The direct-to-consumer phenomenon has seen a wave of startups reimagine virtually every category of consumer goods, from eyeglasses to toothbrushes to suitcases. Whatever the product, there’s an entrepreneur looking to cut out middlemen and disrupt it. For husband-and-wife duo Caleb and Natalie Ebel, the product was paint. When setting out to paint their newborn’s nursery a simple shade of white, the couple was struck by the complex purchasing process: multiple trips to a hardware store and a clunky, elaborate interaction with a category that hadn’t seen serious challenges to its business model in decades.
“What we started seeing is the paint industry is a handful of very large, very old manufacturing companies. They’ve been doing the same things for a very long time, and a lot of the choices that they’ve made over many decades have accumulated to become the baggage around the customer’s neck,” Caleb Ebel tells host Dennis Scully on the latest episode of The Business of Home Podcast. “What we saw was [that] there was no brand affinity, especially among a younger cohort, and so we saw a real opportunity that if you took this down to first principles, and you were starting from scratch serving a consumer in a new way, you’d do things very differently.”
In broad strokes, Backdrop is a classic direct-to-consumer play. In the specifics, the brand is unique. The Ebels made a point of choosing color names designed to appeal to a clued-in millennial audience (the names of various hues reference a hipster neighborhood in Los Angeles, Radiohead’s first album and Mexican architect Luis Barragán). They also chose unorthodox brand collaborations—including partnerships with Dunkin’ Donuts and Madewell—as a way to draw attention to the burgeoning startup. Their M.O.: Favor the new and surprising.
“When we started to think about selling paint online, everyone [told] us we’re crazy. ‘Your monitor is different, no one’s going to buy color online,’” says Natalie Ebel. “I was like, That’s not true. Beauty is sold online. Beauty is the industry we did look at for a lot of inspiration, and there are a lot of parallels. If people feel confident enough online to buy lipstick, foundation [and] blush, why can’t they feel confident enough to buy paint?”
Another unlikely left turn: The Ebels announced late last year that Backdrop had been acquired, not by a legacy player or private equity, but by the parent company of heritage fabric brand Schumacher. Partnership between a buzzy startup and a 100-year-old company is surprising, but the Ebels wouldn’t have it any other way. It’s allowed them access to sophisticated production processes for a new wallcoverings line, as well as reaching a trade audience where they hope to eventually make a significant chunk of their business.
Elsewhere in the podcast, the Ebels discuss what millennial consumers—and millennial designers—really want, how to handle customer service when orders come through Instagram DMs, and why they think pricing clarity is here to stay. “The momentum is towards transparency, and I think it’s to everyone’s net benefit at the end of the day,” says Caleb.
Homepage photo: Courtesy of Backdrop