digit revenue in 2018 and expects to double the number this year. Blank has raised $7.5 million in venture capital.

Sharkey will be advising Blank this year as she ramps up growth. They discussed ways the Sill can expand and deepen its community.

Blank: I want to tap your expertise about community. We are trying to foster situations where our customers have dialogues with each other and it's not just us talking to them. It's a huge opportunity for the Sill because of our category. There is an educational component to plants because they require a certain level of know-how. And plants have always brought people together, whether it's community gardens or horticultural societies. So how do we make that feel contemporary for our customers?

Sharkey: Community starts at home, so let's begin with values. Does the company have an established set of values?

Blank: By the time we reached a headcount of 15, it was clear to me how important that was going to be. So we do have an established value system.

Sharkey: What are the values?

Blank: Energy, resilience, growth, teamwork, and scientific rigor.

Sharkey: Beautiful. And congratulations, because sometimes it takes companies years to establish their values. But with the exception of team, what I do not hear is build community. If that is such an important part of what the Sill stands for, you want that to be a pillar of the company.

Blank: You are absolutely right. It is a missing core component. But how do I articulate community to the company top-to-bottom? The marketing team might understand it. But how do we communicate it to the finance team or fulfillment in a way that doesn't feel warm and fuzzy or too lofty? We often talk about being customer-led, and that feels tangible. It's difficult to articulate what it means to be community-led.

Sharkey: I don't think it needs to be community led. It can be community inspired. I love that your T-shirts say "Plants Make People Happy." That is an emotional benefit right at the top of your brand. This idea of being in relationship with a plant makes people smile because you are growing something. Plants make environments warmer and more real. Being in relationships with people also feels that way. People supporting other people through community makes people happy. Define it that way for the core team and then you can begin to amplify it for the company.

Blank: In terms of how we communicate with customers: I think we do one-to-all well. I think we listen well. The piece I'm trying to cultivate is customer-to-customer. Content is a way I think we can do both. We are producing it for the customer and believe it creates value for them. It can also create a shared topic for customers to talk to each other. But how do we create a feedback loop to know we are creating the right content? And should it be tied back to community in some way?

Sharkey: Here's an example of how that might work. At BabyCenter, we had 10,000-plus professionally created articles, videos, and content from our global editors, the American Association of Pediatrics, etc. And all the moms would create content from their own experiences. When you joined, we would ask how old your child was or what month you were expecting. We would then invite you to join a birth club with other parents who were expecting the same month. The expecting moms loved the content because they had very specific questions based on how far along they were. And they could share things with the other moms that maybe people in their lives like their friends and families wanted to hear about only a little bit. The other moms in that club let them go on forever. And people earlier in their pregnancies would often visit women further along to ask questions.

Blank: That resonates with me so strongly because I am a new mom. I spent too much time on message boards reading all the anecdotes in those first three months when I was panicked about every little thing my daughter did.

At the Sill, we launched a forum in February. We have content on the site: expert-written long-form articles plus shorter, more Buzzfeed-type pieces. We believe that kind of engagement is a service to our customers and understand the long-term impact of community. But we are resource constrained and trying to grow very quickly. Given that, how do we do the community and content pieces really well?

Sharkey: At first, you'll be seeding those forums yourself with subject experts to create that content. But after a while, community members will emerge as leaders of those boards, which will take some of the burden off of you. You want to identify those people. They will become your frontline ambassadors. And you want to incentivize them to bring in other people and give them social cred for having risen up. That doesn't have to be monetary. It can be celebrating their commitment to the larger community.

Blank: We are co-creating the content, posting, developing an ambassador program, and hosting events. That is a lot with a marketing team of just three people.

Sharkey: Your marketing team members don't need to be the ones who are nurturing and scaling your community. There are so many people on the internet who are passionate about plants and gardening and have lots of knowledge. So you should think about recruiting a remote community team that isn't necessarily full-time. That doesn't take away from your growth marketing on the customer-acquisition side.

Blank: Is that something that already exists as a model?

Sharkey: Absolutely. When I used to lead community across all of AOL's platforms, we had virtual community managers all over the country.

Blank: Is it a service or something you cultivate yourself?

Sharkey: You cultivate it yourself. Because it has to be authentic. You find these people in forums and message boards around your subject. It doesn't have to be expensive. Wikipedia is volunteer-based because it draws on people who are passionate about the subject matter and like having a platform that makes them feel loved, where they can show their authority. If you are going to compensate them, maybe they earn Sill points toward products on the site. Or you have those great T-shirts.

Blank: We are doing something like that but less formalized. When we launched the forum, we did a preview for ambassadors and influencers and told them this is for your voice. It's not for us, although we will dip into it. We have got the New York Horticultural Society on it. But we need to do more of that.

Sharkey: There are probably members of the New York Horticultural Society who could be remote managers of certain boards. One mistake I've often seen people make is they set up too many boards and too many conversations. You should have a host for every board who makes sure things are happening there. And since you don't want to spread the conversation too thin and end up with ghost towns not having a ton of remote managers is not a bad thing.

The remote managers can be nurturing that board and also going to other boards around the web and inviting people to join the conversation.

Blank: I don't think we do enough participating in other, outside forums.

Sharkey: One of the first communities that showed up on Brandless's Facebook page was Vegans of LA. They were so excited, and they were posting in their forums about Brandless.com and all the vegan options we had. Next thing we knew, we were part of their community because we joined their conversation. Then, when we launched our earth-friendly plant-based diapers and organic baby food at Brandless this year, we went back to my old stomping ground at BabyCenter and hosted some virtual baby showers inside of their birth clubs.

It's not just about everybody coming to the Sill. It's also about the Sill hosting message board parties and Twitter parties with communities that are already out there. You can also tie it in with Facebook Live.

Not everything has to happen on your platform. Go where the conversation is most inspired.

Published on: Jun 26, 2019