This is an installment of Startup Year One, a special series of interviews with founders about the major lessons they have learned in the immediate aftermath of their businesses’ first year of operation.
As the popularity of HGTV and countless home renovation shows on Netflix have demonstrated, many people find it fun to imagine revamping a room or an entire house. Obviously, it’s not as easy as it looks, and as anyone who has redecorated a space can tell you, picking just the right color for walls can be frustrating and painting them often monotonous.
But Nicole Gibbons, an interior designer and founder of paint supply startup Clare, saw a staid industry ripe for reinvention itself. Clare was founded in July 2018 with the intention of not only making paint shopping fun, but easier than ever. Clare’s swatches can be stuck to the wall and peeled off, so you can actually back up and get a better look.
More recently, Gibbons has been leading her team and using her voice and platform to educate on matters of race as a black female entrepreneur. Earlier this month, she posted to Clare’s Instagram account, versus a personal account, to speak to the brand’s followers and customers with information about how allies can educate themselves, which was met with an overwhelming response from those in the design industry.
Since then, she has continued to post resources on Clare’s Instagram Stories to drive the conversation forward. Gibbons spoke with Fortune recently to share more about her company ahead of its second anniversary, her decision to use her brand as a platform, and her experience thus far as a black female founder in an industry that lacks diversity.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
Fortune: The paint industry might not seem like the flashiest space for a startup to disrupt. What inspired the launch of Clare?
Gibbons: As an interior designer, I saw firsthand how people who did not have the opportunity to work with a designer struggled with the process of buying paint. The experience has traditionally been full of hassle with thousands of colors, confusing product lines, messy sampling, and a cumbersome customer journey that requires back-and-forth trips to the store.
With such a frustrating and overwhelming process, there was no brand offering an easy way for people to pick a color, buy paint and supplies, and get tips to tackle their paint project with confidence. So I decided to tackle this problem and create a better paint brand with an easier, more convenient, and more inspiring shopping experience.
With the pandemic shutdowns, many consumers have been spending more time at home than ever. I’ve heard from a few friends and colleagues that this time period has given them the opportunity to decorate their otherwise empty apartments. Have you been seeing any similar trends at Clare? What has supply and demand been like over the past several weeks compared with pre-pandemic?
We’re seeing lots of people tackling DIY projects during this time. Some are finally getting around to long-delayed projects they’ve been putting off, and others are getting inspired to take on new projects to improve their spaces now that they’re spending more time at home than ever before.
While the pandemic started out with a lot of uncertainty, we’ve seen an increase in demand that’s up [nearly] 100% from our pre-pandemic months. We’re also quite lucky that our domestic supply chain has been relatively unaffected. We experienced minor fulfillment delays of an additional one to two days for orders but are now fulfilling as normal, and we’ve also been able to replenish inventory without disruption.
Even though the products are intended for interiors, Clare’s paints seem like they’re made to be seen by the wider world. The marketing style of the company on Instagram, especially, plays into a younger, lighter aesthetic. How has technology shaped the development of Clare?
One thing that was missing from the old-school way of paint shopping was a seamless e-commerce experience. And with our brand being entirely online, technology powers everything we do, from running our online storefront to creating technology, such as our Clare Color Genius tool, which helps you find your perfect paint color. Our Instagram and other social media platforms are a great way to showcase and market our paint colors and products to consumers. People love seeing examples of our products in real spaces which helps aid in their purchasing decisions.
Over the past few weeks, there has been a much stronger and more concerted effort on social media to encourage consumers to support black-owned businesses. At the same time, there is the worry that while this might offer a much-needed sales bump during an economic downturn, nonblack consumers will not commit to this effort in the long term. What can other members of the business community do to amplify and sustain support for black-owned businesses?
To have a large-scale and sustained positive impact on black businesses, we need more large corporations getting behind the issue. And the support needs to go above and beyond condemning racism and making hollow statements of solidarity on their social media pages. Retailers need to commit to sourcing more products from black-owned businesses and putting them on their shelves.
This puts the products in front of more consumers and, in turn, helps create more wealth for these black-owned businesses and their communities. This ultimately addresses some of the more systemic issues that have suppressed black wealth and contributed to greater racial inequity for centuries.
You’ve already been using your Instagram account as a platform to educate followers on matters of race as a black female entrepreneur, providing vital information about how allies can educate themselves as well as suggestions on where to make charitable donations. Within your company, what has the response been like, and how have you been encouraging your employees to participate in social change?
We’re a small company, and our team is incredibly diverse, so I think the way we’ve tackled the race issue within our company is unique. I’m a black, female CEO, and four of our five payrolled employees are people of color. We’ve had lots of long discussions about race, and we’re all on the same page on the issues, so I haven’t had to encourage them to participate in social change—they’re doing it on their own.
Individual members of our team are using their personal social media platforms to amplify the Black Lives Matter movement and demonstrate their support and allyship. We’re also thinking through ways Clare can make an impact on a larger scale, outside of using the brand as an awareness platform.
Looking beyond the post-pandemic era—which could be anywhere from a year to a few years from now—how do you plan to grow Clare, and what do you want the business to look like five years from now?
We’ve successfully pioneered a new model for paint shopping and are delivering a best-in-class online experience. So right now we’re focused on continuing to optimize our e-commerce channel. But in the future, the plan is to expand our product assortment and diversify our distribution channels including bringing our shopping experience to bricks and mortar.
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