If you haven’t yet, I heartily recommend reading this delightful Business Insider feature about turmoil within a hip cookware brand called Great Jones. Fun details abound, of the sort that reliably enliven each next entry in the When Startups Go Awry genre: Toxic, capricious executive behavior; clueless and high-handed management; a Grand Canyon-sized chasm between the unreasonable demands and unrealistic expectations of the petty, born-rich founders and the material needs and capacities of the people doing actual work for the company; blundering idiot investor/boardmember types just kind of making everything worse from afar all the time. The good stuff.
In brief: Great Jones is the creation of a pair of insanely rich former summer-camp best pals, Sierra Tishgart (who quickly emerges as the story’s chief or at least most obvious villain) and Maddy Moelis, who shared the entrepreneurial vision “What if Le Creuset enameled cast-iron Dutch ovens were much worse but also cheaper?” and made it reality thanks to millions of dollars in family money. Here are some fun block-quotes about that, from the Insider piece:
Great Jones was founded in 2018 by Maddy Moelis and Sierra Tishgart, childhood friends who joined forces after realizing there was a dearth of chic yet affordable cookware for aspiring home cooks like themselves — sophisticated, aesthetics-conscious millennials who followed Alison Roman on Instagram and read Bon Appétit.Insider
Besides business-school acumen, Moelis came with cash. Her dad, Ron Moelis — whom critics have called the “Gentrification King” — is the multimillionaire real-estate mogul and affordable-housing developer behind Essex Crossing, a six-acre development on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Her uncle Ken Moelis is a billionaire investment banker.Insider
You may be wondering: Exactly how much business school acumen does one need when one is backed by literally billions of dollars in family fortune? By way of an answer, I bring you the following quote (emphasis added) from later in the story: “In February, Tishgart privately sent an email to the $3,500-a-month executive coach that the cofounders had hired ….”
At first the brand took off, capitalizing on Tishgart’s connections in food media and pandemic-era demand for ways to make home cooking seem cool and intentional rather than forced and desperate. But while this was happening, away from the chummy Instagram feed and fawning media profiles, Tishgart was alienating Moelis, her co-CEO, as well as all the company’s handful of full-time employees (as the Insider story portrays it) by behaving as a callous, imperious, tone-deaf fame-hound who viewed the company mostly as a vessel for building her personal celebrity. A fun representative anecdote: She insisted on bringing her dog to the office even after the company hired a staffer with a severe dog allergy and operations staff warned her of the necessity of keeping the dog away, and then blamed the employee for the resulting allergic reaction:
In 2019, a new team member joined who was allergic to dogs. The ops lead relayed this to Tishgart, suggesting she keep Hubble at home when the employee was in the office. “I didn’t know that! And thank you ❤️” she responded in a Slack message viewed by Insider. Less than two weeks later, Tishgart showed up with Hubble again. The employee began clearing her throat and grabbing tissues. She gathered her stuff and ran out, Slacking the ops lead to say she was having an allergic reaction.
When the ops lead confronted Tishgart, she responded that she had emailed the team about bringing her dog in and the new hire never responded. “Employees were afraid of speaking up to Sierra,” the ops lead said.Insider
Last summer, amid the complete deterioration of their personal relationship (and in the aftermath of what sounds like a truly disastrous meeting in which Tishgart pressed the staff to share their feelings around the police brutality protests sweeping the nation), Tishgart pushed Moelis out of the company and replaced the third wheel on the company’s board with a personal ally. By September, all six of the company’s full-time employees had quit, most of them without any other work lined up, largely as a response to Tishgart consolidating her control. This left Great Jones with one boss and no staff. You can imagine this would make things difficult for a cookware company!
Except, is Great Jones a cookware company? The Insider article arrives in the end at a takeaway insight about “something inherently toxic in the startup world, another example of venture capitalists siding with the flashy rainmaker over the stable hand and leaving the employees out to dry.” That’s fine, as far as it goes, and probably pretty salient to the average Insider reader in 2021. But for my money the punchline to the article-length joke about 21st-century American business arrives nine paragraphs up from the bottom: “A spokesperson for the company said the fourth quarter of 2020 was its best quarter to date and pointed to its recently launched products, including a tea towel in collaboration with the designer Rosie Assoulin.” That’s a neat trick: Launching cookware products without a staff. Who stitched the tea towel? Who cast the iron for the Dutch ovens? Was it magic???
What this points to is something so dismally familiar in the world of consumer goods that it scarcely warrants mentioning in Insider’s exegesis of Great Jones’s season of turmoil, since not only is it not unique to this particular company, it’s standard for virtually anything you might buy for yourself or your home in 2021. Great Jones doesn’t make cookware. It was founded by a digital media veteran and a business-school graduate. Great Jones doesn’t make anything. None of its employees make tea towels or Dutch ovens or bakeware. Making cookware and kitchen goods was never even part of Great Jones’s business.
What Great Jones does is, it contracts some other, less glamorous company, one likely without a slick social-media presence, to make cookware and other products bearing Great Jones branding. In effect, it buys cheap consumer goods, and then sells them at a markup to people shopping for cookware that will make them feel like they are pals with Alison Roman. Given that Great Jones operates out of an office in the Flatiron district of Manhattan, and that it does not have a physical retail shop, and that the products it sells are manufactured by factories in places like Guangdong and Tianjin, it’s something of a stretch to say that Great Jones even sells the cookware, insofar as someone might take that statement to mean that Great Jones ever meaningfully possesses the tea towels and cookware. Great Jones does not even ship the cookware, not even in the lesser sense in which the schmo who physically boxes a Dutch oven and puts packing tape and a shipping label on it and drops it off at UPS or wherever can be said to be involved in shipping it. It’s very probable that no one in the direct employ of Great Jones even so much as touches or even sees the overwhelming majority of the goods off whose transfer from the people who made them to the people who used them to cook roast chickens its founders profited and grew famous.
The absolute most generous true description you can apply to Great Jones is that it conducts arbitrage on cheap pastel-colored cookware with flimsy enamel cladding, made by other companies with less robust brands. But the truest thing you can say is that Great Jones, like so many other companies, is a skimming operation: It launders somebody else’s actual manufacture through its own aggressive branding, and takes a cut of the proceeds. The company can have the best quarter of its existence despite having no full-time employees, despite having literally no capacity to do anything other than exist as a legal fiction, because it never actually did anything. Anything! It never did anything.
It has this in common with the companies whose brand names adorn probably a healthy majority of the goods in your home. In this respect Great Jones’s operators are not uniquely scummy frauds; in fact they’re incredibly mundane in their scummy fraudulence, just a two more rich kids who learned how the global economy sluices money toward money, one of the many ways to make the world pay them for having been born on a pile of cash. They needn’t have bothered.