In 2018, Anna Harman (’12-’16) left a premium piercing appointment in New York City unimpressed by long wait times and high prices. The former leader of Bridgewater’s wire team and COO of Research Analytics cast about for another option. It turned out that her choices were limited.
As mall kiosks have faded away and Claire’s filed for bankruptcy, the search for a sterile piercing can feel like looking for a needle in a haystack. Plus, once an earring enthusiast tracks down a place — Anna finally got her piercing in a tattoo parlor — there are few, if any, options onsite to shop for jewelry. “There was no place that really combined those two experiences of getting a new piercing and buying earrings and doing that in a healthy and safe environment at an affordable price,” says Anna. She left the ink shop with a new earring and a new business opportunity.
Less than a year later, she and her co-founder, Lisa Bubbers, launched Studs. The startup aimed to provide an end-to-end experience for safe piercings in a fun and social environment, plus a menu of beautiful and accessibly priced jewelry for creative and fashionable looks. Having served a tenure at Walmart’s incubator, Store No. 8, Anna was familiar with getting ideas to market, but had rarely experienced such strong enthusiasm and product-to-market fit. “It just so obviously resonated with people that there wasn't anywhere like what we wanted to build and that it should exist,” says Anna. “It really felt like there was a hole in the market.”
They raised a $3 million Series A, led by Hayley Barna of First Round Capital and former CEO of Birchbox, spending a good portion on the once not-safe-for-work domain name, Studs.com — a decision which Anna sees as a worthwhile boon to the brand. The appendage-agnostic name “Studs” offered a flexible and wide net for product development options, but Anna and Lisa stayed laser focused on ear adornments, for which they trademarked the term ”Earscaping.”
By 2020 they had opened two brick-and-mortar stores in NoLita and Hudson Yards in Manhattan full of instagrammable luminous displays, mirrors, and friendly staff. Just as Claire’s had ornamented the ears of a generation of Millennials, Studs aimed to the go-to bejeweler for Gen Z. Their chic, MediSpa-type experience earned glowing reviews from publications like Vogue and Fast Company.
Then, two weeks after the second store opened, the pandemic hit.
As a first-time founder, Anna had expected pain points. But this was more than she had anticipated. The company was less than a year old. Almost all their revenue was based in brick-and-mortar store experiences. She took the ”wartime CEO” approach, detaching herself from the emotional impact and tackling the challenges as if they were a case study. “You have to do what needs to be done to protect the business. You have to be willing to do those hard things,” she recalls.
Moving decisively, Anna shuttered both of the retail spaces. The team pivoted to building out the almost nonexistent e-commerce channel. Looking back, Anna focuses on the silver lining. “We were lucky to even have a business area to focus on and build,” she says. With her singular focus, e-commerce sustained the fledgling company for almost a year.
Today, the online shop has grown 1000% year over year and now makes up almost 35% of Studs’ revenue. The company has over $30 million in funding after a Series B that included firms like Thrive Capital and Lerer Hippeau. They’ve opened 11 stores in cities like Miami, LA, New York, and Austin, with another two coming in the next two months. 170 employees are spread across their locations and the core team is about to move into a new 10,000 square foot office.
Anna uses her four years at Bridgewater to guide the culture at Studs. That shows up most particularly in her deep commitment to investing in her team’s learning and development. “We're very invested in our folks, much the way I think Bridgewater invested in its employee base,” she says. “Is it as intense as Bridgewater? No. I've taken the things that I like the best about being there and applied them.”
In many ways, the turbulence of the upended first year prepared the team for the speed of Studs’ current runaway success. “It just becomes intense differently,” explains Anna. “Now, it’s about, ‘how many can you do?’ Every store that we open, we feel like it's better than the last.”