Nicole Gibbons has been carefully planning the launch of her business for the past decade now — making sure each career step taken along the way would bolster her future and embolden her expertise. With a resounding debut last month, it’s easy to assume her new paint brand, Clare, is an overnight success; but the meticulous variables around building a paint company and the capital needed to do so confirm Nicole’s path to founding Clare was anything but.
Nicole‘s experience is a perfect melange of all the tools needed to arrive at this point: she spent nearly a decade as Global Director of PR and Events for Victoria’s Secret, and thus refining skills needed to best package and sell a product through various channels. While working that job she planned and eventually made her transition into interior design, where she brought her expertise to platforms like HGTV, OWN, The Oprah Winfrey Network, TLC, and in publications like Elle Decor and Better Homes & Gardens. Always championing her grasp of color and its power to change a space, Nicole was also gathering intel from her clients and friends — she listened to their design pitfalls, their paint snafus, and their frustration with an over-saturated paint industry. “To be successful as an entrepreneur you have to be comfortable taking risks, because you never truly know how things will pan out, and for me, it’s always been about calculated risks,” she tells us.
Nicole raised $2 million in about two months, and drew inspiration from business models similar to Warby Parker and Casper. “I was inspired by how they built their business,” Nicole says. “I love how they created a fresh new model for selling a product in categories that have seen little innovation, and how they took a miserable customer journey and created a much better experience for their customers.” She founded Clare (from the Latin word “clarus,” meaning “clear, bright, shining and brilliant to the sight”) to simplify the paint-buying process in a modern world. No, we don’t need to throw 10 globs of paint onto our wall to figure out what color to buy, trek back to the store, order a bigger can of the color we want, and lug it back home. Clare, much like the Warby Parker model, sends customers peel-and-stick paint swatches that can be stuck to your wall to determine your best color and are easy to remove. If you can’t even arrive to that point on your own because you’re so stuck on color, Clare’s Color Genius technology will ask you a series of questions about your paint project to help you arrive at the right hue. This idea, along with a curated 55-color palette of paints to choose from (and painting tools), comes from Nicole’s tried and true experience in the design world.
“I noticed how those who had help from a friend who was a designer or who were fortunate enough to hire one, never really had a big issue [with painting],” she beings. “But those who were left to figure it out on their own really struggled with picking a paint color and had a miserable experience. People would share horror stories of how they took a gazillion trips back and forth to Home Depot, tested a bunch of colors and often still hated the outcome. And eventually I had the lightbulb moment… shopping for paint sucks!”
Today we’re thrilled to be speaking with Nicole about her journey to founding Clare, the lessons she’s learned along the way, naming her gorgeous line of paint colors, and more. —Kelli
All photography courtesy of Clare
Your business journey is one of thoughtful and practical transitioning - from managing PR for a major company, to interior design, and now to founding Clare. What signs did you pick up along the way that encouraged you to take the next step?
I always knew I wanted to build a brand and every step in my journey involved a ton of preparation and planning. To be successful as an entrepreneur you have to be comfortable taking risks, because you never truly know how things will pan out, and for me, it’s always been about calculated risks. When I left my day job, I had a plan for how I was going to build my business. And when I made the decision to stop operating my design business to build Clare, I also had a very thoughtful plan in place and felt confident it would work. I never made a big career move without a thoughtful, strategic plan and without having a high level of confidence in what I’m building. That confidence is what enabled me to take each next step.
Image above: Clare paint in “Big Apple”
What would you have done differently? How did each previous career step inform the future step?
I honestly wouldn’t have done anything differently. I believe everything happened in perfect timing and each step in my career progression led to the next in a very organic way. When I was working in PR, I was hustling behind the scenes, working on my blog, taking on any small design project I could, and trying to build my brand and took the leap when I felt ready. When I was running my design firm, I spent a ton of time thinking about how I could leverage my experiences and personal brand to create physical products. And with a decade-long career in PR, pitching and compelling storytelling became second nature so that experience prepared me well for fundraising, hiring, and basically getting everyone involved fully invested in your mission. Most people see a new project, like the launch of Clare and perceive overnight success, because they don’t get to see all that goes into it, but truth be told, I’ve been planting these seeds for a decade.
Image above: Clare paint color “Rosé Season”
At what point in your interior design career did you become intrigued by paint, or was there a lightbulb moment when you realized you could streamline and modernize the paint-buying process?
I’ve always loved using color in fresh ways in my design projects. A vibrant dose of color always brings such energy into a space. I’ve also always recognized that paint and color was the easiest and least expensive way to transform a room and over the years, I noticed a pattern when I would talk to people about their experience shopping for paint. I noticed how those who had help from a friend who was a designer or who were fortunate enough to hire one, never really had a big issue. But those who were left to figure it out on their own really struggled with picking a paint color and had a miserable experience. People would share horror stories of how they took a gazillion trips back and forth to Home Depot, tested a bunch of colors and often still hated the outcome. And eventually I had the lightbulb moment… shopping for paint sucks! I started to reimagine what a better paint shopping experience could look like. A secret most people don’t know is that designers aren’t choosing from thousands of colors. We edit our favorites and have a go-to roster of colors that we’ve tried, tested and love.
Bringing that same, curated, designer-led approach to the paint buying process was one obvious way I could improve the experience for everyone.
What's a typical day like for you?
The fun thing about startup life is that there’s no such thing as a typical day. In the early stages of a company like Clare you wear many hats and there is always more to do than hours available in the day. I spend a lot of time recruiting talent and just being available to my team. I’m often in meetings with new business partners, sometimes I travel to visit vendors or our warehouse. Some days I’m catching up with my investors or am meeting with other founders to talk shop and share experiences. My calendar is usually jam-packed from morning until night and I’m lucky if I have free time to eat lunch. Some days are super intense and exhausting but I’ve never loved coming to work more than I do now.
Image above: Clare paint color “Sublime”
Take us through the troubleshooting process of creating a company like Clare. From paint colors, to the final finishes, to the tools you provide - that's a lot of variables to test and figure out. What lessons did you learn?
There are a lot of moving parts to building a company like Clare. You have to figure out everything from supply chain and manufacturing to building a reliable financial model to branding, packaging, marketing, recruiting talent… and everything in between. Raising capital was also a significant step in getting to market because manufacturing physical products is capital intensive. Paint is also not the kind of product you can launch from your living room. I’ve certainly learned a lot throughout this journey. I never went to business school and running a small business like my design firm, while valuable experience, is much different than being the CEO of a high-growth company. The entire experience has been a crash course in the world of venture, startups and building a CPG company.
What are the kind of personality traits you gravitate towards when it comes to building a team of people who you can trust and who will help carry forth your vision?
I look for leaders who are really driven and invested in the mission of the company. I knew initially I’d be launching with a very small team and as a solo-founder, I’m constantly pulled in a million different directions. So I look for people who who can operate at a high level, know their function inside and out, can think strategically, wear many hats, solve problems and figure anything out and work really efficiently in a fast paced environment to get things done. I also look for people who are flexible, adaptable and can roll with the scrappy, and often ambiguous nature of an early stage startup. There are a lot of unknowns with an early stage startup so you really have to be comfortable with risk and ambiguity.
Image above: Clare paint in “Headspace”
What is the most essential piece of business advice you were given when you embarked on launching Clare?
Never waver in your vision and have 1000% confidence in what you are building.
Paint names: how did you choose them/come up with them? What's your favorite paint name?
Coming up with paint color names was so fun! Names from other paint companies always sound so boring so I saw this as an opportunity to really showcase the personality of the brand. Our names are really fun and come from unlikely sources of inspiration like by pop culture, and fashion. Naming colors was truly a team effort. We had numerous brainstorms to think through naming options and we were changing up names down to the very last deadline. In terms of a favorite, that’s like asking a parent to name their favorite child! I really love all of the colors and the names but a few highlights are Motor City (named after my hometown of Detroit), Nairobi Blue (named after Lupita Nyong’o’s iconic red carpet moment from the Oscars in 2014), Blue Ivy (because I’m obsessed with Beyoncé and Blue) and Avocado Toast, because avocado toast is the best!
Image above: Clare paint in “Good Jeans”
Do you have a memorable paint disaster or paint memory?
I’ll never forget painting my first post-college apartment. My roommate and I had the idea to paint our living room pink… this was way before millennial pink was ever even a thing. Also, I was definitely not an expert on color at that point. I didn’t realize how important understanding your lighting was. The space had no natural light, we chose an awful shade of pink and the room looked like Pepto-Bismol. Needless to say, we had to pick a new color and re-paint the room. There were many trips back and forth to the store and we were so over it in the end. This is the kind of story that inspired me to launch Clare!
Image above: Clare paint color “Greige”
Is there a paint color you want to bring back that might have a bad reputation?
I don’t think of colors as so trend-driven that they’d have a bad reputation. But I would love to see people being more adventurous and embracing color. People tend to play it safe and go with white or neutral, but vibrant color can really invigorate a room!
Most people […] perceive overnight success, because they don’t get to see all that goes into it, but truth be told, I’ve been planting these seeds for a decade.
We LOVE the peel-and-stick swatches - how did that idea come to fruition?
I realized that sampling colors was such a messy, multi-step process that required you to buy paint samples and tools and spend time and energy painting on your walls and waiting for it to dry. And I would see these products being sold in the big box stores that were sort of like stickers that you paint first and then place on your walls so you don’t have to paint the walls themselves. It was another added step and one more thing the customer had to buy. Having pre-painted swatches that you could simply peel and stick was an easy way to simplify the process.
Image above: Nicole Gibbons, Founder and CEO of Clare