As part of our interview series called “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became A Founder,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Brenton Howland.
Brenton Howland is the Founder and Co-CEO of Forum Brands, an e-commerce platform that leverages proprietary technology to acquire, accelerate, and globalize digital-first brands. Brenton started his career in management consulting at McKinsey & Company, where he focused on crafting and deploying growth strategies for the world’s largest consumer companies. His work included go-to-market and channel strategy, pricing, merchandising, business development and branding initiatives for leading Fortune 500 CPG & Retail businesses. Following McKinsey, Brenton joined the founding team at Cove Hill Partners, a $2.6 billion technology and consumer Private Equity fund with an innovative long-duration approach to building businesses over several decades. He holds a BA from Northwestern University and an MBA from the Stanford Graduate School of Business.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
It’s a pleasure to be taking part! I have had both a fascination with entrepreneurship and how the world’s best consumer businesses run from an early age, largely influenced by my grandfather. He dedicated his career to the U.S. Military, but his side hustle was investing. He taught me about the stock market, and because of him, I started investing at the age of seven in public companies that I knew and believed in. As I grew older, that fascination evolved into professional interests at the intersection of consumer and technology. After finishing school, I joined McKinsey as a management consultant, where I focused on applying digital innovation as a growth strategy for large scale companies. There I saw first hand the untapped potential in the nascent ecommerce ecosystem. After taking a leap into entrepreneurship in helping build Cove Hill Partners, one of the largest first-time private equity funds in decades, I was ready to strike out and build what today is Forum Brands.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?
In my view, the most important early element in any business is talent — more than the idea, competition, market opportunity, and anything else. This is a view that my co-founders Alex and Ruben shared deeply. We brought on a few junior level folks to support execution right at the outset, but in parallel focused an overwhelming majority of our time on talent strategy and recruiting.
Our first senior hire was hard. It’s that first domino to drop, where from there each incremental addition feels easier and easier. On paper, we couldn’t have had a stronger and more complementary background across CPG & ecommerce, technology, company building, and M&A. But at the same time, all we had to stand behind were our resumes, a very well thought out business plan, and some capital from early investors. So for an “A” quality senior candidate, why come join Forum Brands?
After a month or two of disappointing traction, we started to learn what works. Process, intellect, and traditional recruiting channels are all important ingredients, but pail in comparison to the execution and networking. We started to just build the business — showing new and existing relationships through each conversation the potential in our vision. And in a partnership conversation with Jon Derkits, a former leader within Amazon’s third-party marketplace team, we found our first senior hire. The dominoes fell from there.
Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
My persistent drive as a founder has come through both passion and accountability. I have worked in high-intensity environments where long hours were table stakes my entire career, so the startup grind was not a major shock. Even though my hours have stayed comparable, they feel different — easier — in this role.
Forum is the company I have wanted to build since I was a 21-year-old college senior. While in those days the vision was a little bit more opaque, my infatuation with the intersection of technology and the consumer economy was just as strong as it is today. I love what I do, and more importantly, love being around the people I have the privilege of working with. We have long weeks, but days that feel short and energizing.
The other important component is the responsibility I have signed up to take on in leading a large organization. Not only am I a fiduciary to investors who have entrusted me with their capital, but I am also accountable for the professional development and long-term career prospects of our employee base. It’s a responsibility that changes the mental model for when, why, and how you work. And while at times it can feel high-stakes, the trust that these groups have instilled in me and my co-founding group creates comfort in challenging times.
So, how are things going today? How did grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?
Forum has exceeded all of my expectations to date. We started fully operating at the outset of 2021 and since then have seen transformative growth. At over 60 world-class employees, $127 million in capital raised, and a deep bench of high-flying ecommerce brands, we have laid a foundation for what should be a tremendous year in 2022 for Forum Brands. Instilling a culture of grit and resilience that permeates our organization has been a huge driver of all the success to date, but is no less important now than it was for our small founding team of three.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
While this was less funny in the moment, we had a few early employees on our team that one day all collectively learned that our co-founding team of three was still wrapping up graduate school while dumping 80+ hours per week into the business. From the start, we were quite open with anyone who wanted to know what we were managing in parallel, but did not proactively bring up what for a few months was a constant juggling act!
Our program at Stanford had rolled out a required digital background as part of their new video conferencing software, and in transitioning from one virtual class to team-wide call, I had left my background on. It made for an awkward few minutes, but the big learning is that team members feed off of transparency and embrace humility. We had a good laugh minutes later, and from there continued to be proactive and celebratory of graduating with a prestigious degree and a burgeoning company already in growth mode.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Our business is unique in that it is in reality three companies in one: an operating company in ecommerce, an enterprise software company, and an M&A firm. Not only do all of these pieces actively coordinate and fit together, but they also have to scale in lockstep. This presents a challenge, but equally enables a dynamic and inspiring work environment.
Distinct and unique teams bring in a diverse group of individuals — all meeting the same bar for track record and talent — who come from all kinds of personal and professional walks of life. A recent example that showcased the power of this team diversity came in our Company Summit in October of 2021. One afternoon, groups were organized blending people from various functions on a scavenger hunt through NYC. The prompt in parallel was to discuss our company Principles and what they mean to each individual, followed by a company-wide presentation from one group representative. This built bonds that we have already seen translate into a more vibrant working environment and tangible business results!
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
Prioritize. This is a simple concept I preach constantly across our teams at Forum. I am a strong proponent of the 80/20 rule. I have seen throughout every one of my professional experiences (regardless of industry, function, or role) that one can drive 80% of insights with 20% of the work, meeting the bar required to make decisions and move work forward.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
I would point here to both of my grandfathers, who collectively taught me one very important lesson: professional success is largely determined by how you make others feel. Each man climbed to the top of their respective fields, but outside of the business world. One served as a lieutenant general the military, while the other had a long career leading churches and communities as a minister
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
We’re based in NYC and it was always important to me that we pour back into our local community. Forum is currently partnering with City Harvest, New York City’s largest food rescue organization, to feed more than 1.5 million New Yorkers who are struggling to put food on the table. We’ve donated 5-figure sums to this organization and many volunteer hours across our collective employee base to have a tangible impact on feeding hungry New Yorkers. Especially now with the colder weather and holidays coming up, we wanted to make sure we’re doing our part to give back.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started leading my company” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
1) Your earliest hires are your most important.
The story I shared earlier is a great example, but it’s just one of many. As an early founder, you rarely get a pass or second chance on a critical early hire. They grow as you grow, and when they fail, the company feels it acutely. While we have been fortunate to maintain an exceedingly high bar and get most hires right, it’s impossible to stay perfect. You might be able to cut corners on strategy or execution in other areas, but when it comes to talent, rigor must hold constant.
2) Sometimes the best solution to growing pains is accelerated growth.
I got some great advice about a year into building Forum: “small fires do not have to be put out, just keep building around them.” In the time that has followed, I have found that sometimes the only way out is through growth. We overthought far too many small problems early on in our company history.
3) Culture is hard to measure, but the business case for investing in your people is always worth it.
Followership is built on trust, compassion, and mutual respect. Individuals will run through walls for leaders who demonstrate a steadfast commitment to their professional development and well-being. It’s that simple. Frugality is well founded in lots of elements of a young business — but rarely if ever in talent and culture.
4) Establish a “North Star” that balances focus with flexibility.
Teams, especially those that grow rapidly, need to have a consistent understanding of what the company is marching towards and how their work fits into the plan. The unfortunate reality, however, is that plans change. A mission or “North Star” shouldn’t. Founders should find an early opportunity to plant a flag but give the business the ability to evolve without conflict.
5) Coach your teams to constantly answer — “Why Not Us”?
Lots of founders, myself included, struggle at times with the concept of “imposter syndrome”. This I knew; however, in hiring people I felt were smarter and more talented than myself I was surprised to find that many members of our team felt held back by a fear of inadequacy. Russell Westbrook, a former NBA MVP, has built his brand around a simple quote: “Why Not Us?”. We throw that question around jokingly in Forum’s office, but it does hold a powerful message. Coach your teams to ask themselves and feel confident in their current and future success.
Can you share a few ideas or stories from your experience about how to successfully ride the emotional highs & lows of being a founder”?
Rather than share stories, I’ll point to a tool that I have found profoundly beneficial in staying balanced through the rollercoaster that is entrepreneurship: mindfulness. I had never been a proponent until a few months into Forum’s journey, at which point I felt the constant pressure of never truly being “off”. At the suggestion of a mentor, I started to bookend my day with 15 minutes of calm — no screens and limited if any mental activity. This manifests in some instances with meditation, while in others walks outside with no music or podcasts to consume me. This has been a massive mental health unlock, a habit I’ve maintained even as the rollercoaster has slowed with our success.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
The focus of any movement I’d start would center on providing more efficient access to entrepreneurship of all kinds, leveling the playing field for small business creation. In my role, I have had the privilege of connecting with a handful of new entrepreneurs every week. They share their stories and I share mine in turn, before shifting to a discussion around their existing pain points and the often life-changing exit opportunity we afford through Forum Brands. Access to capital always comes up, even for the most capable operators and performant businesses. While I have yet to come up with a well-founded solution, this movement would ideally democratize access to capital, with an emphasis on underserved groups.
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