Meet the Gay Power Duo Behind Fab.com

4.15.2013

By Aaron Hicklin

They created the fastest growing e-commerce site in the world, but can Jason Goldberg and Bradford Shelhammer stay ahead of the game?

Bradford Shelhammer (left) and Jason GoldbergPhotography by Björn Wallender

"Upstairs is a room that has banana wallpaper -- scratch ‘n’ sniff, with yellow floors,” says Bradford Shellhammer, who has pretty blue eyes and a schoolboy grin. As cofounder and chief design officer of mushrooming online retail site Fab.com, he has turned an airy 46,000 square feet of primo Manhattan office space into a Willy Wonka fantasy of bright primary colors, Herman Miller chairs, and the aforementioned scratch ‘n’ sniff banana room. There’s also a fully subsidized canteen, one of several generous staff perks. Later, when I ask Shellhammer for the most popular dishes, he texts back: “Taco day!” It can’t be too bad when your employers give you tacos and a free gym membership to exercise them off.

We are in a small, glass-enclosed conference room sandwiched between Shellhammer’s office on one side and CEO and cofounder Jason Goldberg’s on the other. Each has direct access to the room and is close enough to call to the other without leaving his desk, a useful feature for a duo that embodies the head and the heart of the world’s fastest-growing online store. “If we were one person, it would be really awesome,” says Goldberg, who married his partner, Christian Schoenherr -- his second husband -- last August (Darren Criss and Deborah Cox sang for them at the wedding reception) but still likes to joke that Shellhammer is his first wife. Their relationship can leave outsiders confused.

“A lot of people think we’re together -- it’s the weirdest thing,” says Shellhammer. “When Jason got married, people were sending me congratulations.” Among their staff, they personify a mom-and-pop vibe. “I think Jason is more feared -- he’s the dominant force,” says Shellhammer. “If they wanted better lunch catered, they’d probably come to me; if they wanted more money, they’d go to Jason.”

As Shellhammer rummages around in a large jar of gummy bears, Goldberg -- more guarded, less spontaneous -- recalls the fateful evening they spent in early 2011 at Market Table, a restaurant in New York’s West Village, wrestling with the dilemma of how to salvage their eight-month-old company, Fabulis. It didn’t help that they still had to tell people how to spell the name -- or even how to pronounce it (like “fabulous,” not “faboolis”).

Launched amid a small blitz of publicity as a social networking and travel site for gay men, Fabulis never quite found its footing—though not for lack of trying. Early on, Goldberg and Shellhammer appointed a string of boldface names to their board, including former GLAAD president Neil Giuliano and Broadway director Michael Sucsy, and hired David Fudge—i.e., that guy who made the Miley Cyrus spoof video “Party in the FIP” viral -- to replicate his formula for Fabulis, to the soundtrack of Lady Gaga’s “Monster.” The result was slick, but soulless; among the website’s early gimmicks was an off-putting popularity contest in which users would “spend” credits to boost each other’s Fabulis rankings. A site that preys on its users’ status anxiety does not seem like a winning formula.

“A lot of people thought it was beautifully designed and that the functionality was cool, but we just couldn’t get any of our friends to use it,” says Goldberg, a start-up veteran who cut his teeth in the Clinton White House before signing on to a string of ventures—the most successful of which, Social Median, he sold after 11 months (and almost no investment) for $7.5 million. His track record had been a critical asset in getting funding for Fabulis, but sitting in the restaurant that night, he and Shellhammer knew they either had to come up with a dramatic new idea, or call it a day.

“We realized we needed to build something where there was more of a market demand,” Goldberg says, “so we asked ourselves, ‘What is the one thing the two of us are most passionate about, and that we can realistically be the best in the world at, and for which there is an untapped market?’ ”

Goldberg lifts a framed napkin from off the wall, a memento from that evening at Market Table. It shows a pie chart, drawn in wonky ballpoint pen, divided into three segments, each representing a criteria for success: “Passion,” “Can Be Best,” and “Big Market.” At the center, intersecting all three quadrants, sits a smaller circle with an arrow pointing to one word: DESIGN.

“Literally, it took us a second to say design,” says Goldberg. “I looked across the table at Bradford, and I thought, Right, so Bradford’s passion is bringing color to people’s lives, and my passion is designing user interfaces, which is also a kind of design. And then I just thought, Duh, why don’t we just bring Bradford to the rest of the world? Everyone I know wants him to design their life, in terms of what to wear, what to buy, where to go.”

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