Bulletin Co-founders Alana Branston and Ali Kriegsman On Building a Retail Technology Empire

November 12, 2021

The Crunchbase “Female Founder Series” is comprised of stories, Q&As and thought-leadership pieces from glass-ceiling-smashers who overcame the odds and are now leading successful companies, or investing in them.


Alana Branston, CEO, and Ali Kriegsman, COO, are co-founders of the retail technology company Bulletin. Bulletin Wholesale is where buyers go to shop for best-in-class brands and the buzziest new products. The Bulletin platform makes it easy for retailers to discover, vet, and source inventory from thousands of brands, all in one place, while enabling brands to launch a wholesale storefront in 24-hours or less. 

Prior to launching Bulletin Wholesale, Kriegsman and Branston met in 2014 and opened and operated six retail stores and pop-ups in New York.  After running stores for over two years, Ali and Alana decided to build and launch their own wholesale marketplace from scratch to make it easier for other buyers to discover and shop for brands their customers will love. 


 

Q: Why did you choose to enter the software and technology space, specifically supporting small business owners and entrepreneurs?

We decided to become founders and start our own retail technology business after meeting and working alongside each other at a previous technology company. We were the #1 and #2 salespeople at the organization when it was a Series B startup.  We touched all parts of that business ranging from sales and revenue growth to product marketing and account management. We were both really inspired by the fast-paced, high-stakes and high-impact nature of building and running a technology company. Within roughly a year decided we had the chops and the grit to build something ourselves. 

We specifically decided to work with small business owners, makers and brands for a few different reasons. Alana used to run her own Etsy shop in college, Ali worked at a retail store and various restaurants from a young age, and both of our parents are entrepreneurs. We also bonded over going to little boutiques and pop-up markets all over Brooklyn together and were immediately drawn to the hustle and passion we saw in the makers who sold in those formats and made products they were really proud of. 

We both see it as an honor and a privilege to support our small business customers, and we feel like we really understand their pain points and goals because of our family histories, personal work experiences and our long-time, shared obsession with indie brands and makers who are living and building their dream every day.

 

Q: What issues did you see in the wholesale marketplace before you started your company?

Before launching our wholesale marketplace in late 2019, we spent a few years running physical retail stores coupled with an online e-commerce shop and ran various pop-up markets all over New York City. It became really obvious that both retailers and brands needed a modern, affordable, and digital way to connect and transact with each other. 

As buyers for our own store, we were really frustrated by how disjointed the brand discovery and order management process was. To source inventory, our team had to go to 3-day trade shows, visit dozens of showrooms on a regular basis and parse through endless line sheets on enterprise order management platforms. We felt like there simply had to be a more streamlined and simple way to discover new great brands and order inventory to our stores and fulfillment center. 

For brands, we knew how insanely expensive it was to showcase at those shows or join those showrooms, and how desperate they were for a more seamless and cost-effective way to get in front of retailers and sell their products wholesale. This came up again and again in casual user conversations, and because we’ve developed so many intimate and close relationships with our brand community, we became familiar with this problem pretty early on. We wanted to create an always-on, low-fee digital tradeshow where brands could connect with and sell to retailers just as easily as they launch a Shopify site or Instagram account. 

 

Q: In the first eight months of 2021, only 2.2 percent of venture capital was invested in female-only founded companies. Do you feel welcome and accepted as an underrepresented group in the VC space?

We are very aware that we are underrepresented given the statistics you’ve shared here and based on our own personal experience, but on the whole, we’ve had a pretty positive experience meeting with, pitching and working with VCs. 

We did Y Combinator back in 2017 which was definitely instrumental in getting us into the VC ecosystem and setting us up for successful conversations and relationships with investors. Their network is massive and they do an incredible job of helping you refine your pitch, refine your product, and connect you with relevant investors and strategic partners. Of course, there have been instances where we’ve experienced outsized skepticism or have been asked questions that hint at a certain degree of biased or gendered thinking, but we’ve always prioritized growing the business, making money for our customers, and knowing our business inside and out. 

So when we face that gendered thinking or confront those biases, we can push back or continue the conversation armed with the data we need to come out on top. We feel we can enter conversations or investor relationships from a position of strength because we have the conviction that what we’re building is valuable, and poised to become even more so. 

 

Q: What is your advice for other entrepreneurs trying to scale their own company?

Scaling is, in essence, the process of building an iterative, self-sustaining machine filled with organic growth loops and paid accelerants that get you more customers, more sales, and more traction. Our biggest piece of advice would be to focus equally on both sales and product. You cannot effectively sell or go to market with a product that doesn’t deliver on its basic promise, and you can’t scale a product without sales as an accelerant. 

Our backgrounds are in marketing, growth and sales, so the sales side of scaling has always been more straightforward for us. But building and growing a two-sided marketplace with competitive supply and demand — both of whom can and do use other tools to power their businesses — meant we had to recruit a best-in-class product and engineering team to help “let” our product scale itself. Built-in growth loops are essential for scaling efficiently and affordably: launch referral and affiliate widgets and programs, workshop smart incentives that get your users sharing and recommending your product, and work toward automating as much of your growth as you can.

 

Q: What challenge are you most proud of overcoming in your career?

Pivoting our company from a brick-and-mortar-based retail concept to a software business was undeniably challenging, but I think it speaks to our grit and conviction as founders. We had to shut down our stores while building and launching our wholesale marketplace, completely restructure the team and craft an entirely new go-to-market in a very short and urgent timeframe, and it definitely wore on us personally and mentally. We both felt the impossible weight of that challenge but have emerged stronger than ever, and more proud of ourselves than we ever thought possible. Pivoting is extremely emotionally taxing and it can really mess with your sense of stability and certainty, so overcoming that headspace and pushing forward was a challenge, but getting through to the other side was truly one of the most rewarding parts of this journey to date.

 

Q: What’s your take on the future of retail?

Virtual marketplaces will continue to gain market share in 2022, and our bet is that the explosive growth of newer e-commerce retailers and social sellers will be the main driver.  Newer retailers like those launching TikTok storefronts via Shopify, or live selling through apps like Popshop Live, are already using out-of-the-box commerce enablement tools like Shopify, Stripe, ShipBob, etc. They are not a typical “merchant”.  They don’t have a corporate or brick-and-mortar buying background as so many of our more traditional and experienced retailers do, so they may need more help sourcing and picking the right products for their audience. 

If you believe that e-commerce and social selling is going to continue to cannibalize in-person sales over time (while 90% of shopping is still done in stores, this ratio is quickly changing as people, especially young people’s, shopping habits change — 67% of Gen Z purchases are done online), then virtual marketplaces are not only here to stay, but poised to rapidly scale in adoption, too. 

Bulletin plans to continue leading in this space by focusing on the “right” supply for this new class of retailer, investing in more tools like our discovery feed and direct messaging that support brand and retailer relationships and partnerships – not just transactions, and launching new features and integrations that better enable and empower the e-commerce and social sellers on our platform.

 

Q: What qualities do you possess that you think have contributed most to your success?

I think the fact that we are both customer-obsessed and are truly passionate about helping this small business customer has been the main quality that’s gotten us through challenging sprints like the pandemic, pivots, and the overall rollercoaster of building a company from scratch. Whenever things get hard, we’re able to zero in on why we’re doing this, who we are helping, and the fact that we’re helping entrepreneurs like us build the businesses of their dreams. Having real empathy and die-hard support for your customer is a quality that can’t be faked or replaced.

Beyond that, we’re both extremely resilient, hard-working, and committed to follow-through. As leaders, we’re also able to effectively instill those values in our team so these qualities can trickle down and permeate all aspects of the organization. We don’t take “no” for an answer – it’s always a “not yet.” We don’t get dissuaded or discouraged by setbacks or chaos – we love to problem solve and see every setback as a puzzle we have to crack. And we bring empathy and thoughtfulness to all of our customer and employee interactions as best we can.