By Amanda Mulay, Senior Talent Manager
In this series, “What’s in a role,” we ask portfolio company leaders about their career paths, the best way to break into their vertical, and what operators should know about hiring for their position. Past posts profile a CTO, COO, and a VP of Brand and Customer Experience.
It’s no secret that content is a catalyst for building strong, passionate communities. Companies in the content business are in a prime position to learn and react to their readers’ needs, which is why we’ve seen such success in the content to commerce path. Building out a commerce arm means putting consumers at the center of every decision and rewarding their trust with products you know they’ll love. To do so, content businesses rely on their buyers to connect the dots — working with vendors and collecting customer feedback to make the vision for a shop a reality.
Jojo Feld, Senior Director of Buying at Food52, knows this better than anyone, having spent the last five years building out the digital publisher’s shop by listening to its community. In our conversation, Jojo shared how content companies can branch into commerce, qualities of an excellent buyer, how Food52 decides which products to offer, and lots more.
(The following interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.)
Amanda Mulay: Tell us a bit about your background and how it led your current position as Senior Director of Buying at Food52?
Jojo Feld: I’ve always worked for small, community-focused startup businesses. When I graduated college, I worked for a four-person media company that was rooted in creating an online content space around the punk rock community. It was my first taste of digitally interacting with consumers. That job was my intro to the work that goes into building a company from the ground up, my first experience with career growth, and the ability to make my own path. I got to experience the success and satisfaction that comes from creating a product that people want, and also that simultaneously sustains — and runs on — the creation of an engaged community. It was a really great, interesting way to see how to create a business around a specific community.
After that, I went on to Fab.com where I became a Buyer and learned all about buying and merchandising, collaboration among many teams, and what it really means to be part of a large-scale, exciting, creative, and motivated startup moving at high speed. I had amazing mentors and colleagues there (one of whom is the Director of Product Development at Food52 and has been my partner-in-crime for over four years now). Building internal community has been a priority in every role since, including my current one at Food52.
Mulay: What does your role entail and how do you typically explain it to people?
Feld: I tell people that I lead a team that is responsible for creating the product offerings in the Food52 Shop, as well as the majority of the storytelling around them. This means that I oversee buying, merchandising, and our drop ship supply chain vertical that touches more than 400 merchants worldwide. These seven (soon to be eight) people select products, observe and set trends, create brand and product storytelling, negotiate prices and margins, coordinate shipping logistics, and manage vendor relationships.
I also work closely with our finance team to lead strategy and planning around the assortment in our Shop: discussing category goals, margin goals, assortment goals and how we’re going to get there. I often go from spreadsheets to studio visits with glass blowers, wood workers, and potters within an hour.
Mulay: You’ve had a number of different roles focused on buying at Food52 like Buyer, Associate Director, Commerce, Director of Buying & Product Development and now Senior Director of Buying. How do they differ?
Feld: They’ve all been a continuation of and slightly different skill set than the role prior. One of the things I love about working at Food52 — and this is true of many startups — is the ability to carve your own growth path and role. I started here as a Buyer, but the Food52 Shop has grown so much over the years that there is a constant need for more support. In my case, it was more strategy and planning, so as a Buyer, I took the initiative to start implementing that. There’s been really amazing opportunities here to learn new things, identify potential growth paths for the company, and take them on.
Mulay: What should content-focused businesses know about building out an ecommerce arm? Any crucial first hires to make?
Feld: You should know your audience (and listen to them). This includes your colleagues — part of your brand’s community will be the people who work with you. Ask them for advice or guidance when figuring out your assortment. They’ll have real (and good) ideas for what to offer your customers that often can’t be found in a spreadsheet or a survey. A strong Customer Care lead would be a good first hire once you’ve launched your ecommerce business because you want someone who understands the brand and can effectively communicate what the end-customer feedback is.
Mulay: Why did Food52 decide to move into the commerce space?
Feld: Food52 was building its brand. We were getting a lot of questions from our community on the content side like “what do you recommend for a cooking tool for this?” or “where is that platter from?” In an effort to provide a full cooking and entertainment experience, it seemed like the next step was to offer our community that information as well as those products and tools in the Shop. The goal was to make Food52 the one-stop-shop in this category.
Mulay: How does Food52 decide which products to offer?
Feld: Listening to our customers, looking at their behavior, and thinking about what speaks to us as a brand. In almost every case, the answers to all of those converge, which is a great indicator that we are doing something right. This has been the approach with our recently launched direct-to-consumer line Five Two which we create by putting our community in the design chair.
We start the development with products that feel innate to our brand (like a set of wooden spoons — an essential tool for anyone in the kitchen), and then take the discussion directly to our community members (the “Five Two Design Team,” as we call them) to really understand what they want in a product. Ultimately, this leads to a one-of-a-kind product we love and are certain our customers will too.
Mulay: Any macro trends you’re seeing in the buying and merchandising space right now?
Feld: A trend I’ve been seeing is that people are looking to hire employees to keep up with the creativity that’s going into a lot of ecommerce businesses, especially from a marketing standpoint. They’re really looking for nontraditional buyers. A buying background, in many cases, isn’t as important as creativity and what you bring to the table.
Mulay: What makes someone a good candidate for a role as a buyer? Any traits that make buyers really successful?
Feld: Passion is really important, especially for startup communities, and in really every role. But for buying specifically, someone who’s invested in the products, their brands, how they speak to the community and/or customer. The goal here as a merchandiser is to grow the business by connecting with both the customer (through storytelling and being transparent about the benefits of the products) and the maker community (through two-way creativity and a trusting partnership). It involves taking a lot of risks; we are not plugging in historical retail formulas here, but creating new ones through trial and error to achieve success. And everyone is involved in that. In non-traditional ecommerce, it’s important to be someone who’s OK going outside of their comfort zone and who isn’t afraid to share new ideas or try new things.
Mulay: What advice would you give to anyone interested in getting a job as a buyer?
Feld: Networking is key; always say yes to a meeting or an opportunity. Also, reach out to companies you want to work for. I’m partial to people who take initiative; it’s a good sign when someone goes out of their comfort zone to get what they want. References go a long way; it’s actually a really small industry. Keep great relationships with the people you’ve worked with because you’ll never know when you’ll see them again.
Interested in a role at Food52? Check out current job openings here.