October 01, 2012 Filed under: The Buzz
The East Coast tastemaker who for decades ruled the lifestyle category with her tireless pursuit of domestic perfection seems to be losing her elegant grip on younger viewers and consumers searching for something a bit more accessible.
Enter Brit Morin, a 26-year-old Google alum fashioning herself as a youthful cross between hacker and homemaker. Her edge: She resonates with the iPhone generation for whom the hottest accessory is the latest gadget. With backing from Yahoo Chief Executive Marissa Mayer and other investors, she's creating her own do-it-yourself geek chic brand, Brit + Co., just as interest in DIY is surging among young and old hunting for haute couture on a dime-store budget.
Her website, Brit.co, has tips on how to cook up an arts-and-crafts project or a recipe in 30 minutes or less, using no more than five materials or ingredients. She also designs and builds software applications, the first of which is Weduary, a social wedding tool that helps brides and grooms create a website that connects their guests before the big day.
In less than a year, Morin has built a following of 2.5 million across the Web. And now she has a national platform to promote her new lifestyle brand. She has a regular gig explaining how gadgets and apps can improve everyday lives on Katie Couric's new television show, "Katie."
"I love Martha Stewart but she is 71 years old," said Morin, dressed in a Cloth & Stone top and Adriano Goldschmied pants paired with a vintage belt and a Modcloth floppy disk necklace. "Girls in their twenties might not consider her a peer."
That might sound presumptuous from a newcomer who has not even begun to build a multimedia empire that could rival Stewart or proven that she has the merchandising power of America's most famous homemaker. But Morin says younger women are living differently now, juggling demanding jobs and busy social lives, and don't have time to devote to elaborate projects.
And those same women are increasingly turning to the Web and mobile devices, Morin's sweet spot, where she offers clever tips such as how to make dark or white chocolate Easter iPhones (instead of bunnies, using the iPhone case as a mold). Morin also has cross-gender appeal: a third of her audience are men.
"We have jobs to work and families to run," Morin said. "We need to find savvy shortcuts to get things done easier with a beautiful result."
Morin's most ambitious DIY project may be the company and the brand that she has imbued with her name and personality. She has many friends in Silicon Valley, but becoming a household name will be a far tougher challenge.
"There are a fair number of traditional talent lined up to replace Martha," said Mike Vorhaus, a digital media analyst who heads Magid Advisors. "The intriguing part of Morin is that she represents the millennial generation — the large post-Gen X population in the U.S. that is roughly 10 to 30 years old. They are a distinct generation with distinct celebrities and Brit is clearly speaking to her own generation."
But Morin is going after her mother's generation, too. She has appeared on the "Today" show to teach viewers how to recycle items otherwise destined for the landfill, such as worn-out yoga mats that in a few minutes can be transformed into dish rack mats, iPad cases or flip flops.
Former NBC chairman and "Today" show producer Jeff Zucker, who is executive producing Katie Couric's new show, introduced Morin to Couric. The pair bonded over Morin's wedding video (posted online), Marc Jacobs shoes and Pinterest, the social network where people "pin" images and content from around the Web on a virtual board. Morin's first segment, which aired last week, showcased InStyle magazine's virtual hairstyles app (Morin tried on Faith Hill's hair, Couric tried on Miley Cyrus').
"Brit has her finger on the pulse of the colliding worlds of technology and style," Couric said in an email. "She's always teaching me something. She makes the digital world accessible and fun, and we're excited to have such an influencer be a part of what we're doing."
The appearances will help promote Morin's new business, which one day she says will feature her own line of products. Last week Morin rolled out "Brit Kits," do-it-yourself projects in a box delivered monthly to doorsteps. And two DIY projects — bohemian feather earrings made from bright neon duct tape and surgical steel fish hooks and the Universal Party Glass, a combination shot and wine glass — were already so popular that social shopping website Fab.com requested a special order of a few thousand to sell.
But Morin said that was just an experiment. Like many Silicon Valley start-ups, Brit + Co. is mostly focused on growing an audience, and much less on making money. Digital media experts give kudos to Morin for moxie. But if she wants to become Martha Stewart 2.0, they say she has a lot of work to do.
The Internet is littered with flash-in-the-pan digital media stars. And Stewart is still very much a force. She may have lost her TV show on Hallmark but she's cutting deals, many of them online, including a Martha Stewart Network with programs on Hulu and Hulu Plus video streaming websites and a bigger presence on YouTube.
That doesn't worry Morin, whose home base is her company's trilevel penthouse loft near AT&T Park in San Francisco. On the kitchen counter is one of her recent DIY projects: a six-pack of beer bottles spray- and puff-painted into colorful bud vases. Morin ascends a skinny spiral staircase in firecracker-red, 4-inch Coach heels to show off her project room outfitted with a sewing machine, stacks of fabric and closets neatly tucked with the tools of her trade: balloons and beads, confetti, Velcro, spray paint in a rainbow of colors, and duct tape in a blizzard of patterns including black lace and animal prints.
Downstairs is Brit + Co.'s pièce de résistance: Five engineers — half of Morin's team — charged with building her websites and mobile apps. In a sprinkling of their own DIY creativity, they use the sliding glass doors to the patio as a whiteboard to scrawl code.
Morin grew up in San Antonio and says, when it comes to cooking and crafts, she's entirely self-taught. Her parents — her mom is a court reporter, her dad works in insurance — didn't cook, and as a latchkey kid she learned how to do the basics on her own. She nearly broke the sewing machine with her first major project when she was 16: a beach tote made from empty Capri Sun juice cartons. In college, she became obsessed with gadgets and technology and moved to Silicon Valley.
Morin met her future husband while they were both working at Apple. Dave Morin, a former Facebook executive who runs mobile social networking service Path, proposed in a seaplane over a Maldives beach, popping the question by spelling it out in coconuts on the sand. The couple got hitched in a "pixel cowboy" wedding in Jackson Hole, Wyo., that was entirely a Brit Morin DIY production.
She created Weduary so that her guests could connect before the wedding. On the big day, she wore a Monique Lhullier dress and cowboy boots. She and her husband read their vows from their iPhones. Instead of a guest book, Morin set up a laptop with a guest blog.
While Morin was waist deep in wedding preparations she left Google. She took advantage of the down time to enroll in classes to learn the right way to make things in the kitchen or at the craft table. She mastered using laser-cutting machines, wood saws, screen printers, vinyl cutters, even a letterpress machine. With those skills under her belt, she launched her company, drawing inspiration equally from Rachael Ray and Facebook's chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg.
"We try to make people look like a rock star without having to be an expert in the kitchen or at the sewing machine," Morin said.
Charlena Toro, a 42-year-old lawyer and "upcycler" from Helena, Mont., is a devoted follower.
"I spend 10 to 15 minutes on her site, and I am exposed to technological things I never would be otherwise," Toro said.
Silicon Valley isn't known for putting lifestyle brands on the map. But the growing appeal of Pinterest has changed that. Investors are scrambling to tap into the growing clout and purchasing power of women on the Web.
Morin's approach to business is a personal one. She says she wants her audience to get to know her, whether she's giving tips as a beauty ambassador for L'Oreal, modeling clothes for Japanese casual retailer Uniqlo or curled up on the couch in the 1,000-square-foot, two-bedroom San Francisco apartment she shares with her husband and their dog, Pixel.
"I want people to know me as a real person," Morin said, "that I struggle with the same things they do, that I had to teach myself how to get through life in efficient ways."
By Jessica Guynn, Los Angeles Times
September 28, 2012, 7:31 p.m.