Long before hacker spaces and 3-D printing, Jules Pieri understood how the thrill of invention curdles into the agony of distribution. “The really innovative prototypes wouldn’t get produced,” recalls Pieri of her time at Playskool, where she was vice president of strategic planning in the 1990s.
The problem, she observes, has been driven by the shrinkage of specialty retail and the ascent of Walmart and other outlets that want products to sell at predictably high volume. “Retailers want to repeat the past with a little tweak,” says Pieri. “Our job was to innovate and advance. I didn’t see a way out.”
As an industrial designer, Pieri reveres craft. As a Harvard MBA, she understands strategy. In 2008, she and co-founder Joanne Domeniconi hatched the Grommet to bring strategy to craft’s rescue. Since then, the company has been on a mission to forge the maker movement’s disparate, idiosyncratic community into a major economic force.
The Grommet is a product-launch platform. Weekly, its staff chooses seven products from 300 contenders, vetting not just for appeal and quality but also for obscurity. Weekdays at noon, the site unveils these products, organized into nine socially conscious categories, such as Made in the USA and Underrepresented Entrepreneurs (for example, those over 65).
“Some people say we’re what you do after Kickstarter,” says Pieri; indeed, roughly 25 percent of the site’s products emerge from crowdfunding campaigns. “Everyone who’s been through crowdfunding knows that launch is exciting, but then it’s usually crickets.”
Lisa Q. Fetterman, co-founder and CEO of sous-vide upstart Nomiku, says the Grommet has given her business early cred among retailers. “Some investors will look at us, see we’ve been through Y Combinator, and do a check mark,” says Fetterman. “If we’re selling to Target someday, the buyer will see we are on the Grommet, and that’s a check mark.”
Last year the company launched a wholesale channel; an even newer venture positions it as an intermediary between a few major retailers-;including Anthropologie, CB2, and Staples--and makers without the operational muscle to handle such accounts.
For a company with Industrial Revolution-size ambitions, it has remained strangely under the radar. Pieri has raised $4.5 million from angels; the not-yet-profitable business projects 2015 revenue of roughly $35 million.
Unfortunately, though, Pieri’s champion of little guys has caught the attention of the biggest guy possible. In July, Amazon spun off a similar platform called Launchpad, which partnered with accelerators, crowdfunding sites, and VC firms, including Andreessen Horowitz. Pieri acknowledges that inexperienced product companies might be tempted to go that route. But, she says, “savvy makers will forgo the quick hit and realize that Main Street and specialty retailers are their true key allies.”