When Kirsten Green of Forerunner Ventures learned that Julie Bornstein was leaving her job as chief operating officer at Stitch Fix, she knew she had to reach out. Bornstein had made a name for herself building some of the last decade’s most iconic online brands, including Nordstrom, Urban Outfitters, and Sephora. As a VC investing in early-stage consumer technology, Green looks for founders who have a solid vision not just for their products, but also for their brand and its audience. When she found out Julie was considering starting her own company, Kirsten offered her advice and encouragement. Before long, Forerunner was the lead investor in Julie’s company, THE YES.
In a conversation from the 2021 Carta Equity Summit, Kirsten and Julie discussed the makings of great brands—and made predictions about what brands need to do to stay relevant in the 2020s.
This transcript has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
Kirsten: I’m so happy to be here today with my friend, Julie Bornstein. Julie is currently the co-founder and CEO of THE YES, where I’m fortunate to be a partner.
Julie has had an incredible career being a pioneer across the retail and e-commerce industry. She was early days at Nordstrom when they were launching their dot-com effort. Urban Outfitters stole her away to lead their digital transformation. And then she went to Sephora, where she did some incredible industry-leading work to bring Sephora into the digital age. Sephora is known as a pioneer in the digital space, and I think a lot of that credit should be given to Julie and her vision. Julie has also been a board member at Stitch Fix, and she was most recently their COO before she decided to venture out on her own.
Julie: I get to introduce Kirsten, my first and favorite investor. Kirsten runs a firm, which she started in 2010, called Forerunner Ventures. Forerunner is the leader in both early-stage and now later-stage VC for consumer technology. So some of her big investments have been in Glossier, Ritual, Faire, Prose, and Hims & Hers. Some of the best consumer brands to be built in the last decade are thanks to Kirsten and her insightful investing. Now she has a team based in San Francisco. I’m thrilled to be here to talk with her.
How Julie met Kirsten
Before we jump into the topic of iconic brands, we’ll give you a quick background on how Kirsten and I met. When I left Stitch Fix and started working on the idea of THE YES, I thought, “Which investors do I want to talk to? And who do I want to go to?” Kirsten was the first person who came to mind. I’d followed her career, watched what her firm invested in, and saw what an impact they had in the consumer space. I knew she was someone I wanted advice from—and hoped to get her to invest. So I reached out to her and she responded right away. She became my first thought partner as I was thinking about THE YES and what we wanted to build. Then she came in as the co-lead in my seed round, and has continued to invest with us as we’ve raised since then. She’s been an amazing thought partner and supporter of our efforts.
Kirsten: Thanks, Julie. Actually, I have a similar memory of how we met, but a little tweak in that I remember I’d long tracked your career as somebody who was really leading the charge in transformation and change. When I read in a news headline that you’d left Stitch Fix, I immediately thought, “Oh my gosh, where’s she going? What’s she doing? Whatever she’s on to next, I need to be in touch with her and hopefully be involved.” So I thought I reached out to you. But if you reached out to me, I was simultaneously thinking the same thing at the moment!
I think there are certain frameworks that we all use for early-stage investing. But to me, the single most powerful one is the founder. And the founder’s connection to the industry, and their understanding of the user and the consumer.
When I connected with Julie, she was considering many important job offers. But she also said, “I have some ideas that I’ve been thinking about for a while, and I might need to scratch that itch.” I didn’t want to be pushy in the moment, but I certainly hoped she would want to start a company. In the months following, we got to really know each other through talking about her different job offers and about this idea that she was percolating. I was positively predisposed coming into the conversation, but during the course of those many conversations we had, I was just blown away by how Julie really understands the consumer. She lives in the head of the consumer and she can really connect the dots between where the consumer is today, where the consumer is going, and how the consumer might be navigating or challenged to navigate the current shopping environment.
A big impetus for starting THE YES was Julie’s unique insight and understanding and acknowledging that now that almost all products are online, there’s this increasing challenge around discovery. There was a missing element of personal connection, a missing element of fun in shopping—it’s become so one-dimensional online. As Julie was sharing her ideas, I think I did a whole lot of head nodding and thought, “She’s really onto something.”
I had so much confidence that Julie would be able to attract an A-plus team. I think the difference between businesses that are successful and those that are extremely successful and changing the game in their categories isn’t just in the vision of the founder—it’s all the people they’re able to bring on board, and being able to unlock the best in those people. I had no doubt that Julie would be able to compel people with her vision.
The elements of iconic brands
Julie: What stood out to you about this investment and others? In other words, how do you think about the elements of iconic brands that you want to commit to investing in? Are there a few elements you can pinpoint that you see as the most important for our audience to leave with today?
Kirsten: That’s a big question with a lot of different things in there.
Julie: I know!
Kirsten: Maybe we’ll start being a little bit general with a framework around iconic brands. And then we can talk about it in the context of THE YES.
I’ll bet you that if people sat down and wrote a list of iconic brands, there would be more than 20. But in the top 20, there would be a lot of overlap among what people wrote down. I think if I sat down and wrote my list, it would go: Nike, Apple, Google, Disney, McDonald’s, Coca-Cola, Amazon, Starbucks, on down. They’re brands that are recognizable across the globe. In particular, they’re brands that are recognizable for being leaders in their categories. If you thought about some commonalities between all of those brands, it would come down to a few things they all showcase.
One is having real personality behind the brand: standing for something, being consistent, being true to their story, and really capturing a spirit that transcends a product. I think table stakes is to be able to put a product out there that’s worthy, and to be able to describe what that product is. But to connect on a brand level is really about tapping into emotion, and it’s about giving somebody something as tangible as a product would be—something that transcends the product.
I think about brands as people—if you think about your friends or the people you’re drawn to, a set of personality traits will come to mind. That’s what you immediately attach to somebody. I think iconic brands evoke that. At the core of that is having values as a company, and being able to connect with customers emotionally to create something that is valuable and sustainable in a customer relationship. That helps transcend time, too. I think of values as a core anchor to lean on. You can lean on values to show up in the moment when different products are being launched or different things are happening in the world. It’s that north star of what you stand for, and it serves as a framework for how your brand and your business will show up.
You have to have a real clarity of promise, a real understanding of the long-term relationship you’re looking at building with the market, not just the short-term success that you might be realizing. And be consistent with delivering that promise over time, over a collection of products, over an assortment of messages, and in however you might show up in the world—which is increasingly dynamic. I think one of the biggest changes that’s happened over the last decade is that there are so many more places and ways for brands to show up, and much of it is happening in real time. Having that real DNA of your personality, knowing what your core values are, and having that clarity of promise—that’s really important to consistent messages across all those different channels.
I also think iconic brands are relevant. They have really strong cultural roots. They are tapped into the zeitgeist, and they establish emotional resonances in that way. But they can also use those other things we were talking about to migrate across time and almost be timeless—but still be of the moment, if you will.
There’s another thing that maybe you wouldn’t find on everybody’s list of iconic traits, but that comes to mind at least in how I’m looking at evaluating businesses: I’m really looking for businesses that are setting new standards in their respective categories. I think there’s a tremendous opportunity in those instances to redefine what it means to be a computer company, or a media company, or a coffee company, and really get the whole industry to rally around and jump on the bandwagon that you set.
Iconic brands evoke emotions
Julie: When I think about THE YES and what we think about when we’re trying to build a future iconic brand—because obviously it would be way too presumptuous to say such a new brand could be iconic—I think about the things you talked about. I definitely think a lot about purpose and ask, “Why are we here? How are we different? Why should we matter?” When you’re building a new business, even though the emotional side of it and making sure your promise comes to life is really important, we all start with, “What is our product?” If you’re thinking about building an iconic brand, it does really start with the product, and then with how you build the brand around it so that it’s almost bigger than what your product is at the moment you’re starting it.
One of the things that I thought about a lot when we were starting THE YES is that the name needed to be something that could not just represent what we were doing today, but what we’d be doing tomorrow. And what I loved so much about it—to your point, Kirsten—was that it had this emotion automatically tied into it. It was connected to what we’re doing, and yet it could be used in lots of different ways. I have to credit Anthony Sperduti from the firm Mythology with coming up with the name because it was his idea. He actually had to convince me of it, and now I can’t imagine having a different name. But the reason that I hired him in the first place was that I knew I couldn’t do it on my own. My first idea was too small—I needed thought partnership from someone who was a big thinker. We came up with a name that didn’t just represent women’s fashion—it represented any category we wanted.
Kirsten Green: It evoked an emotion, right?
Julie: And it evoked an emotion!
Kirsten: Yes, it says something, it says: “positive, I’m here for it, I want it.” It’s got a vibe.
Julie: Exactly. We use “yes” and “no” as part of our language—it’s our love language in the product. When you like a product, you say yes, and when you don’t, you say no. But it’s how you get to your yes that’s the idea and inspiration behind it.
I also think about how you have your purpose, your differentiation. And in our case, it’s about how we trust the consumer and let them use their instincts of yes and no to help them build a better experience around them—to make shopping smarter, more fun.
The best brands are consistent, but evolve over time
Kirsten: Sometimes people think brand is a name or a logo or a color scheme. But that’s one small part of it—it’s really about all these actions. You were referencing building it into your product experience, building it into your customer service proposition. I know it’s built into marketing campaigns. It’s about having that real DNA that shows up in a consistent way, but that’s unique to the effort you’re actually engaged in. If you just have a color scheme in a logo, you don’t know those other things you can tap into naturally as a business. And if you think about today’s world: It moves so fast, it’s so fluid, and it happens in real time.
More than ever, as a business, you need to have that full depth of characteristics to be able to respond to all those of-the-moment happenings and all the different channels and places they’re happening. It’s a real challenge, but it’s also a real opportunity to push the envelope even further on building relationships. That’s some of the development that’s happened for the iconic brands in the making today.
Julie: How do you see other CEOs you’ve invested in building and shaping their brands over time? What are some of the key learnings you’ve seen from them?
Kirsten: I think it’s this balance between being consistent, but also evolving. If you think of those brands that I mentioned: Even Apple, it’s been around for 30 years, but it really stands for creativity, innovation, beauty, and simplicity in products. But they’ve changed the little parts of articulating it as the product has evolved along the way. I think that the oldest company that we’ve invested in is 10 years old, but they continue to evolve in a way that is still core to the founding principles and the founding values. You’re meeting the moment in a way that makes sense in the context of what your brand stands for.
We’re dancing around a similar thing, which is that almost human-like characteristic or trait. If you’re a person in your twenties or your forties, you’re changing and evolving, but you can still be true to who you are. You also might show up in a business setting in one way and on social media in another way, and to your friend’s party in another way—but you’re still consistent in who you are as a person. I think the brands that can stand the test of time and earn that iconic status are able to do that and still be recognizable.
If I thought about common characteristics of new businesses that are doing a good job at this, it was part of the founder’s intention from the very beginning—part of the inspiration. It wasn’t something that was added on afterwards. It was core to the earliest days of the product or the business, and it was rooted in this idea of, “I’m going to go on a journey with a customer. I’m really going to be in the head of my customer, my end user, and really think about how we solve a problem for them, how we delight them, or how we do both, and how we do that in every instance in which we engage.” I think that gives you so much room to play over time, which is important to keeping it fresh and exciting.
Brands vs. trends
Julie: How do you distinguish between an iconic brand and a fleeting trend?
Kirsten: Many of the brands that become iconic over time are setting new standards in their categories. That’s consistent with some of the frameworks we use in venture capital, where we think of our role as hopefully having a vision about where the world is moving and what’s possible in the future. In the case of consumer businesses, we think about where consumers are leading, where they’re headed with their preferences and expectations, or even their values, and what they hope to see businesses do—then being able to then tie that to something that’s relevant enough to connect with a core audience.
When you’re just starting out, as you know from your own experience, you want to find a core audience and start the journey with them. You want to understand: Are you serving their needs? What’s the dance you’re in, and how do you evolve to make that connection stronger?
Over time, you’re increasing and growing the funnel and expanding it. A brand that has the potential for longevity is thinking on that continuum. They’re thinking, “What’s important today? How do I connect today?”
But I also have a bigger mandate in mind. I want that first, core user—and I want to capture a real heart connection there. But I also want to get to mass adoption over time. So what is the core theme that I’m tapping into today, and how might that play out over time in both messaging and in product, and in how you evolve the product over time.
That gets back to the idea of being in the head of the user and having some idea or some vision about where that user might be headed and how you’re going to go on that journey with them. It sounds like a lot of qualitative stuff, as opposed to quantitative stuff, but it forms the framework for starting to put in the building blocks to demonstrate it over time.
Julie: Over the last two decades there have been really great ideas that haven’t come at the right moment—but I wouldn’t call them a fleeting trend. I would almost say the opposite, which is that they were ahead of their time and the consumer wasn’t ready. I don’t know if you remember Kozmo—
Kirsten: Oh, I remember Kozmo.
Julie: Twenty years later, Instacart came along—and Postmates. But yeah, it was a great idea before its time. That’s part of understanding what’s relevant today, what was relevant before and is no longer, and what’s going to be relevant in the future—being able to be one step ahead, but maybe not 10 steps ahead.
Kirsten: That’s really well said, Julie. It is about having a vision for the future, being a step or two ahead, but not too far ahead—because timing can be off, and then it can be too hard to bring a business to life.
Today’s iconic brands are authentic
Julie: How have things changed over time? What’s different in brand building today than it was 10 years ago?
Kirsten: The good news is there’s more flexibility and freedom because it’s happening in real time. It’s less “production value” and more “authenticity.” That’s also what makes it hard, because if you don’t have that full kit that we talked about around values, personality, and clarity of what you’re doing or what your relationship is, it’s harder to show up in all of those places that you might need to be and also be consistent.
But if you can, there’s also the ability to articulate what your brand stands for or what audiences you want to connect with on planes that extend beyond the products—there’s more opportunity for that. You’re not just a glossy ad on a one-dimensional page or a one-way TV commercial. You can show up now in social media and have comments and comment back. You can show up in short videos that don’t comment back. You can show up in short videos that don’t have production lead times and go right out into the world. That’s really different, and in some ways it’s made brands more casual. Think about what tools were available to brands 10 or 20 years ago. There was a lot more time to conceive ideas and a lot more production value in all that. But today, you have the opportunity to do it more frequently in little bites.
Julie: Yeah. We’ve definitely moved from three meals to snacking throughout the day.
Kirsten: I probably send Julie notes about marketing as often as anything else, because I think THE YES and your team do such an amazing job inspiring fun, creating relevance in the market, and engaging the consumer—and you do it in a way that’s not like, “Oh, another email.” You’re giving something as opposed to just asking for my attention. I think that’s hard to pull off, but if you do it well, it can be really powerful.
One of the magic-moment things about our business model is that you immediately engage with the consumer: “We want to get to know you. We’re here to try to make this personalized and better.” So you’re capturing information in the spirit of helping them and making their experience better. But it also allows you the benefit of having personalized touch points. That’s part of iconic brand building.
What is the play that allows you to pursue a relationship? It isn’t about a transaction. None of those brands that we all remember and hold in our hearts are about a single transaction. They’re about a series of all of these things that touch us in different ways, so that we can easily say they relate together in a specific way that gets captured in an emotion.
Julie: As you were talking I was thinking about the emotions I have related to Starbucks and Nike, because they were at the top of my list. I agree: There’s all these associations with them that you build over time that create even more connection in very subtle ways.
The future of iconic brands
Julie: Before we wrap up, I’m asking you what’s next. An iconic brand today might be different from an iconic brand in 20 years. What sorts of trends should we be paying attention to, particularly in this capital-flush environment?
Kirsten: I think it’s about staying close to the consumer and really having empathy, understanding, and a pulse for what’s going on with them and how their preferences are evolving.
I have big eyes on all things related to ESG and sustainability. I think that the customer, particularly the younger customer that’s going to become more relevant and prevalent, is thinking a lot more about these things. They grew up getting messages about climate change, inequality, and pay gaps. All that is fed into our society now. And I think it’s part of the decision-making process in a way that it might not have been in the past. And that’s a real opportunity on that value spectrum—for brands to think about how they’re going to address that opportunity. It can’t just be words—it needs to be real actions, too. It gets to that layered approach.
I think that one of the things we’ve seen happening over the last decade that I think will continue is building trust. You have to earn it. And so what do you do as a business that helps you build trust with a consumer? There’s multidimensional ways to do that, just like there are multidimensional ways to market. A really important part of building any iconic brand for the future is being tapped into those two things.
Beyond that, Julie, it’s an evolution. It’s a continuation of what we’ve been talking about today. We’re already at a place where so many businesses and brands are almost living, breathing beings. We form relationships and friends through social media that we feel connected to. There’s an opportunity for businesses to do that, too. So as we continue to evolve and use digital forms in different ways, or discover each other and brands in different places, I think brands need to keep ahead of the curve on where they’re showing up and how they’re engaging with their consumers there.
Julie: So true. It’s exciting to see the next generations actually acting on their values.
Kirsten: It gives me such hope.
Julie: I agree. In 2007, when I joined Sephora, we were working on clean beauty—natural beauty. We were a little bit ahead of our time. People weren’t quite making purchase decisions based on those things yet. And I’ve been really excited to see they’ve stayed at it. I do think the next-generation consumer is making choices differently.
Kirsten: It’s gone from a tripod to a tabletop structure: In the past, it’s been about convenience, value, and accessibility. And I think those are still important. We’re not going to backtrack from those things. But the fourth leg is, “What’s your role in society as a business? And how are you contributing in some way that’s progressive?” And that’s socially, or business practices across the board.
Now we have all these touchpoints to brands and businesses, so we have much deeper insight into the layers of what they stand for. As a business, it’s on you as an opportunity, and it’s a challenge to figure out how you’re going to really be authentic in all those ways.
Julie: This was great. Thank you so much to everyone for joining us, it was so fun to talk with Kirsten as always.
Kirsten: Thank you Julie, this was fun.