Q&A with BrandProject’s Hayden Williams

Hayden Williams is a Partner at BrandProject, an early stage venture capital firm, focused on investing in next generation consumer product, service, and technology companies.

Briefly introduce us to BrandProject and your journey to the firm. 

BrandProject invests in early stage consumer brands, typically as the first institutional investor.  I have been at BrandProject for close to two years, prior to which I spent three years at BBG Ventures where we invested in Seed and Series A companies with at least one female founder.  I started my career in Investment Banking, and left after three years to start my own company.  My hope is that I bring empathy to every conversation that I have with founders now that I’m on the other side of the table, as I know how difficult the entrepreneurial journey is. 

How has your previous experience as a founder helped you as an investor?

In every way I can imagine.  The first thing that comes to mind is empathy, which I touched upon. I know how difficult it is to start a company.  Related to the process of fundraising, I know how frustrating the process can be, and all the bad behavior that venture capitalists can be guilty of.  

Everything I do as a venture capitalist reflects my experience as a founder.  Every founder will hit countless roadblocks and obstacles. My goal is to help companies not repeat the mistakes that I made, and to scale learnings across our portfolio. 

Why do you like being the first institutional investor?

We like being the first institutional investor because we can provide the most substantial value-add via our operational expertise.  We are different from other funds in the sense that we have a team of seven, and I am the only person who is actively focused on sourcing deals.  As a result, the primary focus of our team is to help our companies build, launch and scale our portfolio of brands.

These brands are at the stage where they can most benefit from the support of experienced operators, but can least afford it.  We surround our portfolio companies with talent that they normally wouldn’t be able to hire at their stage, which can be a big value-add and substantial lever for scale.  

And, it’s fun for us because we are able to get into the trenches with them!

What is one business characteristic or metric that you prioritize above all else?

Repeat purchase behavior.  While we look at metrics like organic traffic and acquisition, at the end of the day, no matter how you acquire a customer (whether paid, organic or referral), what you want to see is that they are coming back and are excited to continue to interact with your brand. 

What is a thesis that you hold that most people would disagree with?

Since BrandProject’s inception, the vast majority of our investments have been in DTC brands.  There obviously was a DTC boom in the aftermath of Warby Parker’s success, but in recent years, especially following well-publicized DTC flameouts, many venture capital firms became less interested in DTC. 

We have never wavered in our focus in this sector.  That doesn’t mean that we believe that selling your products DTC is, in and of itself, a differentiator, and it doesn’t mean that we think every product should be sold DTC. We evaluate unit economics, repeat purchase behavior, CAC and LTV to determine the attractiveness of a DTC opportunity. We’ve always focused on profitable growth, and remain excited as ever to back the next generation digital-first consumer brands.

What current consumer trend do you find the most interesting?

I think there are some really interesting companies focused on personalization.  The first generation of personalization was based on quizzes and questionnaires, but now we are seeing personalization 2.0.  

Brands are able to collect hard data from consumers through swabs and kits that measure intrinsic information.  For example, with our portfolio company Atolla, you can swab your forehead and cheek, and from that sample Atolla can tell you something about yourself that you didn’t know (your skin’s pH balance, oil percentage, etc.). This allows Atolla to provide customer education, and superior products, in a way that incumbent brands relying on retail for distribution fundamentally can not. 

How do you see the relationship between consumers and brands changing?

I think consumers increasingly demand transparency from brands.  People care about brand values and how products are made.  For example, a brand’s environmental impact has become really important to consumers.  It’s an interesting paradigm shift.  Before, the product was enough as long as it did what it was promised to do.  But now, brands have transcended from being just a product, and are held to a higher standard. 

If you could ask one person for advice, who would it be and why?

I have always been a huge fan of Steve Martin and how he has been at the top of some many different fields: stand up comedy, acting, even playing the banjo.  I think I would learn a lot about how to transfer a variety of skills into different functions and resiliency.  Also, I’d laugh a lot. 

If you could join the crew from Inception and implant one idea into the minds of entrepreneurs, what would it be?

It is okay to be vulnerable and ask for help.  It doesn’t matter if it’s to your Co-Founder or your investors or your family.  All you tend to read or see is how great everyone is doing, not the things that they really talk about behind closed doors.  

The more comfortable you can be with being vulnerable, the healthier you will be mentally, and ultimately the healthier your business will be.

If you found yourself as Will Ferrell in Stepbrothers, who would be your John C. Reilly?

That’s easy — it would be my best friend Paul who I co-founded the startup with.  When we started the company we lived in bunk beds and did everything together — so it’s very fitting. 

What is a memento from your childhood that you still keep and how does it serve you?

I have a picture hanging in my apartment of a Dalmatian with a top hat that I painted in 5th or 6th grade.  After college when I moved into my first apartment, my mom secretly included it in whatever stuff she sent to me.  For some reason, it is the one thing that has lasted throughout my many moves. It serves me because I laugh every time I pass it, and it’s a good story when people used to come over (pre-COVID!). 

What is the weirdest thing you’ve ever done?

I once biked to JFK airport from Manhattan.  My mom was flying to Nepal and had a layover in JFK, so I biked out there to meet her for dinner.  I ended up biking on the highway with my one-speed, which was a little reckless in hindsight.  

What is your creative outlet and how does it help you channel a flow state?

Exercise is my outlet.  It helps me focus and blow off steam.  In general, I have a lot of energy and if I exert it through exercise it allows me to be more singularly focused on the task at hand.

What is one daily ritual that you cannot live without?

Brushing my teeth.  

What is the last: 

TV show you binged?

I am in the process of binging The Sopranos. 

Movie you watched?

Robin’s Wish — the documentary on Robin Williams. 

Song you listened to?

The Sound by The 1975. 

Podcast you listened to?

The Daily. 

Book you read?

The Man Who Solved the Market: How Jim Simons Launched the Quant Revolution by Greg Zuckerman. 

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