Interview with Tina Sharkey, CEO and Co-Founder of Brandless

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Brandless Tina Sharkey
Brandless CEO and Co-founder Tina Sharkey

In the category of developments to watch is Brandless, a San Francisco startup that launched in July with $50 million in funding. Brainchild of serial entrepreneurs Tina Sharkey and Ido Leffler, every item in the online store is $3 and many are good-for-you items in non-perishable food, health and beauty, personal care, cleaning and office supplies. (Supplements and vitamins are coming soon.) Sharkey is a veteran of iVillage, Aol, Johnson & Johnson’s Baby Center, and the Sherpa Foundry. Leffler has founded several consumer products brands, including Cheeky. The highly curated product selection is led by Rachael Vegas, who worked at Target for 10 years.

WholeFoods editor-in-chief Laurie Petersen caught up with Sharkey during her media rounds as she talked about how Brandless removes the 40% “brand tax” by going direct to the consumer.

Why Brandless?

Brandless is really about making value and values stick together. We believe everyone should be able to shop based on the values that matter to them — like organic, gluten-free or cruelty-free — at a fair price.

What products are selling the best on Brandless?

We’ve taken the overwhelming volume of 40,000 SKUs in a standard grocery store down to a curated collection of 200 everyday essentials. We’re launching new items all the time as we grow that collection to add new categories like spices and nuts, but some of our community’s favorites so far have been the Gel Hand Soap, Dish Soap, Organic Virgin Coconut Oil, Organic Extra Virgin Olive Oil, Organic Creamy Peanut Butter and our gluten free mixes (Gluten Free Blueberry Mix, Gluten Free Brownie Mix, Gluten Free Pancake and Waffle Mix).

Which bundle is performing the best?

The “Try Brandless Bundle,” which is an assortment of favorite products, has been doing really well and is a great introduction to Brandless. Overall, our bundles are really about simplifying the shopping experience, rather than forcing you to stock up on a set assortment of products in order to save money. When you add a bundle, each item appears individually in your cart. It’s easy to increase quantities or remove items to make them your own. We’re really excited to see that customization within bundles performing well.

What surprise hits are you seeing?

We’ve seen great traction with some of our more unique snack products, like Quinoa Chips and Quinoa Puffs.

What is not selling?

We’re finding our $3 better-for-you value proposition is resonating across every category, from food to beauty to home. Every item is selling!

How many products do you ultimately intend to sell?

Our primary focus is continuing to expand our $3 everyday essentials assortment. We’re constantly adding new products — up to about 200 now. There’s lots of room for us to grow in our current categories, explore other complementary categories and even expand beyond everyday essentials in the future.

Do you plan to get into supplement/vitamin sales?

Yes! We’ll be launching a number of vitamins and supplements soon.

What new consumer insights do you have since launching?

The most powerful insight has been less a brand-new one and more the proving of our belief that everyone deserves and wants better stuff at fairer prices. In our first week, we shipped orders to every state in the contiguous U.S. To know what we’re doing is resonating with and impacting people across the country is incredible.

How can consumers trust Brandless products are what they say they are? (non-GMO, Gluten Free, etc.)

We can substantiate all product claims we make, but at a high level, our products are produced in facilities that are certified against the highest safety and quality standards such as GFSI (Global Food Safety Initiative) for food and GMP (Good Manufacturing Practices) standards for other product categories such as personal care. In addition, many of our products are certified organic, kosher and/or EPA Safer Choice.

What percentage of your sales have been organic?

We’re really relying on media coverage and our social media community to share our story and spread the word about Brandless life — that’s what’s driving the vast majority of our traffic.

How many volunteer organizations (kind acts) do you intend to partner with?

Giving back is in our DNA. We’re huge believers in the power of tangible acts of kindness. We’ve partnered with Feeding America to donate a meal to those facing hunger with every Brandless order placed (two meals if you’re a member of our B.More program). It’s one way to help positively impact the 42 million people in this country facing food insecurity, but it’s just the start. We want to inspire and empower our community to make a difference.

Where will you go with the online community component of the company? Will you take it to the real world, i.e. gatherings?

We believe in building communities and experiences with soul, and we believe that doing is what matters. As part of our community initiatives we’ll be launching a series of tools we call Brandless Field Guides. They’ll make it easy for you to get engaged in lots of different communities — both in your own backyard and across the nation. The first one — coming soon! — will be a step-by-step guide to planning a volunteer opportunity at a local food bank with your family and friends.

What was behind your package design? Who designed it?

We started with a focus on Just What Matters, which is a filter for everything we do. It begins with offering products that match your values, preferences and requirements (like organic or gluten free) and extends to simplifying our packaging to clearly communicate what matters to you. We approached the design of our packaging in collaboration with Red Antler to create a simple visual system that distills the most important information. We’ve taken the concept of UI/UX that works so well in the digital world and applied it to the physical world. We’re getting rid of the brand clutter and starting fresh with white space. What we pull into that white space are the key attributes people are looking for in a specific product. Today that applies to our everyday essentials collection, but it’s a system that can scale across anything we do.

What about Amazon?

While innovative companies like Amazon are changing the way products are distributed, they’re ultimately solving a different problem than we are. We’re building a community of people who believe everyone deserves better and better doesn’t need to cost more. We’re democratizing the shopping experience by offering authentic, high-quality products with integrity and transparency at the fairest price. We’re also combating the often paralyzing excess of choice with a curated assortment of everyday essentials.

What do you have to say to the independent natural products retailer?

We admire that independent natural products retailers play a role in their local communities, particularly as people are becoming much more educated about and interested in better-for-you products. Our goal is to make better-for-you products accessible and affordable for as many people as possible.

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