Meet Laura Wittig, Founder of The Brightly Co.

Cart Talk is a new interview series dedicated to highlighting innovators in the ecommerce space. Each month, we’ll have conversations with thought leaders on how they run retail. This week, we sat down with Laura Wittig, founder and CEO of The Brightly Co., a curated marketplace for sustainable goods. The Brighty Co. uses storytelling to connect shoppers to ethically-made products from around the world. Tapping into her leadership experiences at Amazon, Google, and Sephora, Laura uses best-in-class ecommerce practices to scale social impact.

I'd love to pick your brain and hear more about your background.

I started my career at Amazon’s fashion vertical doing marketing and product management. Then, I went to Google and ran a social impact search product for them. After that, I was at Sephora. Now, I’m melding all three worlds together. At The Brightly Co., we focus on elevating stories and connecting people to sustainable ethical goods. We’ve combined the social impact of Google, the fashion marketplace perspective of Amazon, and the community-building aspect of Sephora.

Community is why we think our marketplace is going to stand the test of time against players like Amazon or Etsy. We're trying to give people access to beautiful curated fashion, but then also provide a level of stickiness by connecting them to the stories behind these products, as well as other people who are interested in conscientious consumerism.

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Eco-friendly companies like The Honest Company have fallen prey to a lot of bad publicity lately due to questions surrounding authenticity. How do you ensure that a brand or product on your platform meets proper sustainability standards?

Awesome question. Essentially, we source brands in a few different ways: through in-bound outreach, through Instagram, and through lots of online and in-person community meetups. Once we've identified these brands, we do a few things: if the brand is large enough, we look at different rating systems available to the community. For instance, there’s Good on You, an Australian company that evaluates brands on a few different things—like fair trade and eco-friendliness—and compiles ratings on them. We understand that sometimes people are trying to source the best they can, so we take that into account as well.

For us, we’re particularly focused on fair wages. Overall, we’re trying to grow a movement that empowers people around the world to pay attention to the product-making process.

Take me through the onboarding process, from inventory to fulfillment.

Typically with our vendors, we help with the initial onboarding and inventory sync. Right now, it is a pretty manual process. Brands go in and make sure their inventory is syncing from their website to ours. We also have some newer brands that exclusively use The Brightly Co. as their primary platform. In the future, we’d like to implement more automated import solutions, so vendors can make sure data across their platform syncs seamlessly with ours.

As for fulfillment, we recently we started giving some of our vendors a bit of swag to put in their packaging. Garmentory does a really great job with that by actually giving their vendors shipping materials when they onboard. I think they're a great example of a focused marketplace with a specific aesthetic, similar to what we're trying to do. As entrepreneurs and consumers, we really have to be researching better ways for consumers to shop. It shouldn’t be everything in the kitchen sink. Amazon's done that. There's literally no way you're going to win that game.

How does your pricing model work?

We take a percentage of each sale. Right now, we mostly feature products that are sold directly through the platform, and then we also have a few affiliate links because some of our vendors want that Shopify integration.

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Filbert creates high-end vegan handbags, purses, and accessories for aesthetically-minded consumers.

How do you ensure that each product image is fairly uniform and on-brand?

My goal is to always have 90% consistency across the platform, because that's what makes the platform look really nice. I look for product images on a white background because that’s what leads to higher conversion. This can be tricky for small-time clothing vendors, but we talk about that during the onboarding.

As we grow in scale, there’s absolutely an opportunity for individuals to present themselves as marketplace merchants providing a service to vendors. So we’re thinking, “How can we help people get off the ground, whether that’s through exposure, connecting them to photographers, etc.?” There's a ton of opportunity there.

Big technology platforms generally employ dozens of filters for users to toggle through and find the product they’re looking for. How does The Brightly Co. help its audience find what they're looking for?

Based on our user research, we see that people are really interested in understanding the story behind the product. It’s the story, and it’s the product itself. That’s why we’re establishing ourselves as a marketplace with a curated focused. When we’re trying to determine if a brand is a good candidate for our platform, we’re really focused on the story, the quality, and the general aesthetic—whether or not a brand is approachable, bright, fun, or for people of all ages.

Our users have lots of questions: is this product vegan? Made in the USA? Fair trade-certified? Not all our products tick every single one of those boxes, especially since a label like ‘vegan-friendly’ means something different to everyone. Overall, we aim to make all our products easily accessible. One cool thing about Reaction is that creating these custom filters comes easy, so that's going to allow operators to serve people coming to the storefront and looking for different things.

How much custom work did you put into your storefront?

I did most of the custom work myself, including the design, which I’m super proud of. Since I've worn many hats in my personal life and professional career, I think I’m well-suited to be a founder. Most recently in my career, I've been focused on product management, but sometimes I just love closing off the world and going into a code cave. I went with a templated approach, which you can find in the WooCommerce marketplace. To me, there were a lot of things that left me wanting. It’s not nearly as modular as I'd like it to be. I feel like that's something really core to Reaction Commerce.

Amazon, of course, is all custom, and Sephora used mostly older ecomm software—all sorts of random stuff. So I've seen the Frankenstein e-commerce systems that people use, and the quirks. To be honest, the amount of people required to keep the lights on at larger companies just completely staggers me. Literally, in today's day and age, there's no reason to have these 20-people teams solely devoted to your backend. How ridiculous is that? We’re focused on sustainability from front to back. We sell sustainable products. We’re also building a sustainable company.

You mentioned that you’ve also created your own products for the platform?

We do actually have one signature product in stock right now, a beautiful indigo dhurrie pillow, crafted by artisans in India. That was something we just kind of did as a prototype. I absolutely see a world where we might eventually have private label products, but right now we’re super focused on building out the tech and virtual platform.

I think that we, as people, want to do good by the world. But oftentimes, in the course of our daily lives, it becomes really difficult to do so. We spend all this energy trying to figure out which brands to support, which charity to support—all these different decisions contribute to a kind of cognitive overload. The Brightly Co. allows shoppers to find beautiful products that they might not find elsewhere. It also allows users to empower others through the power of their purchase.

I have a vision where The Brightly Co. becomes a household name and influences a brand or producer to do something right for the world, even if it takes a little from their bottom line. I call it scaling social impact.

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Mazí sells handmade jewelry made from polymer clay. 25% of all proceeds go towards World Vision, a nonprofit bringing clean water to Africa.

I noticed that certain brands on the site, such as Ferocious Love, donate some of their proceeds to a conservation group. Are charities another aspect of the platform? So are the roles defined as such: operator, brand, shopper, and charity?

Right now, it's up to the vendor. In the future, our loyalty program will allow users to donate their accrued points back to a different charity each month. I'm also really intrigued by round-up-your-purchase models, eg. Whole Foods or Amazon Smile. I think it’s a really impactful model.

Ever since starting this series, I've just been learning that marketplaces are so complex compared to your typical retail site. It's fun putting the pieces of the puzzle together.

When I talk about The Brightly Co. with investors or people who aren’t close to the problem, everyone’s initial response is always, “Oh, like Amazon?” Having worked for Amazon, I'm in the fortunate position of understanding their strategies, particularly around customer acquisition and targeting. But at the same time, I really feel that retail needs to have a Come to Jesus moment. We're not going to beat Amazon. As a marketplace owner, that shouldn’t be your focus. You should be focused on solving your customer’s different pain points, on making shopping a more delightful experience.

In my mind, search—and discovery—is the biggest advantage we have as a focused marketplace. When I first started out at Amazon, I was doing email newsletters. I handpicked and curated different items that were on sale, created these crazy filters, and created links that I would drop into these emails. I found a really, really nice return, even though it was a long process on my end as a marketer. That’s why I'm really passionate about search. It's one of the reasons why I left Amazon to work at Google.

I think discovery is the next trend. There's just so much stuff on the Internet right now! So we’re really trying to connect people with products, and do it in a way where people start to realize that if they’re looking for a product that makes the world a better place, they start with The Brightly Co. They see our brands, they learn more about the story behind the brand, and they talk to people in the community. There are plenty of Facebook groups and Instagram accounts for people who are really passionate about this space, so we’re trying to infuse a little bit of that community as well.

I think I can speak for myself when I say that I love shopping, and a lot of my friends love it too! But we’re also at a point in our lives where a lot of us are downsizing, or trying to make an impact on the world. Still, we love physical goods. So I'm trying to understand how we can make the shopping experience a really nice, delightful experience.

Yes, I feel similarly! I recently watched The True Cost on Netflix and was like, “Oh no.”

The True Cost was one of those movies that’s like a punch in the face. It really gets people to understand the impact of their purchasing behaviors. I actually got a chance to see director Andrew Morton speak, and he was so passionate about what he was doing. There's absolutely an opportunity for us to make better-informed decisions about the way we're purchasing things.

So what’s next? How are you planning on scaling operations?

We’re making sure we’ve got the best user experience possible, so that’s what we're focused on, as well as automation of inventory sync, because that's going to allow us to grow very quickly. We’re also in the process of fundraising, but right now we’re 100% bootstrapped, which I'm also really proud of.

So far, we’ve been really happy with the customer interactions. People have been reaching out and saying, “I love what you're doing—this is totally the right market.”

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