Erin Banta and Kelsey Brown met on their first day of class as students at Columbia Business School in New York City. Kelsey says, “We both had backgrounds in retail and were neighbors in the West Village. Through our long commutes and many trips abroad, we realized how much we had in common and quickly became friends.” That friendship – and the struggles of outfitting their West Village rentals – led them to start Pepper, a direct to consumer home accessories brand that currently includes pillows, throws, and table linens with more products in their design pipeline (including curtains!) Today, we talked to Erin and Kelsey to learn more their company and the lessons they’ve learn in business and friendship along the way.
What inspired you to start Pepper?
Erin: We were inspired to start Pepper because of our personal experiences as frustrated consumers. As West Village renters, we bonded over how hard it was to find the right decor for our small, temporary spaces. We have always been huge admirers of interior designer Kit Kemp and her use of pattern and color. However, the reality was that we both had grey/brown couches that we couldn’t afford to replace and we couldn’t justify hiring designers for a space that we’d leave in a couple of years.
As we considered how we would solve our decorating challenges, we thought about the way we dress. Like many others, we often throw on a pair of fun shoes or statement jewelry to make our basic jeans and t-shirt really shine. This led us to the realization that we needed to focus on home accents with color and pattern that are strong enough to bring our couches and dining tables to life and revamp the space. So we set out on a mission to create home accessories that can transform a room without the cumbersome and expensive process of buying new furniture. That’s why our brand motto is “a little design goes a long way.”
What makes Pepper unique?
Kelsey: We make designer-quality textiles accessible and easy to use. Through competitive prices and designer-approved product bundles, we eliminate the intimidation that most customers encounter when styling their space. As consumers who love pattern and color, we have always found the best design options at small batch textile brands. However, these options–whether finished goods or fabric by the yard–were always way too expensive for us to justify (think at least $250 for a pillow). This inspired us to identify supply chain efficiencies that would enable us to offer product characterized by high caliber, chic patterns at accessible price points.
Through extensive researchwe found that, aside from price, the process of pulling the product together was what intimidated people most (especially when these products aren’t beige basics). That’s what prompted us to offer bundles in addition to our stand-alone product. These pre-assorted product combinations allow us to do the heavy lifting for our customers so that they can be confident in their choices and get comfortable with the bolder decor options they have always craved.
What has been like starting a business with a friend?
Erin: Anyone who has gone through the experience of starting a business with a close friend will tell you that it really tests the relationship. In addition to the stresses associated with launching Pepper, we also had to balance major events in our personal lives as well. In the months leading up to the official launch of Pepper, Kelsey got married and I had my first child!
I am really proud of our ability to genuinely be there for each other during major life events despite all the insanity we were managing on the work front. Kelsey even found the time to create the most thoughtful baby shower gift for me. She took the motifs from our Balzary pattern and blew them up into framed prints that matched the blue shades in my nursery. Best gift ever!
How do you divide up decision making and responsibilities?
Erin: We are such great business partners because of our complementary skill sets. I handle our marketing efforts and manage our finances. Kelsey oversees our operations, which includes everything from developing our website to managing our factories and warehouses. We are both involved in all of the branding and design decisions.
What is one thing you most admire in your co-founder?
Erin: Starting a business is hard and it’s easy for a business relationship to get in the way of personal friendship. What I love most about Kelsey is that she has remained a really supportive and wonderful friend while also being an unbelievably effective business partner. Kelsey is a problem solver and never wastes time stressing over an issue—she just gets right to fixing it!
Kelsey: Finding the right business partner is like finding the perfect spouse and I am so lucky to have Erin. I love that she is such a straight-shooter, brutally honest and at the same time, she is warm and encouraging. When there are only two of you making important decisions and going through the rollercoaster of starting a business, you need someone that can push back while also be your biggest supporter.
See some of Erin and Kelsey’s creations in the slideshow!