#91. Big Lives brings together emerging designers and showcases them in unique and ephemeral retail experiences. We talk with co-founder Sam Alston about applying the best lessons of customer relations to harness the power of high-touch and narrative-driven offline spaces. The Loose Threads Podcast features in-depth discussions with leaders across the rapidly changing consumer economy.

Check out the full transcript below.

Richie: [00:00:07] Welcome to the 91st episode of the Loose Threads Podcast, a show about the rapidly changing consumer economy. This episode is brought to you by Loose Threads Membership, which gives you actionable analysis, insights and events that drive growth, and Loose Threads Espresso, your energizing and high-pressure filter for consumer news—in context. We also have a newsletter that features the latest open letters to CEOs, podcasts with industry leaders and news from Loose Threads. Check it all out at LooseThreads.com.

Richie: [00:00:34] Joining me today is Sam Alston, the co-founder of Big Lives, a company that brings together emerging designers and showcases them in unique retail experiences. Sam started the company after a career in luxury retail with a specific focus on customer relations.

Sam: [00:00:48] At first, it was really like I’m creating a store in my home that exists for two hours, but that has slowly evolved into this idea of a fleeting or ephemeral retail moment that is more like a gallery experience than a shop.

Richie: [00:01:02] Recognizing the power of offline, she wanted to create high-touch spaces that showcase the stories behind brands and their products, but with an intentional sense of impermanence. Here’s my talk with Sam Alston.

Richie: [00:01:15] So why don’t we start. Just talk a bit about your background and then we can work our way up to Big Lives existing.

Sam: [00:01:20] So I grew up in suburban Seattle in the 80s as a mixed-race kid and was sort of the daughter of two different versions of the American dream. My dad is African-American. He grew up in inner city Chicago. My mom is mixed European descent, grew up in rural Idaho. They both grew up with very [few] financial resources, but a family value of education and work ethic. So, for my sister and I, education was always the first priority and that meant we went to private school in Seattle which, at the time, was a very homogeneous environment. I often found myself the only minority in a room and felt that I was seen as sort of a representative, someone to talk about blackness when I didn’t feel entitled or necessarily responsible to. And then, at other times, I felt like I was perceived as culturally white because that’s how I grew up and that also didn’t reflect how I self-identified.

Sam: [00:02:14] So, for me, fashion became this creative outlet where I could express uniquely how I wanted to be perceived and it gave me a sense of agency and voice in a way that I wasn’t able to find otherwise. For me, fashion started as this tool for self-empowerment. Not only was I creative in that sense, but also I was an actual art kid. So I was doing a lot of drawing and painting growing up and that eventually led me into an art major in college. So I went to the east coast. I went to Harvard undergrad as an art major which was a very odd decision in retrospect.

Richie: [00:02:51] I assume they have a good program though.

Sam: [00:02:52] They have an excellent program but it didn’t stop my father from calling me every week and saying, “When are you switching to investment banking?” And I was like, “That’s not a major.” So I found, through doing a lot of studio work, that I didn’t actually feel like I was an artist per se, but I loved writing about art. I loved thinking about it. I loved supporting my artistic colleagues in finding their own way. Eventually, [I] graduated sort of directionless. So I moved back to Seattle and accidentally started working in a maternity store, which was owned by my best friend’s mom at the time and that was where I really fell in love with retail. So I had this love of fashion from an identity perspective and then a love of retail from a really random job that I started out of college. I was helping and assisting these women in a time in their lives that was so pivotal and so emotional and they were really looking for comfort and meaning in what they were wearing at that time. And that’s an idea—that idea that shopping can bring joy and can bring deeper meaning that stuck with me still, to this day, with Big Lives.

Sam: [00:03:52] So I was in this store and decided I wanted to start my own. I’m doing it for someone else, I want to start my own store one day, so how can I get business experience really quickly? My shortcut was to get an MBA. I moved to New York, went to NYU and that decision propelled me into a corporate fashion track and I left that dream of owning a boutique in the wings. I interned with Urban Outfitters as an MBA and they hired me as a buyer out of school. So I was buying women’s denim at the height of the colored denim trend. The business was on fire. It was an amazingly entrepreneurial company. As buyers, we were working with the design team to create product, but also going out in the market and identifying trends and developing them ourselves. [I] had tons of freedom and also tons of accountability. So, for me, Urban was my foundation as a merchant.

Sam: [00:04:42] And, from there, wanted to move back to New York and found Louis Vuitton where I moved as a merchant as well. So I was buying women’s accessories in a very different capacity, much more financial. We were sort of told what we had to assort but had to quantify it for North and South American stores and also train the store teams on how to sell those products and connect with clients. After that, I moved into client development where I was supporting about 40 stores in the Northeast in developing their customers—literally their customers walking in the store—through using a digital clienteling app, through in-store events and experiences and made a very departmental shift, at that point in my career, from buying into client-facing activities.

Sam: [00:05:25] The job that I left Louis Vuitton for at the end of 2017 was—I was Client Development Director in the flagship on 57th Street here. [I was] really responsible for supporting the sales team, again, in developing their clients but, on the retail level, day in and day out, on the sales floor. Also dealing with the high-end clients, so hosting VIPs for exceptional experiences around the world: fashion shows, high jewelry events. And then, also, managing client issues. So really trying to recover and retain clients who are very upset and disappointed with the brand and with our level of service, which was pivotal in my career. It gave me the confidence to go back to that dream of opening my own boutique because I felt like I understood client relationships. I understood store operations and I could bring together all of my experience from merchandising to clients into this concept of what a store should look like today.

Richie: [00:06:17] So you had this idea stretching all the way back to after college but, in its modern form, what was the first inkling of what it started to be?

Sam: [00:06:27] It was two things that really inspired the specific idea. One was being in the luxury market, in one building within four walls that was a very consistent business, driven completely by in-person relationships while the threat in the market was, “Retail is dead and stores are going to be extinct.” I couldn’t reconcile that. So, for me, I became really sort of obsessed with that thread and [asking], “Where is it coming from? What does it actually—what truth is in that and why?” My friends and network are very much in that world as well and we were always talking about how shopping is so boring and being really nostalgic about when we were kids and we used to go to the mall and it was such a fun social activity. Have you ever been somewhere recently that really inspired you? So taking those two themes and thinking about what are the aspects of brick-and-mortar retail that contribute to customer relationship and do inspire people? And what are the parts that are just a drag that are archaic or can fall away?

Sam: [00:07:31] So, with that idea and those two problems, I enrolled in an accelerator called Tacklebox that’s designed for early-stage founders who have full-time jobs who are trying to validate a business idea before leaving their job and went through the meticulous process of testing. Thinking about, first, does this store need to have four walls? Does it need to be open all the time? Does it need to have brands that we know and love? What if it has all emerging brands that people are discovering? What if it’s in a private space that you only have access to not only [just] for a fleeting moment, but because you’re invited? And so that accelerator brought this concept to fruition in the form of a test. I executed the first event in my home in November of 2017. I live in a Bed-Stuy brownstone that was built in 1899. [I] did a lot of research on the home—there’s this whole story around women, it’s been owned by women since the early 1900s—and curated a set of emerging designers [who] were also all women and so it brought that theme to life through a two-hour event. Invited everyone I thought might care about it and had such a phenomenal response qualitatively and then also, in terms of sales, it was well beyond my expectations. So I felt like there’s something here and have really been testing and building it ever since.

Richie: [00:08:50] You mentioned a list of things that got you excited about shopping and your friends and the things that did not. Talk more about what was on each side of that equation.

Sam: [00:08:59] So what’s super interesting that I discovered through the accelerator, which is, philosophically, very focused on customer—the founder’s idea is your customers will essentially tell you everything. If you find the problem, they’ll help you to find a solution. So very rigorous customer interviews—and I focused really on women who worked in fashion because I thought that word-of-mouth would pass quickly. I would ask them, “Do you like to shop in stores?” And they would say, “I hate shopping in stores. I only shop online.” But then when I asked them the question, “What was the last thing that you bought that you really love? Tell me about how you found it,” it always happened in a store. And there were always very specific elements around that. So this idea of: There is usually a social aspect, they were usually with someone [whom] they trusted who was a friend, they were usually in a somewhat calm environment, [and] a lot of times [there was] an unexpected story like a impermanent store.

Sam: [00:09:57] And so thinking about all of those elements, there was always a storytelling aspect, whether it was an associate who explained to them part of the narrative or they could actually relay to me, “Well, I bought these shoes that I absolutely love and they were actually inspired by a vintage print that X brand did 30 years ago.” There was always a story that they could transmit as well. It was through those interviews that it really built. I literally had a wall of post-its with, “What are the recurring themes?” and, “What can you build from that that no one’s necessarily doing?”

Richie: [00:10:29] So, for the first one, talk through the process of putting that together. What did you think it would be like? And then what was it actually like to pull it off?

Sam: [00:10:37] So the process of putting it together was a very long process primarily because, in order to acquire stock in traditional retail, it happens on such a long lead time. So while I was still in my job and I had committed to the idea that I was going to do this and I was going to leave and at least try, I had to start sourcing designers. And the other challenge was that I had absolutely no leverage because I had no brand yet and I had no space to speak of. So I was going to trade shows and online and reaching out to people blindly being like, “This is my idea. Do you want to be a part of it?” And I would say I probably sent a hundred emails to brands and nobody responded to me. And then started going in person and a lot of people said, “We don’t work with people as new as you,” which was actually a blessing in disguise because I had been more focused on brands that were more well-known that I knew would bring customers and, all of a sudden, I found myself meeting designers for whom I was solving an actual issue which is, “I have a direct-to-consumer business. I don’t necessarily have a retail solution that I’m happy with so I’m open to trying new things,” who then allowed me to buy a super small capsule of inventory. This collection came together across categories of women’s ready-to-wear and accessories. So that was the bulk of the work, of the pre-work was really the curation.

Sam: [00:11:58] Then it came to trying to describe to people what I was doing and that, at the beginning, was incredibly difficult. Certainly, that first event, it was a lot of friends and support [from] friends and family and supporters.

Richie: [00:12:12] How did you describe it before it existed?

Sam: [00:12:15] I wonder if I can remember. I described it as a store in a home, which has its own danger because it feels very [much] like it could go very wrong. It could be a very crafty. The way that we merchandised it was more of like a gallery experience. That’s something that, honestly, still is a challenge with Big Lives in terms of messaging. When you’re trying to work on a new concept, there is a natural way that—people associate it with things that they understand exists. For Big Lives, it’s been everything from a trade show to a flea market to a trunk show to a Tupperware party and all of those things do nothing but erode the brand.

Richie: [00:12:55] Confuse, yeah.

Sam: [00:12:56] Yeah. So, at first, it was really like, “I’m creating a store in my home that exists for two hours. It’s only here for that long. Come check it out. We have amazing designers that I want to show to you.” But that has slowly evolved into this idea of a fleeting or ephemeral retail moment that is more like a gallery experience than a shop.

Richie: [00:13:16] Did you ever mention The Apartment by The Line or like the Row’s townhouse or something or were those too arcane of references?

Sam: [00:13:22] Those are great references and definitely inspiration for me. I think the merchandising itself is quite different because The Apartment by The Line is you feel like you’re discovering things in someone’s closet. And that was actually something that we experimented with two events ago where we partnered with a real estate company to showcase a home that was on the market at the same time as showcasing our designers. So it just made sense to outfit it like a home and that was one interpretation of Big Lives. But I think the more successful one that really elevates the designers is one where it feels like the pieces are front and center, they’re not stowed away.

Richie: [00:14:01] So there was a lot of work from a lead time perspective on the actual inventory side. It sounds like this was of a lot of friends and family. The audience showed up.

Sam: [00:14:09] Exactly. And I specifically, of course, asked people to bring folks [whom] they thought would appreciate that experience and the attendance and customer acquisition has still been so much driven by word-of-mouth, a little bit of press, but mostly just by people coming and being enthusiastic about what they’re seeing and wanting to share that experience with others. So that’s exactly what happened and we ended up with—about 80 people came to the first one and trekked to Bed-Stuy. Because I had people who were so committed to showing up, I felt a responsibility also to create an evening and an experience and something that was beyond just looking at pieces. So I partnered with a local wine shop to bring beverage and did the same for food and had a DJ and so it became this true event and launch and those aspects of experience have—at that point, they were very much organic. It was wanting to support local and make sure that Bed-Stuy was represented in the experience but, now, it’s become a lot tighter. So thinking about who are the right partners in order to bring to life whatever the theme is.

Richie: [00:15:16] What was the thing that went the most right and then the most wrong from the first one?

Sam: [00:15:22] The thing that went the most right was executing the vision. People really said, “I get it. I understand what you’re trying to do.” They really connected with designers. Many of the designers came and also said, “I’ve never seen my pieces in this context and it brings so much value to my brand.” And, ultimately, those were the two things that we needed in terms of feedback to validate the idea.

Sam: [00:15:46] What went the most wrong? Again, to go back to the experience elements, I think the danger of events selling or experience selling is the designers can be overtaken by the context and it can turn into a party instead of something that’s really focused on transmitting story and brand discovery. So that was probably part of the challenge of the first one. We had a great turn out. There was this vibe of, “It’s at night and there’s a DJ!” I have pulled back on some of those elements in the more recent events just because the emphasis really needs to be on these emerging designers and their talent and making sure that they’re really connecting to new customers.

Richie: [00:16:27] It’s interesting to hear the arc from trying to go work with more established brands to more less found and less known brands. I think you see, with all the department stores today where they’re really trying to figure out, when we all sell third-party merchandise that is available everywhere, what’s the point of that anymore? And you see them shifting toward private label. You found it organically, but it was almost the only logical place to go because if you just sold Acne and all these other things, what would the point of that be?

Sam: [00:16:53] Exactly. That’s so true. To build on that point there, I started Big Lives as a store model because I had to. Because of that, [because] I don’t have a leg to stand on yet, I needed to create a collection that I believed in and recruit designers [whom] I believed in, but I didn’t have anything to demonstrate in terms of what it would bring to them through customer acquisition, through contextualization of their designs. Now the model is evolving. I’m literally in the middle of a pivot of going from a store model where I buy and sell inventory to a marketplace, for lack of a better word, where I’m bringing customers who are interested in discovering emerging design in an experiential context with designers who need their pieces to be seen in a different way and need to meet customers in person and need an alternative to traditional brick-and-mortar that’s not so cost intensive. The goal is, again, to really challenge that department store model of multi-brand selling and instead say, “Big Lives creates an environment for you in a way that brings both parties a lot of value, but we don’t touch inventory and it’s very low risk for all parties involved.” It’s more of a marketing vehicle than a sales channel.

Richie: [00:18:09] So, after the first one finishes, what’s the plan? Where do you go from there?

Sam: [00:18:14] The first one, the advantage, obviously, on the back end is that it had a free space, right? It was my home. And what’s been interesting is every Big Lives event has led to a lead for the next space and we’ve operated with—about 75% of our spaces have been free. So what happened from that first event was a friend who came was like, “I want to host one in my home. I’m just finishing renovating my basement. It’s going to be the perfect clean context.” And by basement, I mean beautiful Seattle space overlooking the water. But she was in Seattle so she said, “Can you bring the collection to Seattle? I think we have a great network who would love it. They don’t have access to these type of designers on the West Coast as much as New York.” [I] literally picked up the store and physically moved the entire thing across the country about a month later and had, again, a really fantastic response with a very different customer base and a different setting. Same designers, same collection. Literally, again, moving inventory and setting up that experience somewhere else. So after that went went really well, the same thing happened. Someone in Palm Springs wanted to do it.

Sam: [00:19:22] So it really started off with that type of momentum of, “I want this in my space. This is really fun. It’s bringing a sense of enjoyment back to shopping. It’s a social activity. I get to be a host. I get to showcase my space for whatever reason, whether I’m selling it or I just want people to see it.” And so that was what gathered momentum at the beginning. The challenge of that was, logistically, moving a store around the country doesn’t make any sense because there were too many variables so everything was muddied and it was really hard to make strategic decisions from there. So, in January, I came back to New York and said, “For 2018, it’s New York City. We’re going to build a network this way. Referrals will be much more sustainable.” And ecomm was the solution to reaching and supporting those customers that we’d acquired on the West Coast.

Richie: [00:20:13] You started focusing on the fashion insider customer. Did you see that start to evolve as you did these more and especially as you left New York?

Sam: [00:20:21] Definitely. The West Coast customer is generally much less in that world. But, still, I think a creative slant. Those communities are so close. So, even in New York, it’s evolved from exclusively the fashion, retail executive, up-and-coming professionals into more people in film, even people in design and tech, and it’s starting to spill over into a lot of marketing folks and spill into other areas. I think the difference in customer on the West Coast was age. I’m seeing a slightly more mature customer on the West Coast who still wants to be super unique in her style and is really looking for designers, not necessarily needs brand recognition, but wants interesting stories behind what she’s purchasing.

Richie: [00:21:08] It sounds like you did say, “Okay, we have to lock down in New York” but did you think, as you were doing that, that just the saturation here would make it more successful elsewhere? How did you weigh those things and then decide to actually hunker down here?

Sam: [00:21:23] Pretty practical decision there. I live here and I wasn’t willing to move quite yet. I think about it all the time. I think that the model could potentially be much more successful in second-tier markets or cities that just don’t have access to a lot of interesting—

Richie: [00:21:39] Yeah, like Chicago or Seattle.

Sam: [00:21:39] Exactly. D.C. I’ve had people reach out and ask for Dallas. San Francisco, for sure, even though [it’s a] huge city, but still a different kind of fashion.

Richie: [00:21:47] They don’t have good style so they need it.

Sam: [00:21:49] So I’m trying to stay disciplined in that idea of if you can make it work in New York and you can really define the business model and make it profitable as a one location operation, then to scale would be much easier and might actually lead to much faster growth.

Richie: [00:22:04] How many had you done until the beginning of this year? Three?

Sam: [00:22:07] Three. Yep.

Richie: [00:22:08] So what were the expectations, from a sales perspective, that you had and the designers had and then how did that compare with the actual results you were seeing?

Sam: [00:22:18] The expectation was very random to be honest. It’s very difficult to predict revenue on something like that. I knew how much inventory I had and so I had an expectation on a sell through. It’s like, “I have this many RSVPs. This percentage of them will show up. This percentage of them will convert at an average price point of this.”

Richie: [00:22:37] Yeah.

Sam: [00:22:37] We did that but, again, it was very theoretical and, ultimately, had some customers who spent a lot more than expected and I think really are starting to see Big Lives as almost like a styling or a personal shopping service where they can come and see new things on a regular basis and will find ways to update their wardrobe through Big Lives. So very, very loyal and high value customers. And then some who would come—and we always have a table of giftable or lifestyle items—and they wanted to walk away with something to commemorate the experience, but it might be a book or a notebook or something at a much lower price. My expectation was a very basic back-of-the-napkin math and, ultimately, the distribution of customer spend across those transactions that did happen in person were much more diverse than I expected.

Sam: [00:23:31] The designer expectation is interesting because that’s something that I’m trying to now manage. My experience and issue is that, when you put a lot of pressure on transaction in person, it erodes experience, especially if you have a bunch of people who are having a great time and looking at things in a very open way for two hours and all of a sudden you say, “We need to close X amount. Do it,” and you tell your sales staff that that needs to happen. Everything shifts and, unfortunately, the risk is that it actually does damage to the brands. So I’m very, very careful about that aspect of experience. This year has been all about honing that execution and building a compelling retail experience. For me, next year is really about understanding how to drive that link between discovery in person with a little bit of customer acquisition and sales into either driving those customers back to other outlets or back online for those designers because this service needs to be irresistible for both designers and customers on some level.

Richie: [00:24:37] Is it your staff?

Sam: [00:24:38] I work with a lot of contractors and have built a little bit of community around that. So the people who work at my events have worked at multiple and that’s starting to support a more consistent experience. But, yeah, I’m the one sourcing the partners, which I think is important because it keeps the team cohesive and then also having the sales staff… One of the biggest correlations between sales on site is having the designer on site. That’s the part that’s really powerful is when customers meet a designer in person and they’re not in a selling position. It’s very special. It’s amazing to meet someone who designed the the jumpsuit that you were wearing and can actually tell you the story herself. That’s been a huge support although it’s not technically a sales staff.

Richie: [00:25:26] So you’re into 2018. You’re back in New York. How many events do you plan to do for the year? And then talk through the priorities of how it goes up until the present.

Sam: [00:25:36] The plan was to do one a month. That was my goal. We’re more on the once-every-two-months track. So that’s been the natural cadence. There are a few reasons for that. One is the size of the business right now and how much energy and resources it takes to execute. It also has to do with how often newness is available and I think that that’s a really important component because we don’t want the assortment to start to feel stale when we do have some returning customers. Yeah, the way that that started was [I] hosted early in the year. Took January to reflect and then, in February, did another one in my home to see how the thing was progressing in the same form, but with a different set of product, and then went on to really look at spaces as a key to unlocking the business. Once that momentum ran out around people wanting to give their homes—and it would take so long to convince someone to open up their house to a bunch of strangers—[I] started looking to real estate to provide an inventory of spaces and potentially an inventory of spaces that would be free because they need to be marketed.

Sam: [00:26:41] That was an idea that came from a relationship that formed at that first February event in 2018 where someone attended who said, “I’m obsessed with this house. How did you find it?” And it was like, “Oh, let me introduce you to my realtor who is amazing” and that created a new relationship for him. So, all of a sudden, there was an indicator that, when people come and they see a home in the context of entertaining in the home, having products in the home, they can really envision living there and they might actually want it. So started to go hard on pitching real estate companies, developers, individual brokers on [how] we can showcase your space in a very different and new way than a traditional open house because, in a sense, real estate is as dusty as retail.

Richie: [00:27:29] That’s so interesting. You never expected that to be the avenue.

Sam: [00:27:31] Never planned it, no.

Richie: [00:27:33] But it’s been more successful than the referrals and the begging and so forth.

Sam: [00:27:38] Yeah. It’s easier to. It’s less stressful and it feels like your interests are aligned with your space partner. So we did one in July that was in, really, an exceptional brownstone, again in Bed-Stuy, but on the west side. A one-family home that was owned by the city and then became a juvenile transitional space and it was a funeral parlor at some point. It had all of this richness and was redone by a company called Dixon that preserves the original detail but also brings in a lot of modern elements. So we were able to really showcase this amazing stained glass and millwork next to a one-lane swimming pool in the basement and then have all of this beautiful product throughout that really made it feel like it was livable.

Richie: [00:28:23] Okay, so you shifted from the space side more towards the real estate world. What else was evolving in the first three quarters of the year?

Sam: [00:28:30] The other thing that’s evolved a lot has been the tightness around concept. The best example of that is this last one that we did—an artist loft in Union Square that was formerly owned by Willem de Kooning and his wife Elaine de Kooning. It’s this incredible space—paintings on the ceilings and on the walls. It’s just really remarkable and in a place that you wouldn’t expect. Everyone walks in and they’re like, “This is here? How is this here?” And, for me, I started reading about the space and got obsessed with Elaine de Kooning who’s much less famous than her husband, but was a writer for ARTnews. She was a very strong painter in her own right and she has this quote that says, “Painting isn’t a noun—it’s a verb. It’s an event first and an image after.” So this whole idea of process comes before outcome, which is a really interesting thread to tell a designer’s story [through] because it gives you an opportunity to say, Nicole Saldaña, who has this amazing collection of shoes, is inspired by all of her friends and each one of them is embodied in a style that she names after them and to be able to tell the inspiration, she starts with a person in mind whom she knows intimately and starts to build out a product based on that. That’s something that people can really connect to and that they love to retell. We took this space and used it as the framing for that concept and then merchandised it more like a gallery on the day after Fashion Week ended, which is a big art gallery opening night. So really trying to echo that theme of design equals art and process comes before outcome in one particular event which, I think, is much more powerful than just saying, “This is a curated collection because Big Lives believes in it.”

Richie: [00:30:11] Were there any other surprises or things, besides the real estate piece, that changed coming into year two of working on these? Or how else the concept generally evolved?

Sam: [00:30:21] There was one moment that was sort of critical around testing a longer event or a longer pop-up. One that we did was an evening plus a couple of days open and it was amazing how little those extra days generated. Because [I] constantly get the question, “How do you possibly operate in two hours? How does that drive enough interest?”

Richie: [00:30:44] Yeah. Twice every two months [for] two hours, yeah.

Sam: [00:30:46] Yeah. It just can’t sustain and so thinking, “Well, if you just have it open longer than that, will it drive people to maybe come or come back?” And, not to walk away from that completely, but it was so evident in that one test that people, when they have a reason and a really fleeting window to show up for something, they will. But when you give them three days of drop in time, a lot of other priorities will come into play and there is an actual benefit to having a social aspect of shopping. I can’t tell you how many emails I get afterwards that say, “You’ll never believe this, but at your event last night, I reconnected with this person from my past,” or, “I met someone [whom] I’m now going to work with.” There is this really interesting community networking thing that’s coming together for both designers and for customers at these moments and that depends on them being compressed.

Richie: [00:31:35] You talked about it a bit before, but how do you think about size and scale and what you want it to be and how big you want it to be and so forth?

Sam: [00:31:43] It’s still in process. I think about scale most easily as multiple locations and being able to, once a system is built for executing experiential retail and a network of designers is big enough to have really clean themes that match market, that match experiential element, that make sense financially as a model, then it’s pretty easy to replicate and really fun too. So that’s one version. Another would be to do more targeted events within the same market. So one of the problems that we’re coming up on is, to have a 2,000-square-foot space in two hours, you really can’t have more than 150 people come through comfortably. So you’re putting a big diversity of types of customers in a space at the same time when maybe some of those customers would rather shop in a much more quiet environment or privately. Some people purely want the social aspect and the meeting. Some of the attendees might be buyers who are looking to make relationships with designers and it’s too busy for that to happen. [We’re] starting to think about how to segment a series of events within the same concept or space that would allow some scale in terms of sales, for sure, but more like value creation.

Richie: [00:33:05] Right. So maybe there’s a quiet hour or something before.

Sam: [00:33:08] Yeah. One thing that I’m thinking a lot about is trade shows as well. If the whole mission of Big Lives is to cultivate emerging designers in new markets, that doesn’t only have to happen through end customers. That can also happen through introductions to other ways of distributing and selling. Trade shows are, for the most part, can feel a sort of stale. You’re walking around booth to booth. There’s a sales dynamic that already exists, which is sort of uncomfortable and awkward. Could you use this type of experiential platform to make bigger business introductions? And would that be another segment on a different day? You see what I’m saying? It could build out in scope or it could out in location.

Richie: [00:33:46] In terms of your personal interest for how big it gets, where do you think that falls on the spectrum? Because there are a lot of other models out there that are much more templated, turnkey that aim to beat a lot of other places and there are others that are a lot more bespoke and personal that want to stay small. How do you think about all of that?

Sam: [00:34:04] I would love to create a business that I’m super passionate about and that sustains the way that I want to live and lets me do something that I love. That’s something that I’ve been so fortunate to experience in the first year of my business in terms of feeling like I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing in the world and the relationships that that leads to, the creativity that that leads to, the collaborations. I feel super grateful to be inspired every day and that’s something that I want to hold on to. It’s not the grand ambition of selling out or making a huge retail brand. I’m more inspired by this curiosity around how my customers want to consume and how they find meaning in choosing how they style themselves and I want to be able to be a part of that. So I guess in a way that does limit the scope.

Richie: [00:34:54] But in a perfectly fine way.

Sam: [00:34:55] Yeah, exactly.

Richie: [00:34:56] Yeah. Who is the customer for you?

Sam: [00:34:59] The customer is—I think, psychographically, she’s less brand conscious, label conscious and more interested in discovering innovative design. She’s more narrative-driven than trend-driven, for sure, which is part of our curatorial strategy. Age-wise she’s generally between 30 and 55, I would say. It’s sort of a big span. But customers who are coming up in their career will very soon be leaders in their organizations across fashion, for sure, but also across finance and marketing and the arts and whatnot. And then also at the other end of that curve where she’s coming out of a life of being a professional and wants more interesting things that she’s wearing in her daily life. But I think, ultimately, one thing that I learned in luxury and that I see in my customers is she does crave some level of personal interaction and high-touch experience which I’m able to still facilitate at this size of business because we’re talking about a few hundred customers—not thousands or tens of thousands. I’m still going to my customers homes and bringing them collections and styling them. I’m able to have lunch or dinner with them. I’m really trying to cultivate high-touch relationships in a way that I learned in the luxury world and that I think is missing at the contemporary level and that’s something that my customer appreciates more than the convenience of getting a subscription package of emerging designers and sending what she doesn’t like back.

Richie: [00:36:28] So the customer—that was the shopper, not the brand.

Sam: [00:36:30] Yes. Sorry. Absolutely. So that’s the customer on that side. On the brand side, it is—so we talked a little bit about the size. It’s generally a brand [that] has a direct-to-consumer business, probably has wholesale accounts that [the founder] can count on her hand—he or she—and [someone who] is really finding that online is not enough. Customer acquisition is getting more and more expensive. There is a barrier to learning about your customer and to getting enough feedback when none of it is in real life, but also looking for people who are established enough that they have a little bit of marketing budget to play with and want to invest in something new and innovative, which this does require. That’s the type of customer on the design side who has that issue of, “I need a retail solution. I have these channels, but I’m not super happy with the fact that, in my wholesale accounts, sometimes they mark everything down. I don’t have control over my brand adjacencies. I don’t necessarily get to meet a lot of my customers at once.” Which Big Lives provides by having such a short-lived experience.

Richie: [00:37:36] And then, how does the ecomm piece play into it when you obviously have something that the physical space is the priority? How do you envision them connecting you over time as well?

Sam: [00:37:46] So that’s been a huge learning. Strategically, we launched ecomm to solve the problem of access. We launched ecomm in April of this year and that really came after [thinking], “We are deciding to hunker down on New York, but there is a great potential in other markets including the West Coast. How do we allow for customers to access Big Lives’ collection remotely?” And so ecomm was the solution. Ultimately and now, I don’t know that it’s the right embodiment of the brand. I think it sort of goes against the idea of what we’re doing, which is focusing on that in-person connection and contextualization. It’s just Big Lives doesn’t have a better shot at doing that than the brand themselves. So why not use our energy and audience and direct them back to the brand and allow them to truly acquire and build long term relationships instead of trying to get a piece of that?

Richie: [00:38:44] Yeah. Or you could get a piece of it for doing that.

Sam: [00:38:46] Exactly—in a different way. And not managing something like that and trying to be an expert at that when really the expertise is in the offline experience. So, if I had to predict, I would say the website will completely evolved in the next three months.

Richie: [00:38:59] Yeah, because it would seem that, even if someone, [as] you were saying before, doesn’t buy something at the event, the chances that they are going to go look at the brand after is pretty high.

Sam: [00:39:06] Right, exactly. They’re gonna check it out.

Richie: [00:39:07] From an attribution perspective.

Sam: [00:39:08] Exactly. And so why not just nudge that a little bit more instead of saying, “Come to Big Lives and buy our collection, which is small.” To produce a website that houses a hundred designers through dropship—it’s another business. And the fact that it doesn’t necessarily make sense for the brand…

Richie: [00:39:28] What has been the cheapest and most expensive lesson you’ve learned building the company?

Sam: [00:39:32] The most expensive lesson was inventory. I’m not exactly sure how that could have gone any other way. I learned the lesson through trying and it would have taken me a lot longer to get off the ground and find people who are willing to buy in without any understanding of who I was. But inventory is—that’s the most expensive.

Sam: [00:39:56] The cheapest learning was probably the real estate piece around just how organically relationships can form and the fact that that, in and of itself, is a demonstration of value. There’s so much more opportunity to push on that lever, not only in terms of space but in terms of every partner in the experience. So I think what the events are doing for a beverage vendor, for culinary, for a florist, for all of those elements, you can create a lot of new relationships and that’s just something that organically comes up when people are trying to collaborate with you. So I think that was something learned without a lot of loss involved.

Richie: [00:40:31] You mentioned a bit before that you had started to shift the model from buying the inventory to what you said was more of a marketplace. What informed that and maybe talk a bit more about how that’s been going?

Sam: [00:40:42] What informed that was, first, the business necessity when operating with inventory at the cadence that Big Lives events are held with a limited amount of time. It just doesn’t really make sense. You don’t have enough time to sell through a season’s worth of inventory. The industry operates at a certain clip in terms of discounting and I’m a firm believer against discounting and so part of what I’ve been able to do is to say, “We don’t put things on sale because these are events and everything here is elevated.” But when you own inventory it becomes really, really difficult to stick to that just from a financial perspective. So that was one.

Sam: [00:41:21] There was also a lot of interest from brands who got sent to us or saw us on social or whatever who were saying, “How do you work? I want to participate,” and finding that they were open to other ways of working than me purchasing inventory. The opportunity was very much required by the business just because of my resources. I am bootstrapping and self-funded at this point so those were my limitations that forced the model. It has been difficult to convince people to come on and I think it’s more because—there are two things. First, it’s new. Second, there’s not a lot of comparable. So you might say, “it costs X amount to participate in one of our events. It lasts two hours.” But it’s like, “I participated in a pop-up last week that lasted for a week that was half of that.” And so to really communicate the value proposition takes some time.

Sam: [00:42:11] For me, it’s really about facilitating customer acquisition. There’s a brand building piece and then there’s an elevation of your brand through context that our experiences are providing. It’s also super low cost because, ultimately, you’re not producing extra inventory. You’re taking something either from somewhere else or that you already produced and it’s out of your hands for 72 hours. You’re getting to meet customers in real life and getting real time feedback. And then there’s this huge opportunity on the backend to acquire and drive additional traffic. That value proposition has taken some time to develop and a lot of conversations with designers, many of whom are probably a little bit too small to fully be able to leverage that value. So finding more of the mid-tiers who are still undiscovered but who have maybe a presence in a different international market or enough resources to say, “I get it. I need more interesting ways of being seen and of reaching customers.”

Richie: [00:43:10] At a high level, what are the economics? How do you make money?

Sam: [00:43:14] The margin between the event production and the flat fee combined of designers participating. And then a small cut of sales that’s marginal, but at least we’re both aligned in the incentive to sell. So that’s where that trade show business model concept comes in because it’s something that people understand. It’s like I pay to have a place.

Richie: [00:43:36] Did you ever think of charging for shoppers to show up?

Sam: [00:43:39] No. I think it takes away from the experience and that just comes from, especially from luxury retail experience and creating so many experiences for people that they were never asked to pay for just as a method of customer appreciation because I think it deepens relationships. The act of saying, “I’d love to invite you to this thing,” is so powerful. And I think to ask you to pay to come is a very different dynamic.

Richie: [00:44:05] Yep. Looking back, is there anything you would do differently if you had that opportunity?

Sam: [00:44:09] It’s hard to say the things I would have done differently because there was so much learning that came out of the mistakes. I would have definitely started at the beginning with associating a certain value with the service on the designer side because, ultimately, what I found was I was providing this service without charging for it, which makes it seem less valuable. It’s very hard to provide something for free and then to go back later and ask someone to shell out. Even if ecomm does evolve, I think it was really important for me, as someone whose experience has been much more on the offline side, to understand the challenges of ecomm and really hone in on what it’s for. You don’t just have an ecomm site because everyone has one. It has to have a reason to be that’s contributing to the perception of the brand that’s not necessarily just living.

Richie: [00:45:03] And then, as you look forward to the next six months to a year, what is on the horizon and what are you most excited about?

Sam: [00:45:10] I’m most excited about a few proposals that I’m building since the last one. One is around bigger events that are focused on a specific group of designers. So, for instance, my most recent sourcing trip was to Lagos, Nigeria and had this amazingly serendipitous discovery of a community of designers [who] are exceptional and so came back and made all these connections there and have started speaking with them. I featured one of them at my last event who could produce very quickly. But I think that there is an opportunity to bring light to that in New York and in the States at the same time as Lagos is getting on the map as the fashion capital of Africa. There is a discussion of launching Vogue there. There’s a lot happening there right now and I think it’s the right moment to also expose that talent here. So thinking more about larger scale activations that would involve multiple tiers between giving a group of Nigerian designers exposure to the right buyers here in addition to customers potentially getting some buy in from organizations that want to support African design and commerce. That’s what I’m super excited about, is thinking bigger in terms of the scale of these things and how the actual exposure is coming to the designers. As opposed to 200 people, it becomes a much bigger thing when you involve press and bigger communities.

Richie: [00:46:36] And where is the name from?

Sam: [00:46:37] The name is the most amazing retail experience I ever had. I was on a trip to L.A. a few years ago and, on my own, stumbled into a boutique, met this woman who was working [there]. I bought a few things from her. We exchanged phone numbers. She texted me an itinerary of what to do in L.A. She’s like, “If you’re on on your own for a vacation, you should shop here, you should eat here, you should go to these galleries.” And we just became friends over text message. So, a few months later, I reached out. I said, “I have a wedding to go to in a month. Do you have anything for me? I’m looking for a black-tie floral dress.” So she’s like, “I know exactly what you need.” Ships me a box with three dresses, doesn’t charge me. Says, “Ship me back what you don’t like,” which is a thing that we did in luxury all the time, but never happens as a customer of contemporary. So I was wowed, tried on this dress and fell in love and made the biggest single item purchase I’ve ever made in my life, outside of my home, on a dress. It was just so magical to me and price didn’t matter. I just was in love with her level of service and, in follow up with her, I said, “I’m thinking of starting this business. I would love to understand how you think about your customers.” So we were chatting and she said, “I have these amazing women who have very serious professional careers. They’re always traveling. They’re super busy. They have these big lives and they come to me because, for them, fashion is an accent to that. It should be fun. It shouldn’t be too serious and it’s really an outlet for them to express who they are in a different way than who they are in most of their life.” So that idea just stuck with me and I absolutely loved the name.

Richie: [00:48:10] Did you tell her you were going to take that?

Sam: [00:48:14] No, she’s very generous. We’re very close friends. She’s an amazing advocate.

Richie: [00:48:19] Awesome. Thanks so much for talking.

Sam: [00:48:20] Thank you.

Richie: [00:48:25] Thanks for listening to the Loose Threads Podcast. You can read full transcripts of the podcast and join the newsletter at LooseThreads.com. Feel free to leave review on iTunes—we always appreciate it. And thanks to George Drake, Jr. for editing this episode. We have a great roster of upcoming guests including Tom Patterson of Tommy John, Paul Hedrick of Tecovas and Carmen Tal of Moroccanoil. Thanks for listening and talk to you soon.