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The Grommet CEO Jules Pieri Discusses Makers and Somerville

The Grommet's Davis Square office
The Grommet's Davis Square office

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Davis Square has recently become home to one of the country's most disruptive e-commerce sites, The Grommet. Formerly known as The Daily Grommet, this rebranded site is constantly launching off-the-radar consumer products that are cleverly designed and value-oriented. CEO and co-founder Jules Pieri is an industrial designer coming from Harvard Business School, where she currently sits as Entrepreneur in Residence advising numerous other startups. We chatted with Jules about the mission behind The Grommet, standout local "grommets" (i.e. products), and what has gained the company international acclaim to the degree that overseas governments—Ireland, Chile—are asking the founders to source their homegrown makers.

On the move to Davis Square and it serving as an epicenter for small business and the maker movement:
Is it not the coolest place in town? For me it is at least. Here's the funny thing—our front door is in Cambridge and our back door is in Somerville, and I deliberately picked Somerville as our official address. I had a choice, and the reason I did is exactly that. It's because there are two places on earth that have the highest concentration of grommets being created in the US: Brooklyn and Somerville.

On what's contributing to the cluster of tech-meets-retail startups in Boston:
I think it's three things: it's an age old drive to do something that's consumer facing, to make something that people can understand and use whether it's a physical object or a website. Second reason this is a deep tech community anyway. Give people the tools to create something and they will. Third: A lot of fashion tech startups are coming out of Harvard, not just the business school, undergrads too. It's not even a female thing, they're just exploding. MIT has had a really great history of encouraging its students staff and faculty to start companies. They let you take sabbatical and make it super easy.

On The Grommet's US-made and eco-friendly focus, and why it's not being picked up by major retailers:
We noticed five years ago that there was going to be a really strong interest in shopping by values. It was created by our disappointment with large institutions, whether dealing with an economic crisis or leaders who let us down. People were stepping back and saying "What am I participating in here when I purchase?" Even if not consciously, people understand it's the strongest way to take action—which businesses you support. There wasn't really a focus for it and we really invented the idea of overtly and easily shopping by values. You can decide on our site what your most important criteria is and shop that way. Big guys have a DNA, it's different. A large retailer might be leading with price or operations. If you're Fab you're leading with design, not with values. With Etsy you're leading with handcraft or vintage. We're leading with values and nobody else is doing that.

On building customer trust:
We've worked so hard to build customer trust. Think about it—when you set yourself up to support a certain values it's a really high bar. They expect more from you than the product being cheap or high design. They expect you to behave differently and really vet these products. Since day one we've researched these companies. We don't take the story on face value. Is it true? Is it green-washed? If it's a social venture, do they really truly contribute to the cause?

Because we use video and our own faces on video, people have gotten to know us and trust us. If you look at the return rates on grommets—typically in e-commerce, you'll see a return rate ranging from 8% to 30%—ours is 2.5% day in, day out. Half of our business is gifts, and those are a little hard to get right, but we make everyone the absolutely best gift giver. Everyone is busy and doesn't necessarily have time to find an artist's studio or the person doing the latest technology. You have things to do, and you might give that up for your own consumption but when it comes to gifts, you want it to be thoughtful and something the person doesn't have.

On using video to educate the customer about grommets:
We did it from the start, which was a huge commitment and we're still shocked that it's a relatively unique thing to do. It was hard at first; me and my co-founder were always the ones on video but we started to establish trust and gain expertise. When we started, people didn't have video cameras on their phone so we would ship a flipcam to people. Ideally it's the story being told by the creator of the product. Now it's easy. The tool is cheap, but the editing is still an art. We know they need to be two minutes or less, what the story arc should be.

On sourcing vendors:
It's half people submitting a product that's not their because they love it and want us to know about it; we look at everything they submit. And then it's half submitting their own product—there's a spot on the site with a gallery for it. We've received a lot of attention for our use of Pinterest, because we have a group board where we invite people to contribute and people suggest grommets there and it's a high yield place for us for great ideas. We're very active on the crowd-funding platforms and we partner directly with Indiegogo so we get involved early, even pre-production and do a little funding. We've launched probably 10 or 15 products off those platforms.

Over time we've created a unique position where we've started getting manufacturers and product designers telling us about each other, even when we were tiny. So now if we've launched a product we're the company's choice for the next one they launch. We have an inside track to products often before anyone know's they are being born. At this point the products we launched in 2009 that became big—Soda Stream, Alex & Ani, Bananagrams—those are products that many people know and you can find in major distribution. Now we know the ones we launched in say, 2012, that will be the future big products.

We have a perfect visibility on that because we've built such a great community that tells us within 24 hours of launching a product whether it will have high appeal commercially or socially. That data is our goal, and sharing it with new companies launching. It gives them a lot of credibility when they want to get further media or retail support, even manufacturing. They are all watching us like a hawk.

On Citizen Commerce™ and what happens when a product grows bigger than The Grommet:
It was and is a goal, but it happened faster than I expected. We trademarked the term Citizen Commerce™—we see it as all of us affecting the economy, shaping it around the kinds of companies that align with values. We work with crowd-funding, a logistic company that helps the little guy with shipping. So we're in the launch part of it. It's not realistic nor is it our goal to lock up a company in The Grommet.

I don't see us as a retailer; that's what retailers do. If they have a good idea they try to hide it, it's a competitive business. But they are human beings too and they do want to support these kinds of companies but you can't do it until some of the risk is taken out. Increasingly we've been working directly with larger retailers to let them know these companies can handle operationally what they are doing, they are proven, here's our experience with them. We're like the ambassador for these companies; it's meaningful. We're a weird company in that we cooperate. It's interesting to get into the economics of it. It protects the next little guy coming along. I like to affiliate with companies that change something and we've stuck with the same idea for a long time.

On The Grommet in five years:
We'll create a cultural phenomenon; what I mean is when we launch a product, there will be a community behind it and it will be successful. A company can go from unknown to known rapidly on the basis of its own merit. Worthy companies, companies you can trust.

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