Late last month, my Grommet co-founder Joanne Domeniconi and I were fired. Our majority shareholder Ace Hardware made the call, as is their right. It happens when visions for a company diverge.
Joanne and I are sad to abandon our Citizen Commerce™ mission and not see Grommet through to becoming a household name. But we feel nothing but a great deal of pride when we reflect on the hundreds of careers we shaped, the more than 3,000 small businesses we accelerated, and the thousands of jobs we created. We grew to a meaningful scale: where we could legitimately move markets and create demand for previously unheard-of products and even create new product categories. No one had heard of brands like SodaStream, Fitbit, OtterBox, PopSockets, S’well, Bombas, SimpliSafe and Mrs. Meyers when we embraced and launched them.
Upon hearing the news one Grommet maker wrote, “I have said it so many times it must sound like a broken record, but what you created was pure magic!” For a small business with an innovative product, breaking through in a crowded consumer world is excruciatingly difficult. Each Grommet we launched benefited handsomely from our reputation, credibility, and gaining access to our 4M followers. I always saw being chosen as a Grommet as cutting two years of struggle out of their path. Many awesome companies would have died on the vine if it were not for Grommet.
We employed hundreds of the best and brightest. One of the current team members said, “The Grommet has made an impression on me in many ways in the three years since I joined. I’ve worked for a number of small companies now, and while most of their founders have had “hustle” to spare, I have not encountered anyone else with your commitment to values. I did not choose a career path which automatically involves helping others (doctor, nonprofit, etc.), so it has been a comfort to work for someone who steers the ship with moral conviction.”
Lynda Applegate, a Harvard Business School professor, wrote a popular case on The Grommet. Out of the thousands of potential case study subjects at her disposal she chose Grommet because she said we were the kind of business that could uniquely thrive in a modern economy—with a groundbreaking approach to creating value for multiple parties. Here’s a small slice of what that means to me: I believe that each person in a company is sacred and capable of leadership. When individuals are truly engaged toward a common purpose, powerful gains can be delivered for customers, suppliers, society, and the planet. It is then that a great business–measured in revenue and profits–can also be a great company. I was not interested in one without the other. This is what Lynda recognized.
I also hope our Grommet alums will be brave on the innovation front. As one of our investors John Landry told me, “If you aren’t the lead dog you are just sniffing someone else’s butt.” We originated the use of video in e-commerce. We were the first company to assign societal/personal values to the products we sold. While corporations today are scrambling to show they “care” about products from minority or queer or veteran entrepreneurs, or from social enterprises, or about American made sourcing—moves that I wholeheartedly applaud—I take pride that we sourced all of our products according to those kind of values from Day One.
It seems so basic, but we built a company whose people and products you could trust implicitly. If retail were not a catastrophic race to the bottom, “trustworthiness” would not be a distinctive competitive asset–but it was at The Grommet. And it was measurable. While most e-commerce companies find that dissatisfied customers return 15-25% of what is bought, our customers only returned 3% of Grommets. And these are products from totally unknown small businesses. 3%!! This is because we curated carefully and only launched products worth buying, from people worth supporting.
As a CEO, I am proud that we defied the odds and built a large-scale business, and shepherded it successfully through two financial crises and a global pandemic. We also defied the odds in attracting visionary angel investors like Peter Lynch and Jill Preotle–in a world where women founders get 2.7% of the funding from venture capitalists. We navigated not just one, but two, strategic investors over seven years. A public company CFO friend told me after the first investment (from the wonderful Rakuten) “I have bought many companies. It never works for the founders. You won’t last six months.” Ha! Joanne and I are not quitters. And we not only defied the odds in scaling the business, but also remained friends and partners throughout. We came into the venture together and there is poetry in the fact that we left Grommet the same way. Joanne and I were always a package deal.
I know this is kind of sappy, but I will think back at Grommet under our leadership as a form of “Camelot” for our team, our Makers and ourselves. My greatest hope is that Grommet alums will go on to use the lessons of how a business can both do good and do well. I know Grommet team members will be contributory to–and demanding of–their future employers when it comes to both ethical and executional standards. We all certainly learned a valuable lesson that one cannot simultaneously grow and harvest the same company–you have to pick a lane.
Sidebar: for some reason beyond my understanding, our amazing VP of Operations Jason McCarthy was also terminated. The company was on a fantastic 2020 trajectory with revenues up 50% over plan in May and 25% for the year. Jason was very, very central to that success—our business was extremely operationally intense. Jason is a dynamic leader whose teams will follow him anywhere. He was my go-to person for many things from brainstorming new initiatives to putting models and plans to an analytical or real-world test. At Grommet he had the broadest portfolio of responsibilities among all my reports, including Logistics, Inventory Planning, Account Management, Growth Services and Customer Support. He also founded and built our Wholesale business. Beyond all that he is a culture builder who earned deep respect and loyalty during his seven year+ tenure at Grommet, including mine of course. I will be very happy to introduce him to worthy employers and startup teams.
At the end of the day (and our run), while the future course of Grommet will not include its founders’ drive and hustle, or our moral and spiritual guidance, we are happy to have shown the way for individuals and companies to support small businesses, to celebrate the work of underrepresented entrepreneurs, to seek out quality products, and to honor trustworthy people. Grommet was the culmination of my life’s work—and Joanne’s. We share a deep satisfaction and priceless legacy with the many talented and committed individuals who made it all happen. I have no regrets. This is the simplest definition of success that I know.
July 20 addendum:
Leigh Buchanan of Inc. Magazine saw this post and called me up. She subsequently wrote this insightful and original reflection about The Grommet and our departures. “A Bittersweet Ending for the Maker Community’s Biggest Supporters.” It is priceless to me. Leigh understands what we built (because she did her homework over the years, including visiting the office) and she understands what the small business economy lost, because of her work at Inc.
Here’s a little trip down memory lane.