Before 27-year-old Justin Chen was ever appointed CFO of an emerging startup, he was just a kid selling sneakers for fun.
“There’s Nikes, and Jordans, and this whole community,” Chen explains. “I’m a huge collector. In high school, I would basically pay for all my purchases by reselling my sneakers. Just buying and selling them over and over.”
It’s what he likes to call the “entrepreneurial spirit,” or “the hustle of going out there and making things happen,” and it’s what led him to his current job at Bezar, the colorful, quirky pop-up shopping website that he co-founded along with Bradford Shellhamer (well-known for his work as the co-founder of Fab.com), Matt Baer, and PieterJan Mattan.
It’s also what the Georgetown grad says he lost touch with for a few years before his current gig, over time putting his passions on hold while riding the “conveyor belt” of corporate Wall Street.
“I was shipped off to New York after graduation to do the investment banking thing,” says Chen, who, like many other promising graduates with finance degrees, found himself working as an analyst at a big firm for two years before spending another two in private equity in Chicago. “At Georgetown, I worked for [a student-run bank called] the Credit Union, and that whole environment, I just loved. After working in high finance for a couple years, sometimes you yearn for the experience of being an operator.”
So when Shellhamer, whom Chen knew through a mutual friend, asked him about working to develop the concept for a new startup, Chen was hesitant but eager and jumped at the chance. The risky bet required him to leave his well-paying, stable job and move from Chicago back to New York.
“When you’re young there is no better time to take risks,” Chen says. “But you really have to believe in the vision, mission, and the team around you…and their ability to execute and make your dream a reality.”
Chen, Shellhamer, Baer, and Mattan quickly got to work hammering out a vision for their new platform, Bezar (the name is a play on “bizarre” and “bazaar”)—and raised seed funding entirely on their own. Their company is supported by a deep group of experienced venture capital firms, angel investors, and advisors including Whoopi Goldberg and famed industrial designer Yves Behar.
The four co-founders made careful hires, slowly scaling their online marketplace, and now oversee a total of 12 employees in what Chen describes as a flat organization. For his part, Chen now handles quite a bit—“anything financial-related, strategy and operations to analytics to marketing, and I also dabble in legal and HR and other auxiliary functions.”
Bezar shares products from and the stories behind up-and-coming designers as well as established brands. They sell in four categories: art, accessories, house, and jewelry, and they hope to be a platform and means of exposure for new, small businesses.
“We have a vision of creating a full ecosystem for creative entrepreneurs. We give designers a voice. Sometimes that can mean they get discovered and graduate from our platform,” he says. “For example, a large department chain is in talks with one of our launch designers about creating an exclusive collaboration.”
Still in the early stages at Bezar, Chen says there are new challenges every day, but being able to overcome the lows and prioritize a longer-term vision is key.
“Startups are hard. It’s a grind. We’re here to build a long-term sustainable business that is around for a long time. We’re growing quickly but also smartly.”
Originally published by America Within.