Meet Allison Sloan Polish, President of Spoonflower, a Durham-based global marketplace for fabric and home décor connecting makers and consumers with artists worldwide. Allison, originally from Greensboro, N.C., joined the Spoonflower management team in 2013 after working first with the firm as a management consultant—and then purchasing a piece of the company. Today, as President, she leads the product merchandising, procurement, and customer service initiatives.
Launched in 2008, Spoonflower’s Co-Founders Stephen Fraser and Gart Davis sought to create a site that provided consumers the ability to customize a few yards of fabric that was affordable and eco-friendly. It didn’t happen overnight. Over the years, Allison and the leadership team worked with partners and technology vendors to overcome supply challenges and waste factors to perfect printing platforms and distribution processes. What began as a fabric-by-the-yard business has expanded into wallpaper and home décor, table linens, and bedding.
And it’s now possible for individuals to design, print and sell their own fabric, wallpaper, and home textiles through the Spoonflower Marketplace, the largest collection of independent designers in the world. The Spoonflower community has grown to over 4.5 million creatives and entrepreneurs who use the marketplace of more than one million designs. “Some of our top artists make six figures,” says Allison, “and that’s a good feeling to know we can provide a platform that helps artists make a living.”
Spoonflower, with 220 creative and crafty employees in Durham and a factory in Berlin, Germany, is backed by Bull City Venture Partners and Guidepost Growth Equity. The company was named one of TBJ’s Best Places to Work and made Inc. Magazine’s list of the 5,000 fastest-growing companies in the U.S. Employees enjoy a vibrant setting in their new 20k square-foot office plus an additional 25K square feet of manufacturing space, coined the chocolate factory, with fabrics and textured walls, pillows, and comfy décor everywhere as well as a Greenhouse for community sewing class, company town halls, and on Mondays, massages. All of the printers and equipment have names and the sewing machines are named after famous women that include Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Maya Angelou, and Frida Kahlo.
The company feels it’s important to put responsibly made products out into the world. Allison is proud to share that their printing process uses eco-friendly, water-based pigment inks and dyes which produce very little waste and does not require the high volumes of water, heat, and chemicals typically found in textile processing.
Amid the Covid-19 crisis, many companies are looking for ways to assist in the Covid-19 relief efforts. Spoonflower is no exception. Allison shares that they had inquiries from the North Carolina healthcare community along with other states interested in leveraging their resources and facility to supplement mask shortages for our nation’s healthcare workers. The Spoonflower operations team is building out the full production plan to support and mobilize these efforts.
Allison began her career as a buyer at Saks Fifth Avenue in New York City. She earned her MBA from Saint Louis University and joined a retail manufacturing business, TRG Group, as the Vice President of Marketing, working with Swiss Army, Timberland, Callaway Golf, Target, Lands’ End, and Sam’s Club. She has also served as Account Director for the advertising firm McKinney, where she managed the Sherwin-Williams, Nationwide, and Travelocity accounts. Allison holds a BA from the University of Pennsylvania.
Check out our Q & A to learn about Allison’s puzzle addiction and who made her karaoke partner wish list.
Q: You have an amazing job at an amazing organization. Tell us how that came about?
In 2013, I was motivated to find a passion fit and to start building equity with an enterprise. At the time, I was in an account director role with the outstanding company McKinney. And while I loved my job and my colleagues, I felt my consumer product and retail roots tugging at me. My husband and I were firm on our love for the Triangle so I knew that if I wanted to return to a client-side business in the consumer products realm, I had to get creative. In a conversation with my father, who has always been my business role model, he suggested that I hire an investment banker to help represent me in looking for a local company that I might buy into and work alongside an existing team. I followed my father’s advice and started exploring options within a one-hour drive of our Chapel Hill home.
I explored options, from a furniture company in Siler City to a toy manufacturer, and then I found Spoonflower. Co-founders Stephen Fraser and Gart Davis had been approached several times before about taking investment, yet I was the first who wanted to work alongside them in the business and I was a woman—and so is 94% of our customer base. In addition to being impressed with Gart and Stephen and what they had built, I felt a connection to the business and to the customer base it was serving. I believed in the concept and felt I had something to add.
Joining as a partner in a business is like a marriage of sorts and Stephen and Gart suggested that we test the chemistry by starting out with a “consulting” relationship. So I had a decision to make, do I leave a good job and take a gamble on a bet that may not pan out? Well, that decision got easier when just a couple weeks later I was laid off from my job; so the experiment was on. I joined the business as a “management consultant” and we started operating the business as a partnership behind the scenes. After a couple of months, Gart and Stephen said that they wanted to move forward in earnest and we closed the investment.
Q: As President, what do you hope to accomplish together with your new CEO, Mike Jones, and the rest of the team going forward?
One of the best things about working at Spoonflower is that there is never a shortage of really great opportunities to pursue. Of course, the double-edged sword here is that it makes focus and prioritization that much more important. One of the ways we tackle this as a company is to embrace thinking about things in the following order—customers, employees, and shareholders. At this point, we are lucky enough to have the world’s largest marketplace of repeating surface designs and one of the things we are trying to figure out is how to leverage that across as many quality products as possible.
We started the business by selling fabric by the yard. We then grew to add wallpaper and more recently, a whole host of home textile products from bedding to table linens to curtains. I am excited to extend this home decor product offering in the future to include rugs and maybe even tile. This year, we’re focused on attracting interior designers for whom our personalization through the selection and always-in-stock approach makes us a great fit. We are working to develop more fabric bases that are a fit for this market like 100% Belgium linen and add to our commercial offering in wallpaper, which is just on fire.
While digital printing is growing, the $2T textile industry remains largely analog in its approach, and the textile industry is the second largest polluter of our fresh water systems in the world. With Spoonflower, we are hoping to help drive a large disruption in the textile industry toward more sustainable, print-on-demand, digital solutions. Our digital, on-demand platform allows us to print sustainably using much less heat, water, and effluents. As a business, our only inventory is raw materials (blank fabric) which means we have essentially a limitless inventory of designs we can offer to customers and only print what is purchased, dramatically cutting down on wasted retail bets. This limitless inventory model is one that we are working to get in front of more and more retailers as an opportunity for them to meet the ever-changing consumer demand with relevant and personalized products. Proving this business model and making it relevant to a more direct-to-consumer companies is something we are focused on.
Q: How did the name Spoonflower come about?
When Gart and Stephen were trying to figure out what to call this new print-on-demand, custom fabric business, they turned to a list of domain names Stephen had previously registered. The minute Stephen mentioned Spoonflower.com as a possibility, they both were sold. The name Spoonflower is the common name for the White Arrow Arum—a bog flower that was growing in Stephen’s backyard.
Q: What accomplishments are you most proud of?
I am very proud that Spoonflower is leading the way in female leadership—over 80% of our leaders in the business, as defined by managing another individual, are women. Our executive team is 70% female. I am proud to be part of a team that is bringing back meaningful textile business to a state that was once defined for its textile leadership. I loved pioneering our initiative to bring Home Décor, which is now our fastest-growing segment, into the business. And, building out our new 20K-square-foot office space last year was a true labor of love and creative outlet. Anybody who has visited our facilities in Durham knows that our space is like a chocolate factory… a feast for anyone who is nourished by design. There is a particular kind of undeniable energy that nobody has a name for, that comes when great companies are in their formative stages. It’s been wonderful to be part of creating that.
At its core, Spoonflower, for me, is about enabling creativity and supporting entrepreneurship and this is a mission I am very happy and proud to get up every morning to serve. When I hear the stories from our amazing community about how we helped launch their Etsy business making highchair covers or helped a mother at home on leave discover a new talent in fabric designing that is now her family’s primary income, I am gratified.
Q: What do you think the greatest challenge(s) is/are for startups in the present Triangle startup environment?
Recruiting is the greatest challenge and it is always getting better, but there can never be enough great talent locally. In particular, we would love to see more ecommerce talent in the area. We have been working to develop our teams with a particular cross-section of product, ecommerce, analysis and old-fashioned discipline.
On another front, while we have been fortunate to be supported by Bull City Ventures on the local front, I think the Triangle can always use more investment capital. Luckily, there are more and more outside investors looking at our market and this is what led us to our great partnership with Guidepost Growth Equity out of Boston.
Q: The Spoonflower leadership team is female-majority, a rarity in tech. What can you share about that?
Diversity in leadership has always been a focus for us and something we continue to work on improving. We think it is important to reflect our customer base and to ensure a diversity of thinking. One area of particular focus for us has been female representation in our engineering teams. To further our goals here, and in keeping with trying to promote from within as much as possible, we have sent individuals previously working in operations or customer service to coding school so that they could return to the business in a new capacity.
Q: What drives or shapes the person you are today?
In business, I have had the fortune of learning and working alongside some outstanding leaders, but the person who has shaped me the most, in terms of both my interest in business leadership and as an example of leading well, is my father—Tom Sloan. He dispelled for me any myths that business leaders could not be both shrewd and strategic whilst also being honest and humble. The stories he shared around the dinner table about running his company and taking care of his employees left an indelible mark. And he always modeled that it takes hard work to succeed. I have this Abe Lincoln quote above my kids’ homework desks—”the best way to predict your future is to create it.” I live by this and am always looking for a similar ‘bias towards action’ in my teammates.
My mother, Linda Sloan, who spent a career bringing beauty and magic to the stage through directing and set-design, influenced my passion and eye for the visual. I love to create spaces indoors and outdoors—informed by function, working with a palette of colors, shapes, and textures to achieve beauty. Designing gives me energy.
Q: Tell us a fun fact about yourself.
I love to karaoke! I should clarify that I don’t do this in public really, but rather, in my living room where we have a pretty good setup. A few years ago, things were stressful with the business and I was having a big birthday. I told my husband, all I wanted was a karaoke machine to replace our old one that had stopped working. The funny thing is that he had no idea how much pleasure he would also get out of the machine. Not that he loves singing (although we do a pretty mean duet of “Endless Love”), but he saw how the stress of the day just melted away and my mood would lift when I would sing after getting home. Bridging a startup into a growth company has its stressful times… if you haven’t tried singing an Anne Wilson 80’s Heart tune as a way to relieve stress, you should give it a go.
I am also addicted to 1,000-piece puzzles—I do one or two a week.
Q: If you could spend an hour with someone/anyone who would it be?
Michelle Obama—I have a celebrity crush on her. I have tremendous respect for her as a leader, always displaying dignity. ‘When they go low, we go high.’ And I know we would have a blast doing karaoke together!
Q: Name a talent you wish you had and why.
I wish I was a better singer and was great at doing math in my head.
Q: The leadership team has been brainstorming how to best leverage your factory to assist in the Covid-19 relief efforts. Tell us about that.
There is a nationwide shortage of PPE equipment and Spoonflower is eager to figure out how we can do our part to help serve our heroic first-line responders. Given our expansion into home textiles, our business has developed cut and sew capabilities. Leveraging our sewing talent and print capabilities, we currently have two different non-medical grade masks that we have prototyped and are working with officials of the UNC Health Care system to get feedback. We are also in discussion about the potential to sew the medical-grade fabric into masks as well. The landscape of this pandemic is ever-changing so by the time of publication, our offering may have changed. For interested parties, please visit our website to learn more about our efforts.