October 10, 2011
Susan Feldman ('83) & Alison Pincus ('02) Created One Kings Lane
Long-distance partners are pioneers in flash-sale home shopping
By R. A. Feld
Though UCLA Anderson alumni Susan Feldman (MBA '83) and Alison Pincus (MBA '02) co-founded One Kings Lane, an online flash-sale home and lifestyle shopping destination, their respective tenures at the school were separated by time. Sheer coincidence brought them together in 2008, but their shared values, partly developed through their Anderson experiences, became evident in the ease of their transition into partnership.
"I had been working in the apparel industry my entire career and was becoming increasingly interested in the home space," recalled Feldman, who had held senior sales positions at various luxury and fashion brands such as Polo Jeans and Lauren Ralph Lauren Sleepwear. "I felt there was a void, with no place to shop online for unique items at great prices. Then I became aware of the flash-sale model and thought it could definitely work for the home market."
As it happened, her husband met the founder of BlogHer.com, Lisa Stone, who loved the idea for the business and introduced Feldman via email to Pincus, who had a web and media background, and held digital marketing and business development positions at The Walt Disney Company, NBC and Hachette Filipacchi. With Feldman based in Los Angeles and Pincus in San Francisco, extended conversations over email and telephone began, outlining a business idea to bring together the definable market for specialty home items with brands looking for new channels to market and sell their item.
Feldman finally said, "Ali, I think you should come to Los Angeles, because if we are going to do this, it would be a good idea if we actually met!"
It was the height of the recession and a difficult time to start a business, but they decided to ignore that fact, and Pincus hopped on a plane. They spent the day together and discovered a natural chemistry that has allowed them to build a company, though they are almost never in the same city.
Rushing to Market
"We decided to bootstrap the business, because we felt that time was of the essence, and we needed to do this as quickly as possible," said Feldman. "If we took the time to go raise money, it would take too long. We wanted to be the first to market. Initially, we outsourced everything and hired everyone as a contractor. Given the economy, we just wanted to make sure that we could walk away with limited obligations in case the business didn't take off."
"In the very beginning, it was only the two of us making decisions together, so we moved very quickly. Looking back, it was a very fun time; we were extremely excited about going to market and creating a new experience for shoppers and brands," said Pincus.
As they ramped up, collaborating between cities through Gmail and Google Docs, the natural simpatico and meshing talents of the women served them well, as did an approach they each recalled from their time at UCLA Anderson.
"Teamwork was part of the Anderson curriculum and made a big impression on me," said Pincus. "Not just because projects were structured in teams, but because teamwork meant better business results - more creativity, better outcomes. Susan and I worked great as a team, and as we added new people to the company, teamwork and collaboration - as well as open communication and trust - became part of our core values as a company. It's something we are very proud about."
"Our skill sets complemented each other well," recalled Feldman, "We had the ability to work on a lot of tasks together, which was helpful in getting up and running quickly. If there was something that needed to be done and I knew Ali was better at it, she would just grab it and run with it, or vice versa. When I was at Anderson, everything was done as a team. You really walk away knowing how to make that work, because at the end of the day, a business is never built by one person. I think that philosophy that Anderson promotes is relevant to anything and everything you do in business. It's how our business got started and has continued to grow. It's putting people's heads together and getting a better result out of it. Starting a business is a lot easier when you have a partner."
Convincing Clients and Customers
Having a good partnership is all well and good, but next, the collaborators had to persuade a string of high-end design companies, concerned about protecting their brands, to outlet their products through them. Otherwise, they would have no inventory when they launched. So they took trips to New York, had meetings in Los Angeles and San Francisco and worked the phones every day as they simultaneously laid down the infrastructure of their company, from the logo to the LLC.
"We didn't take 'no' for an answer," said Feldman. "We figured, if we could get a group of vendors to start to work with us and show how successful they could be, it would snowball, which is what really happened."
Feldman and Pincus focused their pitch on a few key principles. They were building a brand and a place that would take very good care of their partners' brands, representing them "in a fabulous way," even though they were selling their products at a discounted price. They further explained that their target audience of dedicated home enthusiasts would be looking for nothing but great home products. So, One Kings Lane would turn out to be not just a revenue generator but also a marketing platform for any brand they sold. And finally, the flash sales would be quick and discreet, protecting the brands' images.
"The original idea was to start as a tasteful, discreet, and innovative liquidation platform, and to help brands move their excess inventory," said Pincus. "But in talking to Susie, I said, 'Once we gain market share, we're going to become a marketing platform, and brands will feel comfortable actually promoting sales with us and will value us.' This idea might have seemed crazy at the time because of the strict lines between sales channels - full retail and seasonal discounts and sales, and then end-of-life liquidators. We thought that a curated environment would create a unique experience that could not be easily pigeonholed. Fast forward, and today, brands see One Kings Lane as part of their distribution and marketing plans. We have over two million members, and growing, who are passionate about lifestyle and home, and enjoy learning about new brands, designers and products. In fact, our partners find that having a sale on One Kings Lane results in new customers for them - so we are now part of the marketing mix."
Moving the Best of the Past into the Future
Now well established, Feldman's duties include those of chief merchandising officer, traveling the world to oversee the company's buying and merchandising. Pincus is chief strategy officer and head of business development, focused on sourcing deals, brands and people. She also works on new business expansion for the company but is naturally tightlipped about what those might be.
"Ecommerce will play an even greater role in the future and will continue to have a significant impact on the traditional retail industry, as well as the shopping experience," said Pincus. "Of course, traditional retail will continue to exist, but ecommerce is no longer a step child."
Pincus and Feldman's small startup of outsourced labor and out-of-pocket financing has developed into a company of 200 employees in Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York. They manage a warehouse, from which they ship a portion of what they sell, though some merchandise is drop-shipped by manufacturers, and they are backed by venture capital.
Now in a position of success, Pincus reflected on their ties to UCLA Anderson, noting that she and Feldman had not been extensively involved with the school for a while, partly because they both lived in New York for some time. However, with a renewed desire to reconnect, they recently spoke at the Entrepreneurs Conference and appreciated the support they received from the dean and fellow alumni.
"Business school was important to my career development," Pincus said. "It gave me the skill set needed to have impact in the business world - whether it be framing deals, building models, making presentations or speaking publicly. I got a well-rounded experience at Anderson, and met great people. Susie and I are proud of UCLA Anderson, and we are looking forward to supporting other female entrepreneurs. We're seeing more of them these days, and I think in the years to come, we'll see even more women taking the entrepreneurial route. Some of my greatest career supporters have been women, and it is wonderful to have the chance to give back."