Lara Fitch is on a mission to help small neighborhood shops, with unique locally made products, compete in the online world. Her company, Strolby, is one of Time Inc.’s “10 NYC Startups to Watch” in 2014. Read what she has to say about the “hunt mentality,” startups, faith and failing.
What is your job title?
Founder and CEO of Strolby
What do you really do?
Try to figure out elegant and efficient ways to strategically grow a small company with limited resources. Then ensure we execute each initiative as perfectly and quickly as possible.
What does a typical workday look like for you?
This is tricky as my days vary tremendously. I have weeks when I’m barely in the office and weeks when I hardly leave. It’s something I love about my job. I work from home one day a week right now and need to be better about attending events and networking- it’s not my favorite thing to do.
I am pretty much always thinking about work even when I’m doing something else. The other day I was checking out at the grocery store working through a problem in my head and when it was time to pay, I realized I had completely forgotten where I was or what I was doing. I was in the zone!
I try to read a novel for at least 15 minutes before bed to calm my mind down a bit. Sometimes it works and sometimes not.
How do you overcome creative blocks?
Take a long walk. All of my best ideas come when I’m walking around Brooklyn with my headphones on listening to my music in alphabetical order (I like to know I’ll eventually get every song). Reading fiction is my second strategy. As hard as it is, you have to get out of your head for a bit to get perspective and stories help us remember we are just one of many in the universe.
What was your most successful failure?
Being laid off during a merger. I was working part-time for a tech start-up. I had a pretty meaty role despite my schedule, which I really appreciated (the founders were awesome) and knew I would struggle to find something similar elsewhere. At the same time, it was an advertising company and I don’t love advertising. Like most people, I wanted to do something I was more personally invested in but I was really afraid to leave. The merger ripped the band-aid off for me.
The entire management team was laid off and I started consulting which I loved. I am very curious about how different businesses operate and being a consultant is a little like being a fly on the wall. You get to see the work and the politics from such a different angle. I learned a lot being a little separate and got to work with a lot of wonderful clients. Focusing simply on the work and not the workplace left me with a lot of headspace and that’s when I started thinking about different ideas for startups. I had the idea for Strolby on the subway one morning and lived with it for a couple of months before deciding I really wanted to try to bring it life. If I had never gotten laid off, I never would have had the found the right time to start a business of my own.
What trends are you seeing in your industry right now?
I think a lot of companies are working to create richer ecommerce experiences that provide more context and emotion around the products offered. It seems like there is a backlash to the hyper-efficient but lackluster experience that Amazon offers. To be sure, I still order plenty of things from Amazon but they’re all commodity products. There’s too much choice and people will often end up not buying something because they’re overwhelmed. A lot of sites are focusing on curating a very select set of products well.
We love working with small shops because they are the original curators and care deeply about their aesthetic and product offering. We curate the shops, and let them curate their products, which gives us such an interesting mix of goods to offer.
At the same time, consumers are also really diving into a “hunt mentality”, spending time looking for the “perfect” item. They are using sites like Pinterest and Wanelo to discover and bookmark new products. They are reading blogs as a way to sift through the product offerings and make more informed choices.
Finally, people want to know more about the products they’re buying, especially how and where they’re produced. There was a recent study published that showed that people are beginning to buy fewer things but spend more on each purchase. I think the promise of fast fashion is fading and that applies to home furnishings and kids items as well. Working with Strolby’s stores has dramatically changed how I shop. I realize that the design and production quality of items produced in smaller quantities tends to be much higher and so they last longer.
In the next few years what’s going to change the most in your industry?
People are increasingly shopping online for everything. It’s so convenient! Categories like furniture, clothing, and food that people thought would remain primarily brick-and-mortar are rapidly moving online in really innovative ways. We recently finished a home renovation and I bought every single light we installed, unseen, online. It wasn’t easy though because the industry is so geared towards design professionals that the consumer tools are really lacking. I found one or two resources that did a good job online and bought almost everything from them.
The same goes for food. I have a perfectly good local grocery store here in NYC but we use Fresh Direct for most of our grocery staples. Why should I go to the store for the basic stuff we use every single week? I am also trying out new services like Quinciple and Plated that make it easy to cook during the week without having to do so much planning.
Overall, brick-and-mortar businesses have to be able to compete online more effectively and offer top notch services in-store. So many local clothing shops have tiny mirrors that are clearly inaccurate and institute terrible return policies. It is going to be increasingly difficult for them to compete with an online shop that ships for free, allows consumers to try everything on at home and return what doesn’t work for a full refund.
At Strolby, we are trying to help collectivize our shops’ selling power so they can attract more traffic and sell more overall as a group. Small shops online today struggle to drive traffic. Most people come because they know the shop, saw them in the press or found them via a Google search. We want users to start their search at Strolby knowing the inventory is from the best small shops. We’re also instituting fair return policies and attractive shipping rates that we hope will improve as we grow.
Where do you or did you get your best business advice?
My husband gives me a lot of good advice (we talk a lot about Strolby!). He can pull me out of my weedy swamp and provide good perspective with a longer view. He’s a lawyer too so he has good negotiating tactics.
What business advice would you pass on?
I meet a lot of people who seem to want to have a startup for the sake of having a startup. They are looking to participate in a lifestyle of sorts. I think it’s really important to have a mission and a vision that you are passionate about but you need to also recognize that a lot of people are going to push you to adapt your business in ways that are counter to your vision. It’s good to listen and consider all of your options but measure everything against the mission. Once you lose that, it’s hard to keep your bearings.
Who do you follow on Twitter?
I really like Megan Quinn (@msquinn), a partner at Kleiner Perkins. Her tweets are wide-ranging, witty and personal. Brooklyn Magazine (@brooklynmag) is fun and clearly relevant to my job. Mostly I follow authors like Daniel Alarcon and Margaret Atwood, it makes me feel closer to literature when I’m working.
What’s on your daily must-read list?
I subscribe to Jason Hirschorn’s MediaREDEF, which is my main source of news besides checking the headlines of the New York Times each morning. I love the mix of articles he includes. I read a lot of Design Sponge – they cover a lot of the shops and designers we want to work with and their Biz Ladies column is always good for a pick-me-up on a hard day. When I have a quiet moment, I check Twitter. I also love Into the Gloss; you could call it my guilty pleasure.
If you had a Pinterest-style motivational quote on your wall, what would it say?
“Faith.” I recently wrote this on the back of a dirty piece of paper and stuck it to the wall above my desk. (I need a nicer version.) A friend recently told me a great story about a book he read by a POW in Vietnam called “The Stockdale Paradox” that he thought had a good lesson in it for founders. The author, James Stockdale, says this:
“This is a very important lesson. You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end—which you can never afford to lose—with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”
It’s a strange analogy (and I’m certainly not comparing startups to POW camps) but it’s very useful advice. We need to have complete faith that Strolby is going to be successful, that people will love it and use it and that it will help small shops stay in business and compete online. At the same time, we have to grind through the daily challenges, big and small, of running a business. Growth doesn’t happen evenly or overnight. It’s a steady slog that will hopefully pay off in the end. There are great days and terrible days and you just have to stay the course through them all.
Fill in the blanks….
I should have exercised yesterday.
I wish that I had more time to recruit Strolby shops, to spend with my family and to read more books. I wish that the New Yorker and the NYT Book Review were published every other week so I didn’t have such a pile to get through right now.
The first thing I do when I get to work is try to quickly get through email so I can start working on my projects for the day. Email drives me crazy.