Kicking off the TechCrunch Disrupt SF 2012 sessions were The Honest Company co-founders, actress Jessica Alba and Brian Lee, also of ShoeDazzle, Teeology and LegalZoom. The two teamed up to launch Honest, an e-commerce startup offering a line of eco-friendly products for baby, family, and home. The company raised a $27 million Series A from General Catalyst, Lightspeed Venture Partners, and Institutional Venture Partners in March this year, and first experimented with the trendy subscription-based service model for selling products, later opening up to offer the ability to directly buy from the website.
Given that Honest isn’t really a “tech” startup — Lee described it as a “mission-based company” — it faces different sorts of challenges than some of the other startups in the industry. But one thing that’s not different from the rest? According to Alba, “it’s really, really, really hard” to do a startup.
“It’s so hard,” Alba said, “you’re working day and night. It actually never stops. If you’re not so passionate and working day and night, it’s not going to happen.” But Alba, who started Honest with co-founder Christopher Gavigan, was passionate about the need for eco-friendly, non-toxic products after she became a mom herself. (Actually before: She had an allergic reaction to a product while pregnant, which prompted her initial interest). She first approached Lee about the idea in 2010, but it wasn’t until Lee’s wife was pregnant with their second child that the idea began to take root with him. Her persistance paid off, Alba said, having spent three years being dismissed by others who laughed at the idea of an actress wanting to do a baby-products company.
Alba talked in detail about her life running a startup, as well as being an actress and mom. What does your typical day look like? It’s long, she said, speaking of rushing between meetings and trying to make it home by bath time. Her acting schedule varies, however, while being a parent is a full-time job. Running a company on the side, as she does, requires that you be passionate about what you’re doing — you have to believe in your mission. (This advice holds true even if you don’t describe your startup as a “mission-based” company.)
The two founders also spoke in broad terms about how they’re growing the company through the word-of-mouth of moms. Moms stick together, said Lee — the mommy bloggers, and Mommy & Me groups, for example. But the company has ambitions to grow beyond its “baby products” niche, as its products already appeal to those who have allergies and other special needs, or who just want products that are more environmentally safe. In the future, the company may expand into clothing and more household items, like paint. And it may also move into the retail space, so customers can touch and feel the products in real life. Actually, it already has.
As for the move away from the subscription-based model, as Lee’s other company ShoeDazzle, also did? Alba said it was a partially a technology decision, but they had also asked themselves whether there was really a desire for that from their customer base. Lee said he still believes in subscription commerce though, but it makes more sense for some items on the site than others, such as diapers and detergent. At the end of the day, it was about giving customers a choice.