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GR0-Up: Founders on Humanizing Startup Culture in Tech
It’s one thing to say that a company shares abstract values like “openness” or “transparency,” with the goal of fostering a safe environment that encourages creativity and collaboration. It’s intuitive that people who feel confident in sharing their thoughts and ideas with one another will prove more adept at problem-solving and devising innovative plans and solutions. But creating this kind of workplace isn’t as simple as tossing around buzzwords or sending out an email encouraging people to communicate more.
Many strategies can help leaders to foster greater workplace transparency and open communication, from having well-defined roles within the organizations to avoiding micromanaging, but one theme that comes up repeatedly when researching techniques and best practices is honesty. Clear, straight-forward communication goes a long way, but some founders have discovered that truly peeling back the curtain – and sharing with their employees not just their plans and goals but who they are as people – can potentially produce even more fruitful results.
Kevin Miller and Jonathan Zacharias, co-founders of the Los Angeles-based digital marketing agency GR0, opted to share an aspect of their personal lives with employees that many others in the business world might have been tempted to keep to themselves: their journey to sobriety.
“We decided to open up to our staff about our sobriety because we felt it had become a fundamental part of who we had become as people, not just business leaders,” Miller explained. “We felt that if we could be vulnerable ourselves and explain our triumphs over a hardship in life, that it would make our employees feel comfortable coming to us in their time of need, if and when it arrives… It is a core foundation of our culture of openness, honesty, and being direct."
Miller and Zacharias did share some initial concerns about how much sharing was appropriate in a company-wide context, but ultimately felt like – with all the modern and progressive changes coming to workplaces – the net benefit to the staff outweighed any disadvantages.
The pair discovered that their fears had been unfounded, as their staff rallied around them following their decision.
“The staff was surprised at the level of vulnerability we showed but was extremely supportive and many people did reach out and continue to reach out to express their support,” Miller said. “We even have some employees who are also sober from drugs and alcohol and we hope they get inspiration from us just as we get inspiration from them.”
Over time, Miller and Zacharias’ choice to bring employees into their personal lives has had residual benefits for the company and their office culture.
“The biggest benefit to having these discussions with our colleagues is that it opened the door for candid, honest and vulnerable conversations amongst employees and their managers,” Miller explained. “The result is that we have a window into the personal lives of our employees that I feel most employers do not because we have made these discussions in the workplace safe, supported and welcomed. We have financial resources, tools and programs at our disposal that can aid employees in virtually anything they are going through on a personal or professional level. We take pride in doing this.”
GR0 has also explored parallel policies beyond simply interpersonal sharing, as part of an overall effort to create a more positive and communicative environment. Miller highlighted the company’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) committee, for which employees can volunteer and raise their own ideas for increasing visibility at GR0, as well as their open and flexible Paid Time Off policy, encouraging employees to pursue self-care and maintain a sustainable work-life balance.
While every company and founder is different, and not every approach is going to be ideal or one-size-fits-all for every tech organization, the lessons learned by GR0 and its founders have wide-ranging applications. Thinking about ways to put staffers at ease, to make them feel accepted and listened to, even when they're going through personal upheavals or crises unrelated to work, not only benefits them as individuals, but fosters a more effective and even productive corporate culture.
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In Los Angeles—like the startup environment at large—venture funding and valuations skyrocketed in 2021, even as the coronavirus pandemic continued to surge and supply chain issues rattled the economy. The result was a startup ecosystem that continued to build on its momentum, with no shortage of companies raising private capital at billion-dollar-plus unicorn valuations.
In order to gauge the local startup scene and who’s leading the proverbial pack, we asked more than 30 leading L.A.-based investors for their take on the hottest firms in the region. They responded with more than two dozen venture-backed companies; three startups, in particular, rose above the rest as repeat nominees, while we've organized the rest by their amount of capital raised as of January, according to data from PitchBook. (We also asked VCs not to pick any of their own portfolio companies, and vetted the list to ensure they stuck to that rule.)
Without further ado, here are the 26 L.A. startups that VCs have their eyes on in 2022.
Whatnot was the name most often on the minds of L.A. venture investors—understandably, given its prolific fundraising year. Whatnot raised some $220 million across three separate funding rounds in 2021, on the way to a $1.5 billion valuation.
The Marina del Rey-based livestream shopping platform was founded by former GOAT product manager Logan Head and ex-Googler Grant LaFontaine. The startup made its name by providing a live auction platform for buying and selling collectables like rare Pokémon cards, and has since expanded into sports memorabilia, sneakers and apparel.
Boulevard’s backers include Santa Monica-based early-stage VC firm Bonfire Ventures, which focuses on B2B software startups. The Downtown-based company fits nicely within that thesis; Boulevard builds booking and payment software for salons and spas. The firm has worked with prominent brands such as Toni & Guy and HeyDay.
GOAT launched in 2015 as a marketplace to help sneakerheads authenticate used Air Jordans and other collectible shoes. It has since grown at a prolific rate, expanding into apparel and accessories and exceeding $2 billion in merchandise sales in 2020. The startup sealed a $195 million funding round last summer that more than doubled its valuation, to $3.7 billion.
The Best of the Rest
Nielsen competitor VideoAmp gathers data on who's watching what across streaming services, traditional TV and social apps like YouTube. The company positions itself as an alternative to so-called "legacy" systems like Nielsen, which it says are "fragmented, riddled with complexity and inaccurate." In addition to venture funding, its total funding figure includes more than $165 million in debt financing.
Seizing on the NFT craze, Mythical Games is building a platform that powers the growing realm of “play-to-earn games.” Backed by NBA legend Michael Jordan and Andreessen Horowitz, the Sherman Oaks-based startup’s partners include game publishers Abstraction, Creative Mobile and CCG Lab.
FloQast founder Michael Whitmire says he got a “no” from more than 100 investors in the process of raising a seed round. Today, the accounting software company is considered a unicorn.
Nacelle produces docuseries, books, comedy albums and podcasts. The media company’s efforts include the Netflix travel series “Down To Earth with Zac Efron.”
A platform for virtual concerts, Wave has hosted performances by artists including Justin Bieber, Tinashe and The Weeknd. The company says it has raised $66 million to date from the likes of Warner Music and Tencent.
Sherman Oaks-based Papaya looks to make it easier to pay “any” bill—from hospital bills to parking tickets—via its mobile app.
Based in Marina del Rey, LeaseLock says it’s on a mission to eliminate security deposits for apartment renters.
Emotive sells text message-focused marketing tools to ecommerce firms like underwear brand Parade and men's grooming company Beardbrand.
Based in Long Beach, Dray says its mission is to “modernize the logistics and trucking industry.” Its partners include Danish shipping company Maersk and toy maker Mattel.
Coco makes small pink robots on wheels (you may have seen them around town) that deliver food via a remote pilot. Its investors include Y Combinator and Silicon Valley Bank.
HiveWatch develops physical security software. Its investors include former Twitter executive Dick Costollo and NBA star Steph Curry’s Penny Jar Capital.
Whatnot competitor Popshop is betting that live-shopping is the future of ecommerce. The West Hollywood-based firm focuses on collectables such as trading cards and anime merchandise.
Founded by former SpaceX engineer Karan Talati, First Resonance runs a software platform for makers of electric cars and aerospace technology. Its clients include Santa Cruz-based air taxi company Joby Aviation and Alameda-based rocket company Astra.
Founded by Crowdstrike and Microsoft alums, Open Raven aims to protect user data. The cybersecurity firm’s investors include Kleiner Perkins and Upfront Ventures.
When an actor faces the camera and speaks directly to the audience, it’s known as “breaking the fourth wall.” Named after the trope, Venice-based Fourthwall offers a website builder that’s designed for content creators.
The Non Fungible Token Company creates NFTs for musicians under the name Unblocked. Its investors include Jay Z’s Marcy Venture Partners and Shawn Mendez.
Backed by Mayo Clinic Ventures, Safe Health develops telehealth software and offers tools for enterprises to launch their own health care apps.
Intro’s app lets you book video calls with experts—from celebrity stylists, to astrologists, to investors.
With the tagline “Land the package, not the plane,” DASH Systems is a Hawthorne-based shipping company that builds hardware and software for automated airdrops.
With a focus on sustainability, Ettitude is a direct-to-consumer brand that sells bedding, bathroom textiles and sleepwear.
Along similar lines as Unblocked, Afterparty creates NFTs for artists and content creators such as Clay Perry and Tropix.
Heart to Heart is an audio-focused dating app that “lets you listen to the story behind the pictures in a profile.” Precursor Ventures led the pre-seed funding round.
Frigg makes hair and beauty products that contain cannabinoids such as CBD. The Valley Village-based company raised an undisclosed seed round in August.
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Starting today, Glendale’s most meme-able outdoor mall, The Americana at Brand, will be home to the Amazon Style store—the ecommerce giant’s first foray into brick-and-mortar apparel retail. We got an early sneak peak inside the new digs (located on the corner with Sprinkles Cupcakes, next to H&M and the Apple store) and were able to try out some of its tech-enabled features, which—as ever with Amazon—seek to make the act of shopping as easy as possible.
1. It’s Bigger Than It Looks—Even From the Inside
The floor is massive—laying out original products from Amazon’s own apparel lines alongside name brands like Theory, Adidas and Calvin Klein, as well as several other lines that have up until now only existed online. But the actual store is much larger than the two floors that most customers will only ever see.
Amazon Style is just the front—the homepage, if you will—behind which a large warehouse facility keeps a gigantic surplus of inventory. A floor-to-ceiling glass window on the main floor gives shoppers just a peak behind the scenes, as employees help load industrial-sized elevators with racks of goods to send upstairs to the dressing rooms.
2. Online Shopping IRL
When perusing the store’s bouquet of cottagecore maxi dresses, Kendall & Kylie blazers and, yes, a whole section dedicated to Y2K apparel, one doesn’t just pick an item off the rack and take it with you while you shop. Instead, each rack has a barcode that you can scan via the Amazon Shopping app, which has your sizes pre-loaded from previous purchases. (You can opt for a different size if you choose.) That cues an AI-enabled algorithm to start searching through the store’s warehoused catalog and zip the desired item over to the second floor, where the dressing room provides its own glimpse into the future of shopping.
The store also boasts a version of The Drop, an Amazon staple that allows online customers to shop entire influencer-curated collections for a 30-hour flash window.
3. Changing Stations of the Future—Today
Your phone also acts as your keycard to get into your personal dressing room. To prevent waiting, you are put in a virtual cue the moment you scan your first item; should the Amazon app prompt that your room is ready while you’re still shopping, a tap of your screen allows you to hold your spot in the queue while freeing up the room for someone else. (And if your phone dies while you’re waiting, Amazon says a Style employee on the floor will be happy to help you keep your place in line, or hook you up with a charge.)
Amazon Style’s dressing rooms offer a tech-enabled twist to trying on clothes.Image by Joshua Letona
The changing room is like its own parlor trick. Designed to look like a walk-in closet, one wall has a full-length mirror and a giant touchscreen while another has all the clothes you scanned in your style and size preference. Expect to see a few surprises in there, as Amazon’s algorithm picks out other stuff you might want to try on based on your picks. It would be spooky if it wasn’t so convenient—an IRL mashup of the online retailer’s “Recommended Based on Your Purchases” and “Frequently Bought Together” features.
If an item doesn’t fit quite right or you want to see how a skirt looks in blue instead of black, just tap the touchscreen to request a variant. Or an entirely new outfit, as the screen makes available everything in the facility. Then just bring it down to checkout—perhaps the wildest part of this ride.
4. Palming the Bucks
Checking out of Amazon Style’s flagship store is what really blew my mind—although apparently it’s because I haven’t been to one of the Amazon Go, Amazon Fresh or Whole Foods locations where cashless checkouts have been an option in select stores since 2020.
I assumed you could just walk out the door with your purchase, because I watch "Saturday Night Live" sketches for news. While the Go payment option isn't available at Amazon Style, there are several checkout options to keep the experience as frictionless and non-cumbersome as possible.
One way is to take the clothes you want out of the dressing room and go directly to Amazon’s palm-enabled checkout kiosks. That’s right: Register on the spot for an Amazon One account, and you need merely to wave your hand over a little black device that reads your palm and charges your on-file payment method. It’s super convenient for everyone except $10 boardwalk psychics, who just may be put out of business by such technology.
For the more traditional set, you still have the option of paying via credit card or cash.
Shoppers can check out of Amazon Style with the wave of a palm. Image by Joshua Letona
5. Supply & Demand & Return
Amazon Style’s brick-and-mortar location opens up a variety of new ways to shop, return and exchange clothing. For instance, you can order a load of clothes online and pick them up in the store; anything you don’t want can be returned in the store without you ever having to print a shipping label.
See something you like but don’t have time to try it on? Just scan the barcode, pick it up at the front of the store and pay on your way out without ever going into a dressing room.
The Amazon Shopping app also boasts a Deals feature, which automatically sorts for the best price on items to help customers either save money (or believe they are).
While Glendale is home to the only Style store so far, Amazon isn’t ruling out more locations. With fewer retailers able to afford rents on America’s main strips and shopping malls, Amazon’s resources—and its unique position at the intersection of tech and retail—make it easy to envision more Style stores on the horizon.
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Drew Grant is dot.LA's Senior Editor. She's a media veteran with over 15-plus years covering entertainment and local journalism. During her tenure at The New York Observer, she founded one of their most popular verticals, tvDownload, and transitioned from generalist to Senior Editor of Entertainment and Culture, overseeing a freelance contributor network and ushering in the paper's redesign. More recently, she was Senior Editor of Special Projects at Collider, a writer for RottenTomatoes streaming series on Peacock and a consulting editor at RealClearLife, Ranker and GritDaily. You can find her across all social media platforms as @Videodrew and send tips to email@example.com.