Three years ago, Bradford Shellhammer was chief design officer of a billion-dollar startup. He was flying high at web retailer Fab.com, which had raised more than $336 million in venture capital--the most in e-commerce history. But after many twists and turns, and burning through most of that cash, Fab began to spiral downward. (Analysts say that it tried to grow beyond its means, expanding from just 14 employees to more than 700, while reportedly losing out on $90 million in a single year.) Fab has since laid off hundreds of its staff, and was purchased for a reported $15 million by consumer tech product company PCH.
Shellhammer left the company by Halloween of 2013. He says he learned some "obvious" lessons from what happened at the startup. And he's now pursuing another venture, this time a bit more carefully. But he has no intention of giving up risk-taking--whether in business or his personal life.
Earlier this month, Shellhammer appeared at the New York City opening of the MoMA's new ICFF luxury furniture exhibit, not to talk design but to make his U.S. debut as the lead singer of a newly formed rock band called Rough. Decked out in an ostentatious turquoise suit--with a single, dangling feather earring to match--Shellhammer belted out revamped hit classics such as Dead or Alive's "You Spin Me Round."
"The band was something that was meant to be a joke," says Shellhammer. "[Designer Tom Dixon] and I were seated together at a dinner in Milan and we just really hit it off... I just started singing because we were drunk, and he was like, 'do you want to be in a band?'"
For the record, Rough had most of the crowd dancing (awkwardly) at the edge of the museum's sculpture garden, and the startup founder was (for the most part) on key.
Shellhammer admits that the band had rehearsed a grand total of eight hours altogether, adding that spur of the moment decisions--like singing in a rock band--are indicative of his overall MO: "My life is dedicated to kind of just going with it. I don't overthink things, I take chances, I live for fun and experiences and soaking things up," he says. (He goes on to quote RuPaul, who wrote in his book: 'You can call me he. You can call me she. You can call me Regis and Kathie Lee; I don't care! Just as long as you call me.')
If he can help it, Shellhammer's latest business venture will reflect some of that risk-taking spirit--along with some of the wisdom he learned at Fab. The company, which he launched in March of this year, is called Bezar--a phonetic play on both "bizarre" and "bazaar." Bezar operates as a members-only retail site offering graphic artwork, jewelry, household items, and accessories and Shellhammer says the goal is "to make design fun and inclusive," a concept pretty similar to Fab.
The website hosts virtual pop-up shops for members, with sales lasting for a limited (three-day) window, though Shellhammer hints that the company plans to shift away from this concept in the long term. He adds that he's willing to "take chances" on unique items that other outlets won't carry, say, portraiture of transsexuals, or a martini glass chandelier lamp. He's also going out on a limb by marketing artwork that has never been put into production before, even at the risk of it not selling--that's already happened at Bezar at least once or twice, particularly with objects at higher price points.
Despite the gutsy product choices, Shellhammer says he's taking a comparatively "slow" approach to growing the company. He's focusing on individual transactions, products' contribution margins, and repeat purchasing behavior, rather than top line revenue--though he admits that honing "scalability" is "completely the opposite of my background."
He wouldn't disclose Bezar's revenue, but he did remark that the company spent no money on customer acquisition costs in the first 45 days of operation. So far, Bezar has raised $2.25 million over two funding rounds from myriad investors such as Lerer Hippeau and SherpaVentures. Whether or not Bezar can indeed scale as a nimble startup--without imploding to the corporate fate of Fab.com--remains to be seen.
Shellhammer, for his part, remains exuberant. He also doesn't care much what the media has to say: "The only time I've ever felt the sting of someone writing a nasty thing was [with] Gawker," he says, referencing an article from 2013 in which the author slammed the designer's lavish lifestyle. "But whatever. If Gawker says something good about you, that's a problem."