Rachael Vegas spent more than a decade at Target when she up and left to be the first employee of Brandless. Now at the startup for two years, the company’s chief merchant talks about starting up a business, redefining what “brand” means, and working undercover in this week’s Who The Folk?! (Plus, read to the end to find out how you can be a part of a special JLink event at Brandless’ Minneapolis offices!)
You had been at Target for a long time, right?
Yes – 13 years. Almost to the day.
You left for a startup; was there a lot of risk in that?
There was definitely a lot of risk in leaving a corporate job in a very established company to go to something that was not yet established. When I heard the idea of what Brandless was, I realized that it was truly whitespace in the market. No one has done what we were envisioning to do and bring to life. I believed it was a market that was available. And it was designed because the system of how people buy and how consumers shop is broken. Brandless’ mission and idea was to introduce a new system. Oftentimes people say Brandless is not a brand, but it is. We’re just redefining what it means to be a brand. As I evaluated the opportunity, this was something where I could contribute to the community as well as do something totally different with the knowledge and experience I’ve gained in a meaningful way.
It feels to me like the concept has upset the apple cart of the traditional shopping experience.
I would definitely say that the notion of Brandless and how we’ve come to market is disruptive. I would say the consumer reaction to this has been overwhelmingly positive. We’ve created an intentionally simple model. We have about 265 items on our site, we launched with only a little over 100. If you go to a typical grocery store or mass-market store, you’re seeing 20,000, 40,000, 100,000 SKUs, and there’s this overwhelming nature of choice. When it comes to making decisions on essential things that are in everybody’s pantry, whether it’s ketchup and mustard, or even snacks, that much choice is overwhelming and unnecessary. So by introducing something that’s really simple, a single price point, a high quality, better-for-you product, our mantra is that value and values stick together. You don’t have to choose one of the other. Better shouldn’t cost more.
Is it hard to fight the temptation to make a huge jump in the number of products, or is the incremental nature intentional?
We always had the intention to have what we had today and grow. We will never look to have proliferation. You don’t need more than one really good organic ketchup. We won’t expand there, but we know we haven’t hit all the basics yet. Today we carry olive oil and coconut oil, but we’ll expand to offer canola oil, avocado oil, sunflower oil.
The company is split between San Francisco and Minneapolis; How hard is it to balance everything when you travel?
It’s definitely a challenge to be away from my family when I travel, but as it relates to how the company operates, I have the benefit of working for a retail company in the tech sector. We use a lot of tech to stay in touch between the offices so we don’t have to travel. We have really established two headquarters. In Minneapolis, our merchandising team is all based here.
Is your role sort of in a similar space of what you did at Target or not?
It’s a slightly different skill set because I don’t have the backing of a big, known company behind me. But it’s a company that it’s easy for our partners to get behind and understand. They are overwhelmingly enthusiastic about building the business with us. They are our partners in bringing this mission to life. While, yes, there were a lot of resources at Target, it was creating complexity where we didn’t need to.
What are your responsibilities as the chief merchant?
I lead a few different teams, but in particular focused on defining our product standards, identifying what assortment we want to carry, helping create, formulate, partner, to co-create the products. Frankly, I’m taking too much credit. I lead a team that does a lot of it but that was the foundation when I began there two years ago, on March 7, it was just me at my kitchen table. I was employee number 1. About eight weeks later, I hired a former colleague from Target who had left the company and we started working together to really build the launch assortment that came together on July 11 of last year.
You spent 15 or so months without a product. Was it hard to work that long to build something without anything tangible?
Yes and no. Merchants are used to really long lead times to build an assortment to life. The fact that we did what we did in the timeframe we did was lightning speed. Having said that, yeah; we’re all used to looking at daily sales and have the instant gratification of people buying your products. We were in stealth mode. We had a pseudonym for a company name. Nobody knew we were Brandless. We were sourcing without any sales on the books in hopes that people would trust us and dive in with us. There was a lot of anticipation. Certainly, it’s been very fun to get consumer reaction and see people buying our product, and buying it a second time and a third time.
Was there a lot of anxiety being that undercover?
The merchants have the biggest advantage because we were working with people to develop the products. They were seeing it first and reacting. Our team in San Francisco, I think they felt some anxiety because they were working on the tech, marketing strategy, communication for launch, but they never physically saw people’s reaction to what they were working on. We had the benefit of seeing it and that gave me and my team a ton of confidence. It resonated with every single person. They wanted to be a part of it and were willing to take the leap. Honestly, I knew it was a brilliant idea our co-founder told me about it. I could feel it coming to life in that way as the year went on before launch.
Did seeing those reactions mean you could reassure the San Francisco team?
Totally. We would tell them stories of working on a product and what the reaction was and the excitement. It gave them a lot of confidence that they were in the right place and doing the right work to help us.
Favorite Jewish holiday?
Passover. While I don’t love the food, I love that the holiday is about sitting around the table with family and there’s so much tradition in my family, that I love getting together with my siblings and their kids and my aunts and uncles, and of course my parents, every year.
Favorite Jewish food?
Kugel. My kugel. I’m not a great cook at everything, and I shouldn’t say mine because it’s my mom’s recipe. It’s a sweet kugel, so you feel like it’s dessert on your dinner plate.
Want to get an inside look at Brandless? Registration is open for the JLink event with Rachael Vegas at the Minneapolis offices of Brandless. It’s limited to the first 18 people, so sign up today!Click here to nominate your favorite TC Jew to be featured on our weekly Who the Folk?! series!