Rishi Prabhu of Bespoke Post: “Company culture”

Company culture. This didn’t start right-of-the-bat when Steve and I founded Bespoke Post. We created a company dedicated to an interesting concept, and we hired really smart and driven people who are motivated to do their best. Startups have such a glamorous reputation. Companies like Facebook, Instagram, Youtube, Uber, and Airbnb once started as scrappy startups […]

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Company culture. This didn’t start right-of-the-bat when Steve and I founded Bespoke Post. We created a company dedicated to an interesting concept, and we hired really smart and driven people who are motivated to do their best.

Startups have such a glamorous reputation. Companies like Facebook, Instagram, Youtube, Uber, and Airbnb once started as scrappy startups with huge dreams and huge obstacles.

Yet we of course know that most startups don’t end up as success stories. What does a founder or a founding team need to know to create a highly successful startup?

In this series, called “Five Things You Need To Create A Highly Successful Startup” we are talking to experienced and successful founders and business leaders who can share stories from their experience about what it takes to create a highly successful startup.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Rishi Prabhu.

Rishi Prabhu and Steve Szaronos founded Bespoke Post in 2011, after seeing an opportunity in the e-commerce market for a subscription service for men. What Rishi and Steve noticed was that men were more conscious of and interested in self-improvement than ever, yet there wasn’t a single one-stop shop out there for them to elevate their daily lives. And so, Bespoke Post was born.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’/ a-ha moment and how you got started?

Steve and I met at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management in 2009. Together we founded Bespoke Post in 2011 after being accepted into the Entrepreneur’s Roundtable Accelerator program. At the time, we felt that men were more involved in purchasing products, and that discovering those products was very hard. We wanted to reinvent this process, and we thought that one way to do that was via a subscription model. Over the past nine years, we have grown Bespoke Post into the leading monthly membership club and e-commerce service, with over 300K subscribers, delivering to nearly half a million customers across the U.S. and Canada.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

First and foremost, we’re very proud of the products we bring to our customers. We spend a ton of time finding cool under-the-radar brands and products, and our merchandising team is on the ground seeking out goods, ordering samples, ripping them apart, tasting and smelling and testing everything, and ensuring it’s all up to snuff. We’re also constantly learning about our members so we can deliver goods and guidance curated just for them. Bespoke Post launches 15–20 boxes per month, using data points like our sign up profile quiz and a club member survey module called Field Research to better select boxes and test and iterate more unique concepts. Additionally, we have The Foundry, which is our team of expert product designers who have one goal and one goal only: to pinpoint exactly what’s missing from a consumer’s day-to-day and build it from the ground up. Ultimately, we’re trying to become a one-stop shop for customers utilizing a mix of discovery and data.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

Supporting small businesses has always been foundational to our brand. It’s a part of our DNA. So when Covid-19 hit and we realized some of our partners were struggling, we made the decision to double down on our efforts to back them and provide them with a platform to reach our customers. We wanted to send a message to the small business community that we’re here, and we’re invested in you. We pledged to buy $10 million dollars worth of goods via our Support Small Initiative, quickly surpassed that and doubled it to $20M, and to date we’re nearly at $5oM+. We’ve also been fortunate enough to connect with over 1,000 small brands, many of whom applied via our Support Small page.

You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?

Being focused. There are so many directions we can take the business, and often it’s hard to say no. But we wouldn’t fail because of lack of opportunity — We would fail because of lack of focus. It’s important for us to do a few things really well, instead of stretching ourselves thin with too many initiatives.

Staying humble. We want to have conviction towards our goals and objectives, but we also want to keep our eyes and ears open and adapt to the realities of any situation. No matter the idea, we must ensure the data proves the reasoning.

Before we had a data infrastructure in place, we created boxes based on intuition. But even when I’ve been super excited about an idea, it’s not guaranteed to always work. I remember in the early days we launched an apparel box that totally failed, and that led us to creating a data-driven system that allows us to hone box concepts based on what we know our customers want. A lot of gut and heart goes into our boxes, but it’s now backed up by the data.

Trusting your team. We’ve built a team of very smart and dedicated people, and we need to let them do what they know how to do best in order to succeed. It’s all about staying involved without micromanaging.

Often leaders are asked to share the best advice they received. But let’s reverse the question. Can you share a story about advice you’ve received that you now wish you never followed?

I think because I’m lucky enough to work with Steve, we’ve received bad advice but tended to not follow it. Having a two co-founder structure naturally allows us to gut check before moving forward with most decisions.

Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?

When we were accepted into the Entrepreneur’s Roundtable Accelerator program, we originally had the idea to create a QR code company for advertising. We spent the majority of our time prepping this idea, even creating an app and our company name, Nabfly. But just before it was time to present, we realized that we didn’t feel passionate about this idea. It was a pretty nerve-wracking moment — we knew we needed to present something, and we knew we couldn’t present what we had. This led us to take a massive risk, and change our entire idea to pitch Bespoke Post instead. Taking that step was hugely liberating, because we were really putting our weight behind this idea that we were actually excited about, and it paid off.

Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard? What strategies or techniques did you use to help overcome those challenges?

Having a partner where you can balance your highs and lows is essential. No idea what we’d do without each other.

The journey of an entrepreneur is never easy, and is filled with challenges, failures, setbacks, as well as joys, thrills and celebrations. Can you share a few ideas or stories from your experience about how to successfully ride the emotional highs & lows of being a founder”?

When we were six boxes in, I remember walking in the East Village with Steve right by Astor Place and telling him, “I’m done, I don’t have any further box ideas. There are no more box ideas. We’ve done them all. There’s nothing left.” And Steve talked me off the ledge. 400 boxes later, clearly I was wrong.

Let’s imagine that a young founder comes to you and asks your advice about whether venture capital or bootstrapping is best for them? What would you advise them? Can you kindly share a few things a founder should look at to determine if fundraising or bootstrapping is the right choice?

I would advise them to view fundraising as a means to an end instead of a success point. If you think you need venture capital to grow faster or hire more people onto your team or push forward a major partnership, go for it. But if you can accomplish the same initiatives without it, skip the process. Funding is not an end goal. It’s a way of getting closer to the goal. Don’t fundraise just for the sake of fundraising and to get your name in the press. It should only enable a future step in the journey.

Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. Many startups are not successful, and some are very successful. From your experience or perspective, what are the main factors that distinguish successful startups from unsuccessful ones? What are your “Five Things You Need To Create A Highly Successful Startup”? If you can, please share a story or an example for each.

An idea. Every great company starts with a great idea, and the right people to execute it. Thinking back, if we had proceeded with our original QR code idea, I don’t think I’d still be the co-founder of a start-up, because the passion and drive wasn’t there yet.

A cohesive team. A perfect example is Alvaro De La Rocha. When he started at Bespoke Post, he was the second person to join the team. Because we were so young, he was doing social media, HR, and all sorts of roles. Now he’s our CMO with a full team of people, and he has a deep understanding of the customer, the company, and our quirks. I’m really proud of the team we’ve built…everyone is really motivated to succeed.

Nimbleness. One of our team values is to stay scrappy, and since the nature of the business is on a monthly cadence, our team makes a massive effort to release and promote our new boxes on the first of each month. We’re constantly releasing new boxes and products, interacting and connecting with many different vendors, and working this complicated system and cycle. It’s vital to stay on our feet and expect the unexpected.

A deep understanding of customer. Sophisticated data structuring allows us to have real-time conversations with our customers, and in turn we can personalize their experiences and inform our decisions and buys and box selection. We started with a quiz, and we’ve taken it a step further with our survey module Field Research.

Company culture. This didn’t start right-of-the-bat when Steve and I founded Bespoke Post. We created a company dedicated to an interesting concept, and we hired really smart and driven people who are motivated to do their best. With that comes a natural inquisitiveness, and a desire to collaborate and achieve together. We’ve also developed a shared language — in your first week at Bespoke Post, you’re inundated with new words and phrases and concepts, and it drives conversation and curiosity and growth. And developing and maintaining bonds via video chat and in-person events (pre-pandemic) is a vital part of our culture. We’re hoping to bring our company-wide retreat back when we can!

What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs & founders make when they start a business? What can be done to avoid those errors?

One brilliant piece of advice we received was, “Don’t let any person’s opinion sway you 5% in one direction or the other, but if you get a plethora of opinions it’s important to listen.” Everyone has an opinion and can be an expert, so it’s easy to waffle. You need to stay true to what you believe in, but if there’s a preponderance of evidence or opinions, you should rethink things.

Startup founders often work extremely long hours and it’s easy to burn the candle at both ends. What would you recommend to founders about how to best take care of their physical and mental wellness when starting a company?

Rest and spend time with your family. I didn’t do a good job of this in the beginning, but I do a better job of it now. Steve and I were stretched thin and strapped for time when we first started Bespoke Post, but we now have more availability for those two components. You need to give yourself a break, because often the best ideas come when you’re not looking for them.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

We’d like to see a movement towards further small business support. We’re extremely proud of how we’ve made supporting small businesses a foundational aspect of our brand, and that we were able to further that support during COVID with our Support Small Initiative. But we think that there’s always more that can be done.

We are blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.

Jimmy Fallon. I mean — he’s hilarious.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success and good health!

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