Showfields' Katie Hunt: Reinventing Retail with the Power of DTC Brands
Viacom Ad Solutions' latest ReThink forum featured a fireside chat with Katie Hunt, co-founder and Chief Revenue Officer of Showfields, the Most Interesting Store in the World. Moderated by Sarah McKee, VP of New Business at Viacom, the conversation followed Hunt's journey from being employee number three of a seminal DTC brand to reinventing the retail industry.
"I'm going to take you back to the summer of 2007," McKee opened the conversation. "You're graduating from Brown University. You're about to board the rocket ship of Warby Parker. Tell us how your story began and how it has evolved."
“I moved to New York from Brown to become an actor,” Hunt responded. She explained that after working as an extra on All My Children, she decided to pursue a job opportunity with Warby Parker in customer service. “What the Warby team did incredibly well for me was to say, ‘we love that you don’t have answers and don’t think that there’s a prescribed way to go forward.’”
Her experience at Warby ultimately inspired Hunt to launch a consulting business to help other new companies navigate early-stage business development. "I've worked across thirty-two companies in seven years, sometimes as a co-founder, sometimes as a consultant," said Hunt. She shared this "cross-training" led her to research companies that had just closed their first round of funding. "I wrote to tell them the ten things I'd change about their companies," Hunt said, adding that was how she used to get jobs. "I don't know why, but founders respond well to criticism."
Hunt's consultancy led her to take on a full-time job as the Chief Brand Officer of Hinge, one of the two leading players of the then-burgeoning online dating space. "Hinge was built on the founder's desire to see people fall in love," explained Hunt. When the brand lost its focus on this core value, Hunt was brought in and encouraged them to "go back to the roots," helping to create a new product that eventually got acquired by Match.
These accomplishments required talented teams, as McKee pointed out. So, how does someone like Hunt empower people and give them the confidence to speak, ask questions, provide feedback, and become an active part of the process?
One of the ways is through "hackathons," meetings where she gives people who've been working with the brand for a long time the chance to share their ideas freely. Hunt says this results in "some of the most interesting answers." "You realize everybody in the room goes to bed at night and thinks about the job, the products they're selling, and the things they're doing."
Hunt also stressed that truly empowered teams are built on a shared belief in the cause. "Everyone in the room has to 'believe in fairies,'" says Hunt. "If one person doesn't believe, they can wreck the whole thing, take it off the rails and take everybody else's confidence down to zero." She added that a lot of her job is not only to set the vision but to also believe in it and defend it. "I'm an eternal optimist; I don't care for the word 'No.'"
McKee then asked, what does it take to make it to team Katie? Hunt responded she seeks "a scarce combination" of left and right brain. "So, they're data-driven, but they're also very creative," Hunt explained. As far as mentors, Hunt loves the ones who "never follow the rules."
"What do you look for in partners?" asked McKee. "I don't like timid or autogenerated sales," responded Hunt, adding that in sales—just as in dating—generic messages won't cut the deal: "sales should be personal." She's also attracted to new technologies, such as a facial recognition software they've tried at Showfields which alerts associates every time a registered customer returns to the store.
Showfields became The Most Interesting Store in the World by creating a home for the most interesting brands in the world, fueled by a conviction that retail wasn't dead—it just needed to evolve. Next up, "we're launching House of Showfields," Hunt shared. The reservation-only, discovery-focused twenty-minute immersive experience is Hunt's answer to an increasingly consumer-centric shopping experience she's dubbed "c-Commerce." "It's a new island completely run by consumers about what, how, and where they want to interact with things."
Hunt says curation is a collaborative process. She starts by putting together brands she thinks people would be drawn to, according to location and other criteria. Then, she monitors consumer interactions with the brands, assisted by cutting-edge technology that measures these real-life exchanges inside a physical space. At the heart of Showfields is a desire to leverage the intersection of e-commerce and technology to evolve the physical retail experience. "It's not that people don't want to go shopping, they need a new home for it and a different way."
This consumer-centric approach will guide Hunt as she opens four more Showfields locations next year and pursues her goal of opening 100 across the world.
In closing, Hunt stressed the hard work and dedication that fuels her success. "I hate that the founder story has gotten so glamorized," she candidly shares. "There were times at Warby when it wasn't glamorous, and we didn't know if we were going to survive. That's what a startup is; at any moment it can be taken, and that's a scary world. If you join a startup, you have to love, breath, sleep, and dream of what you do."