Do SF Engineers “Get” Art? 3 Fish Gallery Owner Weighs In…

As a venture capitalist, I drink a lot of coffee. Cafes host many of my meetings, quick email sessions in-between meetings and, when necessary, a quiet place away from the toddler. My favorite San Francisco shops each have a unique aesthetic style, despite the similarities in how they may approach third wave coffee. Often the art and music is a big component. Ritual on Valencia in the Mission has introduced me to some favorite bands, photographers, illustrators, all by what they choose to play or display. Recently there was an fun collection from 3 Fish Studios that caused me to lovingly stare at giant bears, flaming Godzillas and more, while awaiting my drip.

Folks who read this blog often might remember my attraction to local businesses and their use of technology (having worked in an independent book store as my high school job). I’ve written before about Flour & Co Bakery, Blue Bottle and others, but never spoke with an artist and gallery owner until now. Eric Rewitzer, who co-founded 3 Fish with his wife, was kind enough to share some thoughts. (Their studio is out on the Avenues by Ocean Beach and they mail order worldwide).

Hunter Walk: In recent years has technology had a bigger impact upon the creation of art or the business of art?

Eric Rewitzer, 3Fish: Technology has certainly had an impact on how art is envisioned, made and displayed.  Those that have been in the Bay Area for a while may remember the 1999 Bill Viola show at the SFMOMA.  I went to that show a half dozen times and immersed myself in The Crossing, a video projection of a man engulfed in water on one side of the screen and fire on the other.   It just blew me away – seeing video and projection elevated to high art has informed my world view ever since.  Recently the work of Jim Campbell comes to mind – an artist bringing LED to an art form driven by code – creating a visual that is unique, powerful, and beautiful.

As for how technology impacts my own artwork,  I carve blocks of linoleum with hand tools, and print with a hand-cranked etching press – a process that has been around for hundreds of years. I developed graphic arts software for years prior to my printmaking career, so going back to the fundamentals of printing is something that has motivated me from the start. I love the simplicity of printmaking, and how it does not rely on a computer. That being said, being competent with digital capture, Adobe Creative Suite, color managed workflows, and archival inkjet printers is vitally important for the business side of my trade.  I am able to utilize all these technologies in-house, and the accessibility and affordability of these solutions has been a big factor in the success of my studio.

HW: Art is such a personal purchase – do people order from your website or is it more a way to drive people into your gallery?

ER: My wife and I have strived to create a studio environment that is open, authentic, and accessible for people who are interested in purchasing original artwork.  While we get a fair amount of sales from our website, the vast majority of our sales is done directly here at our studio. Yes, art is a personal purchase, and it can be made more memorable (and pleasant) with a connection to the person who made it.

HW: You’re not just an artist, you’re a small business owner. What software/services do you use to manage sales, accounting, etc? 

ER: We wanted to drive people directly to our website from the beginning, avoiding sites like Etsy to sell our work, and that has proven to be a successful business model for us. After struggling with some home-grown solutions for e-commerce when we opened, we switched over to Shopify a few years back and have been benefitting from that decision ever since. Shopify handles all of our online sales – domestic and international – as well as our growing wholesale business.

We also benefitted by being an early adopter of Square for our in-store credit card processing. Early on their low cost of service really was a game changer for small businesses like ours, and as their products and services have grown, we have adopted most of those offerings, too.

As for accounting and bookkeeping, I leave all of that in the capable hands of my CPA.   If I had to crunch the numbers every day, I’d never get any artwork done.

HW: Have any apps, social media tools or other products been especially helpful in sharing your work? I’m thinking Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, etc?

ER: We’ve had a Facebook page for 3 Fish Studios for about seven years, but when they switched over to the sponsored ad framework a few years back we had to find a more affordable way to communicate with our growing list of followers.  Twitter did not seem to be a good fit because I simply didn’t have the time to devote to multiple interactions each day. Instagram has proven to be our go-to social-media tool as of late, and that makes sense as our work is so visual, and all of our “fans” see everything we post. Surprisingly, it seems the most effective way to reach people interested in our work is through good old fashioned email newsletters – we have thousands of subscribers and our click rates are pretty great.

HW: I encountered your art in Ritual Coffee here in SF, one of the coffee shops beloved by engineers and designers. Have you seen an increased interest in art from people who work in the tech industry?

ER: Yes, I have seen the tech community support many of my fellow artists over the last few years. In general I think the tech industry has a deep appreciation for things done well, and that translates into a natural curiosity for how things are made.  I think authentic connections with the local arts community is an extension of this.

Having been in the tech industry myself for 15 years before starting 3 Fish Studios, I have a pretty good understanding of what it is to be in front of a computer all day. The manual nature of the work I do is what drove me to it, and it has proven to be very interesting for others whose handiwork is mostly done at a keyboard.  As a result, I have an easy rapport with the tech community, and really enjoy explaining my process to them.  Their curiosity and my enthusiasm for what I do are a good match.


From Exit to Cocoa Bean: How The Plaxo Founders Started Dandelion Chocolate

A few years back while walking Valencia St here in SF Caroline and I noticed Dandelion Chocolate, a new factory/store which focuses on bean-to-bar production – that means they take care to manage the whole supply chain. Dandelion’s founders previously started the internet company Plaxo, so I was particularly interested to learn how they were incorporating technology into their business. In founder Todd Masonis’ words:

Q: So, the chocolate business? Tell me the founding story of Dandelion Chocolate.
It all started with a love of chocolate. Prior to Dandelion, my friend, Cameron Ring, and I co-founded an Internet company, Plaxo. We sold the company in 2008 to Comcast and were taking some much-needed time off. We were hanging around the HipChat guys, helping them with their company. They had a vacant garage and for fun, Cam and I started experimenting with roasting cacao. We’ve always loved chocolate and it was a challenge make it from scratch. Before long, we had a small chocolate factory running from the HipChat garage.
It’s really fun to make chocolate — you have to source interesting beans from crazy places, build your own machines, and develop whole new processes. When we shared our chocolate with friends and family, they were surprised by the unique and distinct flavors of each bean. While still in the garage, we started winning awards and getting wholesale orders. That’s when we decided we should do something with this.
We also now know, what we didn’t know then, that it’s a really exciting time for chocolate. What happened to coffee, microbrew, and wine, is all happening to chocolate right now. There’s a new American craft chocolate movement where guys in garages all over the country (and now, world) are roasting up specialty beans. In ten years this shift is going to be painfully obvious, but we just stumbled into things right as they were about to take off.
Q: How did your technology background help shape the way you approached DC?
I think it helped tremendously. For one, having a mindset of keeping things lean — and solving the problems you actually have — let us take things one step at a time. The first step was to make sure we could make an incredible product. In our case, that means single-origin bars made with only two ingredients with each origin tasting unique, distinct, and delicious. Second, we wanted to prove the market, but that’s been straightforward. We’ve always been production-limited: our wholesale customer waitlist currently exceeds our actual customer list and we always run at max capacity. Now it’s just a matter of scaling the hard parts, without compromising flavor. This is a process that takes a very long time, but has allowed for a purity of vision and a simple business model.
The tech background also helps in unexpected ways, like even with roasting. The traditional French chocolate makers will say you need at least 30 years to learn how to roast and make a great chocolate bar. But we knew about A/B testing and optimizing metrics, and search spaces and fitness functions. So we applied a very rigorous methodology that got us to testable, repeatable, great flavor much faster.
On the flipside, one unexpected surprise in the non-tech world was all the permitting and regulations. One permit for our factory took over a year and half — and there was nothing contentious, that’s just the speed of government. If every time you wanted to start a website you had to go to city hall and have a bureaucrat sign a piece of paper, there would be no tech industry.
Q: What technology tools do you use at Dandelion and why? (point of sale, back office, etc)
Things are much better now, but when we started a few years ago, there were very few good tools. We were spoiled by having had dashboards, analytics, and data warehousing at Plaxo, so we ended up building our own dashboards for each part of the business. Over time, we’ve been able to swap out parts of our home-grown solution piece-by-piece with better tools. So we’re sort of just left with high-level dashboards and glue code to keep it all together.
The great tools we use are: square (POS), stichlabs (order tracking, invoices), shipstation (shipping), wordpress (blog and basic auth), xero (accounting), intuit online payroll, freshdesk (customer support). All the tools play nicely together, so every transaction/action is seamless. And we have high-level dashboards anyone at the company can look at, e.g. in the kitchen we have an iPad where the pastry team tracks every brownie and cookie sold.
Q: There are many startups who want to serve the local retail market – any advice to founders in that space?
I think there’s still a ton of opportunity here. We were forced to build our own tools, but are very happy with other companies filling this void. Most of the magic comes from the glue code though — when every tool interoperates, it makes for a clean experience. For instance, when someone orders online, it goes straight into our accounting software and a shipping label pops out of the shipping printer. The demand dashboard updates and the fulfillment team gets a notification. Each application is being attacked in it’s own niche way (which is great), but most small companies don’t have the knowhow to glue everything together, so I think that’s one place that is currently underserved.
hunter’s note: SMB SaaS & other retail tools are a focus of our Homebrew seed venture fund

The Strand: How an 86-Year Old Bookstore Uses Technology

Strand Bookstore in NYC is one of the largest independent bookstores in the US. Bookstores are a generally challenged retail sector as ecommerce and ebooks have resulted in many local shops closing their doors. Yet the Strand is still strong, adapting with their customers and utilizing social media to connect with their community. Lilly Wyden from the Strand shares how: 

Q: The Strand is a pretty famous bookstore. Can you share a bit of history and your role?

The Strand is an 86 year old independent bookstore and family business. Founded in 1927, the Strand’s first home was on 4th Avenue in Greenwich Village, in an area then called Book Row. It was a place where writers, readers, and publishers gathered – where books were loved and book lovers could congregate. There were 48 bookstores and today the Strand is the sole survivor. In a strange, small world, I now live in the exact location of that very first Strand.  It’s beshert.

While my title is Product Marketing Manager, I’m also the de facto Business Development, Public Relations and Product Manager. Such is the life at a scrappy small business. It’s great. My job is to determine and seek out opportunities that will enhance our customer’s experience – primarily online but offline as well.  Through developing partnerships, launching new and iterative products, and sourcing creative sales channels, my goal is to ensure the Strand shopper is a satisfied one.

Q: Independent bookstores have really been hurt by the move to online shopping, e-readers and big box retailers. How has The Strand weathered this change?

This is a loaded question, albeit a totally fair one. For one, partnerships have been really great for us. Just last year alone, we partnered with kate spade, Club Monaco and Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. It’s through these partnerships that we can engage with our customers, show them we are experimental but enterprising, and also expand our reach.

In this same vein, I’d like to think Strand has really set itself apart via creative content and messaging. Our owner Fred is 85 and he came up with the idea to have a table in the very front of the store called “Real Books Cheaper than E-Books.” It is a huge hit. Likewise in December, we had our best sales day in the history of the store and I tweeted out “Bookstores are not dead.” It went viral – almost 2,000 RT’s and likes. Customers love that we don’t hold back and sometimes are a little crude. Modest we are not.  As Steve Jobs said, “it’s more fun to be a pirate than to join the navy.”

Q: What are some ways that technology has helped The Strand become a modern retailer?

Most people don’t know that we are in the business of books by the foot and personal collections.  What that means is we create custom-curated libraries and collections of books, for individuals and corporate accounts. We have done hotels, restaurants, beach houses, movie sets, and even retail stores (Warby Parker’s shop is one). Next time you’re watching TV and you see some books in the background, look closely, because those books are very strategically placed. And there is a really good chance they came from the Strand.

So to answer your question, technology has enabled the Strand to show, maybe even remind customers what we offer beyond just selling a new bestseller off of a table. Most of these books by the foot customers begin their orders via our website. On a similar note, if you run a search on Google for say, rare books, Strand will come up at the top (organic and unpaid!) and customers will learn we have an entire floor dedicated to rare books. It can be easy to get lost in the Strand and not see it all, so technology has helped us bridge that gap.

Q: One assumes The Strand has a smart and literate customer community. How has this shaped your social media strategy?

Our customers are whip smart, as are our booksellers. Our social media strategy is such that the voice you hear online – whether it’s our e-commerce site, Twitter, or our email blasts – should be one and the same with what you hear in our brick and mortar store. Social media is a bridge, to start a conversation and follow up on one. The content we push via social is quirky, sometimes provocative, hopefully a little funny. It’s important to us that we show our customers, via social or otherwise, that we’re not a drone or bot or algorithm telling you which books you might like. We are real people, real humans who have actually read those “you might also like” book recommendations.

Q: If you could invent one new or better piece of technology to help The Strand, what would it be?

I wish there was a better way to source customer feedback. An unimposing, unintrusive way for customers to tell us what they liked or hated, wanted to see more of, wish they’d seen less of, about their shopping experience. Ideally right after checkout, online and in-store. Not a paper or email survey and definitely not a manager with a clipboard and interview questions. I’m not talking in terms of product-market fit, just simply feedback and suggestions. Our customer comes first and we want to make them happy but we need a better way to hear from them.

Philz Coffee: We’re In The ‘People Serving’ Business

Among the Bay Area’s coffee purveyors few are as well-loved as Philz. CEO Jacob Jaber has made sure the personal touch is maintained through fast growth – 14 current locations – caffeinating artists, designers, engineers and everyday people. I recently had the chance to ask Jacob a few questions about how their business has grown and the role of technology.

Q: Philz started in 2003 with a single shop in the Mission District. How big are you today and has the growth surprised you?

We have 14 successful locations and have an ambitious vision to grow and share the Philz experience with more people around the world. For me, it’s harder to see growth on the inside compared to outsiders who’ve been our customers since day one and continue frequenting us everyday – they tell me all the time: “you guys are growing so much, we are so happy for you.”

Philz is extremely fortunate to have the most awesome team members and customers any CEO can ask for. However my mindset is such that even though we’ve grown from 1 to 14, we haven’t done squat. We have a lot of work ahead of us and there’s no room for complacency; we have to keep getting better. I feel a deep commitment to our people to work harder than ever in pursuit of our vision to change the way people drink coffee. 

This year, we are aiming to open 8 new beautiful stores. It will be our biggest growth year to date. Overall, I’d say I’m more determined to deliver the best coffee and service experience we can than I am surprised of our growth.

Q: Retail establishments are increasingly being pitched by startups on all sorts of technology – digital point of sale systems, loyalty programs, mobile apps. How have you made decisions on which to implement at Philz and what’s been the most valuable?

We don’t believe we are in the coffee business. At Philz, we believe we are in the peoples business serving coffee. With that said, we never start with technology, we start with people. Technology has been an awesome and popular tool to help make the world better and it’s more prominently accessible in the Bay Area than anywhere else I know of. With that said, we get pitched all the time and our decision making process always filters through our mission and values – is it going to help us deliver a better customer experience? If so, we’ll consider it.  In the near future we plan to implement some really cool ideas that involve leveraging technology to improve the customer experience. To date, the most valuable technological tools for us have been simple stuff like Yelp and Social Media.

Q: I noticed Amazon’s yellow package lockers at the Noe Valley Philz. Is this an experiment or do you see coffee shops generally playing a larger role in last mile package delivery? 

At Philz, our mission is to better people’s day. Our stores serve communities of people and we feel we have a some responsibility to help make it a better place above and beyond caffeinating people with coffee and a smile. That’s why we installed Amazon Lockers at some of our stores – customers that use it really love it and are thankful that we help them get their package sooner than normal delivery methods.

Q: You guys are active on a number of social media sites – Twitter, Instagram, etc – how do you make a decision to use one of these platforms given that each takes additional time to fully participate. Where do you want to centralize your community?

To me, Social Media is like an on going group SMS with our customers. Fundamentally, it’s about connecting and staying in touch. When you look at Social Media that way, you use it differently. We don’t have a 9-5 social media person –  this stuff is 24/7. In terms of which platforms we use, we go where most of our customers are (i.e. Facebook, Twitter, etc…).

I’m not sure we want to centralize our community. Every community is different and what matters is that we are in tune with each community so we can better serve them; some people call that being locally relevant which is a nice term. Ultimately, it’s analogous to our philosophy about coffee – the best coffee in the world is the coffee that comes to your individual taste. It’s about personalization.

Q: What’s a problem you’d love a startup to solve for you that no one has adequately done thus far?

Parking in San Francisco. Just a few days ago I spent 1 hour looking for parking and finally decided to park a mile away at a parking garage and take an Uber back to my destination.

Bean There, Done That: How Technology Is Helping Blue Bottle Coffee Serve Up A Great Cup

“Let’s get a coffee and catch-up.” It’s a throwaway line but if you say it to David Bowman, CFO of Blue Bottle Coffee, you’ll get invited over for a tour along with your cup. Satya and I visited Blue Bottle’s Oakland HQ a few weeks back and I love talking with retailers about the way technology is changing their business (such as this previous post with a SF-based bakery owner). One of our investment themes at Homebrew VC is SMBs gaining access to new powerful tech.

Q: How’d you get connected to Blue Bottle Coffee and what role do you play on the team?

DB: I met James Freeman, our founder and CEO, through one of our investors in the summer of 2012. I was a devoted customer and inspired by what he had built and his vision for the future. Lucky for me, he was looking to hire someone to look after the financial side of the business, so we worked together for a few months to try out working together. It went well, so he asked me to join the team. I now look after finance and digital efforts for the company.
Q: You’ve been opening new retail cafes recently and have several more coming. How do you pick locations? Is it an art or a science?
DB: As with anything done well (I think), a bit of both, but mostly art. Ultimately, we want to go where our customers are and open beautiful cafes. We think a lot about that moment you walk into a special cafe. How it looks from the street, how it fits within the neighborhood, the architecture, the light inside, how it smells. It all matters. This is the art, and no one is better at the art than James Freeman. There is some science of course to make sure we’re focused and that the cafe can be successful economically. The science only acts as a filter though. Nothing beats physically standing on a street corner and feeling the neighborhood and cafe space. The final decision to open a new cafe is driven by these intangibles.
Q: How do you find baristas for your cafes? Do they train in the mysterious art of espresso pulling?

DB: We’re fortunate to have a phenomenal team of baristas in our stores today. Good people know good people, so a lot of our hiring comes through internal networks. We also post openings on a number of sites, and we receive inbound interest through our site (on the latter, if you love what we’re doing, we’d love to hear from you!). Once hired, first time baristas receive about 30 hours in our training lab before they pull their first shot in the cafe. It starts with education about coffee from our buying team: where it grows and how it is harvested, processed, bought, shipped, roasted, brewed, and enjoyed.
Baristas then learn how to make pour over drip coffee, followed by espresso, and then milk. Espresso and milk are hard. It’s all about the details and the subtle slight of hand. I spent hours in the lab and can still barely make a passable espresso drink. Our head of quality control says it takes thousands of attempts to pour really great drinks (which means I’m still probably thousands of drinks away). The lab training concludes with a simulated cafe experience judged by some of our best baristas. Along the way and once in the cafe, new baristas are often shadowed by trainers to give them the support they need during those early shifts.
Q: How does technology impact your business?
DB: Well, to a certain point, we try to limit the presence of technology in our cafes. We want our cafes to be physical places where our customers enjoy coffee and interact on a human, personal level. With this said, technology makes us better at what we do. In terms of hardware, we’re always looking to learn more about new coffee gear, be it a new espresso machine or home brewing tool. Software helps us run our business, of course. Aside from basic financial and operational IT products, there is some awesome innovation happening across horizontals and verticals. For example, we use software that reads from sensors attached to our roaster to measure temperature over time so that our roasting and quality control teams can dial in on the best roast for each coffee. Additionally, I think we’re just scratching the surface in ecommerce. It could become a whole new environment for connecting with our customers and helping them brew delicious coffee at home. I take a lot of inspiration from companies like Tonx who are doing a great job in this space. Once you start to understand an industry in detail, you see how much more room there is for software to change the world in specific, immediately impactful ways. I’m far more bullish on technology now than when I started at Blue Bottle Coffee.
Q: What future innovation are you most excited about?
DB: I’ve thought a lot about this. I used to be a management consultant and always wondered why the systems used by my clients – mostly big, highly successful companies – were so hard to use and so rarely integrated. I knew very little about IT back then. I see today how easy it is to take a company down a path like this. We’re fortunate to work with Square. They have a great product that makes our cafe experience better for everyone. Square exists to make commerce easy and the potential for them beyond the POS is massive. I also love what ZenPayroll is doing. Not only do they have a beautiful product in a space that is not known for beautiful products, they are focused. They believe that the future is characterized by teams doing one or a few things really well, and then letting APIs provide the integration with other products of similar quality and focus. It’s a breath of fresh air to me and I think they may very well be right.