How Co-Founders Without Tech Backgrounds Built an Enormously Successful Custom Platform
Alana Branston and Ali Kriegsman didn't have tech backgrounds when they launched Bulletin, now a wholesale marketplace home to thousands of brands and retailers, but they shared a passion for independent brands and the world of content marketing, which helped fuel their company's 30% month-over-month organic growth last year.
Today, plugged-in retailers and brands are likely familiar with Bulletin: the beautifully curated wholesale marketplace featuring the hottest brands in clothing, handbags, beauty, jewelry, lifestyle and more. Bulletin’s brands offer everything from CBD sleep gummies to playful fashion pieces; it makes it easier than ever before for retailers to discover and stock quality products, and for digitally native brands to gain essential real-world exposure.
It all started when co-founders Alana Branston and Ali Kriegsman met as deskmates at Contently and discovered they had a lot in common: Branston, a sales executive, and Kriegsman, a sales strategist, both came from families who’d run small businesses, and they both had a passion for independent brands, inspired by the world of content marketing and the relationship between content and commerce. Soon, they were spending their weekends together, scouring Brooklyn pop-up and flea markets for the latest in exciting brands.
“There were so many of these cool emerging brands we were seeing out in the world,” Kriegsman says, “but we were like, ‘How would we discover them online?’ They were on Etsy, but they were getting drowned out by all of these other sellers. They existed on Shopify, but Shopify didn’t yet have its consumer-facing marketplace, the shop app. So we felt there needed to be a better way, an easier way to discover these incredible small businesses and emerging indie brands.”
"It was absolutely exhausting, but it was a great way for brands to get exposure"
This question of exposure compelled them to launch Bulletin, a newsletter that highlighted quality female-founded and non-binary-founded brands. Branston was the CEO, and Kriegsman was the editor-in-chief. “I was interviewing all the brands, writing all of the stories and doing all the interviews and content creation,” Kriegsman says. “And it was like all jerry-rigged through this first base site. That was a side project that we worked on for a little over a year.”
It wasn’t long before the Bulletin founders decided to take things up a notch. “We started to do pop-up markets with the brands that were featured in the newsletter,” Branston says. “This would be mainly in Williamsburg, where we’d have approximately 50 brands a weekend. We had food trucks too. We did that for a while. It was absolutely exhausting, but it was a really great way for brands to get exposure, and it helped us start to make revenue for the first time.”
By the end of 2016, Branston and Kriegsman had set their sights on scaling the business. “We opened our first store in Williamsburg in 2016 with this kind of WeWork-for-retail concept, where brands would pay a monthly membership fee to get access to the stores,” Branston says.
Then, the co-founders scaled that concept again — adding Nolita and Union Square locations within a year and a half. Eventually, Bulletin was carrying over 150 brands across all three of its stores; the company had also raised venture funding at that point. By 2019, Bulletin had 3,000 brands on its waiting list, so Branston and Kriegsman created the wholesale marketplace to expand their community of brands and address the growing demand.
"So much of building a business is raising your hand and asking for help"
At the time, Branston and Kriegsman envisioned the wholesale marketplace as an exciting complement to the stores, and they planned to continue scaling both. Soon, though, it became clear that the wholesale marketplace provided the greatest opportunity for growth. “The [wholesale marketplace] sales just completely exploded,” Branston says. “Within two months, they overtook the amount of sales that we were doing across the three stores.” Bulletin completely shifted its focus to the wholesale marketplace, and the company’s last physical storefront closed in January of 2020.
Bulletin’s enormously successful wholesale marketplace is a high-tech product built on a proprietary, custom platform, which isn’t supported by any out-of-the-box solution. Neither Branston nor Kriegsman had technical backgrounds prior to the marketplace’s launch; in the early days, they turned to ready-made platforms to test different concepts and growth tactics. So, when it came to building their own platform for Bulletin, Branston and Kriegsman turned to the experts. “We started off with an advisor from Stitch Fix,” Branston says, “who helped us hire an engineering team and product team. Now, a year and half later, we have a head of engineering who came from one of the leading wholesale platforms. We have engineers from Zola.”
Branston and Kriegsman hope to see more non-technical entrepreneurs feel empowered to follow their dreams. “I think a lot of people, women especially, feel boxed out of certain prospects because there’s a lot of messaging out there saying you have to be a technical founder or engineer to build this kind of system,” Kriegsman says. “But so much of building a successful business is raising your hand and asking for help.”
"Bulletin was there to pick up the pieces and help these buyers and sellers continue to do business together"
Without question, the duo’s willingness to ask for help and acquire a team of experts has contributed to Bulletin’s explosive success. That, and the company’s fortuitous decision to pivot exclusively online only months before the pandemic took hold, set it up for massive growth — 30% month over month last year — without any paid marketing. “I think that 30% month-over-month metric can be attributed to the fact that there were very few players ready to fill in the gaps of trade shows and showrooms and wholesale reps going out of business for over a year,” Kriegsman says.
“Bulletin was there to pick up the pieces and help these buyers and sellers continue to do business together,” Kriegsman continues. “Right now, I think we’re only just scratching the surface of the future of wholesale retail and retail tech. I think there is going to be a massive boom in business for online marketplaces as brands and retailers continue to reassess the significance of trade shows. I think there will be a type of trade show that emerges where it's less about posting all of your products and paying tens of thousands of dollars for a booth, and more about relationship building and connection.”
Those relationships and connections have already contributed to Bulletin’s standout performance. “Most of that growth has come from word of mouth, where it's brands referring existing retailers, retailers referring other retailers,” Branston says. “Again, that goes back to this whole idea of building a true small-business community where these brands and retailers not only love Bulletin, but they also want to be inviting their peers onto the marketplace as well.”
Accelerated by retail’s increasingly digital shift and the rise of social shopping, Bulletin’s explosive growth shows no signs of slowing down. At the time of this interview in June, Bulletin had nearly 1,600 brands and almost 11,000 retailers. “By the time this gets published, maybe we’ll have 2,000 brands and 20,000 retailers,” Kriegsman says. “Because we turned on all of our paid-acquisition channels this year, it's really going gangbusters.”