Why a Local Startup is Going Brandless (Literally)
Co-founders Ido Leffler and Tina Sharkey

Why a Local Startup is Going Brandless (Literally)

Two entrepreneurs are taking their business back to the basics.

“Life, liberty and the pursuit of fairly priced everything.”

That’s the philosophy behind Tina Sharkey and Ido Leffler’s Minneapolis- and San Francisco-based e-commerce startup, which offers everyday essentials, from food to personal care items, for $3 apiece.

How are they doing it? By going brandless. The pair is eliminating what Sharkey calls “brand tax,” hidden costs consumers pay for a national brand, by offering brand-free products. In doing so, Sharkey says, the company can charge 40 percent less on average for the same quality product.

“We’re finding that the next generation of consumers are changing their consumption habits,” says Sharkey, co-founder and CEO. And at a time when many big-name brands are struggling to connect with young consumers, “we are redefining what it means to be a brand.”

Fittingly, the pair is calling their company Brandless. All of the company’s product labels simply state what the item is and its key attributes, and none are made in-house. “We work with a collection of partners all around the world to source our products,” says Sharkey. “We also work with a lot of our partners on product development.”

Since launching in July, Sharkey and Leffler have grown their product line from 110 items to nearly 300, and by September repeat orders hit double-digits. Sharkey expects to grow the company’s product count to 500 this year.

“In comparison, the average supermarket has about 25,000 SKUs,” says Sharkey. “Part of our philosophy is editing down to what matters and reducing the choice to just what you need.”

Rather than drawing in customers with a wide array of brand options, Brandless focuses on catering to a variety of consumer lifestyles, preferences and dietary restrictions, offering products that are organic, non-GMO, fair trade or gluten-free, to name a few options.

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The company’s unique approach to offering lower-priced essentials has caught the attention of Golden State Warriors’ Steph Curry, author and philanthropist Jessica Seinfeld and bareMinerals founder Leslie Blodgett—all of whom contributed to Brandless’ $35 million Series B funding round. To date, Brandless has raised a total of $50 million in funding.

Although Brandless’ approach might be unusual, the company isn’t the first to offer minimally-branded merchandise. The difference, says Sharkey, is “we are building a community first. We are creating direct and authentic relationships.”

Those relationships extend beyond its customers. The company partners with Feeding America, donating a meal for every order placed. So far, Brandless has donated close to 200,000 meals. “We are real people who want to make a difference,” says Sharkey. “We are a purveyor of fairly priced everything.” —Kate LeRette