Christina Bryant is the founder of St. Frank, a business that partners with artisans from around the world to share their stories and deliver their crafts into luxurious home settings. Bryant began the company five years ago to make the unique art she found in isolated international communities accessible to people everywhere.
Why did you start the company?
My background is in art history. I started my career at MoMA in New York. Then, I realized I was really passionate about international development. I moved to East Africa and lived in Rwanda for two years working for a healthcare system. In that community, I met artisans who were working in traditional crafts. There was a really rich history behind them and they were doing really beautiful handwork. But, they weren’t yet available as a Western-relevant luxury product. For my own personal use, I started designing products like apparel and accessories. I came back to the states to go back to business school. I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do, but I knew I wanted to be an entrepreneur. I knew I wanted to do something to provide access to quality jobs for people who don’t have easy access to them.
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When I was back in the states, I was decorating my apartment. There’s no shortage of beautiful home goods. But, I wanted to create a space that was really authentic to me – that told my story and reflected my values as a person who has traveled around the world and who cares about authentic products and the stories behind them. I also wanted my products to be ethically sourced. There really weren’t options for a consumer like me. I started St. Frank to offer a new premium lifestyle brand that is centered in the home for consumers that shared my values.
We started really small, selling one product – framed textiles – on our website. Since then, we’ve grown our products to include soft goods, gifts, accessories, and wallpaper and fabric by the yard. We now sell not only through our website, but also at our own brick and mortar stores and through wholesale partners like Barney’s and Goop.
What’s the biggest mistake you made when you were starting out?
Every entrepreneur makes many mistakes, but I try not to frame them that way. If you’re not testing and learning what works and what doesn’t work, you’re not doing your job. If [ everything works], you’re not trying enough things.
There is a lot of operational complexity when it comes to running our own physical stores. When we were first setting up, there was a lot of training our team for success, and we really didn’t have enough structure in place. It was hard to empower our team members to own the store. Now, we have better systems for day-to-day store management and training our teams. It’s gotten rid of a lot of our pain points at the store level.
What’s the smartest thing you did when you were starting out?
Recognize my strengths. For example, my business partner Steph joined me about a year and a half into building the business. I’m more of a creative, “salesy” kind of person. She’s an engineer undergrad with a finance background. We have a very opposite skill set. Bringing her on and dividing up the responsibilities in the business was essential to our success. As we’ve grown, both of us have recognized what we’re not great at and what someone else might be better at as we’ve grown the team. You just can’t do it all. And definitely not well!
Managing the Business
How do you finance the business?
When we were first starting out five years ago, my mom and I put in the first friends-and-family round of funding. We ran really scrappy for the first two years. Then, we raised our first round of outside capital. We’ve raised a few rounds of venture funding since then.
How do you manage cash flow?
Part of the reason why we were able to bootstrap with that initial friends-and-family round of funding for so long is because we have a really lean inventory style for a company that sells product. With our framed textiles, we frame to order. So, we were able to defer the cost of framing and shipping the framed piece until after the point of sale. As we’ve grown, we’ve kept that style by doing a lot of last-minute customization and producing really close to the point of demand. We only hold about $20 worth of inventory for every $100 worth of revenue.
We really grew organically at first. We did not spend money to acquire customers. I started documenting the process of starting the business on Instagram. By the time we launched, we had over 20,000 followers. It’s really grown through organic press, word of mouth, and social media from those early days.
What’s the biggest challenge of running your business?
The challenges really change every day. Over time, the challenges evolve. The most important thing to our success is having a really good team. I think that making sure you have the right people there to solve those challenges with you is an essential component to success.
What’s the biggest reward of running your business?
Similarly, it’s the people. Being surrounded by an awesome team of people who breathe a whole new life into the business is super-rewarding. And, for us, since our business is rooted in helping artisans, over time, we’ve gotten to see those businesses transform, which has been rewarding.
What advice would you give to a new entrepreneur?
One of the most important characteristics for success is perseverance. Business is really hard. At some point, you’re going to think, “Why did I think this was a good idea?” Persevere through those hard times. Continue to believe in yourself and push through.
What’s next for St. Frank?
We’ve been really focused on popup stores. We’ll be growing our physical permanent store footprint. And we’re excited about engaging with new customers in those locations. We’re also having a renewed focus on online and will be dropping our first catalog next year. We’re really honing in on optimizing our online experience and engaging with our customers.
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