#132. Clare is a direct-to-consumer brand reimaging the experience around painting one’s home. We talk with founder Nicole Gibbons about how she relied on her background in interior design and customer feedback to simplify the painting process. The Loose Threads Podcast features in-depth discussions with leaders across the rapidly changing consumer economy.

Check out the full transcript below. 

Nicole: [00:00:01] The desire to have a beautiful home is one that transcends age. Rather, you’re 21 or 41 or 51, you want your space to be beautiful, and we want to be able to help all of you make your home beautiful.

Richie: [00:00:15] That’s Nicole Gibbons, founder of Clare Paint, a direct-to-consumer brand reimagining the experience around painting one’s home. Nicole founded the company after growing her decorating business for a number of years and seeing the opportunity to fix a process that’s confusing and opaque, in a market ruled by a few key players who were decades or centuries old. Her key insight was that this meant rebuilding the painting experience, not just paint alone.

Richie: [00:00:37] I’m Richie Siegel, the founder of Loose Threads, which analyzes and advises next-generation consumer companies, and FaceLift by Loose Threads, a retail incubator and accelerator for leading brands and retailers. For our latest analysis and insights, check out our free weekly newsletter at LooseThreads.com.

Richie: [00:00:57] I started the Loose Threads Podcast to spark engaging discussions with leaders across the consumer economy. That’s why I was excited to talk with Nicole about how she simplified the painting process in a number of different ways, and how the brand is using customer feedback to decide where it goes next. Here’s how it all began.

Nicole: [00:01:16] So I bought lots of paint in my life. Like, I painted every apartment I’ve ever lived in, even from college days. You know, in my role as a designer and a design expert, I’ve sourced paint colors for tons of people. I went to every brand, every paint store, every big-box store to buy paint. And I knew it was a terrible experience, but I just kind of lived with it, right? When there is no better alternative, you don’t really think about what a better experience could look like. And so, it just happened to be this one random day, a friend of mine had got a new apartment and I was recommending colors. And, like most designers, I already had my own little curated roster of colors that I’d tried and tested and could recommend, because most designers are choosing from thousands of colors. We sort of curate our own little favorite palettes and that’s what we source from.

Nicole: [00:01:56] So, I was trying to show this person the colors that I was suggesting. And I went on one of the big incumbent brand’s websites, cause that was my first instinct. I had never really gone to the paint companies’ websites before in a way that I can really remember. And so, I remember going there, and it was just like, really hard to navigate. When I finally got to the colors, it was just like, thousands of pixelated squares. When you click into it, you literally see nothing but like, a hex code square, and it didn’t enable me to show this person what the color looked like.

Nicole: [00:02:24] So I end up typing in Google the color name and pulled up Google image results that got me what I needed faster. And it just got me thinking like, “Why are these web sites not designed for easy navigation? Why can you not buy online?” Like, I started looking at the landscape. Can you even buy paint online anywhere? I started sort of looking at the market and I realized like, “Shit, this is a big opportunity.” There’s no outlet where people can buy paint online. No one wants to go to the hardware store. People have way better things to do with their time. We’re living in a day and age when you could literally get anything online for your home or for your life. Rather, it’s like, contact lenses, tampons, a mattress. Like, literally anything you wanna buy, you can buy it online, we live in an Amazon age, but yet this one category of product, no one has really figured out how to crack the code on creating a good online experience.

Nicole: [00:03:13] And so, to me, this stood out as like a huge opportunity that was ripe for disruption. The more I dug into the market dynamics, like—you know, there’s basically two incumbents that dominate the space. They own every paint company you’ve ever heard of. They’re centuries old companies. Like, these are companies that are 200 or more years old. It was just like, all the signs pointed to, “Nicole. You need to do this.”.

Richie: [00:03:33] When was this, just time-wise?

Nicole: [00:03:34] This was like 2016. And it was a really busy year for my business.

Richie: [00:03:38] This is your design business.

Nicole: [00:03:39] My design business. So like, in my design business I was doing private clients, right? So I was designing whole-home projects, I never did like, one little room makeovers. I was working with brands, kind of as an influencer. I was doing TV work. So I was like, very busy all the time, doing very like, all sorts of different types of projects. And I sort of just sat on the idea. You know, I put together like, a simple one-pager, I did a lot of research, and then I sort of just sat on it. And I even came up with a name for Clare back then, but I didn’t really do anything with it.

Nicole: [00:04:09] The first week in February, I had two pretty pivotal conversations. One was with a VC, this woman Susan Lyne, who was kind enough to host office hours at The Wing so you could sign up to talk to her if you had a startup idea and get some feedback. So, I was a member of the wing, I signed up for 20 minutes to just share my idea, came in with a one-pager and said, like, you know, “Here’s my background. Here’s this vision I have for this company I want to build. What are your thoughts? What recommendations do you have in terms of raising capital, whatever.” And she gave me such positive, enthusiastic feedback about the idea, that I felt like, you know, without even like, cutting a check or, you know, I wasn’t even anywhere near ready to like, pitch this, but just her enthusiasm for the idea was validating.

Nicole: [00:04:49] And then I was able to get connected to someone who is pretty important in the R&D space in paint. One of the things that this person said to me was, “I know every single ingredient that’s in a can of paint, and even I hate shopping for paint, so I think you’re onto something.” And so, those two conversations happened in the same week and really just validated that this will have legs. And, I’m also the kind of person that I don’t believe that there’s nothing I can’t accomplish.

Nicole: [00:05:14] So by February, I was committed to being all-in. I worked on nothing else the whole year except Clare. I focused first on like, where my expertise gaps were, right? Like, I knew nothing about manufacturing or supply chain, but also, coming from a huge retail organization, I know how important supply chain is, in terms of business planning and making sure that you have really strong margins and also making sure that you can like, deliver to your customers. You know, I knew I wanted to make paint. I wanted to make the best, highest quality paint. And I wanted to have like, sort of an eco-focus. So I had to figure out how to do that. How can I make this product? And so that’s what I spent a lot of time doing in the early months of that year. 2017 was researching paint formulations in paint chemistry, and paint manufacturing, and where do you have paint made and all that kind of stuff.

Richie: [00:05:58] Yeah. What were some of the most surprising, or important, findings, I guess?

Nicole: [00:06:02] You know, it’s funny. It wasn’t like I was like, trying to unlock some like, big unknown, It was really me just trying to understand the process. So I don’t know if there was like, one huge surprising thing I learned, necessarily, but, just overall, it was a huge learning. And then, you know, obviously thinking through the steps of like, “Okay, once you manufacture product, how do you ship it? Like, how do you ship paint efficiently? It’s heavy.

Richie: [00:06:24] Do you think that was one of the reasons why the two legacy players didn’t ship paint? Like, just cause it’s expensive or—?

Nicole: [00:06:30] Oh, no, I think it’s a number of reasons. I think when you build a business for 200 years and you have a certain type of infrastructure.

Richie: [00:06:34] Right. Why change it?

Nicole: [00:06:35] It’s really hard to change it. And most of their models are reliant on third-party retailers to distribute their products. I’d say with the exception of Sherwin-Williams that owns and operates their own stores in the US, pretty much everybody else is selling through a Home Depot, Lowe’s, Ace Hardware, etc. And when you have a product that is moving billions of dollars of merchandise on Home Depot shelves and you want to go d-to-c, that’s a really hard thing to do without upsetting your friends at, you know, Home Depot. They would risk cannibalizing their relationship with their biggest customer.

Richie: [00:07:06] Have any of them tried, or no one’s tried?

Nicole: [00:07:08] I hear the wind of what’s been happening in the industry, and I think there have been some tried and failed attempts. And these are companies like, you know, that have 30, 40 billion dollar market caps, right? Like, it’s a huge risk to try and change what is already performing well, and so I just think that they are just reluctant to change. And, frankly, can’t be as nimble to evolve as quickly as they would need to in order to even be able to like serve the market because things just move so fast. So.

Richie: [00:07:37] It’s always interesting. I feel like some of the most potentially successful brands always have some—well, I’ll just call it like, a punching bag. Like Warby had Luxottica to punch and position against. There are a lot of other brands that don’t, and it’s a little bit of like, solution in search of a problem. But when there’s like, a few main competitors, clearly something to position against versus when there’s nothing else to reference, it’s very hard to be like, “Why should this exist, and how do I have a consumer-to-consumer conversation,” as well.

Nicole: [00:08:02] Yeah.

Richie: [00:08:02] But you have that. You have two.

Nicole: [00:08:05] Yeah. And the shopping experience is so broken, frankly, that anyone who’s ever bought paint before that comes to Clare immediately understands our value. It’s like, “OMG, how did this not exist before? Why has no one done this? This is brilliant. This is so much easier.”

Richie: [00:08:21] So are you going after an older customer base as a result of that?

Nicole: [00:08:24] You know, our goal is always to be mass. You know, people always say, “Are you a millennial paint company?” We definitely speak to a younger audience. Like, we have a young team, our voice, I think, is, really connects—

Richie: [00:08:34] Or speak in a younger way.

Nicole: [00:08:35] But the desire to have a beautiful home is one that transcends age. Rather, you’re 21 or 41 or 51, you want your space to be beautiful, and we want to be able to help all of you make your home beautiful. So, we’re actually trying to tackle a big market. Of course, the younger consumer is super important because when you can capture that younger consumer you’ll hopefully have that consumer for life. So we definitely understand the value, and really resonating with that younger generation of passionate home enthusiasts. But we certainly want that 40-year-old person who’s got two kids and a house in the burbs that needs a lot of paint to be buying our product, right? ‘Cause, you know, frankly, the house in the suburbs is going to require far more paint than someone’s first apartment that’s a tiny little studio.

Richie: [00:09:25] So, on that note, there are two interesting, I guess, more macro trends right now. One is people are buying less homes and renting more. The other that keeps coming up is people moving out of cities. So, it seems like the first one is not great, but the second one’s good.

Nicole: [00:09:37] Well, they’re both good. I was talking to someone this morning who was like, “Oh, I’d love to paint, but I rent.” I’m like, “I rented my whole life. I currently rent to this day, I’ve painted every single apartment I’ve ever lived in. My last apartment, I painted like four times.” Most rentals will allow you to paint. You either just have to ask or—you know, and also, in most cases, when you rent, your landlord’s gonna paint it when you move out anyway, ’cause they’re not gonna let someone else move in with all the walls that you’ve scuffed up over the years that you’ve lived there.

Nicole: [00:10:01] That’s a story we need to help tell, which is that, even if you rent, this is the best thing that you can do and the easiest thing that you can do to really make this space feel like home. And then, yeah, the fact that more city people are moving out. You know, I was also having this conversation today, which is like, better quality of life outside of cities, right? You have more space. You have just an easier style of living. And we love those big houses in the burbs. So, that’s great for us, too.

Richie: [00:10:25] Talk about that operational kind of learning in the beginning of, like, how do I ship this in? You said you spent a lot of time figuring that.

Nicole: [00:10:30] Yeah, I spend a lot time figuring out, because really that’s the crux of our business at the end of the day. Like, marketing is its own set of challenges and problems, but I also felt like, you know, I come from somewhat of a brand marketing background. And so, building a brand and figuring out our voice and all of that wasn’t something I was like, thought would take a ton of time. Wherever the learning curve is, that’s what’s gonna take more time.

Nicole: [00:10:50] If I needed to figure out how much is it gonna cost to manufacture and ship paint, which is like, the crux of our business model, like, I wouldn’t have a business. So that’s kind of what I focused on, just figuring out how to find manufacturing partners, how do we get the cost down, how do we ship it efficiently, how do we build a one-of-a-kind supply chain that enables us to get paint to people’s home on an Amazon time frame. It took a lot of research, a lot of conversations, a lot of factory visits, you know, all that kind of stuff to feel confident that I had the right partners and understood what I needed to do to make it all happen.

Richie: [00:11:22] When you were talking manufacturers, did they get what you’re trying to do? Were they appalled by, were they like, this is doomed? What was the sentiment?

Nicole: [00:11:28] Well, what was interesting is I was super-cryptic. Like, because I wasn’t going into these manufacturing partners saying, “I’m about to build a company that’s gonna disrupt the paint industry.” You know, I think it benefited me to have had a persona, you know, from being on TV and stuff like that, so even though they had never heard of me, they were able to Google me and be like, “Oh, this is someone who’s kind of known in the design world.” So I sort of went at it like, “I’m trying to do line of paint.”.

Richie: [00:11:48] Interesting.

Nicole: [00:11:48] You know, they don’t need to be privy to our plans and our strategy and, you know, it’s more of a supplier relationship, and they are either believed in my ability to build—

Richie: [00:11:57] Pay them.

Nicole: [00:11:58] Yeah. Pay them and build whatever business I’m trying to build, or they didn’t, and it was kind of as simple as that. But I was pretty guarded just because it is a very small industry. And, you know, I wanted to sort of hit the market. Like, I didn’t talk about what I was building, I was very sort of secretive about it.

Richie: [00:12:12] Like, it’s not there and then it’s there.

Nicole: [00:12:13] Yeah. Like Beyoncé / Lemonade is what I say.

Richie: [00:12:14] Yes. Yes.

Nicole: [00:12:15] Like, I literally dropped a paint company on the world like Beyoncé / Lemonade. Like, no one had a clue that, what I was doing, and I spent a year and a half on it.

Richie: [00:12:23] Was there anything on the supply chain operations side that was like, the light bulb moment? Or was it more just like, assembling all these little pieces that just had to work kind of perfectly together?

Nicole: [00:12:32] It was the latter. It was more about assembling all the pieces that had to work perfectly together.

Richie: [00:12:35] How did you know you had it to the place where you’re like, “Oh, we could actually put this out.” You don’t test it in a way, right? Like, you don’t just put a thousand orders and and see if it works. You kind of just go.

Nicole: [00:12:43] Well, I mean, we did a lot of laboratory tests of our paint to ensure that we felt really confident in the quality, and I did a ton of factory visits, so by the time I selected a partner, I felt that we had the very best partner.

Richie: [00:12:55] Is that a domestic thing or international?

Nicole: [00:12:58] We produce everything domestically. So we have paint, and then we sell all the supplies that you need to paint with, because we never want you to have to go the hardware store. So all of our products are sourced domestically, which is great for us because it enables us to get product really quickly. Going overseas you have really long lead times, and the supplies are easier to do abroad but paint is a little bit more nuanced, because it’s a chemical product. Here it’s regulated, the EPA regulates the O.C. contents in paint. And every sort of region of the world has their own environmental regulations.

Richie: [00:13:26] So was the plan to launch with just paint, or all these products as well?

Nicole: [00:13:30] Yeah, the plan was always to launch with paint and supplies, ’cause we certainly didn’t want to build this really disruptive company, and have you buy our paint but then still have to go to, you know, fill-in-the-blank big-box store to buy your supplies. We wanted you to be able to get everything you needed to paint a home that you love.

Richie: [00:13:44] So, talk more about what does that include.

Nicole: [00:13:46] So, our sort of hero supplies are our kits, because they package everything up in one set and save you a little bit of money—about 20%. So we have a kit that includes a roller frame, roller cover, a tray, a tray liner so that you can easily change colors, a drop cloth, tape and an extension pole.

Richie: [00:14:05] And with those, did you source manufacturers and so forth, or are you working with third parties to put it together?

Nicole: [00:14:11] It’s a mix. So like, a handful of our supplies are completely customized for Clare. You’ll never find them anywhere else. So like, our roller frame, for example, there might be similar looking roller frames out there, but ours was designed just for Clare. So, you know, a 90 degree shank, which is like, kind of like the metal part that connects the handle to the cage, the handle was designed to be super-ergonomically-friendly and comfortable for your hands, but also like, not too fat, so that if a woman was painting—which like a lot of like, professional quality roller frames are like, so fat that they’re kind of like, uncomfortable for women to hold. So, you know, everything was really thoughtfully designed.

Nicole: [00:14:45] I talked about how there’s three thousand colors on average at any other paint company that you would visit? At Clare, when we first launched, we had 55 colors. And we, this spring, did a campaign to have our customers help us choose our next color, so now we have 56. So I think step one was curating the best colors, so there’s no guesswork. There’s no trying to figure out, “Which white of these 300 whites is going to be the best one for my home?” We sort of did all of that work for you. And I painstakingly curated these colors starting from like a set of around 600 down to 55, and did all sorts of testing, data, literally every single way you could slice and dice colors to make sure that we chose the very best ones.

Nicole: [00:15:25] We simplified the sampling process, which I didn’t really discuss, but if you’ve ever bought paint before, you would know that the way that you sample a color—and most people want to sample a color before they buy their paint, because even though it’s not an expensive product, it feels so permanent to a lot of people and they want to make sure they get it right. So the old school way of sampling paint color requires you to buy a little liquid jar of paint, typically eight ounces. Then you’d have to also buy cheap tools. Most people sample three to five colors per room, so you’d have to buy all those things times three-to-five. And then you have to go home and literally paint the swatches on your wall, wait for them to dry and live with your walls looking crazy until you pick a color. So, we’ve simplified the sampling step by offering a one-step no-mess peel-and-stick color swatch. So you literally put it on your wall like a sticker, it’s non-damaging, repositionable, and you can test your color instantly, and it’s way more accurate than kind of half-assed painting a swatch on your wall.

Richie: [00:16:20] Have you painted them and photographed them? Or like, what’s the process to get it? Because the color, unlike the swatch, like, in the slots in the stores, is never accurate to the actual—

Nicole: [00:16:28] Yeah. And I think the reason why is because when you have 3,000 colors, the amount of time and work that it requires to get the color accuracy 100% is a lot.

Richie: [00:16:40] Right. Those another primary issue, too, isn’t there? If I have a room that’s brown and then I go try to paint a pink on it, that’s not going to look like it would if I primed and then…

Nicole: [00:16:48] Exactly. Yes. So if you are going from like, dark to light or, you know, changing finishes or whatever, it’s gonna look different. And so, primer is an important step. And if you’re just sampling a color the old way and you’re going from brown to pink, it’s not actually going to look like what you think it will. And so, for us, particularly having a limited color palette, we could really go back and forth with all of the color-matching steps that it requires to make sure that our swatches exactly match the paint. Um, if we had 3,000 colors, we would not have been able to do that, because it would have taken too long and cost too much money. And so I think that helped a ton.

Nicole: [00:17:21] So our swatches are ridiculously accurate color representation and just simplify that step so much. You don’t have to go back and forth to the store buying samples, you don’t have to do manual labor. You can choose a color with ease. In addition to that, we created a tool called Clare Color Genius, and it is an algorithm-based digital color consultation that will help you select a color, if you need help. You might be the person that says, “I know I want white,” right? And so, you don’t need to take a quiz to like, help you find that, but if you maybe just bought a whole new house in the suburbs ’cause you’ve moved from the city and you’ve got 16 rooms to paint, you might need some guidance, and it’s a great tool for that person.

Nicole: [00:17:59] I almost feel like the word “quiz” dumbs it down, because there’s so much complex data behind the algorithm and it takes into consideration the same things that an interior designer would assess if they were helping you pick a color. So things like, the direction of your natural light source, how much natural light your room gets, what color is your existing furniture. And it really takes all those inputs and recommends the best color for your space. So that’s something that we built to really help make the customer journey a little bit more seamless.

Richie: [00:18:25] What’s it like to try and build a tech tool that would effectively replace part of your old job?

Nicole: [00:18:30] Well, I mean, honestly, I think most interior designers are not just out here doing color consultations.

Richie: [00:18:34] Yeah. It’s a piece of it, though.

Nicole: [00:18:35] It’s a piece of it. So I think if you’re gonna hire a designer, you’re hiring them for more than the paint colors. So I don’t know if it would replace you necessarily, but it definitely helps make the process easier for customers. There are paint color consultants that you can hire. So instead of having to pay some human being $175 to come to your house and help you pick color—whatever they charge—you know, you can take this quiz and get really good guidance on a color. And, you know, frankly, I think my whole mission with this company is to make it easier for the customer, and I think that’s exactly what that tool does.

Nicole: [00:19:06] I haven’t really thought about its impact on the industry, per se. I don’t think it’s gonna put interior designers out of business. That’s for sure. It’s also not the goal. But it’s a really innovative tool, and if you look at any other tools out there than any other paint company have tried to build, they’re really simple, they’re cutesy like, BuzzFeed quizzes, and they don’t take your existing furniture into consideration. They’re not taking the natural light into consideration ’cause that’s the number one thing that impacts how color is perceived. And so, you’re not really getting results that are meaningful.

Nicole: [00:19:35] You know, I took a quiz once from one of these other paint companies and it showed me pictures of like a puppy and a kitten, and it was like, “Which one do you like better?” And I’m like, “What is this? How how is this gonna help me figure out what color to paint? So it’s a really accurate tool. And then, of course, I talked about how we have all the supplies that you need to paint with. And when you’re the median household income earner in America, you don’t have money to hire a designer, or a general contractor to renovate your house or a fancy painter. You’re most likely doing the work yourself, and the tool aisle is just as confusing as the paint aisle. There’s too many choices. And, generally, at a big-box store, they’re going to direct you to that value price kit that usually includes the cheapest, lowest quality materials that are not gonna help you achieve really good results. And, if you’re a DIYer, your goal is to get a professional-looking paint job, right? You want it to look good, and that requires a better caliber of supplies, because using really good painting supplies are going to help you achieve better, more even, more seamless results, so that even if it’s your first time painting it looks like you’ve hired a pro.

Nicole: [00:20:37] And so, we curated the best suppliers that’ll help anyone achieve really great results. So there are supplies that a pro would be really comfortable using and find high-quality, but also really forgiving for the person who’s never picked up a paintbrush before.

Richie: [00:20:50] So I guess the other piece we can talk about is the brand, in terms of look and feel and so forth. How did that kind of formulation process go?

Nicole: [00:20:57] The way that I operate, because I come from a brand-marketing background and I’m a designer at heart—although, not like, a graphic designer, but I can really kind of see a vision. And so, I had very clear ideas for how I wanted to see the brand come to life. And, initially, I hired a young kind of scrappy graphic designer, just to do some sample branding for my pitch deck so that at least I had like, rough, rough packaging and rough logos, so it looked like there was more than just a PowerPoint, right? But the work that she created and we really collaborated together on—and we did it really quick, she did the sample branding in like, weeks. Like, three weeks, maybe four weeks, but it became the basis for what the brand looks like today. And I end up hiring her to do our our whole branding once I raised capital.

Nicole: [00:21:41] And so, by the time I raised capital, I had the foundation of what the brand would look and feel like already sort of gelling, but I knew that I wanted the brand to feel different than traditional paint companies, which all feel very masculine. You go to any other paint company and, number one, they all have a very hyper-masculine name. Sherwin-Williams, Benjamin Moore, Dutch Boy, Dunn-Edwards. It doesn’t really speak to me as sort of a young woman who, you know, just wants to make my home beautiful. A lot of paint companies use really technical jargon, it’s almost like they’re only speaking to professionals. So if you are that DIY homeowner who is trying to research the paint and you go to these paint company’s websites, they’re using all this jargon that like, you have no idea what it even means, you’ve gotta like, Google it. So, you know, even just in terms of our voice, keeping everything really approachable, making it easy to understand, all of that sort of came into play.

Nicole: [00:22:32] So like, with the name Clare, for example. I wanted the name to be feminine. I wanted it to be a single name, ’cause a lot of pink companies have like, first and last male names. I wanted it to be short, easy to remember, friendly and approachable-sounding, and then tie back to this deeper meaning of color. So Clare comes from this Latin root word “clarus” that means bright and brilliant. So there’s so much wordplay there. Brilliant as in color, brilliant as an innovative, forward-thinking. And so the name really has a lot of thought behind it. And I think that’s emblematic of the thoughtfulness that’s carried throughout the entire brand and brand experience.

Nicole: [00:23:04] I really spent a lot of time thinking about how I wanted customers to feel. When they come to our website, what do we want them to think about our product? How do we want them to feel when they hear from us via email, when they receive our package in the mail? Every step. We put a lot of energy into packaging. You know, that first experience with our product is typically our color swatch, right, which is an eight-by-eight adhesive square that you stick on your wall. So we created really beautiful packaging to send that to your home in. You know, it comes in a fun yellow envelope, so it’s like a little bundle of joy in your mailbox. Every step of the product experience, from the web experience to the packaging to, you know, all of our marketing touch points are, you know, it feels like an experience.

Richie: [00:23:46] In terms of, I guess, who’s buying paint, how much is professional versus consumer?

Nicole: [00:23:53] In the market, overall? It’s almost 50/50. Data points shift from year to year, but, you know, maybe 45% DIY, 55% pro, give or take.

Richie: [00:24:03] So, I guess, on the one hand, it could make sense that all of the verbiage and so forth is so professional, but they’re leaving a huge swath of the market by the wayside by having the traditional brands only put all the technical jargon in.

Nicole: [00:24:15] Yeah, it makes it really hard for the homeowner to decipher and connect, even. The brands that exist aren’t really doing a good job of connecting with your sort of average homeowner. And so, we sort of led with that, for a couple reasons. Number one, it enabled us to be really disruptive. You know, that’s the experience that was broken, professionals don’t have as hard of a time buying paint and picking colors because that’s what they do for a living. They have a different set of problems that we can help them solve. But it’s not as painful.

Richie: [00:24:40] Like what?

Nicole: [00:24:41] Well, you know, for example, if you’re an interior designer, like me, like I was. Number one, I didn’t have any real relationships with paint companies. Every other product that I sourced, I had a rep. So if something went wrong, if I needed to place orders, if, you know, even if I did all my order placing online but something goes wrong, there was generally a person that I could call. I had a relationship with the brand. With paint companies, it wasn’t, so much. And that was somewhat of a problem because you need to have a resource to kind of help you when things are going wrong on your projects. So there’s that.

Nicole: [00:25:09] Also there really just wasn’t an easy way for designers to show colors to their clients. If you are a really good customer, some paint brands might send you a binder of like, larger swatches. But like, when you use your one color, you have to like, request another one. It’s like, not an easy process. So if you have a presentation or you want to able to show your clients a color, what you would do is you would go and tell your contractor or your painter, you know, “Client X wants to sample these five colors in these finishes,” or, you know, “I want to show client X these five colors.” And then my contractor would have to go out to the store, buy the sample pots, paint them on little drywall boards, take them over to the client’s house. It was all these steps just for me to be able to show my clients a paint color.

Nicole: [00:25:54] And in presentations, you know, these tiny little chips that are like one-inch squares aren’t that useful. So we offer, like, with our swatches, a much better color tool for designers to be able to show their clients color that doesn’t require a general contractor, going out and waiting, and all the back and forth. And then, you know, we offer web experience where it’s really easy to order and track your orders, and we have someone that can help you if you need it. So we make that a lot easier.

Nicole: [00:26:19] And then if you’re a painter, they’re really small businesses. A man in a van. You know, maybe if you’re a big company, you’ve got a few guys working for you, but you don’t really have a place to store all your materials, right? You don’t have, maybe even an office, necessarily. And so you’re doing a lot of running around every time you need supplies, every job you do, you’ve got to make a pit stop to the paint store to go and pick up your order, because maybe you have a rep there and you call it in ahead of time. But it just requires a lot of hustling and running around. And so, the fact that we can deliver the product directly to their job site makes it so much easier.

Nicole: [00:26:53] And then, you know, most painters—like, if you’re the person who’s just hiring a painter to paint your house and you’re not working with a designer, most painters don’t wanna bother helping you pick a color. They’re annoyed. They’re there to paint. They view themselves as craftsmen. They don’t want to have to be involved in that step.

Richie: [00:27:07] So, the one other part that I guess can be really confusing are finishes, as well.

Nicole: [00:27:10] Yes.

Richie: [00:27:10] What did you, I guess, think about those, and how did you approach them?

Nicole: [00:27:14] So, every other paint company, you go to look for finishes, and you might see a range tat sounds like this: flat, matte, velvet, eggshell, satin, semi-gloss, high-gloss. You know, it’s like, what do these mean and what are the differences? It’s really, really difficult for a person to figure out what finish to even buy. And so, we simplified that tremendously by offering the only two finishes you ever really need, which are eggshells for walls and semi-gloss for your trim. That’s what most designers specify, that’s what I specified, let’s call it. 95% of the time when I was designing someone’s home. Eggshell is the best finish for walls because it has just enough sheen that it offers durability and it makes it easily cleanable. Flat-finish looks beautiful and covers imperfections really well, but it is impossible to maintain. Like, there is no need to offer consumers a million finishes in between to confuse them.

Richie: [00:28:05] Yeah. How do we get there? How do we get to 3,000 colors and 10 finishes? And do you see any logical reason that it happened, or…?

Nicole: [00:28:12] I just think that over the course of 200 years, that was their way of innovating. “We invented a new finish, here’s the difference…”

Richie: [00:28:18] Just like, razors have 39 blades now, and…

Nicole: [00:28:22] Yeah. I mean that’s the only logical explanation I can come up with. And, I think, especially now, paint companies don’t have a lot of newness, even with us. Like, it’s pretty evergreen product, right? You’re not launching new things like fashion every six weeks, right? So for a paint color, announcing their color of the year, that’s the only newness they have to talk about. And when you’re, you know, the company that has 3,000 colors and you launch your 3,001st color or whatever, it’s not really that exciting for consumers. It’s like, “Okay, now you got three thousand and one colors. Whoop-dee-do.” You know? But that’s the only thing they have to highlight in terms of newness.

Nicole: [00:28:56] And so, you know, like, for example, every October, all the paint companies launch their color of the year, which I think is so silly because no one’s going to go out and paint your house whatever red just because so-and-so told you to. I believe that your color should be really personal, and it should reflect who you are, and reflect your personal style. And like, dictating trends is not something that we do at Clare. So we’re not telling you this is the color of the season that you must go out and paint your home. Like, ’cause five years from now you may not like it. So we believe in timeless over trendy at Clare. And, frankly, we look at data to figure out what our customers want. We can see what they’re buying. We can see what products people are viewing on our website. We can see what products people are viewing because maybe they’re inspired, but then don’t end up buying.

Richie: [00:29:38] So let’s talk about the launch. I guess, what was the plan, kind of work your way up to it, and then how did it go?

Nicole: [00:29:42] I think we had a great launch. I had a ten-year PR background, and so I knew that press was gonna be super important for us. And I think when you’re trying to be really disruptive, I think capturing the media’s attention is important. Our launch was all about really strong PR. So we launched with, I don’t know, 30 stories, or something crazy like that, across home, lifestyle, some business and tech, but mostly home and lifestyle because we’re really speaking to the customer. Covered all the bases, it wasn’t just like online or a few stories in TechCrunch or whatever. It was like, you know, we were in the print, full page in Better Homes and Gardens, which reaches 13 million people, and [in] House Beautiful we had a full page feature.

Richie: [00:30:20] Right. And that takes lead time to get there, right?

Nicole: [00:30:20] So we had a really, really thoughtful PR strategy. Frankly, it started even before we hired our agency. I kind of outlined, here’s everywhere I want to be. I worked on all of our long-lead and then brought in an agency to help us with everything else. And you know, we just launch with the big bang. We were in all the media outlets, everything was sort of embargoed until launch day. So on July 31st, it was like, boom, Clare was everywhere.

Richie: [00:30:42] Did you have a number in your head of like, what you wanted to do sales-wise in the first day or week?

Nicole: [00:30:46] Yes, we did, but I’d say the interesting thing about us is like, knowing that most customers are gonna order a sample first, and that it takes a minute for people to, like, choose a color and actually like, go back online and buy the paint and whatever. Like, we didn’t expect to have like, crazy revenues. So we were really looking at traction in terms of numbers of orders, numbers of swatch orders, and we sort of surpassed what we thought we would be in those first couple months with those swatch orders. But then we certainly had a lot to learn about everything else. And, you know, it’s been exciting, so, yeah.

Richie: [00:31:14] Yeah. We didn’t talk about price either.

Nicole: [00:31:16] Oh, yeah.

Richie: [00:31:16] Where did you kind of aim, compared to other options and so forth?

Nicole: [00:31:20] Our goal was to be really competitive with big-box retail and—.

Richie: [00:31:24] With none on the scale.

Nicole: [00:31:24] With none of this scale!

Richie: [00:31:27] Initially.

Nicole: [00:31:28] And pricing in the paint industry’s really confusing. Like, you talked about, finish, for example. So, at certain paint stores or with certain brands, you can choose the same exact color, but if you buy it in eggshell versus flat versus semi-gloss, it’s three different prices. Really confusing. So one thing we knew for certain was that we just wanted uniform pricing. Rather, you were choosing our eggshell wall paint or our semi-gloss trim paint, it should be the same price. To me, it just seems really confusing for the customer otherwise. And I know why paint companies do that. It’s ’cause there’s differences in the raw materials and there’s different cost of goods, but you sort of need to like just build that in. So that was kind of one thing.

Nicole: [00:32:02] And then, from a formulation perspective, pretty much every brand has a good, better, best. And no matter where you buy your paint from, the good/better/best are relatively comparable. There’s tiny nuances in, you know, the formulas or whatever, but in terms of overall performance, it’s comparable, right? So, our best, we only have the best, we don’t have a good “better.” We’re considered premium.

Richie: [00:32:24] In terms of lines within the brands themselves.

Nicole: [00:32:27] Into the formulation. So our premium, our product, is not vastly different from a performance perspective than, say, like, any other paint company’s most premium offering. And so, when you go into the big boxes, the good/better/best are usually 20s, 30s and then upper 40s.

Richie: [00:32:40] For a can.

Nicole: [00:32:41] For a gallon, yeah. And so, we’re priced at $49 a gallon, which is competitive with like, kind of the best at the Home Depot’s on the Lowe’s of the world. And the good paint—so, in the 20 range, by “good,” really it should be called “poor” or “value,” because it’s like, the lowest-performing paint you can buy. If you have kids, if you have a really active household, that’s not the paint that you want to get ’cause you’re gonna end up repainting in a couple of years. The good/better/best in big box is 20s, 30s, upper 40s. When you step outside of big box and you go to, say, a Sherwin-Williams store or a Benjamin Moore dealer, that same level of quality is 50s, 60s, 70s, right? So, even though we’re on par with big box best, we’re about twenty dollars less than the best formulas from competitors that are not in big box retail.

Nicole: [00:33:26] And, from the consumer side, they don’t realize what’s the difference between a $70 paint at fill-in-the-blank other paint store, and the $49 paint from Clare or the $48 paint from Home Depot or whatever. There’s like, little transparency in terms of what’s the difference. So we just simplify that by only offering you the best, and we offer you the best at a really great value, because it’s not just the product, you get such a better experience.

Richie: [00:33:50] What was the fundraising process like? Because there’s a very clear, I guess, trap, where a lot of investors will go, “Well, I just hire GCs, I don’t deal with this.” And, like, they aren’t the customer of this. Was that a problem, or did you find enough people that got this and realized that maybe they might not be the customer, but there’s a large enough market that it doesn’t matter.

Nicole: [00:34:06] I think it was a mix. I definitely had a couple investors that sort of like, blew me off and were like, “Oh, cute idea,” right? But like, those are the ones who didn’t really pay attention, because it’s a $155 billion market. Like, in the US, it’s like, $28 billion. Like, it’s a huge market. So you think about all these other categories investors are investing in, they’re not even half as big as paint. And so, most investors, when they heard about Clare, and I educated them on what the market looked like, everybody was kind of like, “Holy shit. Who knew the paint industry was this big? How come no one’s ever done this?” And like, “This seems like a really great opportunity.”.

Nicole: [00:34:40] So I think like, even the investors who maybe didn’t understand the terrible experiences—’cause, you know, a lot of investors are pretty privileged. They’re hiring painters. They’re not necessarily going—they’re hiring GCs, they’re hiring, yeah. So they’re not necessarily going to buy paint on their own. But I think they understood inherently that it was a broken process. I was able to illustrate that really well in my materials and so forth. And then some investors had gone through that experience and were like, “This is genius. We need this. The world needs this.”.

Richie: [00:35:05] Company launches basically at end of the summer. Where do you, I guess, spend your time the last half of 2018?

Nicole: [00:35:11] Oh, my God. I literally spent my time in 2018, and probably still to this day, all over the place. Like, I mean…

Richie: [00:35:20] And what was the goal, almost, I guess, for your first six months?

Nicole: [00:35:22] Yeah. I mean, it’s hard because, you know, hiring is important. So I was really focused on building up my team. I spent a ton of time hiring, I spent a ton of time on marketing. I spent a ton of time trying to understand our customers. Those first few months, especially when you’re doing something that hasn’t been done before, you have a lot to learn from your customers. We made all these assumptions and we had all these hypotheses about how people would behave, and how people would purchase, and what people’s reaction to the experience or response and buying behavior would be like. But it isn’t until you actually launch and you actually have customers use your own product that you can really kind of analyze that stuff.

Nicole: [00:35:55] So we did a ton of just talking to our customers and data analysis and surveys. And really just trying to understand the customers, their friction points, how we can continue to make our process better. How we needed to continue evolving. I mean, we built a whole website without ever really having a customer purchase anything. So, you know, making tons of optimizations to the website to make it more user friendly, better optimized for conversion, all these different things. So literally I had my hands in everything. And we really listened to our customers. In those first few months I think we talked to around 100 customers on the phone, emailed with a bunch of customers. We did surveys, we did tons of like, data stuff, and just really tried to hear their feedback and incorporate it.

Richie: [00:36:36] What were some of the biggest takeaways?

Nicole: [00:36:37] Some small things. Like, some customers said like, oh, they’re saving for their paint projects, and so then we implemented a payment solution on our website. One common theme that we heard early on was like, “We love your brand, we love everything about your company, but like, how do I know your paint’s good quality?” Right? It’s not like buying a lip gloss that like, okay, if they don’t like the lip gloss, no big deal. But like, they want to trust that the paint that they’re going to put on their walls is good quality. It’s going to last. “How do I know that you’re just as good as fill-in-the-blank brand I’ve been buying for the past ten years?” And so we realized like, we’ve got to do a lot to build trust. Even though the experience is incredible, what more can we do to get people to really trust our brand?

Richie: [00:37:12] ‘Cause it hasn’t been on a wall for five years.

Nicole: [00:37:14] Yeah. There were no reviews on it and, you know, all of these sorts of things. And so, implementing customer reviews, figuring out how to incorporate social proof throughout our marketing so that people really felt like, “Okay, I can feel confident buying this product.” You know, so all sorts of things. I mean, literally, I had my hands in every area of the business in those early months because everything needed attention, everything needed to continue evolving, and we had so much to learn, and we still have so much to learn. We just turned one. You know, a one-year-old company definitely doesn’t have it all figured out. So we’re still learning every day.

Richie: [00:37:44] So into 2019, then, where does it start to build your six months in, and kind of up to a year?

Nicole: [00:37:49] So, I definitely think those first few months—’cause we launched July 31st, so we kind of say August, right? August through December was just like, big learning curve. Our goal was getting to market, proving product/market fit, making sure that we built a product customer loves. Proved that. 2019 was really about then figuring out how do we grow and scale, what are the right marketing channels? How do we get our marketing channels working really efficiently? What more can we be delivering that our customers want? All that kind of stuff. And then also continuing to hire, continuing to build the team, all that kind of stuff that never stops.

Richie: [00:38:20] Yeah. You mentioned before about kind of the abundance of colors and finishes and so forth. How do you not become that, over time? Given there’s always some sort of pressure for more, more, more? I’m sure some people will go, “Hey, I want a 57th,” or, “My color isn’t in here.” Or, what’s that like, “we’re-gonna-say-no-to” criteria, or how do you not become them?

Nicole: [00:38:40] Yeah. I mean, I think the goal is just like to stay super-focused on this vision that I set out with in the beginning. And that doesn’t mean we’re not gonna evolve and adapt, but we’re never gonna have 3,000 colors. Like, that is the antithesis of what we set out to do when creating Clare.

Richie: [00:38:53] Yeah. Do you think you’ll take some away over time?

Nicole: [00:38:55] Maybe. If there’s a color that no one is buying. We will 100 percent remove it. Why keep it up on the website if no one’s looking at the page or ordering the product? I mean, that’s the kind of thing that we can be really nimble about. And, you know, we launched our new color because like, one of the things that we heard early on was people loved our color selection, and they were like, “Ah, we just wish you had X, or wish you had that.” And we’re not anti-launching new colors. We’re just not gonna launch them at a pace that we’re gonna end up with 3,000. Right. And so, we said, “Well, if we’re gonna launch a new color, wouldn’t it be fun to like, have our customers and fans help us with that process?”.

Nicole: [00:39:27] So we launched this campaign for our customers to help us choose our newest color. What we did to sort of maintain our authority was we pre-curated six or so colors that we would have been comfortable including on our palette, based on kind of, maybe where I saw holes in the palette and maybe a mix of like, what we might have heard from customers. And then we let our fans vote. So we said, “Hey, help us narrow these down, which colors do you wanna see?” We narrowed it down to two and we had a second vote. “Okay, which one do you want to see end up in the palette?” Our customers voted for one. Then it was like, help us name them, right? And we didn’t wanna give away the winner, so we had our fans submit names for both of the final two colors. And then we kept the sort of winner a secret. And we chose from the best of the name submissions and then we had our fans vote on which of the final names they liked better.

Nicole: [00:40:12] So we ended up launching a really pale, icy blue that our customers named “Frozen.” It was a really great campaign. We had more than 2,000 people vote on our website. So we engaged a lot of people to get excited about helping us choose the color, and I think it helped our customers and fans feel really invested in the brand. And, you know, they all took part in choosing this color that’s now in our palette.

Richie: [00:40:33] What’s been the cheapest and most expensive lesson you’ve learned, building the business?

Nicole: [00:40:37] Most expensive lesson I learned is how to spend my time. My time is the most valuable resource that I have and that the company has, and so I need to make sure that every bit of my time is focused on the right things, and that can be really hard. Because of startups, particular when you’re small, there’s so much to do and there’s not enough people to do it.

Richie: [00:40:52] And, single founder?

Nicole: [00:40:54] And I’m the solo founder, which is really challenging. And then the cheapest lesson, I guess I would say, listen to your customers. Most customers aren’t going to give you feedback. So if a customer takes the time to give you feedback, nine times out of ten, there’s thousands more customers just like them who think the same thing. And whenever we’ve listened to our customers and then delivered on that, whatever that feedback was, that we felt like, “Ah, that makes a lot of sense. That is something we should do,” we’ve seen positive effects from that. I’m building a customer-centric business. And so, sometimes you don’t have to go on a soul search to find the answers. They kind of just get put in front of you by the very people who are using your product. And so I’d say, maybe that.

Richie: [00:41:36] In terms of like, speed and scale over the next, call it one to two years, how do you think about how fast you wanna go and should go to get where you wanna go?

Nicole: [00:41:47] We’re at this point, I think, in the world of D2C where things have changed a lot. And I’ve no experience in another D2C brand outside of Clare, so I don’t really have a point of view, I just kind of go off of what I hear. And so when I think about scale, obviously we wanna grow quickly. We also have investors who are expecting us to grow quickly, so that’s sort of inherent. But in terms of what that pace should look like, I know that I have a desire to build the business really thoughtfully, because I don’t wanna make any missteps. When I talk to founders or hear stories from investors about the investments that didn’t work out, or founders and their biggest mistakes, it’s moving faster than they felt equipped to move, right? That’s when you make major missteps, and that’s when you like, crash and burn, so to speak, and I certainly don’t want that to happen with my business. So, while our goal is to move as quickly as possible, we have to balance that with being thoughtful. And so, while I’m certainly open to risk in all of that, I’m probably maybe a little bit more thoughtful than the like, folks who have to move-fast-and-break-things-at-all-costs kind of a mentality. We’re going gonna move fast, we might break a few things, but we’re not trying to destroy everything in our sight.

Richie: [00:42:54] Yeah. You mentioned kind of the story behind the name before. We often will ask also, how much was the domain?

Nicole: [00:42:58] Huh. Oh boy.

Richie: [00:42:58] Cause you have a top-level domain, right?

Nicole: [00:43:02] Yeah. Yeah. There’s a story behind that one. So, we have a great domain and—

Richie: [00:43:07] You should say what it is.

Nicole: [00:43:08] It’s Clare.com. C-L-A-R-E-dot-com. Visit us for a better way to shop for paint. So there was a company called Clare that was like, a very old company that made semiconductors, and they got acquired by a publicly-traded company that kind of was just like, sitting on the domain, but had absorbed that semiconductor business into their fold, but never really changed the website. So the Clare.com domain was like, the same as it was like in, you know, 1990 or something. It looked so janky. It wasn’t for sale. So we had to figure out who owned it. We found the parent company. We were like, “Who is the right person?” And Josh Kopelman at First Round gave me some really great advice on how to go about acquiring a domain, ’cause he helped like, the Mint.com guys get Mint. And like, he’s helped so many of the First Round founders figure out how to acquire great domains. He said, “Find the person who’s in charge of the money, ’cause they’re gonna look at it as like, an asset on the balance sheet.” Right? Versus someone in marketing or whatever who may, like take forever to get back with you. And he gave me some just like, good negotiation tips and how to go about make an offer.

Richie: [00:44:10] I always do like, “It’s for an art project.”

Nicole: [00:44:12] Yeah, ’cause like, we used our Gmails—

Richie: [00:44:13] Yeah.

Nicole: [00:44:13] —to do all the correspondence and we didn’t really say what we were, and like—but we found the CEO of this publicly-traded company, who is this like, really nice but like, eccentric guy. And we just said, “Hey, we see that this domain is here and the site is up, but it doesn’t really feel active. Would you ever consider selling it?” You know, “We’re prepared to offer you X,” right? And so, he didn’t pay us the time of day at first. And then we came back to him. We were pretty aggressive with the follow-up. And then he said, “Fine, I’ll talk to you.”.

Nicole: [00:44:46] So, we got him on the phone. And that phone conversation was, I think, what really piqued his interest in maybe wanting to sell it, ’cause it was nothing they had ever considered. He was like, “All right, I’ll sell you the domain, but you gotta make me a better offer.” And so there was like, a little bit of back and forth, and we came to an agreement, and it was expensive. So we’re paying the domain over three years, which is, I think, what Mint did. Mint actually gave up a little bit of equity for the domain—I think I heard the stories on the internet, it’s a good one. But I think they paid like a few hundred thousand dollars and a tiny amount of equity for Mint.com. So we didn’t go there, but wasn’t cheap.

Richie: [00:45:23] Wasn’t cheap. I guess it’s interesting too, ’cause it’s not “ClarePaint.com.”.

Nicole: [00:45:26] It’s Clare.com, yeah.

Richie: [00:45:28] Right. Which I assume speaks to some broader ambition as well.

Nicole: [00:45:30] Yeah. Yeah. Maybe. You know, you know…

Richie: [00:45:31] What are you most excited about that’s on the horizon in the next six to twelve months?

Nicole: [00:45:37] We have a near-term road map, so that’s what I’m just focused on now more than anything. And so, it’s a few key hires, we’re launching a really exciting new thing in the spring.

Richie: [00:45:48] In this realm, I know you’re not gonna say what it is, but in this realm or like, very different?

Nicole: [00:45:52] In the realm, I guess. Sorry, I’m being cryptic! I’ll tell you next spring, we can come back on Loose Threads and talk about it. So we’re gearing up for that. We have a lot of interesting things that we’re doing with our website. We’re rolling out these changes really iteratively. So like, customers may not notice a huge change, but like, incrementally, it’s like, one new update, another new update. So we’re rolling out a lot of things on the site that I think are improving the experience and also helping us be able to better speak to our customers. So we’re excited about that.

Nicole: [00:46:20] And one new thing that we’re doing, going back to the finishes. Initially, the semi-gloss finishes, I assumed that, you know, most people are using semi-gloss for their trim, and so, instead of overwhelming them with too many trim options, let me select the best colors that are great for door, trims, cabinets, baseboards, etc. But pretty much immediately our customer started asking for more colors in our semi-gloss finish. So we are launching our trim paint in all of our colors.

Richie: [00:46:45] And then I guess my last question: in terms of, I guess, where the stuff gets bought, do you see any sort of like, physical retail in the future or…?

Nicole: [00:46:52] You know, my vision for Clare is to reinvent the paint shopping experience. And so, we started with creating an online experience because one didn’t exist. And I think the idea of reinventing the future of what a paint store looks like is really exciting for me and definitely something I think about a lot.

Richie: [00:47:09] Awesome. Thanks so much for talking.

Nicole: [00:47:10] Thanks for having me! This was so fun.

Richie: [00:47:17] 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 and we hope you tune in next week.