Founder of St Frank
Interviewed on March 31, 2018
St Frank, founded by Christina Bryant in San Francisco in 2012, is a premium home products company known for framed handmade textiles. It partners with artisans from under resourced countries, with the aim to support economic empowerment for these artisans and preserve traditional artisanal crafts. Originally set out as an online business, St Frank opened two stores in San Francisco in 2015 and New York in 2018 and looks to do more pop-ups and add additional permanent locations.
What is your background before founding St Frank?
I studied art history in college and started my career as a contributing membership development assistant at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. I thought I was going to work in the art world long term, but I quickly realized that I was more passionate about international development, so I left New York and moved to Rwanda and lived in a rural village there for two years. I decided to move to Rwanda because I joined a healthcare NGO that had operations there, so I did operations and research for them. I knew I wanted to become an entrepreneur long term, but I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. Then I came out of that experience just realizing that although we can give people health and education, what’s really going to sustainably change their community is quality jobs. So I knew whatever business I would start, I wanted it to be supporting quality jobs to people who didn’t have easy access to them. I also met artisans in my community through working in rich traditional crafts. I came to realize that there are amazing stories behind these crafts, and they are stories being told from generation to generation, especially in communities where there is low literacy. They are producing beautiful handmade works, but they weren’t necessarily finished in a way that would make sense once you get home. It wasn’t a Western relevant premium product. Without a business in mind, I started designing some products for my own personal use, first apparels and then some things for my room. Then I came back to the United States for business school at Stanford. While I was there, I was decorating my space, and essentially I realized there was no shortage of premium home products, but I wanted to create a space that’s authentic to who I am and really spoke to my values and my stories, as I am someone who travels around the world, beyond just the United States and Europe, as well as someone who cares about authentic products and stories behind them. The home space in general, and especially the premium home space, definitely had not begun to meet this new millennial consumer (I’m an old millennial). Essentially the concept was to build a new type of home brand for a new consumer like me.
I recognized the opportunities in the home market and started working on the concept in business school. I took a consulting job and worked for this company called FSG. They basically focused on using social impact as a lens for recognizing competitive advantage, which is very similar to what I do now. While I was working there, I was working on St Frank on the side. I had many amazing friends and classmates from business school who started businesses right at school. I realized that I knew what I wanted to do, but I needed a notch of confidence. Two of my closest friends Robert Denning and Karlygash Burkitbayeva started an amazing sunglasses brand called Westward Leaning. I was thinking if they could do it, then I could do it too! Eventually it got to the point where I couldn’t take St Frank to the next level without working on it full time.
How did you get everything started?
When I first started, I was doing it all by myself. I worked on it at my studio apartment and spent a month traveling around the world by myself to set up the supply chain, with many suppliers we still work with today. I didn’t have much money and didn’t have a team, so I wanted to do one thing and do it well. So when we launched, we only sold framed handmade textiles, which is really what we are known for. We are still the only retailer that does framed textiles at scale. I definitely think so much of what we are doing in addition to the way we source is really creating a new differentiated aesthetic that’s elevated bohemian luxury. We are a very products and design driven business, so the concept around what the products was and what our brand was was the first thing I focused on. Then I thought about how I was going to sell it.
How did you source your suppliers?
We work with artisans around the world in low- and middle-income countries. Under resourced in general. At first I spent a lot of time traveling and learning about global textiles and deciding where we wanted to work. We still do some traveling, but now we work with a lot of third party non-profit middlemen. We basically need to work with organizations who have been verified, whether it’s fair trade certified or some other third party non-profit that’s credible, because we can’t be on the ground to ensure their wages, gender equality, and other holistic support and benefits for our partners which we require. Now as demand for artisan made goods increase, we connect with people at trade shows, and artisans start to reach out to us. We also find them through secondary research online and networking. That part of our supply chain has been developing pretty organically. I think it seems unique but probably doesn’t differ much from how other companies source. We just require ethical sourcing, and the products must be rooted in traditional crafts and have stories behind them.
What is the design and production process?
I design the products haha. We also work with product managers on a contract basis to help us do technical drawings. I’m actually going to convert someone part time onto our team. Our bread and butter are contemporary handmade pieces, so we collaborate with contemporary artisans and groups to design the pieces based on crafts they are already working on, but specifically to our purpose. With that artisan, basically I looked at his collection and asked him to take the technique he applied here but put on that background and scale. Then he did another version, and I gave him feedback on changing the colorway. It’s a very collaborative process. We essentially just laid out a design and a colorway based on what they are producing, and then we produced them together. We do all the finishing in the United States to ensure quality and consistency.
You have no retail background. How did you know how much to produce and what would the consumers want?
We were working with handmade goods, so we weren’t facing huge minimum order quantities or long lead times. At first it was just my instincts. As we grew our team, we brought on people with retail background.
How did you decide what other products to add to your assortment?
For over a year we just sold framed textiles. Then we added a layer of vintage products, buying from small businesses and textile vendors from the same communities. About a year later, we started introducing pillows and blankets. Primarily we’re known for textiles and heavy color patterns, and our supply chain and capabilities are already set up in textiles, so we stayed there for awhile. But soft goods such as pillows, blankets, and rugs are also large part of our assortment. Art and curiosity is still our largest category. Accessories has become a more important part of our collection because they are our entry point gift options. Recently we introduced wall paper and fabric by the yard, and that’s the fastest growing category. This year we'll add more new categories including tabletops.
How did you decide the location of your first store?
We decided to experiment with the opening of our first store in San Francisco, and we put our office in the back. We didn’t even know if the store would be profitable, but we just thought it would be a really powerful brand building moment. We got to meet our customers and learn from them and get early feedback on products. We quickly realized that the store was very profitable, and it has continued to grow year over year. But what we realized more is the impact of that one store had on growing our online business. We saw a direct correlation between in store and online, mainly fueled by organic press and sharing on social media and through word of mouth. We then did a series of 5 pop-ups. In 2016, we popped up along the west coast in Los Angeles. And last year we were in East Hampton, New York, and Palm Beach. Essentially just use that as a tool to mainly acquire customers and build brand equity. We are now in the process of opening permanent stores. We just opened a second permanent store in New York, and we are planning to open a permanent store in Los Angeles in September.
BUILDING THE TEAM
Who was the first person you hired and how did you find that person?
So within the first year of operating, I brought on Steph Peng as my business partner, and we really built the business together. I was looking for a partner and just casting the net. One of my old colleagues from FSG was at Stanford Business School, and Steph was in his class. He was about to graduate, so I asked him if he knew anyone who fit my description. Honestly, Steph and I really didn’t talk for that long before we decided to work together. Now we interview people pretty extensively before we hire them. I got lucky. She studied engineer in college, trained in supply chain management, and worked for four years in finance. We have the same judgment and various values aligned, but we also have very complementary skill sets. I think that allows us to work well together. Steph is able to take her more quantitative skills and bring them to develop our operating style. And although I am not trained as a merchandise designer, I have an art background and am able to bring that aesthetic and creative side.
How did you grow your team and decide which position to hire for?
In addition to myself and Steph full time in corporate, Nora Handsher joined our team. She’s been with us the longest. She came from Gap and worked with a lot of brands. She does buying and production and interfaces with all of our suppliers and manages inventories. She brought the hindsight practice and open-to-buy practice into our business. We had other colleagues along the way who supported that too. As we got into brick-and-mortar stores as a part of our strategy, Meghan Dwyer came on to our team who has an investment banking background but then worked in house with Umami Burger and Peet’s, so she’s a skilled and seasoned retail marketer. Tiy Vauss is our other full time teammate. She worked in retail through college and joined us straight out of college and runs our customer service. So everyone besides me and Steph actually has an industry background, and I think now that we are at a different scale, it’s essential.
Where is your office located?
Our headquarter is based in San Francisco. I just moved back to New York. We are opening a creative office here, which will be in the back of the new New York store. We just hired a part time product designer, and we are hiring a content marketer here as well.
How did you finance the company?
My mom and I put in some capital. It was a small amount. Since then, Steph and I raised a couple rounds.
What are your marketing and PR strategies?
We just really entered the market organically through word of mouth and social media. Instagram really pulled people in the beginning. When I took the trip around the world, I documented the process of meeting artisans and developing the company over Instagram, so by the time we launched, we already had more than 20k followers, we really just built it organically from there. That was picked up by many press. Oprah was our first celebrity customer, and Saks Fifth Avenue and more places reached out about buying our products. So we knew within those six months, people were responding to our aesthetic.
Can you tell me more about your wholesale business?
That’s not a big part of our strategy. Less than 2% of our revenue is wholesale. We said no to a lot of wholesale opportunities because we focused on building our direct relationship with our customers. We started working with selected retailers such as Barneys and Goop around the same time we opened our first store, and we’ll bring on one or two more strategic wholesale partnerships this year.
How do you balance sales between brick-and-mortar and e-commerce channels?
We are a digitally native brand. But when you look at some of the most established e-commerce players, even including Amazon, are considering their brick-and-mortar strategies. There is some place for brick-and-mortar to really support that omni-channel relationship and experience you can develop with your customers. We are shifting our focus back to online this year.
How do you manage the competition with other home products companies?
I think that right now we are in a major shift in the interior industry. I do not see a lot of them as competitors. It’s evident that new players are entering this segment, and we see some disruption, which is great. We respond to some of these things that they respond to as well. For example we do customization on our website. That’s about making resources that used to only be accessible to certain trade customers to individual consumers. I think what’s interesting right now is that most of the activities you see in the home space is around commoditized basics like white bed sheets and mattresses, where they are building a brand based on price and a fairly transactional relationship to their customers. What I’m really passionate about what we are doing is creating a very differentiated aesthetic and a really deep relationship with our customers and investing in the decorative layer of the home where the brand really lives. It creates tremendous value lone term. I don’t actually feel that there are many folks playing in the decorative layer of the home space.
I usually would start by asking someone who’s been there before and ask how they did it rather than reinventing the wheel. So I think it’s really valuable to have a network of entrepreneurs. For example, I asked the Westword Leaning founders so many questions at first because they are also developing a consumer product. They would have a more similar experience to me than my friends who started a tech company. Any entrepreneur is helpful especially when you are asking basic questions such as what lawyer they are working with. But more similar their business is to yours, the more helpful that would be.
When Steph and I raised our first round of outside capital, we had never really had money to invest in sales and marketing, so we tried so many new things that year. We really spread ourselves so thin. For example in 2016, we were an online business, but we didn’t spend money online. We had no one on our team devoted to online, and we were just trying to figure out how to make our store work and how to make our store drive brand awareness and bring customers online. We worked on that for almost 2 years and feel that we are in a good place with the stores, so now we are shifting our focus back online to make improvements and hire a team there and invest in some new customer acquisition tools. And we just did one thing at a time. It depends on the way you’re growing your business. For me I always have the mindset of raising small amount of money and growing leanly and really investing in brand equity which will create huge value long term. I believe that true premium brands are built overtime. We are willing to test in very small ways rather than making huge bets.
You have to a ton of perseverance and confidence and passion about the brand you are building. I am my customer. I believe in the products. That allows me to go through tough times. You can’t do it alone. You need a strong team around you. You need to feel comfortable letting go a huge chunk of the business and let them run with it. It has taken me and Steph a lot of time learning to build our team. They are essential to our success. You can hire someone who’s amazing in a corporate environment, but it might not be a right match for an early stage start up. Building a group of people who can thrive in an early stage company and also believe in the brand and bring in unique skill sets to the table is essential.
Starting a company is a really scary and lonely experience, so people want to start with someone else. But a lot of people I talked to want to start with a friend who doesn’t have a much differentiated skill set. They just want companionship. One it will probably ruin their friendship, but two if your business partner doesn’t have a clearly differentiated skill set from you, you are going to resent them and need someone who does. Push yourself out of the comfort zone and date different co-founders and decide which one is going to complement you. It needs to be a good partner who shares your vision and brings in a totally different skill set to the table, especially if you are a pure creative.