This interview with Steve McClain, the Co-Founder of Marmalade dives into the nuances of being a first-time founder who cares about diversity in the workplace, and fair, consistent compensation. The transcript has been lightly edited.
Tell me a little bit about your background.
I’m a software engineer and data scientist by training. I started my career working on political campaigns, where I met amazingly talented people who put their careers on hold to do something they felt strongly about. That’s where I met Chris, Amy, and Jimmy, the other co-founders of Marmalade.
Deciding to start a company was a calibrating moment in my personal journey. For as long as I can remember, I had always wanted to be passionate about building something from the ground up with people I cared about.
What idea or event triggered the inception of Marmalade?
A few of our friends started small online businesses during the pandemic and were struggling to acquire new customers. Being who we are, we dug into the data to see what was going on.
First, we discovered that nearly five million new, small brands have come online in the past few years. Most of these businesses are entering mega marketplaces like Amazon or Etsy, where it’s challenging to differentiate and drive significant traffic to their online storefronts.
Next, we learned that folks aren’t always looking for the cheapest thing on Amazon. They’re looking for something that they can tell a story about. They’re excited to find small brands that make wonderful products with backstories that resonate. And that’s the Marmalade platform — a consumer-facing web application where consumers can discover and build real relationships with small, passion-driven merchants.
What are you focusing on right now?
One major focus is hiring. We are constantly looking for mission-driven people. We want people who have the skills to get a job at a FAANG company — Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix, and Google — but who want more ownership and to be a part of a small team in which steel is sharpening steel.
We are constantly looking for mission-driven people … the type who have the skills to get a job at a FAANG company — Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix, and Google — but who want more ownership.
Language-market fit is also top of mind for us. Language-market fit measures how effectively our messaging communicates our brand. Usually, the lightbulb goes off when we send someone a small brand, and they're like, “that is amazing, I never would have found this.”
Lastly, we’re narrowly focused on several product verticals for now, but we have some exciting developments on the horizon. Soon, my dad will stop teasing me that he can't buy marmalade on Marmalade.
When it comes to recruiting, how much do diversity in the workplace and pay equity enter into your thought process?
We have four co-founders and two full-time employees. So it has been a very case-by-case basis in terms of compensation so far.
But diversity in the workplace is super top of mind for us. We are trying to build a discovery platform for the entire breadth of small brands, and you cannot do that authentically if you don’t represent that community.
But diversity in the workplace is super top of mind for us. We are trying to build a discovery platform for the entire breadth of small brands, and you cannot do that authentically if you don’t represent that community. We want to promote Black-owned businesses, women-owned businesses, and businesses focused on sustainability across all environmental, government, and social categories.
What are your top challenges and learnings?
We're trying to do a lot at once. We're a very small team. And we all have backgrounds as coders or data scientists, which has been amazingly useful for building a software company. But the tech stack is not the entirety of running a business.
We're trying to do a lot at once… the tech stack is not the entirety of running a business.
We're learning that other companies do outreach very early on to make sure they fully understand the merchant’s pain points. So we’ve started forming a community on the consumer and merchant side who share their experiences using Marmalade. The interviews we've done to date have given us so much insight.
What big bets are you making?
First, there's a lot of high-quality stuff out there that existing discovery channels are not surfacing.
The second is using data science as our special sauce. We want to have mega marketplace reach, where you can find any small brand across all of your interests. Just like when people talk about the Spotify or the TikTok algorithm as being unreal at how much it gets you, our goal is to develop algorithms that will work for the long tail of small brands.
How can the OpenComp community support you?
We would appreciate any tools or information to help small companies stay competitive for diverse talent. Because the reality is that there are a lot of questions that come along with making that commitment. For example:
- What actions will you put behind that promise?
- Are you willing to increase compensation?
- Are you willing to extend the time that a role stays open while features and fixes accrue in the backlog because you want to hire in a socially responsible way?
One thing that is so powerful about OpenComp is its focus on the start-up community. You can go to Glassdoor or use other broader tools, and you'll see what a level three employee makes at Google or Facebook. But it's tough to compete with those companies on salary. OpenComp helps by comparing us against other start-ups, helping us understand how we can leverage equity to close that gap and make a compelling offer.
OpenComp helps by comparing us against other start-ups, helping us understand how we can leverage equity to close that gap and make a compelling offer.
It's empowering as a hiring manager to know that you're being generous. We recently hired somebody, and I used the Compulator to produce an offer I could feel proud of.
Marmalade is on a mission to help the world discover the amazing small brands that bring joy to their customers and communities. In doing so, each of us as consumers benefits from more nuanced brands and products, and collectively we can bring equity to the way that internet platforms direct digital foot traffic to online storefronts.
Marmalade leverages data and technology at scale, enabling each of us to view the vast landscape of small brands through the lens of our unique identities. Together, we can build the first platform that creates that magical experience of finding that perfect storefront you can’t wait to share. Check out the blog post for our Beta Launch to read more about our guiding principles.
Zoë Rose is a Content Marketing Manager at OpenComp and has held roles at Fuel Cycle, CorePower Yoga, and TrueCar. She pens the monthly High Growth Matters Spotlights. Connect with her on LinkedIn here.