A former technology startup executive, Courtney Nichols Gould, 45, reconnected with an old acquaintance to start a business. She wasn't expecting romance, too. The co-CEO of Marina Del Rey, California-based SmartyPants describes how it grew from its tumultuous start to its current success, raising $4.8 million through crowdfunding site CircleUp and hitting nearly $5 million in revenue last year. Oh, and she married her co-founder in 2011.
--As told to Alix Stuart
I came out to Los Angeles from New York City in February 2009. I had been COO of Clear, the airport-security fast pass, and took a year and a half off to think about my next gig. When I started thinking about staying in L.A., two people said, "Oh, you should talk to Gordon Gould," which was very funny, because I knew Gordon from way-back-when in New York, when we were both in the dot-com world.
Gordon was working on an idea about children's brain health and how nutrition could contribute to it. It seemed like a really worthy ambition to create a high-quality all-in-one vitamin that addressed all the compliance hurdles, and to wrap it in a brand with some charm. That stood for something.
After working on SmartyPants for about six months, Gordon and I were sitting on the curb on Abbot Kinney Boulevard--our first time being together outside of work--and he turned to me and said, "You know I'm in love with you, right?" That was not on my radar at all: I had been dating someone else, and he was going through a separation. But somehow in that one moment, it became true for both of us. I felt my body go numb and then heard myself say, "You know, I think I love you too."
It's very intense to launch a company. It's very intense to be in love. It's very, very intense to be in love with the person you're launching a company with. Plus, we worked on the company in our little house, with Gordon's kids handwriting thank-you notes to customers. There's no way we would have been able to navigate all those things without someone to help us. About once a week, we met with Breck Costin, who is a life coach and also a co-founder of the company. He's still a mentor; he's helped me a lot in terms of being a leader and a step-mom.
The biggest challenge we face as a company is having to pay for everything up front while scaling so fast. It puts enormous pressure on cash. Gordon and I came from the technology industry, and it was initially really tough for two people with no track record in the consumer packaged-goods business to get a loan.
We turned to crowdfunding, because it allowed us to meet a broad base of folks who were interested in that sort of business. Getting listed on CircleUp--that by itself gave us some credibility, since the platform filters the deals it features. Plus, we were able to send out samples to investors and get feedback, so it was also free research. Now we've raised $4.8 million over two rounds of crowdfunding through CircleUp. One of those investors, Melissa Kasper Shapiro, has gone on to be incredibly supportive, and even people who put in tiny amounts of money have provided contacts.
We're trying to build this whole brand around doing things the right way. We have a partnership with Vitamin Angels, a charity that provides supplements to at-risk populations. But it's easy to say you stand for something until it gets challenged. In 2012, there was a global shortage of natural vitamin E, a common ingredient in our vitamins. Within 48 hours, we had to decide between being sold out for six months or living with synthetic E. The synthetic version isn't dangerous, but it's not absorbed as well by your body. We decided to ask our customers via email what they preferred. And we got pretty consistent responses: "Thank you so much for reaching out, and please keep making them, and we understand." Despite that shortage, our revenue grew 170 percent that year.
When something happens again, that's a precedent we set: We communicate and we're transparent. It's the same thing with our marriage. I don't think we would have survived without a mutual commitment to both.