Tuesday, May 11, 2010
Interview with Jody Sherman, CEO of EcoMom
Story by Benjamin F. Kuo
Last week, Los Angeles-based EcoMom (www.ecomom.com) launched its "green" parenting site, with backing from Dave McClure. We caught up with EcoMom CEO Jody Sherman, to learn more about the company. Jody--an experienced entrepreneur who was most recently co-founder of a firm he sold to the Virgin Group, and has been involved with such firms as Lycos, Buydirect.com, and Xoom--told us the story of EcoMom, plus how he connected with McClure on the investment.
What EcoMom is all about?
Jody Sherman: We are a site for eco-conscious, health minded parents. Our customers tend to be mostly moms, but also some dads who support their families, uncles, aunts, and their friends, but primarily moms. We serve them from the point from where they are pregnant, to where they are families with children in grade school. We help them identify products that are safe and health for them and their families, from organic baby food, to household items. We do deep research on every single product we advocate for, using the criteria and condition that they create a healthy child and a healthy world. To do that, we've gotten pedestrians, doctors, and eco-experts involved in the company and helping us to determine the criteria we have published on the site. We're very transparent on what products we are approving on and our filtering process. Once that a product has made that initial screen, we look further, to make sure it's also cost effective and easy to live with. We're also aggregating lots of information about products, not just from companies, but also from our own point of view and experts, as well as parents who are our customers, in addition to bloggers from all over the Internet. We have almost a thousand bloggers who are writing reviews about the products we offer, and we also review them from our own point of view, to help support parents decisions and learning about products in the real world. We also are bringing together a community of like-minded people, so that they can share and exchange information. For lack of a better word, it's really social shopping--not in the way of using social networking to drive sales, but because moms are social, to allow them to share information regularly online.
How long has the site been around?
Jody Sherman: We launched last February as Sprout Baby. At that time, we were only selling eighteen flavors of baby food, from one vendor, although it was growing and we'd added mostly consumables like diapers, wipes, and crèmes. We then evolved over the past year, to get from those 18 products to almost 1500 products. In February of this year, we bought EcoMom, a community and content site. They had a store, but weren't selling much. They were focused on the community and content. We acquired them, because we saw that we saw very much eye-to-eye on how we wanted to impact, and about our care and concern for both the next generation, and the planet. So we did a merger, and developed a new site and infrastructure, so we could integrate more content and communications features, and relaunched this week.
Why the move from Sprout Baby to EcoMom?
Jody Sherman: It happened in a couple of ways. We always knew our focus was on moms, moms and young families. We started because of a relationship with a new food, which was just about to be launched, which was really interesting for e-commerce. It was an amazing tasting food, in a lightweight package, easy to ship. But, we knew that selling food was a gateway product to mothers, and we wouldn't be able to build our business just on feeding. I made a point to call ten of our customers randomly every day, and ask questions--such as what other products they were interested in, what was challenging, what products they liked to buy from us. What happened, by the middle of the year, instead of just selling things for moms with kids six months to 18 months, we had already started putting in products earlier in the lifecycle, and later for toddlers and older children. So, the decision kind of found us, versus the other way around. We added more and more products, and that's how it evolved into EcoMom. We realized that having baby in your name tells people when to stop thinking about you. But, we were offering up lots of products for parents, and people who didn't have a baby in the home. So, EcoMom took that concern out of the equation. As we continue to grow, we are adding more and more categories, all around being healthy, and making it easy for healthy choices to be easy choices.
How did you connected with Dave McClure?
Jody Sherman: I did it the way entrepreneurs always do it, which is to contact everyone you know. When raising money, you look to meet with people using your network. It's not six degrees of separation; it's only typically one to two degrees. I was speaking with a friend of mine, at a much later stage fund, to help make introductions. I was very interested in getting Dave McClure as an investor, because of he really gets customer acquisition and retention, and I thought he would be good to have with an e-commerce company, as he's been thinking about and selling things his whole life. So, I reached out to this VC I mentioned, who sent him an email. A lot of it is the squeaky wheel gets the grease. As an angel investor myself, I haven't done any deals without an introduction from someone first. So I said let's do a meeting, and he got the business instantly, we had a longer discussion about the philosophical standpoint and what kind of company we wanted to grow into, and after due diligence he made an investment. He's the kind of guy, unlike lots of angels who put in some money and go about their life, who is constantly working to help out, and is accessible at all hours of the night--crazy hours--which is always useful.
What is your background and how did you get into this business?
Jody Sherman: I've been an entrepreneur since I got out of the military. After I left, I started a car phone company in the Bay Area, and it turned out I was selling lots of phones to venture capitalists. After I sold that business, I would call up those VCs, and ask them what industries I ought to be looking at. Between 1991 and 1995, I was in enterprise software and computer distribution. In 1995, I fell in love with the Internet, and got a very early version of the web browser, and joined as one of the first twenty employees at Lycos. I went on to form an e-commerce company, where I ran business development and M&A, Buydirect.com, which we sold to Beyond.com. After that, I started a company which we sold to Xoom.com. At Xoom, we eventually merged with NBC Internet, and I ran NBC Internet Europe. I have also been involved in other e-commerce companies, most recently a private jet firm--think Expedia for private jets--which we sold to Virgin a couple of years ago.
You're in a crowded space, with lots of online e-commerce sites also looking for those same customer, how do you differentiate?
Jody Sherman: I think the way we're going to do it, is focus on our customer base. We've done a very good job to date, and have a great relationship with our customers. They come back to us proactively. They love how we help them make healthy choices. Yes, there are lots of people selling things online, but there's more than enough room for more players in this space. Another thing, is a good portion of our team has been doing e-commerce at other firms since the 90's. Our team authentically cares about this space, and we have people around us as advisors who are some of the most well regarded people in the industry. For example, we have Dr. Alan Greene on our board, who is a well known pediatrician and author in the green movement. We're bringing people like that together, have a clear focus on the customer experience and customer service, and are executing authentically. We don't bring in any product which doesn't fit into our promise, and there's no product we'll carry just because of profit. That's why we'll be successful.
Thanks, and good luck!