You might have heard Jessica Alba on daytime TV talking about her new e-commerce company, which sells diapers and other baby supplies, or seen Kim Kardashian pitching her online shoe store in the tabloids.
The man behind the companies, Brian Lee, is far from a household name. Yet in the world of tech start-ups, he is an emerging force.
Mr. Lee, a lawyer turned entrepreneur, has a simple formula: partner with a celebrity that fans associate with a certain product, whether stilettos or baby supplies. He first did it in 1999, when he cold-called Robert Shapiro, O.J. Simpson's lawyer, and persuaded him to join him at his first start-up, LegalZoom, for creating your own legal documents.
Hiring a famous face to represent your brand is the oldest marketing trick in the book. But Mr. Lee is doing it with an Internet twist. He uses celebrities' social media connections with fans, coupled with recent innovations in e-commerce, to sell things in ways that were not possible just a few years ago.
The Honest Company, Ms. Alba's start-up selling eco-friendly baby supplies, has raised $27 million from investors, including Lightspeed Venture Partners. ShoeDazzle, Ms. Kardashian's shoe company, has raised $66 million from Andreessen Horowitz, Lightspeed and others. But despite this investment, it has recently struggled, replacing its chief executive, laying off employees and raising bigger questions about the new breed of subscription e-commerce companies.
E-commerce is going through a shift, as retailers move beyond publishing print catalogs online to creating new business models for the Web. According to the National Venture Capital Association, venture capitalists invested $2.2 billion in e-commerce start-ups last year, almost three times as much as the year before and more than they have invested since the first Internet boom, which created Amazon.com and eBay.
Mr. Lee's companies tap the latest e-commerce trends, including selling monthly subscriptions, using software algorithms to determine personal style suggestions and eliminating middlemen by designing products in-house and selling them directly to consumers.
"Given the choice between shopping at a boutique or warehouse, if the styles were right, which would my wife choose?" Mr. Lee said, describing the strategy behind ShoeDazzle and Honest. "A large group of women would choose that kind of curated boutique."
At Honest, customers sign up for monthly deliveries of diapers festooned with anchors or hearts as well as items like shampoo and detergent, each formulated in-house to reduce chemicals. Ms. Alba conceived the idea, along with Christopher Gavigan, former chief of the nonprofit Healthy Child Healthy World, and turned to Mr. Lee for a business model.
When ShoeDazzle was founded in 2009, it was the first of a flurry of subscription e-commerce start-ups. The shoes, generally $39.95, are suggested based on the results of a style quiz the customer takes. They are designed by ShoeDazzle and manufactured at the same factories that big shoe brands use.
But ShoeDazzle has been struggling with that model, and analysts say that could foreshadow problems for its many imitators, which, in addition to Honest, include Birchbox for cosmetics, Wittlebee for children's clothing, JustFab for shoes and handbags, and BeachMint, which has sites for jewelry, T-shirts, skin care, shoes, home décor and lingerie. Earlier this month, Walmart joined the trend, introducing a monthly subscription box of food called The Goodies Company.
"Subscriptions were the hot trend in the last year, but I think some of that energy has really flattened," said Sucharita Mulpuru, an e-commerce analyst at Forrester.
While subscriptions have worked well at companies like Amazon.com and Diapers.com for necessities like toilet paper and diapers, shoppers might find it harder to justify a recurring credit-card charge for colorful suede booties.
ShoeDazzle switched to a nonsubscription model this year, so shoppers log on whenever they are in the mood to shop instead of receiving monthly boxes. In September, the company replaced its chief executive, Bill Strauss, with Mr. Lee. He laid off 20 of its 220 employees and cut expenses like corporate apartments. Both Honest and ShoeDazzle are capital-intensive because they design, store and ship their own inventory.
"We lost our way," said Jeremy Liew, managing director of Lightspeed Venture Partners. "But there's real value in this company and customers love the product."
Mr. Lee said ShoeDazzle would approach $100 million in revenue this year and become profitable next year. Honest is not yet a year old, but its founders say it has proved popular with shoppers. Mr. Lee is the right person for the job, Mr. Liew said, because he has a Hollywood sensibility that Bay Area executives lack.
"He's a middle-aged, slightly out-of-shape Korean guy who got Jessica Alba and Kim Kardashian to start companies with him," Mr. Liew said. "That is like sheer force of will and personality. This guy has become the person that Hollywood goes to when they want to talk about starting companies."
Many Silicon Valley veterans write off celebrities flocking to tech as a sign of a bubble. But Mr. Lee has a keen understanding of how to take advantage of their fame in social media, Mr. Liew said.
His celebrity co-founders are not just pretty faces. Instead, they use Facebook and other sites to make direct sales, and it works because their fans think they have some authority in the items they are selling.
"It's not a picture of Tiger Woods wearing a Rolex in a magazine," Mr. Liew said. "This is Kim saying, 'These are great shoes, you'll love them, you can get them for $39 a month, try it now.' It's directly driving a response, not just an abstract brand halo."
Ms. Alba said her work on Honest was nearly a full-time job (in addition to gun training for "Sin City 2"). "Being the face of something and not having control and input on the manufacturing process is not something I'm interested in," she said.
The most successful Bay Area companies have also relied on celebrity, if not as obviously, Mr. Lee said. Twitter's popularity soared after Britney Spears and Ashton Kutcher competed to get the most followers, and Lady Gaga's 53.6 million Facebook likes bring people to that site. It is a rare Silicon Valley party that does not include Mr. Kutcher or M C Hammer.
Mr. Lee has become an expert at bridging the worlds of Hollywood and Silicon Valley. Ms. Alba said she tried for three years to find backing for her company before he agreed to join her and accompanied her to pitch venture capitalists.
"I was just turned down by so many people because it wasn't sexy," she said. "I think when you walk in with Brian Lee, you're pretty much golden."
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.