Ariel Kaye on her $30M company, Parachute Home: “Oh crap, I made the biggest mistake.”

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Ariel Kaye is a born-and-bred California girl, but you could be fooled into thinking she’s a bona fide New Yorker: Her talk is straight, sharp, and to-the-point; her tone is no-nonsense; and her time is scheduled to-the-minute. She’s the kind of businesswoman you picture in a fitted black pencil-skirt-and-blazer set complete with pristine Louboutins. And yet, she’s the founder and CEO of Parachute Home, a brand that skyrocketed to interior design fame thanks to its laid-back, easy, beach-y aesthetic.

Ariel Kaye is a woman full of contradictions, just the way we like ‘em.

The 33-year-old is all business when we meet at Parachute Home on a cloudy Wednesday morning, Los Angeles’ notorious “June gloom” in full effect. She finds a minute to introduce herself in the midst of getting glammed for our photoshoot, furiously emailing on her phone, and wrangling her yippy-but-adorable Labradoodle, Lox.

We step outside of Parachute Home (one of the company’s two brick-and-mortar stores) and round the corner to find The Parachute Hotel, a single luxury apartment completely outfitted in Parachute’s wares–bedding, throw pillows, linens, candles, and more; all in the brand’s signature minimalist-hippie style. Guests looking for a non-traditional hotel experience can book extended stays here, but Ariel has set it aside for our interview today. We perch in the light wood and stainless steel kitchen to chat, a sprawling view of Venice’s Rose Avenue behind us.

The company’s origin story has been recounted over and over again–if you’ve read anything about Parachute, you know that 1) After experiencing unbelievably luxurious bedding in an Italian hotel, Ariel launched Parachute to recreate that experience for the home; 2) Parachute Home sold out of their initial inventory in a mere two weeks; and 3) they’ve raised $10 million in venture capital to date and are projected to make $30 million in revenue this year alone.

When I sat down to interview Ariel (which I’d been dying to do ever since my fiancé introduced me to an insanely soft and chic duvet cover from Parachute a few months back), I knew I had to dig deeper. The entrepreneurial nerd inside needed to know what she did to sell out inventory in two weeks, who she talked to to raise capital, and how, exactly, she was able to quit her job in advertising a full year before Parachute starting bringing in revenue.

I was prepared for Ariel to politely demur–some of my financially-focused questions verged on invasive (at best) or impolite (at worst). But lucky for us, Ariel spilled all.

So, for everyone who had a crazy business idea in college and thought, There’s no way I could make a living doing this…here’s how.

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FAME: Tell us about your start: where did you go to school and what did you study?
Ariel: I went to NYU and lived in New York for 10 years, and then moved back [to Los Angeles] to start Parachute in 2013. I was in the Gallatin School, which was the School of Individualized Study, and my concentration major was Media, Power and Persuasion. Then I went to The New School and got a Master’s in Media Studies.

FAME: What was your first job?
Ariel: I worked as a hostess at a restaurant called Border Grill in high school and also tutored younger kids. In college, I had a ton of internships. I interned at the House of Blues, I interned at Gucci, I interned at Nickelodeon, I interned at Columbia Records. At Gucci I did PR, and then Nickelodeon was a lot of video stuff and helping out with production. At the House of Blues, I was a general intern–whatever they needed.

I definitely was one of those people that had no idea what I wanted to do so I found myself trying everything like, I want to work in the music business, I want to work in fashion, I want to work in TV. I feel like living in New York, there are so many opportunities. I could get credits through NYU and Gallatin, so I spent a lot of time interning and I feel like it was actually helpful in terms of deciding what I did want to do and what I didn’t want to do.

FAME: How did you support yourself while interning so much–were these paid internships?
Ariel: Some were unpaid and some were paid–none were paid that much. A few thousand dollars felt like a million bucks at that point. A lot were for college credit. It’s very different now–we don’t have any unpaid interns at Parachute. But yeah, I definitely was all about the experience and had very supportive parents that were like, This is a great thing to do. You should get all of this real world experience.

FAME: Parachute is famously inspired by your time spent in Italy and the luxurious linens you experienced while there. What was the timeline from living in Italy, to conceptualizing Parachute, to finally launching?
Ariel: I lived in Italy in 2004, so it was quite a long time ago. But my obsession with home and interior design has always been a thing for me; especially after college when I finally moved into my first real apartment and starting decorating. I was helping friends and family decorate their homes for fun because it was something I was super into and really excited about. That is a big part of it for me and what brought me here.

I was working in advertising and felt like I was really ready for something else. I wanted to merge my interest in what I was doing in advertising, with consumer behavior stuff, and also home. The idea came to me at the end of 2012, and by February 2013 I had quit my job. We launched in January 2014.

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The Elinor Skirt

FAME: What gave you the guts to decide, OK, this is the business idea I’m going to run with? As an entrepreneur with constant creative ideas, how do you discern a random idea from a start-up-worthy one?
Ariel: To be honest, I really was just so impassioned by this idea and saw such a big opportunity in the market that I felt like I had to do it. I also had support–I had a lot of friends that were entrepreneurs and worked at early-stage companies and I got a lot of encouragement.

It’s really hard to do this. It’s really hard to do it on your own, and it’s hard to leave a well-paying job to embark on something that may or may not pan out. Having the support of friends and family, and having the idea validated by people who were trusted and inspiring to me certainly helped me put one foot in front of the other.

In that year leading up to the business, there were times when I was like, Oh, crap. I made the biggest mistake of my life. There were definitely a lot of highs and lows that were challenging to get over, but I feel like any business requires a lot of patience and persistence. Things are going to be challenging and take time, and there are going to be moments of doubt and fear–but you don’t know what you can do until you do it. It’s certainly not for everyone, but it’s the most rewarding experience of my life.

Three and half years into the company, there are still days when I’m like, Is this still a good idea? I think doubt is just always part of it.

FAME: You said you saw a market opportunity–how did you identify that? How much time was spent on research before deciding to start Parachute?
Ariel: A ton. I literally spent three months reading anything and everything I could about textiles, about direct-to-consumer businesses, about e-commerce, about brand building. Branding was my area of expertise, but doing it on my own versus helping major companies is very different. It was beyond any research I’d done in my life.

I did surveys and did focus groups and talked to anyone and everyone that would talk to me, regardless of if they were friends or just people that I met on the street–literally anyone I could get insight from, I did. I’ve found that people are really interested in helping. People get excited when they see your enthusiasm. But yeah, it was endless research.

FAME: From your varied internships to working in advertising to launching your own start-up, you’ve switched paths a lot. Switching careers as you get older is almost taboo these days–a lot of women feel that you need to stick to one path. How did you navigate that transition?
Ariel: It’s hard. I did switch careers a lot, and there were definitely moments where I saw my friends who stayed in one career continue to get promoted or get higher-paying jobs, and really appearing to be more and more successful than I was. That was challenging. I had moments where I was like, Oh, I should’ve just staying in the same career–that’s how you get to where you want to be.

But for me, I’m just not that kind of person. I need to feel like I’m making an impact, I need to feel like I’m working on something I’m passionate about. Anything else, I just knew that I wouldn’t be happy.

I think times are changing. I’m 33 now, and I still feel like I have a lot of life in front of me. I launched this business a few months before my 30th birthday, and I remember having that moment where it was “now or never.” This was the moment for me to take this big risk, and if it didn’t work out I would move on and get a job as one does. But I definitely felt like leading into my thirties, I didn’t want to be complacent, I didn’t want to be content.

I wanted to do something that I could be proud of and something that when I decided I wanted to have kids I could say, “This is what I did, you can be proud of your mom.” I think about that a lot–I want to have a family at some point, and finding time to do all the things you want to do is hard.

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FAME: At what point in the business did you start going after funding? How did that work–was it through personal connections, or cold calls, or what?
Ariel: I started talking to investors soon after the idea was conceptualized and I raised my first bit of capital six months before I launched the business. I was part of an accelerator called Launchpad; they gave us the first bit of funding.

The thing with ecommerce-based businesses is that they really do require capital in order to get off the ground, because you have to buy inventory and you can’t sell something you don’t have. Certainly there are different types of pre-sales that you can do, but it’s hard when you’re a new business and you don’t have that embedded trust or confidence from consumers.

After we launched is when I raised my seed round. That was three or four months after I launched the business and it became apparent we had done something that was resonating with people, and we had that product-market fit. We were growing much more quickly than expected and so in order to keep up with demand, I needed money in order to buy inventory and I needed to hire people, because it was just me at this point.

Looking back, I think I may have even tried to hire people before I had funding because sometimes people are willing to take pay cuts or defer payment to be a part of something that they believe in. But I wasn’t confident enough in that and didn’t think anyone would be willing to work for me if I didn’t pay them.

FAME: How did the business change post-funding?
Ariel: Pre-funding and post-funding is as different as you want to make it. For me, it’s always been about building a business and post-funding you’re able to do things you couldn’t do without money. But I’m not in this for the rush that you get when you raise money or get an impressive valuation. I think to some people, fundraising is addicting in some way–it’s really exciting, it gives you a sense of empowerment and success.

For me, fundraising is great to help you focus on growth plans and identify opportunities–you have to know what you want to use the capital for. I think it definitely is exciting to raise that initial bit of capital and be like, Someone believes in this idea beyond me. Being an entrepreneur can be lonely and isolating, and you’re drinking your own Kool-Aid and to have someone with outside capital being like, I believe in this and I believe in you is very rewarding.

FAME: Which team members did you bring on first?
Ariel: A financial operations person–someone that could help with building projections and looking at a budget and who was much better at numbers that I was, because that’s really not my strong suit. I brought on someone to do content, like working on the blog and email, because I really believe that the story is really important to building a compelling brand. And also a planner that was focusing on inventory and placing POs.

I think what’s important to note about that, and even at this point, is that we’ve got a team of 32 people and everyone’s really great at their job, but no one is over taking out the trash or being collaborative or chipping in to help. With initial hires for a business, it’s really important to bring on people who understand that they might spend half their time working on what they’re really good at, but they might spend half the time answering customer service calls or packing boxes or taking the trash out. When you’re a small business, titles almost don’t even matter. It’s almost like, Who’s good at what? Who can do what? Let’s get the job done.

FAME: Can you talk a bit about the transition from working solo to building a team, and ensuring a strong company culture at each stage of growth?
Ariel: Culture is everything. That’s one of the things that working in a lot of different companies and environments helped me with: I saw a lot of what was good and what was bad and what inspired me and what I wanted to replicate and what made me want to come into an office everyday. I’ve always been focused on company culture–it’s probably the thing I care most about because without your team, you’re nothing.

One of the things I’m truly most proud about is how little turnover we’ve had. People love working here and they stay, and there are very few things I’m more proud of as a founder.

We really try to practice what we preach. We’re a brand that celebrates wellness, work-life balance, sleep, and taking care of yourself; and so for me, I want people to have a life after work. I want people to be able to enjoy themselves. We stock the fridge with healthy, organic foods. We recently spent half a day cleaning up the beach and then did happy hour. There are people on the team who’ve become best friends from working together. We work hard and we play hard, and there’s a lot of transparency. Everyone knows what’s happening in the business, we’ve set clear goals across each team and the company, and everyone’s in it to win it.
Creating an environment where there’s a lot of transparency and collaboration and communication really is great. People are here because they want to be a part of that and make an impact. People have a lot of autonomy in their roles, and I think that’s also something that is important.

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The Solange Jumpsuit

FAME: Your website mentions that your first product run sold out in a few weeks. How’d you get the word out and build trust so quickly? Marketing techniques, social media, press? What do you attribute that quick success to?
Ariel: We got a lot of press. There were a few different articles, and then a few more. All of a sudden, we were selling much quicker than expected. We went from doing like three orders a day and being like, That’s crazy, we got three orders today! to getting like 50.

All of our products are manufactured in Europe, so they do have some lead time, especially back then before we had an established relationship with our manufacturer. It was taking three to four months to get inventory, so it was definitely a big lesson in how to communicate with customers: making sure everyone knew every step of the way where the products were and how long it would take to get their order.

Some of these early lessons that happen with growth are double-edged swords. At that moment we felt like, We’re screwed, no one’s going to like us, we sold out, we’re never going to recover from this–this was our moment. And then you realize that people are excited to celebrate success. When we sent emails to our customers saying “It’s going to take longer than expected, this is what happened, we can’t believe that we were in the Wall Street Journal and sold out all our inventory–thank you for believing in us,” people were like, Oh my god, that’s so awesome, congratulations!

I think the bar is set so low for customer service in general that when you take a moment to appreciate your customers and don’t leave them in the dark, it goes so far.

FAME: We just launched our #AntiFastFashion Shop to focus on sustainable fashion. Was sustainability always a part of the Parachute mission? What steps did you/do you take at every different level of the business to rededicate the company to eco-friendly practices?
Ariel: In the beginning I wanted to make sure that all our products were responsibly manufactured–so no toxic chemicals, synthetic finishes, artificial dyes. That’s important for the products themselves but also for the environment, the earth, the soil. We working with factories that put a huge emphasis on being eco-tech certified, which is a certification that ensures that there are none of those horrible things in the manufacturing process. Taking all these steps to be forward-thinking and use technology to make sure they’re keeping up with the most rigorous standards and free trade and all that is very important.

Here, I do my best to always recycle, to avoid plastic bottles at all costs–and straws! Never use those. In the Parachute Hotel, we tried to work with like-minded designers and artists and people that share the same sensibilities–people who care about what they’re doing in that way.

FAME: Your business gives back. When did you decide to work with Nothing But Nets, and do you have advice on how small start-ups can incorporate a “giving back” element from the beginning?
Ariel: For me, that was always important. My mom has devoted her entire life and career to service learning. I grew up with that as something we always do–think about how we can give back. It’s such a reciprocal activity, and caring about your fellow humans is something that I think everyone should do.

Having that be part of the foundation before we launched was important to me. With this business, we were providing great sleep to our customers–so it was like, How can we provide safe sleep to people in need? We discovered the Nothing But Nets organization, which provides mosquito nets to people in Africa. They’re saving lives and we are very proud of that. We’re working more and more closely with them to see what else we can do.

We also give our customers the option to add another $10 to their order to donate to Nothing But Nets, and the amount of people that actually do that is amazing. People that are willing to give that extra $10–it clearly resonates with our customers.

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The Solange Jumpsuit

FAME: What’s your favorite Parachute product?
Ariel: I’m really into our Essential Quilt, especially as an alternative to a duvet cover for summer:

FAME: What’s your trick for a good night’s sleep before a big day?
Ariel: Go to bed early. Don’t use your phone for at least an hour before bed and leave the phone in the other room.

FAME: How would you describe your personal style?
Ariel: Laid-back and casual. I like to be comfortable.

FAME: What’s your power outfit?
Ariel: I’ve got two. I have this long Theory dress that I wear with heels, and I also have a cool pair of slacks and a leather jacket situation. A leather jacket is my trick to feeling confident.

FAME: How does your interior style inform your fashion choices?
Ariel: I feel like they’re so similar: neutrals, clean lines, very easy going, comfortable. I’m very inspired by California beach-meets-desert vibes, and I find myself more and more wanting to have a uniform in my clothing and just have things that always go together.

FAME: What’s one thing you would never wear to work?
Ariel: Shorts.

FAME: Can you give us your best business advice?
Ariel: Don’t sweat the small stuff.

You can follow Ariel on Instagram, and shop Parachute Home here.

Cheers,
FAME

SHOP ARIEL’S LOOK

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The Elinor Skirt, The Solange Jumpsuit