How do you ensure your brand stands out, especially in a saturated market?
It’s a question that several founders explored last month at an event hosted by Chase Ink Business Premier at New York City-based co-working space NeueHouse Madison Square.
Skims and Good American co-founder Emma Grede moderated the panel with Kristin Cavallari, veteran reality TV star and founder of lifestyle brand Uncommon James; Pernell Cezar, co-founder and CEO of BLK & Bold Specialty Beverages; and Wombi Rose, co-founder and CEO of greeting card company Lovepop.
In a wide-ranging discussion that delved into first-time founder mistakes, scaling speedbumps, hiring challenges and more, a common strategy emerged — and it’s one critical for any entrepreneur who strives to overcome the obstacles sure to come their way.
The secret? Leaning into your brand’s authenticity.
Related: Why Authenticity Is a Key Ingredient to Entrepreneurial Success
“Selfishly, I’m designing what I want because I feel like I am the customer.”
Both Grede’s and Cavallari’s brands have no doubt benefited from celebrity culture and the spotlight that comes with it.
Grede co-founded Skims with Kim Kardashian and Good American with Khloé Kardashian. Cavallari first rose to fame on the reality TV show Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County and went on to star in Very Cavallari while opening Uncommon James’ flagship store in Nashville, Tennessee.
Grede admits that she thought having Kardashian-famous co-founders meant people would be more interested in them and less interested in her, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. People want to know all of the faces behind a brand — and if what they bring to the table is authentic.
For Grede, authenticity was there from the start with Good American. She recalls designing for a customer who would want from a pair of jeans what she’d always searched for herself: quality that lasts, holding up without a wash long enough to keep up with a busy lifestyle.
Cavallari shares that desire to put out products that truly reflect a customer’s wants; it’s how she’s approached Uncommon James from the start.
“Selfishly, I’m designing what I want because I feel like I am the customer,” Cavallari explains. “I am the girl. In that sense, it’s been really enjoyable — and I don’t want to say easy, but it’s been almost effortless for me.”
Related: A Guide to Turning Your Customers Into Your Product Designers
Entrepreneur sat down with Cavallari to learn more about how authenticity has always powered Uncommon James — and where she’s excited to see it go next.
“I had this fire and this passion in me to show people that I knew what I was doing.”
Cavallari had an entrepreneurial spirit early on and knew she “needed to lean into the branding world” when she joined The Hills to make the most of her growing exposure. But she was young, and many of the celebrity deals she saw involved stars partnering with other companies, so that’s what she did, teaming up on a shoe line with Chinese Laundry.
The partnership lasted five years, and Cavallari says she “learned a lot” from the experience. But she couldn’t help but wonder: Why can’t I do this on my own? “I had this fire and this passion in me to show people that I knew what I was doing in the branding world,” Cavallari recalls, “so I decided to launch Uncommon James.”
In just four months, Cavallari took Uncommon James from idea to launch. During those initial days, the founder admits there was no distinction between herself, her personal brand and her company. But that’s changed over the years — by design.
“We’re still very much like, the girls on the girl’s trip in Nashville that are out at Broadway — that’s our girl,” Cavallari says. “She’s not afraid to be a little edgy. She likes to have fun, which is still very much me. But I’ve grown up a little bit from that. So we’re also transitioning away from using me so heavily within the brand.”
Although Cavallari’s move away from being the brand’s face has been gradual, it was part of the plan from the start, hence why she named it “Uncommon James” instead of after herself — to make sure it could “stand on its own.”
Related: 5 Common Challenges Entrepreneurs Face When Creating a Brand
“It doesn’t matter if you have a TV show or not…it is all-encompassing.”
And in a move reminiscent of her early career, the founder harnessed the power of reality TV to generate buzz for the brand in 2018. Very Cavallari documented the opening of Uncommon James’ flagship store — a season of life Cavallari calls “so insane” as she balanced raising three young kids and growing her business.
But Cavallari’s also “really thankful for that time,” and considers it another learning experience. And once again, it’s one that highlighted just how important it is to keep that original passion alive — that authentic drive — regardless of celebrity status.
“It doesn’t matter if you have a TV show or not,” Cavallari says. “When you explode overnight, and you’re trying to continue to scale [your company] at that rapid rate, it is all-encompassing. It is stressful. It’s a lot, but it’s really important to buckle down and put your all into it because that’s what creates the success of your company. And then you eventually do get to the other side where you can coast a little bit more.”
When Uncommon James’ growth reached the point where it wasn’t sustainable for Cavallari to navigate it all on her own, she knew it was time to “hire good people with a lot of experience.”
And it’s a strategy that’s paid off big time: Cavallari says her marketing team’s “doing better than [she] ever even could have imagined.”
Now, Cavallari plans to continue scaling the brand that’s stayed true to herself and her customers over the years — and is especially excited about its new skincare line, Uncommon Beauty. Uncommon James will also expand its brick-and-mortar presence, starting with an additional store in Charleston, South Carolina opening this fall.