At Gin Lane—the marketing agency that launched household-name brands like Harry’s, Sweetgreen, and Quip—Suze Dowling saw the early days of the DTC craze. After a few years, she also saw those trends evolving. The space was getting crowded, and customers were coming to expect more. Nailing marketing wasn’t enough. Every detail, from product to shipping to customer service and beyond, mattered. That’s what motivated Suze and her colleagues Nick Ling and Emmett Shine to reimagine their involvement in the DTC community, which is why they closed Gin Lane and launched Pattern Brands. Today, Pattern is an end-to-end marketplace with more holistic quality control throughout the user journey. Pattern Brands helps consumers find enjoyment in everyday moments through their proprietary brands, Open Spaces and Equal Parts, as well as Shopify stores they acquire and optimize marketing on, like Gir. Every move they’ve made comes from pursuing a more open dialogue between businesses and consumers.
In this article, Suze talks about what that takes, from the crucial process that is building a company's Financial Planning and Analysis Process, to the need to hire employees with a can-do mentality, to watching the shifts of the direct-to-consumer landscape during the pandemic.
What’s a key piece of early advice you’d want to give a new ecommerce founder on day one?
I have a few tips, but the most important is that you prepare yourself for a journey! Building a business is equal parts art and science—no one has all the answers, and there certainly is no such thing as perfect.
Be very clear on your end goal, but flexible about how you get there. View each and every activity that you undertake through the lens of how it moves the needle toward that goal. Don’t let yourself be paralyzed in pursuit of the “perfect” answer or output. Instead, gather what you know and then make a game-time call based on the information you have. Make sure you give yourself the flexibility to acknowledge what's working and, more importantly, what's not. Be open to pivoting when necessary.
And along the way, be vulnerable and transparent with your team—in these early days your employees are there because they believe in you and your vision. Trust them, bring them into the fold, and remember that as a founder you set the tone for those around you.
What are a few key documents and/or processes you’d suggest founders focus on at early stages? Tips for making them most effective?
A crucial process in the early days is understanding your core financial metrics and building out your Financial Planning and Analysis (FP&A) process. In the early stages of a startup, this is likely with an outsourced accounting firm.
It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that a thorough month-end close process is just an “administrative burden,” but it’s so important to take the time to analyze and understand the following: Why did something happen? What’s possible? What is likely to happen in the future? Getting the answers to these questions will help inform and equip you with the data to make better decisions on a day-by-day basis as you move forward and grow your business.
What’s one thing you learned as you did your first few seed-round pitches? What do you think investors most want to see from ecommerce founders at this stage?
The biggest learning from the first few pitches is that it does get easier. Like anything, you develop muscle memory and your pitch becomes stronger, your message clearer and your tone more conversational.
Your seed round pitch should largely focus on your vision—investors are looking for a vision that will carry your company from product-market fit to scale. Clearly articulate why your company is different, your unique insight, and why YOU are the person to lead it.
What kinds of early hires are most important in this industry? What kinds of characteristics and backgrounds should they have? And how did you approach finding them?
One of the most critical decisions that you make when building in the early days is when and whom to hire. In many ways it’s less about the specific roles and more about the person in the role. Be clear on your values and vision and hire people who have the right skillset and, perhaps more importantly, share in your purpose and passion. This is how you leverage the collective power of a team, and create something that is stronger than the sum of its parts.
These early hires deeply impact the working culture that you will ultimately create. For us at Pattern it’s about creating one of agility, entrepreneurship, and a 'can do' attitude.
To do this, we look for three key things:
- Curiosity. We’ve found those who are curious are lifelong learners, aren't afraid to ask questions, and are inherently more collaborative.
- Problem solvers. It’s vital that team members are able to show grit and perseverance towards challenges. Remember, there’s never not a solution. Yes, there are roadblocks, but if you ask “why” or “how” enough times, you will find a solution.
- Players / coaches.You need people who aren’t afraid to roll up their sleeves and get into the weeds of operating and building. But, ideally they are also in a position to grow within the organization as you scale.
It’s important not to underestimate the time and energy it takes to recruit. Make LinkedIn your best friend. Upgrade your LinkedIn to “Recruiter” and reach out far and wide in your sourcing search. Not everyone will be a fit, but every candidate may refer you to someone who is. Always end your outreach with an offer to connect and network. At Pattern, our network has been crucial—we have a number of people that are still with us from our early Gin Lane days—and even when they move on to the next phase of their careers, they remain a part of our very close-knit community.
What was a key turning point in discovering your product-market fit? What kinds of questions do you suggest ecommerce founders ask themselves to get here?
Creating an open dialogue is critical to discovering product-market fit. At Pattern we've coined the term “direct with consumer”—our intention has always been to build an ongoing conversation with our customers. In the past year, we spent hundreds of hours speaking with our customers to understand their relationship to their home in an effort to understand what truly would provide them value. We heard their desire for a one-stop-shop for home-goods products that shared their (and our) values, which is exactly what we’ve built with the new PatternBrands.com.
Remember timing is important too—you need to build, fail fast, and re-build. Always ask yourself: How can we achieve this faster?
You need to build, test, learn, and iterate in cycles—an imperfect plan executed with conviction and then iterated upon in-market is better than a seemingly “perfect” plan executed too late.
What tools, resources, and communities should startups in this space know about?
Leverage your investors and advisory network. I often see founders and entrepreneurs shy away from asking their investors for help and support which is a missed opportunity.
Primary Ventures has been one of our biggest support systems in building Pattern. They’ve generously provided hands-on support alongside access to their network and resources, simply because we put our hands up and asked.
I would also suggest reaching out to other early-stage companies (whether via warm introduction or a cold reach out on Linkedin)—you’ll be surprised at just how many people are willing to entertain a call or coffee meetup. Building your company doesn’t need to be a lonely journey.
What’s most exciting to you about the NYC startup community right now?
The energy! After the difficult year we have all endured, the NYC startup scene is buzzing. I’ve always appreciated the close-knit, collaborative nature that start-ups here have—it’s something that surprised me when I moved to NYC from Australia nearly a decade ago.
We recently announced our plan to acquire DTC brands, which put us in close contact with a number of New York entrepreneurs—such as Slash Objects and Paul Arnhold Glass—which are now offered as part of Pattern's curated collection.
What ecommerce trends or predictions are you thinking about most right now?
The direct-to-consumer (DTC) landscape is at a crossroads. Ecommerce is bigger than ever, but also more crowded than ever. Meanwhile, the cultural shift to online shopping is at an inflection point; the pandemic rapidly accelerated growth as it amplified consumer desire for convenience and immediacy.
With the ease of creating an online business via platforms such as Shopify, the ecommerce landscape will become increasingly competitive, and continue to drive up customer acquisition costs.
Honestly, many brands are not equipped to compete and win in this environment.
To be successful, DTC brands need to become experts in email marketing, conversion, retargeting, SEO, paid digital acquisition, affiliate, fulfillment and logistics, supply chain, inventory planning, customer service, and much, much more. And, trust me, this is easier said than done!
It’s why we’re so excited about this next chapter for Pattern: We believe there needs to be a new business model for the country’s growing community of ecommerce brands. We’re focused on completing thoughtful acquisitions of sustainable DTC businesses. When brands join the Pattern family, they benefit from our unique ability to provide world-class marketing and brand-building, coupled with in-house operational excellence and a mature brand platform. Not to mention, we’re also giving entrepreneurs the exits they deserve.