Skip to main content

In Conversation With Nicole Gibbons

With Nicole Gibbons and Ita Ekpoudom

39 minutes

Build and grow your business with Yelp

Verify my free listing

CEO of online paint store Clare, Nicole Gibbons is one of the few Black women to receive more than $1 million in funding. Oftentimes, Black entrepreneurs must bootstrap their businesses or rely on investments from friends and family. In this conversation recorded during Yelp’s Black in Business Summit (August 25, 2021), hear how her experiences as a woman of color have impacted how she builds her business and what small business owners can learn from her mistakes.

You’ll learn about:

  • The steps to creating a successful direct-to-consumer business
  • How finding your niche can lead you to creating a more scalable business
  • How to leverage your professional network to find investors
Nicole Gibbons
Nicole Gibbons CEO of Clare

CEO of online paint store Clare, Nicole Gibbons is hailed as the U.S.’s only Black-owned paint brand. Nicole has faced the challenges of being a woman of color in business and is passionate about educating others on how to build and scale their businesses in the face of difficulties along the way.

Ita Ekpoudom
Ita Ekpoudom Partner at GingerBread Capital (moderator)

Ita Ekpoudom’s mission is to uplift, educate, and empower women in business. In 2014, she established her company, Tigress Ventures, to provide thought leadership and advice to women seeking to scale their businesses and hone their leadership skills. At GingerBread Capital, Ita fosters the next generation of women leaders in business, helping them secure capital and find lasting success.

Cate: Here are two leaders that have been on themselves time and time and time again. It’s my pleasure to introduce you into the next session for the Yelp Black and Business Summit to a friend of mine, Ita Ekpoudom, who is a partner at GingerBread Capital, and one of the most amazing women I know. In conversation with Nicole Gibbons, the founder of Clare paint. Another incredible company that I would venture to guess this past year, since everybody’s been staying at home, looking at home improvement, her business has skyrocketed. But I’m going to turn it over to you, Ita and Nicole. And can’t wait to listen to this session.

Ita: Thank you, Cate. It’s always so fantastic to get to follow a friend. And I’m sure that you guys just learned a ton of great stuff, listening to Cate’s presentation. I’m delighted to join you all today. I always love being in conversation with founders, first of all, I spent all day doing that. To introduce myself, my name is Ita Ekpoudom, I’m a partner at GingerBread Capital based in New York City. Our firm is actually bi costal. But we focus on backing high growth, female founded, and co-founded gender diverse teams focused on the venture capital series A and later is kind of our sweet spot.

Ita: What I was reached out to about this conversation, I was asking, I was like, “Who do I get to talk to?” And then they’re like, “Nicole Gibbons.” I was like, “I know her. We’ve chatted before.” So I was happy to join this conversation. And I always love having a discussion where you have a founder and a VC together, and one where I’m not invested in her company, but I know her, I’ve been watching her. And I want to make this a conversational discussion where I’m sure we started the conference and the summit off with the stats about how bad the stats are if you are a black, black woman in the venture capital world.

Ita: Well, I am pleased that you are looking at one of those women here in Nicole, who has raised over a million dollars and is on the that path of building her business. And I just want to have a real conversation about, what was that like? How did you do it? Where was it tough? Where did you get wins? And where do you want it to be going? And what is standing in the way or what do you wish you had access to? So, Nicole, it’s great to have you here. Thank you for joining us.

Nicole: So excited to be here. Thanks for having me.

Ita: All right. Well, let’s just kick right into it. So, I didn’t start out at VC, you didn’t start out as an entrepreneur. Where did you start out at? And how did you go from, as I’ve read about your career and followed you, you kind of turned a passion into a profession. And into a profession that has not been disrupted in a very long time. So tell us about that kind of arc of what got you to where we are today.

Nicole: Yeah, absolutely. My career was a long winding journey, I came out of Northwestern and worked in communications. So I worked in PR in the fashion industry for 10 years. While in that job … and I should preface that I grew up with a mom in the design business. So I was always passionate about decor, always exposed to the world of home and just always loved all things home. And so, while I was in my PR job in 2008, I started a decorating blog, purely as a creative outlet to explore my passion. And then shortly thereafter, set up an LLC to establish an interior design firm that at the time was a side hustle. And I was doing those two side hustles, the passion project blog and the kind of small design business while working a very full-time job. But it was during the recession, so I wasn’t in a position to leave that job during 2008.

Nicole: And I stuck it out for about five more years before I finally left to build my thing full time. I didn’t want to just be an interior designer. I wanted to build a really big business, centered around my aesthetic and something that enabled me to continue my passion of helping people create beautiful homes. So I started thinking about, what could I do in the home space that was really different and disruptive? And I could have done a furniture line or this or that, anything obvious. But I chose to tackle the paint category. I was super inspired by the first wave of direct to consumer brands. I loved the companies that tackled the ugliest un-sexiest categories, like mattresses and glasses and these things that were really difficult to shop for and just made it a better experience.

Nicole: And so I had this light bulb moment around the paint industry, it’s an awful experience going back and forth to a store like Home Depot, trying to buy paint, trying to pick the color, lugging heavy paint cans. And I immediately thought about all the ways that I could simplify the buying journey and also just create a better brand. The other thing I recognized in this massive, $165 billion category, the traditional paint brands were pretty commoditized. No one shopped there because they loved the brand. People were buying paint because, oh, there was a store right around the corner from their home or they lived near a Lowe’s or whatever. And so I also wanted to build a brand that people genuinely cared about. And so the idea for Clare was born.

Nicole: I worked on the idea for a year solo, just exploring, doing market diligence, talking to people, learning everything I needed to learn about paint manufacturing, paint chemistry, et cetera. I started building out our supply chain. And I had to do a lot of selling through this whole process. Like convincing suppliers that my idea to start a paint brand could become a big business. And all of the different vendor partners that took a bet on this business that literally didn’t exist. And so I kind of pulled all that out in 2017. And then by the end of the year, I had everything I needed in terms of the cost inputs, how I was going to go to market, who was going to help partner with me on the manufacturing.

Nicole: And I had all of that and developed a financial model around the business, went out to raise capital and closed a $2 million pre-seed round at the end of 2017. Which I guess at the time I didn’t realize it, it was quite rare. Because generally when people are raising capital, there’s some signal of a product market fit, they have an MVP or minimum viable product, meaning like a phase one kind of beta version of their product out. And mine was very much still … I like to say it was more than an idea because we had partners, we had suppliers, it was very thoughtful. But we didn’t have a physical product. And I think to be able to raise pre-product is even more challenging. So, that was the beginning of the journey.

Ita: I mean there’s a lot there. There’s so much that I want to unpack here, but I think your arc is very similar to a lot of arcs, particularly in the black community of how we go from working professionals to entrepreneurs. Is the side hustle, you have something that you’re doing on the side and then eventually you’re like, “I have to bet on me.” As Cate said, when she was leading us in, “I have to bet on me.” When did you know that it was time to quit the other ones and go all in?

Nicole: Yeah. I had a really wonderful career. So by the time I left my day job, my goal was kind of to be the next Martha Stewart. I wanted to do television, I wanted to build a great design firm with work that was recognized in media and published projects. And I accomplished all of that in a really short time. I was on a DIY decorating show on the Oprah Winfrey Network for three seasons. I was a notable expert that was always on TV, telling people how to make their homes better. And my design projects were published.

Nicole: But I was also wearing a lot of hats. I always used to joke that I had 17 jobs. I was working with brands, working with private clients designing homes, I was on TV. I was kind of always running around doing all these different things. And I didn’t feel like I was focused enough on one thing. I don’t like the idea of being spread thin. I like the idea of being able to do one thing really, really well. And so what Clare created for me was an opportunity for me to really focus on one thing. And something that would have a lasting legacy, something that was far more scalable and had the potential to be a much bigger business than the brand that was built around me and my personal talents. And so, when I started getting kind of restless and that was after about five years of doing my thing full time, running the business and stuff. I just started thinking about, what was next? And how do I build something that I can grow into a massive business?

Ita: Gotcha. As an investor, that’s one of the things we love to hear is, it can seem like you want to boil the ocean or own the world. And when you look at like Martha Stewart or Oprah or somebody that’s spanned into a bunch of different things, what all of them started at is what you’re pointing at. Is you went deep on something first and then you can layer out into other things later. But you had the ability to do kind of the reverse. You had the broad range and then you realized that to really build it, get known for something in a very big way of building a product or service, that you had to go in on one and really try to start owning it.

Ita: So I think that was a great step for you to really not also burn yourself out, which is something a lot of people do along the way when you try to be everything to everyone. But to try to hone in is one of the things that helps you stand out. So then I think about, you picked a product, you picked a tough product, you picked paint, you picked pre-seed. Which is very kind of smart and advantageous of like, I need money to help this grow. How did you go about raising $2 million without a product on the market?

Nicole: Yeah. So I was lucky enough to get some really great advice from a VC. Going into it, a lot of people too will choose to start bootstrapping initially. And paint is not the type of product you can mix up in your kitchen. Like you hear about a lot of beauty brands that start out kind very home grown. And it’s just, it’s a technical product, it’s chemical product, it’s regulated, there’s so many complexities to the product and there’s no way I could bootstrap manufacturing paint. So I knew I needed to bring in some outside capital.

Nicole: And the advice that I was given was that, if you have a compelling enough market opportunity, the right founder fit. If you can demonstrate signals of what the business could be. And so for me that meant creating branding, creating packaging, essentially building out what the brand will look like. So that at least there was something more tangible there for investors to see, that perhaps I could have a shot. And the VC that I spoke with, it was really like right when I decided to do some diligence to determine if this was an idea I wanted to pursue. I signed up for office hours at this coworking space called The Wing and that’s how I got connected with this VC. 20 minutes to get feedback on your pitch or fundraising.

Nicole: And so at the end of the meeting, when I kind of explained the idea and was asking for her advice, she said, “When you’re ready, I would love to hear your pitch.” And to me, that was the vote of confidence I needed to know that, okay, if she’s interested in hearing my pitch, I could probably get other investors intrigued enough to at least hear me out. And then perhaps I could be successful at raising capital. And I was really confident in the business that I was building and the market, just knowing the home space inside and out. I was really confident in my ability as a storyteller to be able to communicate effectively what the brand was that I was going to build and how it would come to life over time. And I think I just was also lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time with the right people, in order to make it happen.

Nicole: And it took a lot of meetings. I probably met with 40 or 50 people over the course of two or three months to get that round closed. Tons of nos, obviously, I think we had five core VC funds in our pre-seed round. And so to get to those five yeses, required 10x the meetings. And so it was definitely a process, it was a huge learning. I’d never done anything like that before. Didn’t know a ton about venture capital, even. So learned a lot, got a crash course in how VC operates and haven’t looked back.

Ita: And I think that’s really important that you got that kind of advice early. First of all, what kind of business are you building? And what’s the right kind of capital that goes to that type of business? And I think you recognize early, there’s some businesses that you can bootstrap, that you can start with just your money, just your sweat equity and do it. But there’s other kinds of businesses that simply you cannot do that. That like paint, as you say, is one of those things that we do not recommend you mix chemicals in your home like that. Because it could lead to like fires. So, don’t do that kind of thing.

Ita: But from the standpoint of building a network and getting in front of the people that could give you the quality advice that cut through to what you needed to do. And the kinds of metrics that you needed to see, to appeal to a VC. So you talked to that first one, did they do intros for you? Or how did you get to the next 40, 50, build that database, what did you do?

Nicole: When I tell you I knew no one in VC, I genuinely knew no one in VC. But I started with a ton of research. Crunchbase was like the kind of core resource that I used to figure out like who is investing in companies that are similar to mine? And then I literally looked at those VC funds, looked at who were the partners, went on LinkedIn to see if I knew people who knew them. I mean, I was reaching out to people I hadn’t talked to in a million years to be like, “Hey, I saw that you’re connected with so and so. Would you be open to making an introduction? Here’s what I’m working on.” I mean, I literally like pounded the pavement so hard to try and get connected with people.

Nicole: One person that I knew … so in my previous corporate job, before I started my design firm. I was working in kind of like the fashion and beauty space. And at the time, we had taken a meeting with Birchbox to potentially get our product in a Birchbox. So I remember having met with Hayley and Katia, the two co-founders of Birchbox when they were still in their early stages. And I saw that Hayley was a VP now at a fund called First Round Capital. So I figured out how to get connected with her, I was like, “Hey, not sure if you remember me, here’s what I’ve been up to. Would you be open to kind of learning more about what I’m building?” And she actually ended up being the biggest check Clare at the time. That was the one connection that I had directly, but a lot of it was just hustling my way into the rooms and a ton of networking kind of research.

Ita: I think that’s really important. The power of relationship building and relationship building over time. And not being transactional from the standpoint of, you were interacting with them at a different point, but like when you reached back out, like you reached back to somebody you’d met before, you queued them in. And I’ll say from the standpoint as somebody that gets like cold pitches all the time, like my email is very easy to figure out and just send in. But because of that, I get a lot of emails. But the ones that stand out and the ones that get replies are the ones where it’s like, “Oh, do you remember we’ve met, we had this conversation. And actually I’ve been following you and I’ve seen what you’re doing and here’s what I’m doing.” Like those are the ones that kind of cut through the noise.

Ita: And in lining up investors, it is really important to like cut through that noise. So if somebody says, “Oh, I either remember you.” Or the warm intro that gets you there of somebody that they trust or know well, that they’ve worked with before that goes through. And the other thing is, founders become investors. That’s the other thing, like we hope, I hope one day when Clare IPOs exit and you become an angel investor or maybe a professional investor. That’s one of the things that a lot of the future investors are former operators and founders. So building that network around the other operators that you know is crucial and pivotal to kind of building that relationship. And I think, you talked about it really well. Yeah, go ahead.

Nicole: I was going to say, another thing that I had no clue is that investors became a source of other intros. So, investors pass a long deal flow to one another and they share deals. And so in the early stages, when I didn’t know very many people, there were definitely VCs that I met who weren’t maybe the right stage, we were too early. We were as early as they comes, but who were intrigued enough by the market and knew other investors who might not be turned off by how early we were. And were really generous about making introductions to other investors that they thought could potentially be a fit for us at the stage, when it was literally just me and a PowerPoint.

Ita: Yeah, that’s the point of like the impression of what you make and you never know who you’re talking to. You never know who other people know. And from my standpoint, we are one of those that are like, you were too early, you would’ve been too early at that stage. But we know a lot of people that are seed stage investors and before. So if it’s a conversation, whereas like, “Okay, this isn’t the right fit, but this is something I want to watch.” Making an introduction that maybe helps you is one of the best ways that investors build Goodwill with founders for the future when they do grow into the sphere that they look at.

Ita: So it’s a win-win situation when that happens. And I think good investors, like one where you actually resonate in the conversation, but they kind of give you that clear yew or no, why. But say, “Here’s what I’m looking for, love to stay in touch.” And give you that opt in of like, “Please, send me those updates as you’re building it.” Are the ones that kind of really want to see what you’re doing and want to see where you’re going. Again, I think you did all of the right pieces of like build meaningful relationships, follow up over time. And don’t expect that a no from back in the day, might be a no forever. It could actually lead to something that comes along at a later date.

Ita: And so, one of the things of the standpoint of pitching for money, you get told a lot of different things about how to build a deck. What did you find when you actually put it together made it successful for you? That was cutting through and resonating with those final five, what resonated with those final five?

Nicole: I think it was three things and a lot of my investors have said this. It was the founder fit. Investors want to know why are you the right person to start this business? Because 10 people could have the same idea, but what’s going to make me the one who can execute? And I think my really unique insights into the home space, a decade working in retail, where I worked for a massive multi-billion dollar omnichannel retailer. I think that mix of skills and experiences made for a really strong founder fit for the type of business I’m building. So that was one.

Nicole: I think number two was just the vision. So, being able to clearly communicate how I was going to build the business, in a way that made sense. Because when you’re selling a vision, it’s all a pipe dream until you execute. You got to demonstrate that you can actually go out and do that. And I think the third thing is the market opportunity. So the one I often get asked about raising capital … and venture capital is not for everybody and not for every type business. Venture capital is only the right fit for business if your goal is to build a billion dollar plus brand. VCs are kind of go big or go home mindset, they’re not backing small businesses that aren’t trying to scale. So they look for a big market opportunity and I think that third thing was the market opportunity. Paint was a sleepy, overlooked market that no one had ever thought about, that was massive. One of the few massive consumer industries that had yet to go online. And I think that was also intriguing to investors. So those three things.

Ita: Absolutely. And I think that’s really important. And looking into yourself as a founder of, what kind of business do you want to build? How much of yourself are you trying … and how much of your business are you trying to give away to do that? Because that is the trade off of venture capital. When you raise equity financing in that way, you are selling a piece of your business, so you no longer own 100% of that business. And for that trade off, the investors are expecting in kind of a five to 10 year horizon in the venture world, to get to some kind of liquidity event where you either go public, get sold or have some kind of inflection point that can give investors back their money. So really thinking about that as a founder and as the type of business that you want.

Ita: Somebody said, I laugh, I’m like if a $50 million business, if you own 100% of it, no one’s going to be like, “Oh, that’s a bad business.” But in VC, that is a bad business for that model. But as an entrepreneur, some people would be like, I’ll take a $50 million business that I own all of, over a billion dollar business that I maybe own like less than 1% of after all these kind of rounds of financing. So it’s really kind of one of these things where press and all of that makes it seem really exciting, that VC is the thing for everyone. But it might not necessarily be the case for all types of businesses. So I think it’s great that you raise that point. So you’ve raised $2 million, you’re living the dream. What happens after you raise $2 million? What comes next?

Nicole: So right after that, you hit the ground running. I started building a team, signing contracts with all the suppliers I spent a year lining up, building our website, working on really blushing out the brand look and feel in a more specific way. So it was just kind of bringing the brand to life. I almost say it was like having a baby, like you’re sort of incubating and like gestating and then it’s born into the world. And so that’s sort of what we were doing, I was building the brand. And then we launched about seven, eight months after closing the funding.

Ita: Oh, before we could talk more into the now, I’m seeing a couple of questions that I want to answer before we move away from that. One of the attendees is asking, when you sat down with prospective investors, what did you actually bring to the meeting? Like, I think that’s really important. What was in that meeting with you?

Nicole: Yeah. Okay. So generally your first meeting is always just an intro call. VCs don’t want to waste their time, they’re going to give you a sliver of their time. Maybe it’s 20 minutes, maybe it’s 30. And for that meeting, you’re really not bringing anything. Usually it’s on the phone, especially like when I was raising, there wasn’t COVID or Zoom. So, that first chat was usually a phone call. And I had a one pager that I would send in advance to gauge interest if they even wanted to meet with me. But that call was really just me educating them on the market and walking them through the opportunity.

Nicole: I think if all goes well, it shouldn’t feel like you’re pitching. It should really feel like you’re having a conversation about your business and the business that you’re building. And you’re educating them on, like here’s what the paint market looks like, here’s why this is a good opportunity, here’s my story and why I’m a good fit to run this company. They’ll know after that meeting, if they’re interested or not. After that meeting, you’re get a, sorry, I’m not going to [inaudible 00:23:26] a conversation or I think what you’re building is interesting, I’d love to talk again.

Nicole: If they love to talk again, then that’s when you might send your deck. And your deck usually includes the story, the problem you’re solving, the size of the market opportunity, really kind of laying the foundation for what they would even be investing in. Who you are or your team? What does your business model look like? How are you going to make money? What’s your kind of plan for how you’re going to scale and grow the business? And so, the deck sort of includes all of those things. There’s some great resources online where you can Google like pitch deck examples, and you can see like Airbnb seed deck. There’s a lot of like really big companies who’ve published what their pitch decks look like.

Nicole: But there’s a formula for kind of what the slides should look like and what they need to contain. And so when it got to the point of actually needing to present something, you present that deck. And then depending on the structure of the funds, say it’s a really big fund that has more multiples partners who have to buy-in to the yes. Then you’ll go their office for a partner meeting and you’ll pitch to all the partners. And that’s maybe a little bit more formal. So might have your deck up on a screen or a slideshow. You might be walking them through it. They’re going to pepper you with a million questions. You have to be ready to answer, literally any question that’s thrown at you. Which means, you need to know your business financial numbers inside and out. And so it can be a lot of pressure, but that’s usually the last step before, yes. If it’s a smaller fund, you might maybe after reviewing the deck with them on a phone or a Zoom, these days, they might start asking for data, data requests. And then they get back to you [inaudible 00:25:06].

Ita: I mean, I think you nailed that perfectly. I’m just going to give a slight tweak from my perspective of what … it’s all of those things. But the two things that I would say of what I like to see, especially if it’s not somebody that I’ve met with before. Is I actually like to get the deck before I have the call, so that I can review it and then make the conversation a conversation where I can kind of dig in. And I might even say, “Go ahead and give me your pitch.” But I’ll know the things where I want to zoom in on.

Ita: And I think sometimes because you’ll probably only get half an hour in an initial call, you don’t want to waste the half an hour, you want to get into a dialogue so that hopefully it leads to a follow on conversation. And when it comes to that deck, I always say, women do the most beautiful decks, in particular. But sometimes they do these 30, 50. I don’t and most investors, especially if they’re meeting you for the first time, will not read a deck that’s more than 15 slots. So do not make that initial deck that you send … and I would recommend, send it in advance. So don’t put anything so crazily proprietary that you’re like asking people to sign NDAs, don’t ask an investor to sign an NDA, we’re not going to sign it. Because there are very few completely original ideas that somebody would sign an NDA for. So don’t even waste your time doing that.

Ita: But you want to get to the heart of the conversation and make it meaty. And exactly the things Nicole was pointing about. What is the problem? Why are you uniquely qualified to solve it? And how are you doing it? And the competitive landscape. I hear all the time, “But we don’t really have competition, blah, blah.” People were doing something before they found your business. Otherwise, your business would be the business at that point. So don’t say there is no competition, really lead, cut off the question that I’m going to ask in advance by showing me and saying, “This is what people are using right now. And here’s why I’m different.” Like Nicole was like, “Yeah, you can go to Sherman Williams or you can go to Lowes and whatever. But are they sending it directly to your home? Are they sending you these cool, sticky things you put on your wall that you can test it out before and then come to you? No.” That’s kind of where you’re differentiating, but like, don’t shy away from talking about what people are using until you bring them the better alternative.

Ita: But those are the two things that I would say. Because sometimes when a company isn’t the right fit for me, but I like the founder. If I have the deck and I ask the company saying, “Actually, I think I know a couple of people that I might want to introduce, where it might be a better fit.” What I do, because I’ve had the conversation, I’ve read the deck and I’ve had that discussion.

Ita: I forward along the deck with my warm intro of why I believe they should take the call. And that’s one of the things that leads to that further conversation of somebody saying, “Hey, well, Ita took the time and was like, this might be worth your time.” So those are the kinds of things where you don’t want to make it feel too cat and mouse. Just lead with what you want and put it out there, so that you make it easy for the person to help you get to that next step. So those are the two things I’d say, send the deck in advance and don’t make it more than 15 slides. Nobody’s going to read more than 15 slides. And don’t trick it out with the appendix and say, “Oh, here’s a 55 slide appendix.” Just keep it simple, leave them wanting more, is how I would leave with that.

Ita: And then the other question that was asked was about the resources that you used. And I thought Crunchbase was great. Were there other things that you used when you were like kind of combining the investor landscape?

Nicole: Yeah. Crunchbase, LinkedIn, obviously. There’s a tool called PitchBook, but it’s very paywall, so you might only get like one little ounce of info for free. But occasionally, PitchBook. And that was it for the most part. I mean, I read lots articles as well. So I would read about other companies financings and kind of understand who backed them and why. I listened to tons of podcasts, so Twenty Minute VC was a podcast I listened to a lot and still do. Or if there was a VC that I researched and thought could be an interesting target, I might try to find a podcast that they were on to hear first hand what they’re looking for when they’re investing in companies. I did the same with kind of like YouTube, so there was a lot of panels just like this that you could find on YouTube with founders and VCs talking about raising. So those were all kind of resources I used to just inform myself on how to approach things.

Ita: Absolutely. I think all of those are fantastic. I’ve spoken on a lot of panels. Like if you Google, you’ll find them. And I think Google is a powerful tool. Especially, when you know what you’re looking for. And I think you talked about it earlier, you were like, what is in the category around me? Or who are similar investors or companies that I feel like I could be close, but not identical, and who backed them? Working backwards in that way, I think is always a great thing.

Ita: And I too am a LinkedIn user where for … and it’s not the sending cold requests. I don’t like receiving those and I don’t like sending those. But for using it to search, to get to the person, that’s how I got to … we are investors in Dr. Lisa Dyson’s company called Air Protein. I saw her TED talk, speaking about finding things on video. I saw her TED talk in 2017 and I was like, “I need to meet her. I don’t know her. How do I find her?” So I went to LinkedIn, put in her name and I was like, “Who do I know?” I knew somebody that went to MIT with her, sent her an email being like, “Do you know her? How well do you know her? Here’s why I need to meet her.” And we met in 2017, but it took until last year for us to actually end up investing in the company. But it was that kind of building a relationship over time, but it was through LinkedIn doing that kind of searching.

Ita: And you’re right. Crunchbase is great. And even the Pro, it’s not super expensive, so you can buy that. And one of our other portfolio companies, Iman Abuzeid of Incredible Health. I don’t tweet that many things, so you can find it in my tweets. But she wrote a whole breakdown of like how she went about raising her series A, including linking out to the databases she used, how she thought about structuring it. So I usually always send that to people that may be building SaaS based businesses versus kind of tangible products. So, I don’t tweet that much, you can scroll through, there’s not that many. But you can find the link to that. But those are exactly that kind of thing of scanning kind of the universe.

Ita: And we’re investors in a company called [Wait, What? 00:31:30] Who is behind Masters of Scale, which is Reed Hoffman’s podcast to those. And they’ve broken out a whole thing, if you can’t go to business school, go to Masters of Scales podcast version where they’ve taken all of the conversations from various successful leaders to go into that. So absolutely, all of the things you’re saying, you can do it for free to very little, to be able to get yourself educated on kind of the resources out there and learning from others stories. So I think all of the points you raise are exactly the right way to get educated on what you’re trying to do.

Ita: Let’s see. Let me look at the Q&A to see if there’s anything. Oh, I think this is an interesting one, back to you. What made you choose paint versus wallpaper? And what was that kind of unique value proposition?

Nicole: So I knew I wanted to build a really big business and frankly, paint was a bigger market opportunity. So like in the US alone, there’s about $30 billion worth of paint sold in this country and globally, even more than that. And so it’s just a much bigger market than wallpaper. And so while wall paper is super interesting category, maybe an interesting extension down the line. Paint was just the bigger opportunity. Plus it was also like one with a shopping experience that was really tough. I mean, it’s actually quite difficult to buy wallpaper as well, to be honest. But I think the paint shopping experience, in my opinion, was like fundamentally broken and archaic. Like going back and forth to Home Depot, like the same way people buy paint today is the same way your grandparents bought paint and it hasn’t evolved. So to me, that signaled a bigger opportunity.

Ita: Gotcha. And I think that’s a great question and that’s a great answer. Because there are often multiple ways of approaching a problem. And the one that executes and the one that hits is the one that is like, why is it … and gets funding to be clear. You can do all of them, but the one that kind of breaks through and gets an investor interested is why is something fundamentally broken and hasn’t been innovated? And what can be done differently? And to the point you said, how big is that market? And because you’re going after venture, there needs to be a B next to that name. And as you said, paint is one of those where everybody paints something, whether inside or outside of their home in this country and globally. So breaking out those kind of thinking is really important when you’re thinking about how you’re going to approach solving the problem that you’re going after. So I think that’s great question and great advice.

Ita: And then I think … how you found who invested in similar businesses in the community? That’s the one we went over of like the LinkedIns, all of those ones of the various resources. And I think another thing that you did is like, if you know those founders, like when you talk to Hayley and Katia, like talk to other founders in your community or in your space. I think it’s really important. Being a founder is extremely lonely and getting to talk to other people, especially other entrepreneurs is really important. I’m sure that you have a great founder network.

Nicole: Yeah, I do now. But when I started out, I didn’t. I think I knew one venture back startup founder personally, like, well enough to just shoot her an email. And she was kind of enough to give me a ton of advice and is still a fantastic resource. But I didn’t have a big founder network back then. Now I do.

Nicole: Another thing that I did too, when I was in those super early stages, I joined this accelerator program. There’s a lot of like … like Y Combinator is probably the most famous accelerator. And they take equity and it’s very structured. So there’s all different types of accelerators. The one that I joined was more of a networking focused accelerator. So it helped build community with other founders, it helped you find resources and things like that. But they don’t take equity, it wasn’t very like formalized. And it was called VentureCrush, so you can find online. It’s run by this like really well known tech lawyer named [inaudible 00:35:27], who’s awesome. And that’s how I started building my founder network. I’m still really good friends with a lot of the people who were in my cohort of VentureCrush to this day. And that was like the very beginning of me being embarked in this world of other founders and startups and whatnot.

Ita: Absolutely. I think, especially if you’re a solo founder, it is lonely and it is hard getting people that can get what you’re going through, is really crucial that you can really like lean on along the way. But that’s important in both things. Like I have that in my life too. And it’s like, I call mine my kitchen cabinet. It’s like a group of friends where you can talk about all kinds of things, you can ask candid feedback about like yourself or what you’re thinking. And really be able to have somebody give you the unvarnished truth that can help you really fine tune some things that you may not feel comfortable sharing just broadly yet.

Ita: Especially, when you’re going through this kind of venture world, so much of it is relationship driven and it’s so kind of opaque. That it really is important to build good relationships, meaningful relationships and not transactional one. Somebody should not only hear from you when you want something from them. It should be like a mutually advantageous thing. Because people see that person coming and they avoid them. So like, being that person that’s just kind of there and helpful and open to others is really important in this community. And people remember that. People remember that, they speak fondly of those people and then they come back to them later down the line. So I would say that would be a great thing. I think we are hitting the end of our session. But I would say, Nicole, would you leave us with some final piece of advice for our entrepreneurs out here?

Nicole: I would say it is a long journey filled with ups and downs, it is never a linear path. So the most important thing is if you have something that you’re building, that you are so passionate about. Keep that conviction, stay the course. Often the businesses that are successful aren’t even successful because they’ve done something vastly different. It’s because they had the grit to stick it out through all the ups and downs, to kind of get to the end point. So, I know firsthand how hard the journey can be. Stay the course, stick with your vision and go out there and keep hustling.

Ita: Exactly. The entrepreneur that wins is the one that survives until they can thrive. So you are a prime example of one of those that is just hitting this thriving. And we are looking forward to following you. Thank you. It’s been a pleasure speaking with you. I’m going to turn it back over to Tara to take you on the next session. Thanks for having us, everyone.

Grow your business with Yelp

Manage my free listing

Explore further

Womens Business Summit on-demand event

Women in Business Summit 2022

To celebrate Women’s History Month, Yelp hosted its second annual Women in Business Summit on Thursday, March 24, 2022. Headlined by beauty entrepreneur Bobbi Brown, founder of Jones Road Beauty, this summit brought together dynamic female entrepreneurs, along with leaders in social media, marketing, and finance, for a day of thought-provoking conversations, inspiration, and actionable advice.
Learn more
In conversation with Rebecca Minkoff

In Conversation With Rebecca Minkoff

For over 15 years, Rebecca Minkoff has made luxury fashion accessible with her edgy and feminine designs. In this recording, Yelp Trend Expert Tara Lewis and Rebecca talk all things career and entrepreneurship.
Learn more
Standing out as a Black woman (Yelp's Black in Business Summit)

Standing Out as a Black Woman in Business

Data shows Black women are promoted more slowly than other groups of employees and are significantly underrepresented in senior leadership. Hear from Black business builders on their experiences, challenges, and how they’ve created a seat at the table.
Learn more