You asked for more content around business finances, so we’re delivering. Welcome to Money Matters where we give you an inside look at the pocketbooks of CEOs and entrepreneurs. In this series, you’ll learn what successful women in business spend on office spaces and employee salaries, how they knew it was time to hire someone to manage their finances, and their best advice for talking about money.
In 2018, Nicole Gibbons launched a brand like no other: direct-to-consumer paint company Clare. After navigating the outdated paint industry on behalf of her clients for years, the longtime designer made it her mission to disrupt the space. “Frankly, shopping for paint has always been a huge hassle,” Gibbons tells Create & Cultivate. “There are thousands of overwhelming colors, too many product lines, the store environments are completely uninspiring, and there’s a lack of design guidance throughout the process.” So she set out to take the guesswork out of decorating by founding DTC paint brand Clare, which carries a curated selection of 56 designer-approved swatches.
But it’s not just about reinventing the fan deck. “At Clare, developing paint formulas that are healthier for our customers and the environment has been a priority since day one,” the founder explains. Clare’s paints are zero VOC, meaning they’re free of toxic carbon-based solvents that pollute the air and pose health risks, and Greenguard Gold-certified, meeting rigorous emissions standards, which is significant when you consider air indoors can be up to ten times more polluted than the air outdoors, according to the EPA. “People care now more than ever about the products they consume and the impact those products have on their health, their home, and the environment,” notes Gibbons.
Ahead, the founder shares how she’s raised over $4 million in venture capital funding for her clean and conscious DTC paint brand (including funding from the backers of DTC darlings by the likes of Warby Parker, Casper, Peleton, and more) and offers her best fundraising advice for aspiring entrepreneurs who want to replicate her success.
Can you tell us a bit about your background and what you were doing professionally before launching Clare?
Prior to launching Clare, I was an interior designer, running my own design firm and also doing a lot of work in the media as a design expert, including appearing for three seasons on a DIY home makeover show on the Oprah Winfrey Network. Before that, I spent 10 years working as a PR executive for a large retailer while dabbling in interior design on the side. I’ve always been passionate about the home space and about helping people create beautiful spaces.
What was the “lightbulb moment” for Clare? What inspired you to start your business and pursue this path?
Frankly, shopping for paint has always been a huge hassle. There are thousands of overwhelming colors, too many product lines, the store environments are completely uninspiring, and there’s a lack of design guidance throughout the process. After realizing that the paint shopping experience was broken and outdated and that no legacy paint brands were focused on delivering a seamless shopping experience for their customers, I had the lightbulb moment for Clare. We’ve reimagined an entirely new paint shopping experience that’s easier, faster, more inspiring, and more convenient. Our mission is to help people everywhere create a home they love and to become the go-to paint brand for a new generation of consumers who are passionate about their homes.
Clare’s paints are zero VOC and Greenguard Gold-certified. Can you tell us why was it important to you to create non-toxic paints?
At traditional paint brands, this is generally an afterthought, but at Clare, developing paint formulas that are healthier for our customers and the environment has been a priority since day one. People care now more than ever about the products they consume and the impact those products have on their health, their home, and the environment. The cost associated with achieving our Greenguard Gold certification for indoor air quality, which is a top tier, EPA-endorsed green certification, was not inexpensive for us as a small startup. However, we felt this was an important step to take in order to give our customers confidence in our products.
You’ve raised over $4 million in funding for Clare to date, no doubt you’ve learned a lot along the way. What are three crucial elements everyone should include in a pitch deck when raising money and why?
First, tell a great brand story. Investors see hundreds of deals, if not more, so it’s important to present your brand in a way that grabs their attention and tells a compelling story. You want investors to immediately have a clear sense of your brand, your mission, what sets your company apart, and why they should get excited about both you as a founder and your company.
Second, tell a great numbers story. Your business model, or how you’ll make money, should be clear, as should the basic unit economics of your business and your growth projections. And these numbers need to be super compelling. A favorite line from one of our biggest investors is: There’s nothing like bad numbers to f*ck up a great story!
Lastly, do all of the above with conciseness, clarity, and a laser focus on the most important takeaways that you want the investors to remember.
Your investors include First Round Capital (an investor in Warby Parker), Imaginary (Net-a-Porter founder Natalie Massenet’s fund), and Bullish (a Casper, Peloton, and Harry’s razors backer). What advice can you share for entrepreneurs on partnering with the right investors?
At the beginning of your journey, the power dynamics feel very much in favor of the investors. They have the money you need and, especially when you’re a first-time founder, you tend to believe they also have the secret sauce that’s going to help your business get to the next level, especially if they’re a bluechip fund with a lot of cachet. In reality, that is typically not the case. Most investors aren’t super hands-on, will never know as much about your business or category as you do, and often they don’t add a ton of value beyond the check. Founders often feel pressure to take whatever money you can get, but the investors YOU choose and the energy and influence they bring to the table can make or break your success. So the best advice I can offer is to be picky about the investors you choose and bet on yourself over betting on any individual investor being the key to your success.
Startups led by Black women receive less than 1% of venture capital funding. Why do you think there is still so much inequality in the venture capital world, and what advice can you share for BIPOC entrepreneurs who are currently seeking funding?
The venture capital world is incredibly homogenous. I’ve met a ton of venture capitalists and, overwhelmingly, they’re white men who are already rich and often born into privilege as well. So when it comes to deal sourcing, they’re focused on their own insular network of people who come from similar backgrounds which naturally leads to an extreme lack of diversity.
VCs are also taught to “pattern match,” which is to look for patterns in founders that mirror previous founders who have been successful, but there’s an inherent bias in this approach when all of their founders come from similar backgrounds. Data proves that diverse teams lead to higher returns yet it’s still difficult for VCs to get out of their insular bubbles and actually invest in diverse founders and teams. In order to create more equality in terms of who gets funded, funds need to diversify their own teams, especially at the partner level since partners are who ultimately make the investment decisions. This will lead to a more diverse pool of deals to source from, and in turn, more BIPOC entrepreneurs seeing their ventures get funded.
For entrepreneurs of color seeking funding, I’d say to first focus on funds that have a track record of funding diverse founders. This might mean funds that have a specific diversity focus, or simply who have a more balanced representation of founders in their portfolios. Next, don’t be intimidated by any data that shows the odds may be stacked against you. Instead, let your passion and confidence in what you’re building guide your process. Finally, be relentless and don’t get discouraged by the “no’s.” Raising venture capital is an incredibly difficult and draining process for any founder and even those who are very successful at raising capital face a lot of rejection. Trust that the right investors will be aligned with your vision.
What was your first big expense as a business owner and how should small business owners prepare for that now?
My first big expense was building out our website. I was lucky enough to find a team who really believed in me and the business and agreed to help start the high-level conceptual and creative direction work for the site without pay before I raised capital. Once I closed our financing, I was able to pay them properly. We started working on that before I actually put any physical product into production.
What are your top three largest expenses every month?
We don’t replenish inventory monthly, but during the months we do, that by far is our biggest expense. Payroll and marketing are our next biggest expenses.
Do you pay yourself, and if so, how did you know what to pay yourself?
Most people assume that being a CEO of a highly publicized company means you’re rich or you have a hefty salary, but most startup founders, especially at the early stage are grossly underpaid because everyone is incentivized to put as much value as possible into the business. I’m lucky that because we had an influx of capital from venture investors I was able to pay myself a modest salary, but the salary I’m paid is around a 60-70% decrease from what I was making before Clare and a huge short-term sacrifice. I basically pay myself enough to cover my monthly expenses and not much more. The hope when you’re building a company is that the upside will be significant so any initial sacrifice or temporary discomfort are both necessary but also well worth it in the long run.
Would you recommend other small business owners pay themselves?
Absolutely. To the extent that you can pay yourself a liveable salary, you should absolutely do so. Running a business is incredibly stressful, and it will be difficult to stay focused on the business if you’re also highly stressed about your personal finances and don’t have enough money to cover your basic necessities. The only exception is that if you’re lucky enough to have someone else taking care of you financially (i.e., family support, a spouse, etc.) then, depending on your situation, you might be better served not taking a salary and investing everything you have into growing your business. It all boils down to your goals, your plans for growth, and what you need to get you to your next milestone.
How did you know you were ready to hire and what advice can you share on preparing for this stage of your business?
With Clare, as a venture-backed company, the goal is to build a venture-scale business, so I knew there was no way I could do this on my own. I hired people as soon as I possibly could to help fill expertise gaps and also increase my bandwidth. When I started out, key hires included a digital marketer and head of supply chain since those were areas that needed a lot of attention and where I lacked the skills and expertise.
What are some of the tools you use to stay on top of your business financials? What do you recommend for small business owners on a budget?
We have an outsourced CFO and an accounting firm who manage all of the day-to-day finances but keep a close eye on everything. In terms of tools, we use Quickbooks to manage our accounting. Google Sheets and Excel are tools of choice for building out reports to look at trends and gain deeper insights into how we’re doing.
Where do you think is the most important area for a business owner to focus their financial energy and why?
This really depends on your goals. If your goals are growth then investing in marketing is probably going to be the most important area to focus on. If you have a highly technical product with a big innovation roadmap, you might invest in hiring engineers. If you have a capital-intensive supply chain, investing in building efficiency there might make the most sense.
Do you think women should talk about money and business more? Why?
Absolutely. Having collaborative discussions around business, finance, and sharing best practices with peers is often the best way to learn and grow.
Do you have a financial mentor? If so, how did you find one and do you think all business owners need one?
I’m lucky now that I do have people around me who I can go to for guidance, but I haven’t always. This is unfortunate because I feel like I could have prevented a lot of costly mistakes in both my business and personal finances if I had someone guiding me. I’ve had to figure a lot out of my own over the years, so if you have access to a mentor, lean on them to help you navigate all the things you don’t know.
What is your best piece of financial advice for new entrepreneurs?
Ruthlessly prioritize what’s most important to your business and what’s in the best interest of your brand mission. When you’re running a young company, everything feels like a priority and so many opportunities come up that seem worthwhile, but when bandwidth is slim, you have to prioritize like a boss. Focus both your dollars and your human capital on the initiatives and opportunities that will propel your business forward and deliver the most value.
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