Behind Every Good Product Is a Story; The Daily Grommet Brings You One a Day

What the Sam Hill (as my grandpa used to say) is a Daily Grommet? The answer comes in two parts. “Grommet” is the word industrial designer and entrepreneur Jules Pieri has appropriated for the kind of bewitching product that you might discover in an upscale shop in Puerto Vallarta or Tuscany or Vermont—something that’s so unique or beautiful or inventive that you just have to buy one and tell all your friends about it.

And the Daily Grommet is an e-commerce startup in Lexington, MA, that features one new grommet on its website every weekday. Through videos and short articles, Daily Grommet staffers—often Pieri herself—explain what’s so cool about the products they’ve chosen and the companies that make them. They also sell the products, on consignment from their makers. This week’s finds, for example, include an energy bar with ingredients picked by customers, a solar-powered flashlight (no, that’s not a contradiction in terms), and a garlic shredder that looks a little like a little two-wheeled Popemobile.

If you’re thinking that the Daily Grommet sounds like Hammacher Schlemmer meets RocketBoom meets VeryShortList, maybe with a dash of Martha Stewart, you’re not completely wrong. But there’s something stylish, original, and earnest about Pieri’s business that isn’t captured by any of these comparisons.

For one thing, as I can relate after visiting the startup’s office/studio in a quaint clapboard house just off Lexington’s main drag last week, the women who run the company (and they’re all women) are, like Pieri herself, genuinely nice people. They have a visible passion for uncovering little-known new products, testing and investigating them, and telling their stories to the world.

Left to right: Joanne Domeniconi, Jules Pieri, Jen Lockwood, Barbara Gordon, Patti Purcell, Wendy Chandor.

Left to right: Joanne Domeniconi, Jules Pieri, Jen Lockwood, Barbara Gordon, Patti Purcell, Wendy Chandor.

For another, the Daily Grommet has a common-sense business model that blends old-fashioned retailing with the best of Web 2.0-style interactivity. In addition to the daily videos, which are an easily digested two to three minutes in length, the startup is utilizing the full complement of social media channels, including a Twitter stream, an RSS feed, an e-mail newsletter, a Facebook page, and badges and widgets that fans can embed in their own websites. And every grommet gets its own permanent page on the site where readers can leave comments and even interact with the people who make the products. (The company often singles out companies that are so small or new that a feature on the Daily Grommet can be their first big break.)

It all amounts to a human-centered, high-touch approach that might just help to redefine what consumers expect from e-commerce sites. Whether such a business can be scaled up efficiently is an open question. But clearly, if you had the courage in this age of cloud-based software startups to start from scratch with a business that sells actual stuff, you’d want to take advantage of the media that people are using today for word-of-mouth exchanges, namely Twitter, blogs, online video, and the like.

And ideally, you wouldn’t just dilute these media with empty marketing messages, but you’d tell real stories about the people who make the stuff and what motivated them.

This is the kind of stuff Pieri thinks about. “Social media is not commerce media,” she says. “What travels in social media is news—whether it’s personal or national or just funny videos. I know that the stories around products have that same power, and the potential that people would want to share them. But you have to make them accessible and bite-sized and interesting.”

Pieri has degrees in industrial design from the University of Michigan and business from Harvard, and has worked on product development for companies as different as Burroughs (the computer company bought by Unisys) and shoemaker StrideRite/Keds. After a four-year family detour to Ireland in 2001-2005 and a stint as chief operating officer at Ziggs, a LinkedIn-like professional social networking company based in Boston, Pieri says she wanted to build her own social-media startup.

To get the company launched, she assembled a pool of angel funders that includes such luminaries as Daphne Kis, who was for many years the president and CEO of Esther Dyson’s investment firm, EDventure Holdings, and Geraldine Laybourne, the founder of the Oxygen women’s television network. Laybourne came out of the audience after Pieri finished a business presentation to say she wanted to support the company. “She said that what she saw in this venture was great brand building and a really simple concept that should have been done before but hadn’t,” Pieri says.

The Daily Grommet went live on October 20, 2008, and has since featured about 175 items. The company’s office is littered with samples of the products, including everything from the Shred Sled flexible skateboard to chocolate chews formulated especially for pregnant moms. Pieri says the staff of five full-time and seven part-time researchers and producers works three to six weeks ahead.

The Grommet Gallery“We always have a bunch of grommets at various stages of testing and development,” she says. “We usually produce the video the week before [the grommet is featured], but sometimes it might not be until the night before. The video is one of the last things we do, because we really need to know the product, and we put together a lot of Flip footage and other source material.”

The company’s business model is straightforward. A new grommet appears on the site at noon each weekday. For the first 24 hours after a grommet goes up on the site, customers can buy the item directly from the Daily Grommet site, usually for a discounted retail price; the company contracts for as many units as it thinks it can sell, and sends back the unsold goods (that’s the consignment part). After the first day, the company forwards Daily Grommet visitors to its product partners’ own sites, and earns an affiliate commission on any resulting sales.

Omar Khudari, the CEO of Cecropia and the former chief operating officer of ViaWeb (the Paul Graham e-commerce company sold to Yahoo in 1998), is one of the company’s newest investors—and also a living demonstration that the Grommet formula isn’t spun just toward women shoppers. “When I first presented the business to him in a PowerPoint, he said he just wasn’t interested,” Pieri recounts. “But he came to me more recently and said, ‘Wow, this is the next thing in e-commerce! You cracked it, Jules. Are you still looking for investors?’ With somebody with his experience, I had to execute. He even submitted some grommets, and we did some of them. So he’s gotten engaged on a number of levels.”

One element that seems to attract investors and customers alike is the company’s commitment to finding products and makers with a countercultural or humanitarian bent. The solar-powered flashlight, for example, is from a company called SunNight that sends one flashlight to a community in Africa for every unit bought by a consumer. (This “Buy One, Give One” approach may sound familiar to followers of the One Laptop Per Child Foundation, which had great success using a similar formula to sell laptops around the 2007 holidays.) The grommet for June 16 was “Arghand Soap Pebbles,” remarkably stone-like soaps hand-crafted by members of a cooperative in Kandahar, Afghanistan. Former NPR correspondent Sarah Chayes started the cooperative in 2005 to help provide a livelihood for former opium farmers in the war-torn country.

Pieri relates, “One investor said to me, ‘Jules, when I invest in this company, I invest in more than a business. If you do it right, it’s a movement. You’re giving people an opportunity to really support the little guy, the innovators.'”

But does becoming a movement mean growth and profits? I told Pieri that if I were a prospective investor, I’d ask the classic “scalability” question: how can a business premised on selling just one item every day build up to multimillion-dollar revenues?

Daily Grommet chief discovery officer Joanne Domeniconi confers with chief operating officer Patti Purcell.

Daily Grommet chief discovery officer Joanne Domeniconi confers with chief operating officer Patti Purcell.

“We have a clear vision to be meaningfully big,” she answers. She declined to share investment or revenue figures, but already, she says, the Daily Grommet formula seems to be attracting fervent shoppers: Grommet customers make four times as many purchases on an annual basis as Amazon customers. She points to the upward trajectory of similar companies like Gilt Groupe, a members-only e-tailer that conducts 36-hour online sales of overstocked designer clothing and recently raised $40 million in venture cash; Woot, which sells one discounted gadget or videogame every day and won a $4 million investment from Amazon in January; and Etsy, a hippie-chic marketplace connecting sellers and buyers of handmade goods.

The trendspotter site Springwise has a name for such sites: “curated marketplaces.” But in its review of the Daily Grommet last month, it singled the site out for its thoughtfulness.

The plan for Grommet’s growth, Pieri says, is to build on the success of the original site by creating “verticals,” business-speak for topic-specific offerings, such as “Grommet Gear,” “Grommet Food,” “Grommet Garden,” and the like (the company has 12 product categories in mind altogether, Pieri says). By introducing 250 new products per year and selling just $100,000 worth of each product, each vertical could bring in $25 million per year in gross revenues, she projects. Which sounds meaningfully big to me.

Also see the complete Xconomy interview with Jules Pieri.

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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