"It's not just a reboot of Fab," Bradford Shellhammer says of Bezar.com, a flash sales site for modern design products launching Tuesday. The co-founder of Fab.com — the once-promising design site recently acquired in a fire sale to manufacturing solutions firm PCH — is taking what he learned from that experience and doing everything he wishes he had done the first time around. "There are similarities, sure, but the brand feels very different. It's elevated," he says.
To be sure, there is a polish to what Shellhammer is presenting. Within the four categories of product offered — Art, House, Jewelry, Accessories — there are three "pop-up shops," which will be open for anywhere from three to eight days, depending on the type of item. For instance, a selection of British designer Tom Dixon's rose gold high-ball glasses will vanish from the site by Friday, while shoppers have until next week to purchase an exclusive print by the artists Josef and Anni Albers. "Shopping online is great if you need toilet paper, but in general, it sucks for the consumer," Shellhammer says. "There's the same shit in every store. I wanted to create a place where you can find people who make cool shit."
To the consumer's eye, Bezar is what Fab might have become. If it weren't for, you know, the big mess that was made. A brief history: Fab.com was founded by Shellhammer and Jason Goldberg in 2010 as a social networking site for gay men. In June 2011, the company changed courses, drawing from Shellhammer's experience in the home design industry. (He worked for Design Within Reach and Blu Dot, and also wrote for magazines like Dwell.) The new Fab was a flash sales site in the vein of Gilt, and within five months, it had acquired 1 million members. Goldberg and Shellhammer also raised $336.3 million in venture capital along the way. There was plenty of drama and layoffs, and in the end, Fab was reportedly sold for between $15 and $50 million.
"In hindsight, we went too fast," Shellhammer says. "Everyone was an accomplice at some level: investors, employees, the press who wrote about us. There was a while when everyone wanted to believe that what we were doing was really special and magical." While the goal of many modern tech companies is user acquisition — and that was Fab's, if you remember the sweet $25 credits that were offered for email referrals — an e-commerce site also has to make money. "In retail, you have to sell things. And to sell things, you have to earn the trust of the customer," he says.
Shellhammer exited Fab 15 months ago, long after that trust was lost due to an ever-weakening product assortment. Goldberg stayed on, launching Hem — a collection of ready-made and custom furniture — in September 2014. (Now that he has shed himself of Fab, Goldberg is focusing solely on Hem, using some of what's left of Fab's VC funding to move it along.) While Goldberg's bet is on the fact that the market for mid-priced furniture is barren, Shellhammer's is that the product is there — it's just awfully hard to find it.
"When Fab — well, my Fab — went away, many of our brands no longer had a place to scale their product," Shellhammer explains. While 40 to 50 percent of Bezar's current roster is made up of Fab vendors, he says that the process of finding new talent is part of what will distinguish the site. "Merchants have gotten lazy, scientific, methodical," he says. "We're not just looking at the four trade shows, we're going to take risks. There's a lack of safety in our assortment."
Where Shellhammer is being less risky, so far, is funding. He's raised just $2.3 million in a round led by Lerer Hippeau Ventures (investors in Thrillist, Into the Gloss and Violet Grey, among other consumer-facing companies) with money thrown in by Bonobos's Andy Dunn, HSN's Mindy Grossman and industrial designer Yves Behar. He's keeping costs down by holding his vendors responsible for product imagery, and also by refusing to buy inventory outright. The latter helps to explain why he is, again, relying on the flash sales model to disseminate product, despite the fact that flash sales sites have lost much of their luster in the past couple of years.
"When you secure inventory, you have to sell it until it sells out. You're beholden to the stuff on the shelf, which can destroy the brand," Shellhammer says. He believes that the "flash" part of the flash sales model isn't what's broken: it's the lack of compelling product. "What we're doing isn't connected to discount. Our designers aren't motivating by getting rid of excess inventory."
While Bezar's product assortment is already wide-ranging — the "Accessories" category currently includes Stolen Riches's colored shoelaces and Heimplanet's outdoor tents — Shellhammer says he plans on staying far away from traditional fashion. "I just think fashion, overall, is much more competitive," he says. "There are great choices at the high end and the low end. I mean, try beating H&M."
Shellhammer, however, is confident that he can make stars out of a new generation of product designers. "We really want to tell the story of independent designers," he says. "This is someone's livelihood." While Shellhammer's goals haven't seemed to change much since he started Fab all those years ago, he's a classic example of a founder wanting to prove that he has learned from the missteps of the past. "When we went out and raised money, I made it clear that I'm not promising to create a billion-dollar company," he says. "Our goal is to create something that's sustainable, not to be giant overnight. The strategy here is: smaller sales, healthy numbers, and to not let the editorial voice become diluted for the sake of growth."