Jules Pieri

Start with a Purpose: Jules Pieri on Building Great Consumer Product Companies

Industrial-designer-turned-entrepreneur Jules Pieri co-founded product launch platform, The Grommet, in 2008. Over the past 11 years, Grommet has helped launch thousands of consumer products, including now-famous brands like SodaStream, FitBit and GoldieBlox.

A former entrepreneur-in-residence at Harvard Business School, Pieri releases a new book later this month titled, “How We Make Stuff Now: Turn Ideas into Products That Build Successful Businesses.” We caught up with her to discuss her new book, her advice to fellow entrepreneurs and more.

The following conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity.

StartupNation: What inspired you to write this book?

Jules Pieri: After watching 3,000 companies form and helping them launch their products, we noticed a pattern of all those people solving the same problems in isolation. They essentially all have to master the same competencies and learn the same things. I was really codifying what we learned from watching them, putting it in one place, and trying to make the next generation of makers prepared and more efficient.

StartupNation: What were some of those challenges?

Jules Pieri: Anyone we work with has created a superior product, but the minute they approach the market, they’re competing with the big guys. The big guys have resources in every possible area, like market research, legal, financing the company, managing inventory, packaging the product, opening up retail. As great as the product is, these companies have to be credible in those areas, too. When we meet them, we find almost uniformly that they can rock, say eight of those areas, and the other eight (areas) are going to be a struggle. It’s always a different eight.

I’m hoping the book can be very snackable for them, so that it can be read in any order. If packaging’s driving you nuts, if defending your IP’s driving you nuts, read that chapter. Even a successful founder might have new challenges in one of those areas and could benefit from dipping into the book as needed.

StartupNation: What do you think separates the entrepreneur whose company flourishes from those that fizzle out?

Jules Pieri: First of all, a company or a founder has to identify a fairly large target market. Nobody’s a genius and comes out of the gate with the perfect product and the perfect business model. A large target gives you more shots on goal to get it right.

A classic example would be Google. They knew they wanted to organize the world’s information, but they had no idea how they were going to monetize it in the beginning. They were even violently opposed doing it through advertising. Well, how do they monetize today? Through advertising. But they needed time to figure that out. Having a large target market is the first thing that gives you that opportunity.

The second thing is a sense of curiosity and resourcefulness. Only 10 percent of the people that launch a product at The Grommet have prior experience in that product area. They’re coming from vastly unrelated professions for the most part. They’ve got to have a certain courage to muscle their way through to the knowledge and resources they need.

That relates to the third thing I think distinguishes people, which is tenacity. You won’t get through all of those learning curves you need to get through unless you have tenacity. That’s something you either developed or you were born with, but usually it’s both.

StartupNation: What do you wish you’d known earlier in your own entrepreneurial journey?

Jules Pieri: To claim my own story more forcefully. I would tell myself that my background is kind of the wrong side of the tracks. I spent my childhood in Detroit, and I was the first person in my family to go to college. I sent myself to boarding school on a scholarship when I was 14. It took me so long to realize how much that prepared me to be an entrepreneur. That’s where I got my first sense of my own capabilities and developed my tenacity.

When I was in the early days of pitching The Grommet to investors or potential employees, I never mentioned that part of my background. I would talk about the resume part or the market opportunity in business terms. What I didn’t realize was that kid who snuck behind her parents’ backs and applied to boarding school was showing herself to be a future nothing-can-stop-me entrepreneur. I didn’t put those two things together until much, much later.

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StartupNation: Anything else you’d like readers to know about you, Grommet, or about your new book?

Jules Pieri: I started this company when I was 47 years old, which if you read the press, you would think is ancient for starting a company. But it’s about the average age. I would like people to know that, because so many of our successful Grommet makers are doing this midway through their career or later in their career. At that age, they have the ability to be more nimble and braver than when they were younger. I think age is a huge advantage for me and for many of our makers. I find many people at age 30 thinking they’re washed up if they haven’t started a company. I want that dispelled. That’s a myth.

“How We Make Stuff Now: Turn Ideas into Products That Build Successful Businesses” will be available at fine booksellers on April 23, and can be pre-ordered via StartupNation.com.

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