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The Knack team.
The Knack team.

Knack is putting a new spin on an old concept: Gift baskets. The Seattle startup uses advanced stock keeping, recommendation technology, and an e-commerce platform to help customers create custom gift boxes — no crafting skills required.

The Knack team curates artisanal items and makes them searchable by interest, gender, and occasion. Customers can select each item for a gift box, based on their preferences.

“If you’ve ever given someone a gift that you could barely wait for them to open, you know what Knack is about,” said CEO Laura Jennings.

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Knack also has a corporate gifting business, selling made-to-order boxes to companies that regularly give client gifts. Knack Business includes a concierge to help design gifts and offers free shipping within the U.S.

Before launching as an e-commerce business, Jennings set up a physical pop-up store during the holidays in Seattle. After selling out of merchandise and gathering intel from customers, she was ready to officially launch online.

“Knack was developed as a gift-giving solution for the discerning, busy person who wants to give thoughtful gifts but doesn’t always have time to seek out unique products themselves,” said Jennings. “We do the vetting and then allow customers to combine our 1,400 curated items together in a way that’s meaningful to them.”

Knack’s concept is a twist on the trendy box subscription model, popularized by companies like Birchbox and Julep. Those services are curated in-house, while Knack invites the customer to take the lead.

We caught up with Jennings for this installment of Startup Spotlight, a regular GeekWire feature.

Explain what you do so our parents can understand it: “Knack is modern gift-giving: Thoughtfully curated artisan products that tell a story, combined by you to convey a message, exquisitely packaged with a custom book.”

Knack CEO Laura Jennings.
Knack CEO Laura Jennings.

Inspiration hit us when: “While living in Barcelona, I was inspired by a candy shop that offered a variety of fun labels on its jars of candy, such as ‘Bad Hair Day’ and “For Sundays Without Football.’ At the same time, I saw a missed opportunity to go the extra mile by involving the customer in the personalization process and allowing them to customize labels.

Later, I was standing in Times Square watching my kids appear on a Jumbotron, courtesy of a mass market retailer. And then the question came to me: ‘What would it mean to build an e-commerce company around the idea of celebrating the customer as a creative force?’ So, the idea of building a business around the customer as the hero came first, and gifts actually came second.”

VC, Angel or Bootstrap: “We’ve elected to bypass two natural fundraising inflection points so far — the first after our ‘test-bed’ physical pop-up store and the second after we demonstrated that the model successfully translated to e-commerce. I’m happy that we’ve been able to bootstrap this long, because it’s allowed us to experiment without the exit clock ticking.”

Our ‘secret sauce’ is: “Our core DNA is customer empowerment. Although we’re currently a gift site on the surface, what we actually do is calculate how any number of arbitrarily-sized objects fit into other arbitrarily-sized containers. We create consumer-generated SKUs on the fly complete with custom documentation, and those SKUs provide the basis for long-tail sales opportunities within the frame of the creator’s social networks, as opposed to merchant-centered ‘social commerce.'”

The smartest move we’ve made so far: “Hiring local firm Tectonic to do our original brand work. While we’ve re-engaged them on UX projects for us since then, their original ID work has given us amazing mileage starting from a time when all we really had to show for ourselves was a passionate vision and a great logo.”

The biggest mistake we’ve made so far: “Overbuilding! I know better, and we still did it. We had so many features in our original product that we haven’t yet had a customer ask us for a feature we didn’t build. But we let functionality get ahead of usability and discoverability and have had to back off some of the more powerful features while we catch up on usability.”

Would you rather have Gates, Zuckerberg or Bezos in your corner: “OK, that’s a humbling question, but Gates, of course! I spent an incredible dozen years at Microsoft and I’ll be forever grateful for the opportunities and experiences I had there. More important, Bill’s intellectual bandwidth is awe-inspiring and he’s perpetually scanning for great ideas wherever they exist. Finally, he can be very, very funny.”

knackOur favorite team-building activity is: “Thursday lunch. We ran the company out of my basement for our first six months, where we made it a habit to drop whatever we were doing to eat lunch together every day in my kitchen — usually scrounging leftovers from the fridge. So, our Thursday noon brown bag gatherings are a direct cultural descendant of the ‘basement crew,’ as we call it, and remind us that despite our growth, we all need to be prepared to jump in to support each other at any moment.”

The biggest thing we look for when hiring is: “Adaptability and passion. Darwin said, ‘The species that survives is the one that is able to adapt best to the changing environment in which it finds itself.’ Well, that pretty much defines a startup.”

What’s the one piece of advice you’d give to other entrepreneurs just starting out: “When it feels like the very thing you most desperately need somehow appears right when you need it, you’re moving in the right direction.”

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