For building a wholesale marketplace with a billion-dollar valuation
How do you convince San Francisco’s top designers to join your company when you have little money, a primitive website, and an ecommerce strategy that’s mostly focused on fidget spinners? This was the challenge facing Katie Witkop when she joined Faire as its founding designer. The company aimed to become a major online wholesaler of boutique gifts across the United States, and needed an elegant merchandising, marketing, and web strategy to match. But it was still early days, and her co-founders’ early version of the online store was still limited to selling faddish, mass-produced items. This had become a recruiting challenge, and Witkop needed to figure out how to help prospective hires feel her vision for the brand in small ways before they went big.
Witkop wanted shopping on Faire to feel warm, bespoke, almost antique — reminiscent of handpainted signs of shops on cobblestone streets. Her initial recruitng tactic: printed dinner invitations. Witkop invited designers she admired to join her for intimate dinners in private rooms of restaurants like Octavia, a Michelin-rated farm-to-table restaurant which is owned and operated by a female chef. With no expectations, she let the food and wine flow and let her guests enjoy one another. “All of a sudden, I didn’t feel like I was pitching anyone,” she says. “it was a really great way to lower everybody’s guard and just have good conversation, to find where peoples’ hearts are.”
She clicked with several of them, soon wooing them to join her little company. At the end of 2019, Faire was valued at $1 billion, but Witkop still takes the same care in recruiting talent —meeting for coffee around one of the office’s Parisian-style bistro tables, then mailing handwritten thank-you notes along with bags of local candy to candidates after job interviews. “All these little things draw you away from the [mainstream] current and help you steer toward your own vision of a brand,” she says. “Think through all these little steps and hurdles, attract the right people with the biggest brains and hearts, and then the brand replicates itself with every new hire.” Today that thoughtfulness is behind even the choices around the company swag — canvas tote bags with custom illustrations themed around the cities where Faire has offices, and simple, black high-cut crewneck sweatshirts that say Faire. Tech-bro hoodies are strictly verboten. – Burt Helm
Kayla Rodriguez Graff
For taking an innovative approach to wound care
Kayla Rodriguez Graff knew she wanted to be an entrepreneur from a young age, when she saw her grandmother’s bridal business flourishing in her native Puerto Rico. “I’ve been fortunate my whole life to watch really strong women succeed,” she says. In 2014, when her brother Isaac, a biomedical tissue engineer, told her about a technology he was studying that could help wounds to heal, Graff was intrigued. “Like any good business student,” she says, “I started asking: ‘Would anyone buy this? Can we use it all over the body? Can we manufacture it for less than we can sell it for?’ And the answers were ‘yes, yes, yes.’ ”
Graff co-founded SweeBio with Isaac and her now-husband Kevin Graff the following year. The company manufactures a patch that contains gelatin, manuka honey--a natural ingredient with antibacterial qualities--and a nanoparticle called hydroxyapatite that helps tissue rebuild. All three materials are commonly used in the medical space, but SweetBio combines them on the molecular level to create an easy-to-use patch that can be placed over a wound and dissolves in several days. Graff says the treatments have shown effectiveness in quickly healing stubborn wounds, like diabetic ulcers, that can otherwise remain open for months.
SweetBio currently sells the FDA-cleared patch to doctors and hospitals, but its goal is to go directly to consumers. To help it get there, the startup has $4.6 million in funding and is in the process of raising more. Clinical trials with skin cancer patients are set to begin in October, and Graff hopes they will prove the product’s effectiveness. The startup has faced doubters along the way, but she remains unfazed. “If 90 percent of people think your idea is a good one,” she says, “you're already too late.”
Good Nature Agro
For helping Zambian farmers move into the middle class
Good Nature Agro has been a particularly long journey for Kellan Hays, who co-founded the company with Carl Jensen and Sunday Silungwe in 2014. The three originally met working on a class project at UC Davis. “I knew right away they had this vision, and I knew right away I had a piece of the puzzle to help them,” says Hays. The team won some business plan competitions that first year, which enabled Jensen and Silungwe to set up shop Zambia. There, they began the company’s work of helping farmers transition to higher-value crops (generally that’s meant legumes, instead of maize), and connecting the farmers with buyers. Hayes remained based in the U.S., working at various tech jobs to help subsidize the startup and working on the strategy and governance behind Good Nature as a very intense side hustle.
Meanwhile, the team in Zambia was expanding, and discovering that even finding appropriate seed for farmers was hard. Growing the actual crop is less difficult than growing the seed, says Hays, because the certification process for seed is so technical. Last year Good Nature Agro trained about 1,500 farmers to grow seed for higher-value crops, bought the seeds from them, and then sold those seeds to other customers, enabling about 200,000 smallholder farms to start growing different crops and getting more money for their efforts. The seed-growing farmers benefit from the initial sale of the seed and also through profit-sharing.
This year, Hays was finally able to shake her day job, and has been concentrating on getting some of the risk out of Good Nature for next year. With Covid, she’s expecting to see more restrictions on travel, and she knows the global capital markets could also look much different. And, she says, “There is a demand for seeds knowing there could be a food shortage in a year.” She is looking to various Covid response funds that are looking to help businesses, especially social impact ones, position themselves for a different world. (The Center for the Advancement of Social Entrepreneurship, at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business, maintains one database of such funds). And Good Nature continues to grow, to 76 full-time employees this year, a million dollars in funding with another round in the works, and a goal this year of working with 10,000 farmers to grow seed. –Kimberly Weisul
Because therapy should be available to everyone
Kimberlie Cerrone—a longtime silicon valley IP lawyer and startup strategist—started Tiatros in 2010 to make therapy more accessible. Her company provides employees, through their companies, online mental health programs that consist of 90 minutes of videos and activities, completed online every week while in digital conversation with peers, supervised by a Tiatros facilitator.
This isn’t meant to be deep Freudian analysis -- the programs are based on methods such as cognitive behavioral therapy and dialectical behavioral therapy. Cerrone likens it to going to the gym for your emotional wellness. She isn’t speaking hyperbolically when she says she wants Tiatros “to have essentially infinite scale and reach.
Cerrone was inspired to start Tiatros in the early 2000s when both her sons, who enlisted after 9/11, came home to San Francisco with PTSD. Despite advantages such as affluence and familial support, they struggled to get mental-health care for two years, Cerrone says. “It’s a trillion dollar, worldwide problem,” she notes. In the pandemic, with spiking rates of reported anxiety and depression, the access issue has only become more acute. Her mantra: “People are way more important than ideas, and ideas don’t mean anything until they turn into plans.” –Gabrielle Bienasz