Twenty years ago, Rebecca Minkoff moved to New York City at 18 with dreams of starting a fashion label. In the months after the 9/11 terror attacks, Minkoff’s “I Love NY” T-shirt put her on TV and in fashion magazines. Four years later, her namesake label’s “Morning After Bag”–a $600 leather carryall–became a milestone purchase for the upwardly stylish. The longtime bestseller gave Minkoff the revenue she needed to expand her brand’s apparel offerings and add a footwear line.
Alongside the company’s CEO, her brother Uri, Minkoff went on to steer her business through the Great Recession and become a social media pioneer. Today, she has a $100 million brand with two million followers across digital platforms, space in 900 stores worldwide–and her journey in fashion is nearly as famous as her edgy boots and leather jackets.
Minkoff has long used her global platform to advocate for female entrepreneurs. Last year, she launched the Female Founder Collective–an alliance of mutually supportive women-run businesses with a seal that 50,000 Instagram followers can recognize and promote. For Inc.‘s 40th anniversary, she joined our Founders Project, which pairs 40 CEOs just starting up with experienced mentors who, like Minkoff, can offer candid, time-tested advice.
Our mentee in this issue, Trinity Mouzon Wofford, also moved to New York City with a vision. Growing up in New York’s Hudson Valley, she watched her mother struggle with health issues and developed an interest in homeopathic medicine. Pursuing premed tracks in high school and then at New York University in New York City, Wofford identified a disconnect among Millennials “between that crunchy granola stuff that we all grew up with” and ultraluxe new wellness products.
“I wanted to make that space a little more friendly and fun,” she says.
Using the potent anti-inflammatory spice turmeric as a base, Wofford began formulating a superfood powder that her health-minded peers could add to smoothies, water, or coffee. She didn’t have much of a starter fund, but she did have the drive to succeed–and a life partner-turned-business partner, Issey Kobori, who was willing to move upstate with her to save money while they worked on their business. There, Wofford perfected her recipe for the Original Golde Tonic–a blend of turmeric, coconut, ginger, and other spices–while Kobori learned to design product packaging and honed his photography skills to make Wofford’s online presence shine. They named their wellness brand Golde and launched online and in a couple of New York City cafés in 2017.
It didn’t take long for the startup’s “good vibes” messaging–captured perfectly by Kobori’s soothing pastel and goldenrod packaging–to resonate with retailers. Within a year, about 30 local boutiques and small grocers were carrying the $29 Original Golde Tonic. Soon, Goop and Sephora were calling.
Now, Golde’s tonic blends and superfood face masks are sold by more than 100 stores nationwide, including Anthropologie and Madewell. Direct-to-consumer sales grew 300 percent in May, after the launch of a brand-ambassador program, and revenue has tripled since last year. Wofford is eager for broader mass-market distribution–but is torn about whether to take outside funding to speed up the company’s growth. Luckily, Minkoff had a lot to say on the topic–and others.
Wofford: We’re around two and a half years into building Golde, and you’ve been at this so long. I want to hear all of your experiences.
Minkoff: It feels like 45 years. I say that because things have changed so fast. When we started, social media was not a thing. And now it’s our currency. Now that Instagram is shoppable, do you find the majority of your customers come from Instagram?
Wofford: It’s huge for us. And it’s been huge for us from the very beginning, even when we had maybe a thousand followers total for the brand and one product.
Minkoff: What do you think keeps them hyper-engaged?
Wofford: We’re very honest. We made the branding ourselves–and people always tell us they love it. My partner and I are coming up with all of it in our Brooklyn apartment. People are really craving authenticity on social, so I think it’s allowed us to grab attention there.
Minkoff: You say your partner–is that your business partner or life partner?
Wofford: Both. We met in high school in a pre-premed track–we both wanted to be doctors. Now we live together and run the business together. I can’t imagine doing it alone–but sometimes business seeps into the personal moments. I think it has been kind of good for us because it forces us out of opportunities to have little fights: You kind of just have to get back to work. In working with your brother, have you found that, or do you find that it creates tension?
Minkoff: We definitely have our arguments. But we air our issues with somebody there to mediate. And we had to agree not to talk about business outside of work when we’re together as a family. Otherwise, we would never turn it off.
Wofford: One thing we’re discussing now–we’re a couple of years into managing a business that has been self-funded to date. When we made that decision, it felt very right and natural. But now, as we’re scaling, it’s more difficult to stay self-funded. I certainly don’t regret it, but it is a challenge.
Minkoff: It was about seven years before we took funding. It was a really lean time, and I was the first one to raise my hand and say: “We need money.” Every week, we could just barely make payroll, and my salary was, well, “What’s your rent and how much is food?” It was a tough decision. The trend right now is VC, but there are so many other ways to grow your business using other forms of capital.
Wofford: We started talking with investors in 2018. We just wanted to raise a little from angels, but over the course of that year, we were sort of pushed and pushed and pushed until I was looking into raising a multimillion-dollar round for a business that was not yet hitting multimillions in revenue. I had to put the brakes on. But now that we’re partnering with larger retailers like Sephora, we’re seeing there could be a lot of opportunities to use the cash injection to take it to the next level.
Minkoff: I think you have to look at it as What problems would more money solve, and what problems could it cause?
Wofford: We’re sold out of our best-selling product as we speak. I had to wait for the cash flow to work so I could pay the manufacturer to release the product. After this conversation, I’m actually going to send over the payment.
Minkoff: There are creative ways to fix this. There’s purchase-order financing. We get 80 percent of our purchase orders in advance, and then the bank collects. It takes a lot of pressure off of us. I think there are really great credit cards for small businesses that you can use. America was built on small businesses that had reasonable, 20 percent, year-over-year growth–not this weird venture-funding feedback loop. I think you shouldn’t take the money. Hold tight. VCs and PEs are bursting with cash. I always tell people: Don’t snort that cocaine yet.
Wofford: That’s a pretty good metaphor. I’m curious about how you’ve navigated balancing outside wholesale channels [like department stores] with building a direct-to-consumer experience that is world-class.
Minkoff: When we launched, direct-to-consumer was a goal, but that was still evolving. And so our story ended up getting oversold by wholesale. A department store would come in and say, “Make this dress in red.” And other ones would say, “I want it in blue, and one in green.” Because they wanted exclusives. And so your brand gets cut up and portrayed in a way that lets the retailer tell its own story. So I think that’s why your own locations, or website, or any point-of-sale experiences, are needed, so you can say, “This is what the brand stands for.”
Wofford: It’s interesting because wellness is trendy right now. There’s that balance between understanding how to build a brand that has longevity and capitalizing on these short-term opportunities.
Minkoff: I’d look at who are the opinion leaders in the field, and who are the ones who launch something, and then what’s the next step after that? So it’s Goop and others, and create demand from there.
Wofford: I’ve always been really obsessed with the idea of bringing these products to a mass audience. I think that’s the biggest opportunity because we’ve all been sort of on this wellness-as-a-luxury trend. But there’s this massive segment of the community who are not really being spoken to right now.
Minkoff: That’s a huge opportunity.
Wofford: Can you give me any advice in terms of social media?
Minkoff: Trust your gut–literally. The tricks don’t work. We’ve tested everything, and when anything sounds too sales-y, it doesn’t resonate. People can tell when it’s not coming directly from me. So I’ve gone back to writing all of our captions now. If we wanted maximum engagement, it would be basically me on my phone all the time–a reality show of my life, my kids, everything. But I would go insane. So you have to say goodbye to a little bit of engagement to keep your sanity.