Like many people, Caroline Reid experienced a sudden and unwelcome drop in business when the pandemic hit the U.S. last spring. An Australian comedian based in Miami, Reid went from giving live performances to figuring out online shows, some of which, she says, “were absolutely awful and horrendous.” The shutdown of global travel didn’t mix well with the content of Reid’s comedy, either: she performs in character as the larger-than-life “Pam Ann,” a flight attendant with a penchant for dramatic ’60s-style bouffants and eye makeup.

When a friend told Reid about a platform called Pietra, which gives individuals the tools to develop and launch their own product lines, she decided to give it a shot. “Through the pandemic we were all forced to try and find other ways to broaden what we have already, or do things we might not have necessarily done,” she says. She was in survival mode.

Reid had sold plenty of merch before — mugs, T-shirts, and coasters, as well as a retro airline bag — but through Pietra, she created a line of Pam Ann-themed candles, with names like “Smells Like First Class” and “Smells Like Poppers.” Her hottest seller to date, “Smells Like Cocaine,” was inspired by Diptyque’s popular fig-scented candle, with notes of hyacinth, oakmoss, and coconut. “It’s a really beautiful smell,” says Reid. “And I believe, from people I know in Miami that are big cokeheads, that it smells like cocaine.”

A screenshot of an online platform with display type
Screenshot of Pietra’s online platform.

Pietra itself is a product of the pandemic, at least in its current iteration. Founded by a team including several ex-Uber employees and backed by the venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz, the company launched in 2019 as a fine jewelry marketplace where shoppers could purchase ready-to-wear items or work with a brand to design a custom piece. Pietra also provided business infrastructure for those jewelry brands, including payments, insurance, shipping, and customer service — not things an established company necessarily needs, but potentially useful options for upstarts.

The team decided to pivot last year, says Pietra CEO Ronak Trivedi, and focus on the 10 percent of users that were proving “super successful” on the platform: small brands that had a handle on branding and content creation, and that were thriving on social media. Pietra now covers a wide range of product categories — from wellness supplements and swimwear to ceramics and sports drinks — and offers users an end-to-end menu of services, including product sourcing, packaging design, warehousing, shipping, and legal help. As before, consumers can shop directly on Pietra’s site, through its creator marketplace; Pietra takes a cut on these transactions, and on certain services that creators purchase.

In other words, you don’t need a background in supply chain management or graphic design to start your own brand with Pietra. Trivedi says his team’s goal is to automate or otherwise facilitate aspects of running a business that aren’t particularly fun or easy, allowing users to focus on the creative work that they do best. “These people are not building their businesses on walking to UPS,” he says. “What they’re really excited by, and what they’re good at, is promoting their brand, telling their story, and building a community around their products.”

Screenshot of website.
Screenshot of Pietra’s online platform.

This isn’t a new business model. In 2019, Business of Fashion reported on a booming but secretive segment of the beauty industry: low-profile companies that provide the infrastructure for celebrities, reality television stars, and influencers get their own brands off the ground. Celebrity beauty brands have been around for decades, but following the breakaway success of Kylie Jenner and Rihanna’s cosmetics lines, everyone wanted in on the game. While Pietra fills a similar role to these “brand builders,” which handle operations like product development and retailer relations, it represents a downstream shift in who has access to these tools. They’re not just available to household names and top-tier influencers, but to everyone, from creators with mid-size followings to individuals with no followers at all. And Pietra is striking in its transparency: Rather than acting as an invisible background player and giving brands the appearance of having in-house operations, its graphic website lays bare everything it does for its users. It shows consumers exactly what it takes to build a modern brand.

It shows consumers exactly what it takes to build a modern brand.

For Reid, who has gone on to make lip gloss, hoodies, and totes with Pietra, the platform is valuable precisely because it allows her to outsource the significant work of finding suppliers and shipping out product. At the same time, the site feels user-friendly and, she says, is “easy for idiots like me to navigate.” Indeed, the process of developing a candle on Pietra’s website is a little like shopping for anything else online: you start by picking a supplier, a vessel, and a few fragrance blends to sample, which auto-populate based on your scent preferences.

Pietra users can spend as much time as they want developing their products, but at its core the platform is optimized for comparatively lightweight brand-building. A direct-to-consumer business might spend $100,000 to have an agency or design studio create its visual identity, says Jesse Reed, a partner at the New York design office Order. He typically works on these kinds of projects for three months, and those with the fastest turnarounds — say, four to six weeks — still involve deep-dives into the organization’s culture and history. By contrast, a Pietra user can hire a freelance graphic designer, through the platform, to create three unique product packaging designs for $200. “[Creators can] say, ‘I have this Pinterest board, I’m looking for ’70s chic,’ and the designer on the other end is like, ‘No problem, give me 72 hours, and I’m going to give you six or seven designs,’” Trivedi says, noting that Pietra is in the “very early days” of this side of its marketplace.

Reed admits to feeling a little curmudgeonly about the prospect of such a rapid design process, which he says devalues his profession, preferring to work on projects with deeper design roots. (He’s not a fan of mood boards, either.) But as Deva Pardue, who created the visual identity for Pietra with her studio partner Alex Stikeleather, points out, creators who are just starting out in their entrepreneurial pursuits aren’t likely to hire small design studios, let alone big agencies. Working with a freelance designer in a more limited capacity may be just right for them and their budget. Besides, as the world of lifestyle startups has proved time and again, even high-end branding processes can result in a homogenized aesthetic; time and budget doesn’t necessarily guarantee innovation.

White logo on orange-red background
PIetra’s logo designed by Deva Pardu and Alex Stikeleather.

As for the visual identity of Pietra itself, Pardue says she and Stikeleather wanted the startup to have a look reminiscent of the business-to-business tech platforms that Pietra users already trust, like YouTube, Patreon, and Squarespace. At the same time, they wanted it to feel inspiring, like a brand that someone might create on the platform, without competing against the actual brands on the site. Because Pietra means “stone” in Italian, Pardue and Stikeleather replaced the dot in the “i” with a stone-like shape, which they echoed throughout the website as a frame for photos. In the absence of other brand imagery, they brought in a bright orange-red color, a pleasant jolt in a largely black and white color scheme. The aim was to come off as professional but warm — fitting for a brand trying to cultivate the next generation of brands. “We kind of thought of it as: Pietra’s the grown-up business partner that’s still kind of cool and can hang,” Pardue says.

Even high-end branding processes can result in a homogenized aesthetic.Time and budget doesn’t necessarily guarantee innovation.

To an extent, Pietra shares DNA with the many merch companies that have popped up to service social media stars, for whom branded sweatshirts, sew-on patches, and pop sockets can be a lucrative addition to revenue from ads and paid posts. Though Trivedi wants Pietra to be available to anyone with an idea they want to bring to life, he says that the majority of current users are individuals with some existing audience on social media. (The website’s homepage highlights a loungewear collection from Hailey Sani, who has 1.39 million subscribers on YouTube, and a skincare line by Ella Rose McFadin, who shares photos of her rather idyllic New York City life with her 118,000 Instagram followers.) Traditional merch is one use case for Pietra’s platform, but, Trivedi says, “I think we’re redefining what it means for someone to have merch.” A skincare line might be considered “elevated merch” — something akin to the more fleshed-out brands that some creators have launched, like YouTuber Emma Chamberlain’s coffee company or TikToker Addison Rae’s beauty brand.

The direct-to-consumer startup boom of the last decade resulted in a crowded brand landscape, which has only gotten busier with the influx of creator-led labels. Just as companies like Casper and Glossier disrupted industries long-dominated by lumbering corporations — their pared-back branding a signifier of their modernity — lines created by online personalities are once again redefining the elements of a successful brand. It’s not necessarily about having the best tech, the best product, or even the best branding: It’s about the person the brand is attached to, and the community it represents. Pietra is betting on the idea that those people can, and will increasingly, come from anywhere. “Everyone has an equal shot, in my mind, of creating something unique that catches fire and captures the hearts and minds of consumers,” Trivedi says.