Gemvara CEO Matt Lauzon Steps Down: Thoughts on Startup Legacy and Future
Mr. Lauzon, we hardly knew ye. To some in the entrepreneurial community, you are a startup god. To others, you are a young Boston tech CEO who tweets too much. To me, you are a great story—and ultimately, perhaps, a greater loss.
Matt Lauzon, the founder and chief executive of Boston-based online jeweler Gemvara, is moving on. He has stepped down as CEO and is no longer with the company in a day-to-day role, according to a report by Scott Kirsner in Boston.com. Gemvara is conducting a search for his successor, and meantime Janet Holian, the company’s chief operating officer (and former Vistaprint exec) is serving as interim CEO.
“I am going to stay very involved with the company in my new role,” Lauzon says via e-mail. “I believe we will benefit from having an experienced executive in the CEO [role] and I also believe I can contribute greatly from my new role as Chairman. For what it’s worth, one of my key areas of focus out of the gate will be helping find my replacement.”
It’s big news in the Boston startup scene, but it’s not all that surprising. Gemvara started in 2006 and has amassed some $51 million in venture funding from the likes of Highland Capital Partners, Balderton Capital, and Norwest Venture Partners. That puts it in the category of Boston’s biggest technology bets.
But with more funding (and reportedly more revenue) has come pressure to grow faster and hire a more senior chief executive. Lauzon, the founding CEO, stepped aside once before, in 2009, when the company hired Deborah Besemer to replace him. But she lasted less than a year, and Lauzon reclaimed the CEO role in 2010, as Gemvara started to mature.
Back in February, I sat down with Lauzon, 27, to see what makes him tick—and to get clues about what he might do next.
Lauzon grew up in Biddeford, ME, an old mill town near Old Orchard Beach. His father was a mailman and his mom was a secretary at a doctor’s office. Matt was entrepreneurial as a kid—he had paper routes, organized high school dances, that sort of thing. He even had his own live TV show in high school, a weekly broadcast about local politics.
When it was time to choose a school, Lauzon went to Babson College because he “wanted to do something entrepreneurial,” he says. But he didn’t apply himself in the early years, and his grades suffered. (His GPA was 2.6/4 the first two years.)
The turning point came at the end of his sophomore year, when Lauzon’s father passed away a week before finals. Lauzon says he staggered home and spent most of the summer fly fishing, thinking about what to do with his life, and thinking about his parents. “They sacrificed so much just for me to get here,” he says.
He came back to Babson with a completely different attitude. His academic performance soared (GPA of 3.8/4 his last two years), and he started thinking seriously about business ideas.
One big idea was to create the future of jewelry shopping. Originally called Paragon Lake, the startup he hatched with fellow Babson student Jason Reuben (who’s no longer with the company) was all about bringing customization and personalization to the retail experience, both online and offline.
If you walk the streets of your hometown, especially in middle America, you’ll probably find the local bookstore is gone, Lauzon says. Same with the local shoe store, and the local electronics store. The exception seems to be local jewelers. “It’s one of the last standing pieces of traditional retail,” he says.
He was particularly intrigued by the customization aspect—that consumers could design their own rings, necklaces, pins. And he wanted to create a better experience of buying jewelry online. “What drives me is awesome [user] experience,” he says.
When we met earlier this year, Lauzon took a few minutes to show me a glowing e-mail sent by a Gemvara customer. To him, running a company is not just about developing a better business model or technology. It’s about the trust and emotion packed into every purchase. “We want to be their jeweler for life,” he says.
Culturally, Gemvara seems to be about emotion over metrics. Lauzon drew me a graph of how people make decisions over time. At first they are emotional, he explained, but then rational thinking takes over; finally, they revert back to their gut to make their final decision. But surely, I said, companies have to take into account metrics—who’s buying, from which pages of the website, and so forth.
“You need both,” he admits. In fact, on Pinterest, the online pinboard that has caught fire in the past year, Lauzon said he had only one person in his list of people “who are really, really cool.” That person is Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos. An appropriate choice, though not exactly the most touchy-feely guy in the world. But obsessed with both customer experience and metrics, yes.
So where does all of this leave Gemvara? Depending on whom you ask, the company is either crushing its sales numbers or coming up short on the aggressive projections it needs to satisfy its VC owners. Lauzon wouldn’t comment on specifics, except to say revenues were growing very well.
In any case, the move toward more senior leadership has been in the making for a while. Lauzon has brought on several accomplished veterans in the past year or so. He hired Brian Kalma as chief experience officer; Kalma was one of the first 10 employees of Zappos and also worked at Gilt Groupe. And the company hired Janet Holian to run operations and marketing; she was an 11-year veteran of Vistaprint, serving as president of the company’s European business, executive vice president, and chief marketing officer.
It sounds prescient, but back in February, I asked Lauzon how he had stuck with the CEO slog of managing employees and VCs—the endless meetings and fundraising—all while being a single guy in his mid-20s. He denied that it was a slog, for starters. For him, he said it’s an “opportunity to fundamentally change an industry,” and to “keep pioneering amazing experiences on the Web.” (The “single guy” part is apparently about to change too; Lauzon just got engaged to a Gemvara employee, though I haven’t heard the ring story yet.)
Unlike a lot of business leaders, Lauzon gives the impression of wanting to be understood for who he really is, though his schedule doesn’t really allow it. Perhaps this is a function of being lonely at the top, at a young age.
“I know I tweet too much,” he said. “I would rather everything be upfront and clear than try to hide things.” As he put it, there is a “massive trend toward authenticity” online. Where that impacts Gemvara, he says, is that “brand and culture are becoming the same thing on the Web.”
Lauzon was non-committal today about his future, except to say he’s evaluating a bunch of opportunities. “It’s very likely I will start something new and a couple of Gemvara’s venture investors have expressed interest in backing me, but I have also received interest from other companies and venture firms about other roles. I have loved every aspect of building Gemvara thus far,” he says. “I think I have at least one more company in me.”
I’ve heard all sorts of rumors about what he might do next, and some involve leaving the Boston area to pursue new ventures, which, as I alluded to in the beginning, would be a big loss for the local startup community. To that point he says, “I most likely will stay here, and would love to, but there are definitely some exciting options emerging elsewhere and I am putting everything on the table at this point.”
As far as Gemvara is concerned, it’s always tough when a founder leaves, but this is clearly the next stage in the company’s quest to go big or go home.
One of the last things Lauzon told me about was the mark he wants to leave on the business community. I found this to be one of the most interesting things about his character—and I imagine it’s a big part of why he is popular among the younger set (that and raising $50 million-plus). Lauzon said one of his guiding tenets is, “How many people can I help get to where they want to go in their life?”
The question on people’s minds now is, where is Lauzon going in his?