Interview with Jules Pieri
Terry Morreale: Hi, this is Terry Morreale, from the National Center for Women in Information Technology or, NCWIT. This is part of a series of interviews that we are having with fabulous entrepreneurs. Women who have started IT companies in a variety of sectors, all of whom have just fantastic stories to tell us about being entrepreneurs.
With me is Larry Nelson from w3w3.com. Hello Larry, how are you?
Larry Nelson: Hello, I can't wait to get into this interview. We love what NCWIT is doing and we have everything posted on our w3w3.com website. It's all business and of course here we're focused on women IT entrepreneurs.
Terry: Today we are interviewing an industrial designer turned entrepreneur, who was named one of "Fortune Magazine's" most powerful women entrepreneurs in 2013. Jules Pieri is the CEO and co‑founder of The Grommet. The Grommet is a company that launches undiscovered products or "grommets" and helps them succeed. The Grommet is Jules' third start‑up.
She's also an entrepreneur in residence at the Harvard Business School. Before we start, Jules, tell us a little bit about the latest at The Grommet.
Jules Pieri: The thing I'm working hard on right now is we have an annual competition called the Product Pitch on March 20th. Believe it or not, we're in Boston and we have all of Fenway Park for that.
The point that people that listening to the podcast would care about is that we're taking submissions for that. So, if people have an ordinary problem solver or hack that they think the world should know about and if it's in one of two categories, ready for crowd‑funding or ready for market. We're looking at all those submissions starting last night and for the next 12 days.
Terry: Thank you for that information. How did you first get into technology, Jules?
Jules: I guess through the back door. In high school, I simply had that girl disease of not necessarily thinking it was for me but I did keep succeeding whenever I tried.
There was a programming course in the high school. It was new to the school. I just kept acing it and I would get 100s. I would never get 100s on the tests. The teacher decided girls couldn't have 100s so he would actually always find something wrong on my page to make it 99. It was bizarre.
However, I was always top of the class. So, I guess, I knew I had some capability but it still felt back door even through college because I ended up becoming an industrial designer, which is kind of a different flavor of technology.
It's not as hardcore as if I'd studied computer science but you do have to have a really solid base of understanding, particularly in mechanical engineering and ergonomics and human factors and now a lot of new words that people use to describe the things that I had to master.
And so, it felt like a blend of business and technology as a profession to me.
Terry: What are some of the technologies you think are cool today?
Jules: Actually, we're just barely scratching the surface of 3D printing. One of the reasons I founded The Grommet was its existence. I was blown away when I went to a prototype lab at Savannah College of Art and Design several years ago and I saw three 3D printers for rent for $15 an hour.
I saw that and said, "That changes everything," because for me it was something I could directly relate to because I had been an industrial design student. I knew what it was like to conceive of ideas and then execute them, prototype them. I knew how hard it was without 3D printing and that your ideas could even be limited by your ability to actually build the model or draw something.
When I saw that for such a cheap access point, $15 an hour, I was already working on The Grommet but it just sort of made me double down on the idea to see that.
I was reading "Food and Wine" magazine last night and they were giving a big overview to 3D printing and showing some spun sugar creations that were being done by 3D printing. And so, it's infiltrating but it's far from mainstream. It's far from the future of when we'll be able to print products at home, but it's so important to the maker movement, which is where I spend my days thinking.
It's the one I'm probably most excited about.
Larry: I couldn't agree more. Very exciting area. Taking your background and everything that you've been involved with why are you an entrepreneur? And then, also, what is it that makes you tick as an entrepreneur?
Jules: That's interesting. I think there are genetic entrepreneurs who have to be them. They're born that way. And then there are people who almost become it by necessity. They trip on an idea they have to do.
I'm a little of both, more necessity. The both part, genetic part, is that I've always been very comfortable creating things. It's my preference. I've never had a job that any one had before me where I was just repeating something or making it better.
As an industrial designer you're trained to attack the white space, to find the opportunity, to not be intimidated about having to create something from your own observations and insights.
It's a really important discipline in being an entrepreneur that most people wouldn't have. I didn't know I was being taught to be an entrepreneur but I effectively was when I was learning and practicing as a designer.
Having said all that, I wasn't one of those people who walked around saying, "I can't work for someone else." They have to do their own thing. Frankly, I like working for other people because it's way easier than working for myself. I'm a tougher boss.
But the necessity part kicked in over the course of my career. "Why do the best products don't win?" That's almost anti‑American or anti‑capitalism to say that because we think that the market decides and the best products win but it's far from true.
Today and for a long time it's been the case that people have a chance of making the products you see one of two ways. They either are part of a large organization and then they can muscle their way through. It's still not guaranteed but you have better odds. Or there's kind of a lucky break scenario where Oprah calls or something big happens that's outside of your control.
That's a really crummy business plan and it means that a lot of really good products don't see the light of day.
That was a business opportunity that I saw that somebody had to attack. It just had to get done. It wouldn't have been possible without technology. Social media, broadband, the ubiquity of video. A lot of things were happening that enabled the business. Honestly, if I think about it, I saw the problem as far back as the '90s, that the best products aren't winning.
But earlier I was just throwing up my hands until just before this company. I was president of a social network called Ziggs.com. I saw what social media meant. That was one component of the bigger picture that cracked the puzzle of putting the access to these kind of products and the power into the hands of people, the power to decide which companies we wanted to support by sharing them or buying their products.
Social media changed everything. This is really an idea that was enabled by technology and also I have to acknowledge the change of behavior that those technologies enabled. That's the business side.
Me, as an entrepreneur, what makes me tick? I went to a really rigorous high school. I kicked myself out of Detroit. Actually I grew up in a tough neighborhood in Detroit and I went to tough public schools until I was 14. And then I was thinking about applying to an exam school. Public school, my teacher that I loved told me to apply to boarding school so I did.
I snuck, actually, behind my parents' back and did it. Not because they didn't support it ultimately but I didn't want anyone to tell me, "No." I applied. They had to fill out financial aid forms so they found out. I got a scholarship. Even though I was in this really rigorous academic school it happened to have really wonderful art facilities.
And so, I would spend a lot of time making things when I was in school. When I had time at night I would go and weave. I liked wood shop. I liked working in the ceramics studio, jewelry, anything I could make something. It was really important to me and now I'm making a business. I extend that creativity to a whole business model but around me I'm enabling makers as well.
I get a lot of kicks out just watching their creativity and then when I need to actually make something I'll do it at home on the weekend.
It's really the creation of a business model that's very exciting to me.
Terry: I'm guessing that you had some mentors or role models along the way. Did you have folks that influenced you that way?
Jules: I mentioned that one teacher in terms of he gave me a sense of possibility outside of where I could to on my bike, basically, as a young person. And also when I was in elementary school I read every biography and autobiography in my little school library. Those lessons were really important to me. I really did get the sense an ordinary person could do something extraordinary.
It sounds trite, reading books, but I didn't have access to a lot of role models. Nobody in my neighborhood went to college. People went to jail. It was not like I could personally know people who could be my mentors in that environment. My parents were solid and I knew a lot of really solid people in the neighborhood but there were bad things going on around us in Detroit that were going the wrong way. We were part of it.
But then I got lucky. Let's fast forward a little bit to later in my career, in '91, '92. I had a boss land on my head in a consumer products company. I've gone back and forth between technology companies and big consumer product companies. I was working at Keds, the show company.
Meg Whitman, who ended up running eBay, running for governor of California and now she's CEO of Hewlett Packard. She landed on my head as my boss. I ended up following her and working for her directly in three different companies.
I wouldn't call her an entrepreneurial role model. She's not an entrepreneur but I would call her a leadership role model. It mattered that she was a woman, I'm sure, on some level but I had the chance to work so closely with her for so long that I definitely absorbed a lot of her learnings and things that she succeeded. Her techniques and ways she worked with people.
Larry: Boy, that's for sure. I can relate to that a great deal. We interviewed Meg Whitman a number of years ago now. Also, I was born in Detroit so I can relate to what you were talking about.
I know you've been through so many different things and I would say you probably have faced a number of challenges along the way but if you had to pick out. what is the single most toughest thing you had to do in your career?
Jules: It was definitely this business and raising money for this business. I literally walked my shoes off to do that. I have a funny picture. I was near MIT and Kendall Square and Cambridge walking from one venture capital office to another in these Stuart Weitzman platform shoes I had on ‑‑ just those basic black shoes ‑‑ started disintegrating. I'm not kidding.
They just literally started falling apart and this platform was about three or four inches high so that platform going down to one inch high was a big difference.
They were a mess and it was kind of symbolic of what I did. We started the business in 2008 when the sky was falling and we were working on the maker movement before it had words. Nobody had a name for what we were working on and Kickstarter didn't exist yet and 3D printing didn't hit the mainstream press. A lot of things we knew about were just invisible to the average investor and then the average investor was scared to death.
Raising money was definitely the hardest but there was one ...We almost died three times. We almost went bankrupt three times. That's no fun to come up with that plan and just unwinding the business. You just have to do what you have to do.
There was one dramatic moment which crystallizes it. My shoes were a symbol but there was a moment where it all came together in a positive way but it was coupled with a sad event, although ultimately we raised a wonderful investment from a Japanese company called Rakuten, the third largest eCommerce company in the world and the CEO is kind of the Japanese Jeff Bezos or Steve Jobs. Very, very well known.
It's a happy day but at the time I was negotiating that deal my mother was dying. She had colon cancer. This really mystical thing happened. At the moment that she died I got a phone call. I was staying at my childhood best friend's house near the hospital and my aunt called me to say my mother had passed. It was 3:00 in the morning.
I was already awake because there was this tremendous lightning and thunderstorm that only Detroit can serve up. I was awake, looking at that. I got the phone call which is the phone call you might expect but never want and then, since I was awake and had my phone in my hand I hung up, looked at my phone, and there was the letter of intent from Rakuten. All three things happened at once.
It was amazing. I think my mother went up to heaven and kicked up some dust. Said, "Get this deal done. My daughter deserves a break," and it happened.
Terry: Wow, what a story. Jules, if you were sitting here with a young person today giving them advice about entrepreneurship what advice would you give them?
Jules: I think entrepreneurs, kind of nicely, are almost like modern day rock stars or Olympic athletes but there's a lot that goes with being an Olympic athlete. There's a lot of hard work and defying the odds and being the crazy person.
I'd try to help them understand what that looks likes or what that feels like in reality without discouraging them. I'd try to help them find what in their own life symbolizes the ability to be an entrepreneur because it's about taking yourself into some really uncomfortable zones at times. There's not a lot of certainty. There's a lot of anxiety and ambiguity about being an entrepreneur.
Even when you're young you might have to deal with that. If you've made choices or you had a choice and you chose something difficult. It's really hard to go away for college. It's against the norm, against the grain and more expensive or you're going where you don't know anybody. Those kind of choices where somebody else took something more comfortable or if you pick an athletic event or a sport that's really hard for you or you try out for a play.
If you take challenges that you don't have to take and you get through it you realize you're left standing on the other side. You're still alive and all that. You understand you can do it.
I think somebody just thinking they might want to be an entrepreneur wants to look for a bit of a pattern of that in their life, of creating firsts around them. Doing something the first time.
I was the first girl in the Detroit Public Schools to wear pants to school. I was really young and I was just mad that it was freezing cold there and I had to wear a dress. I went home at lunch one day and changed. The policy changed the next day. It was bizarre.
It was just like somebody standing up to it. I don't know. Something collided but even pretty young people have those kind of opportunities to do something different than the norm and claim it as their own achievement.
I'd look for a pattern of that. I think that there has to be a bias for action as an entrepreneur. You have to be able to defer gratification, have good impulse control because you're not going to get a lot of feedback in the near term every day that you're doing the right thing.
If you're doing something really big, really different you're automatically going to get the opposite feedback because there's nothing like it out there and people can't make easy comparisons to match patterns about your idea.
If you're working on something pretty big the world provides a lot of friction for a while. If you're somebody who does not need that immediate feedback, has some inner strength and confidence about your ideas, that helps a lot, too.
Larry: With all the different things that you've been through and the things you've started and faced all different types of challenges what would you say is the single most personal characteristic that's given you the advantage of being an entrepreneur?
Jules: Definitely tenacity because it never was easy for me to do anything I did. To leave home, go to boarding school. To go to school in a tough school where I was worried about chairs flying over my head instead of studying. Everything I did as a young person required tenacity, sticktoitiveness.
There's a lot of truth to that kind affirmism about 90 percent of success is just showing up. That somewhat defined another quality of being an entrepreneur is tenacity.
Terry: What do you do to bring balance into your personal and professional lives?
Jules: What is that?
Larry: It starts with a B.
Jules: I'm a little unusual. I have done two other start ups but this was the first one I started. It's a really higher level of commitment when you start the company and the buck stops with you. I started this company when I was 47. That's pretty meaningful because I have three sons and the youngest was in middle school at that time. I had one in college.
Basically my boys were somewhat autonomous at that time. That made a big difference because, for me, it would have been really hard to do this at the level of commitment I made and the tough economic times where the wind was definitely in our face if I'd done it at an early stage in my life.
I was also more efficient and effective. I had a better network than I did when I was younger. I'm very confident in my decisions. I never do something twice or take longer than I need to.
My co‑founder, similar vintage. We practice divide and conquer. It's an excuse. We never do the same thing together if one of us can do it. That helps, too, to have a strong co‑founder.
But I will say, having said all of that, that it helped having oldere family be more effective myself, being older. I did let the physical side of balance go in 2011. It's 2014 now. It's been a couple years since I had time when I said, "Look, I'm going to re‑calibrate here." It was a pretty traumatic time. It was hard. My brother had just died and my mother was sick.
The economic times were horrible. We had a lot of financial stress from me not getting paid and my husband's work was a little bit dried up for the time.
Here's the kids in college. Huge demands. I even had a little battle with cancer so a lot of really hard things. I just named a grocery list but it didn't seem like a grocery list in those years. I was getting worn out, basically. No better way to describe it. That was an unusual feeling for me.
I did have to re‑calibrate. I did have to focus more on sleep. Really basic things that you could read in any health magazine but basic things. Diet, sleep, exercise. I had to make sure I was covering those really well and I still do. I'm really disciplined about exercise and sleep now. Sleep's a weapon that I didn't really recognize it as a weapon before but I do now.
Larry: You have really been through a great deal personally and professionally. You're on an exciting road right now with Grommet.
Jules: We grew 450 percent last year. We've launched products now that you would know but when we launched them were unknown. Things like Fitbit. Wearable technology is such the rage. We saw the potential of that way before the average person or investor or retailer would see it. We launched an ordinary kitchen device, the SodaStream. It makes soda. It's a kind of eco‑friendly product for your home.
We launched something that you see in every start‑up office on the planet now, IdeaPaint. I'm sitting at the Harvard Business School at their Innovation Lab, the wall is painted like whiteboard. You can write on the walls thanks to these debts and college entrepreneurs.
We are moving from where we used to be which was recognizing what could make a market to now we actually move markets.
Our community's big enough that when we launch a product the sales and social entity trait is meaningful but because we're trusted and respected by bigger companies, like media companies and retail companies our Grommet makers get those phone calls and press coverage and the things that they dream of because The Grommet has lent their reputation to them.
A new product every day at noon with a video story that's been thoroughly researched. We see about 200 ideas a week and we're only working with five. Only five of them are Grommet worthy. We've created a global community of people to submit ideas to us.
This year we have a goal that 30 percent of the Grommets we launch will be totally new to market. Nobody's seen them before. We pick up where crowd‑funding platforms leave off, ready to become a company. We have a goal that eventually, I think it's going to take a couple more years, we'll be a household name so that when somebody has a great idea they think of us first.
It's their first choice for, "How am I going to take this from first production run to a business? How am I going to gain the trust and get my story out there in a way that has enduring impact, that will help my business be sustainable." I want the next thought to be, "The Grommet."
This year we'll grow to have about three and a half million people in our community to see The Grommet every day. One in 150 Americans, something like that, will be part of our community. That's on the supporters side. They're not necessarily makers but those supporters send us ideas.
They use a product they love or they've heard of one and they send it to us because it would be really old fashioned for us to have a giant team of scouts when social media, anybody can be a scout for our business and they are. They can submit publicly to something called our Citizens Gallery. Anyone can see the ideas that we're seeing that come through that particular vehicle.
Others come in through Pinterest and Twitter and Instagram. There are lots of social media vehicles for getting ideas our way but the Gallery on our own site is the one where it's easiest to see some of the ideas coming through. Clearly so. I want to be associated with that. I want to be heroic to makers. I want our business and our community to be heroic to them, to change the game.
It sounds so basic. Changing how products get discovered and sold. It's so generic. The way I describe our business is a product launch platform. Those words don't really mean anything but neither did crowd‑funding or online auctions or Internet radio. If you do something really new you have to invent words for it and then eventually the words mean something to other people. That's the goal.
Larry: That's super. Obviously there's a lot coming up for you in the next number of years. We'll have everything posted on the w3w3.com website, our blog, our podcast directory, and most importantly the NCWIT.org site.
I want to thank you for joining us today, Jules.
Terry: Yes. Thank you so much for your time. We appreciate it and we know our listeners are going to be thrilled to hear what's been going on with The Grommet.
Larry: That's a fact.
Jules: Great. Thank you so much. It's fun to take the minute to think about these things and share them. It actually energizes me. I thank you.
Larry: That's great.