A New Shade of Startup with Sarah Colburn (M.S. in Commerce '14) of Backdrop

September 20, 2019

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Sarah Colburn

As most might predict, Sarah Colburn didn’t come to the Comm School expecting to launch a paint company. And though that’s exactly what she’s done as a Co-Founder of Backdrop, it was far from a direct route along her career path.

Colburn began her career as an Investment Banking Analyst at Keefe, Bruyette & Woods, a boutique investment bank in the financial services sector. She quickly shifted gears, accepting a position first as a Strategic Finance Associate and then moving into a role as Operations Manager for BioLite, a Brooklyn-based company making consumer energy goods for outdoor enthusiasts and rural customers in emerging markets. After three years with the company, Colburn was compelled to start her own company. As is often the case behind innovation and startup efforts, there was an overlooked issue in the marketplace that needed addressing—and it just so happened to be a problem with paint.

“My co-founders and I were tired of the old school painting process. It was confusing and expensive, and required multiple trips to the hardware store, which makes no sense in 2019,” Colburn says. “We realized this category hadn’t been innovated in 100 years. We did a ton of research and hosted focus groups on social media, which made us realize that so many people across all generations shared our same frustrations. It was clearly time for a big disruption to the home paint category, and we are motivated to spearhead the change.”

The result of their research discovery and creativity was Backdrop, a company with a different approach to satisfying a market that has been occupied by some longstanding household names. Backdrop’s size, spirit, and crowd-tested approach to how it ideates, presents, and packages its products have given the company flexibility and forged emotional connections with its customers. Colburn says Backdrop has effectively reframed the act of painting one’s home into a fun form of self-expression and color exploration that had previously been an arduous task.

We recently spoke to Colburn to ask her more about her entrepreneurial home design venture, how McIntire's M.S. in Commerce prepared her for it, and what current students should know about going into business for themselves.

What strengths does your company bring to the paint market, and how do you see those unique characteristics making a difference for consumers?
When we set out to reimagine the paint industry, we took a comprehensive look at the entire process start to finish. One of the biggest pain points we identified was the can. Backdrop’s stainless steel can is easy to open and close. It has an ergonomic handle that makes carrying/pouring much more comfortable. It has a wide-mouth opening for a clean pour that won’t make a mess. Plus, it’s really beautiful.

What have you found most challenging about founding your own business that you might not have expected?
Starting a company is challenging in so many ways. For me, one of the most unexpected challenges of starting a business has been being at the mercy of other people like suppliers, vendors—the list goes on. I initially thought that starting a business would give me more control, but so often we’re waiting on external parties that we actually have little to no control over.

What about this venture has brought you the most satisfaction thus far?
The best part of starting Backdrop has been seeing the way customers respond to and are inspired by our product. Watching what started out as an idea come to life and seeing real people interact with and enjoy our brand have been amazing. A fresh coat of paint is the cheapest, easiest, and most fun way to transform a space.

What are your long-term goals for the company? What are you still hoping to achieve in the long term?
We’ve barely scratched the surface. Backdrop launched less than a year ago, so we still have a long way to go in terms of our goals as a company. We’re building the paint company for the next 100 years—built with the needs of customers at the forefront. We work to create a fantastic experience through thoughtful branding, use of technology, and making paint better for you and the environment. We’re also shifting the way people think about their walls. Paint is no longer a hardware store purchase, but it’s the most impactful design purchase you can make to transform your space for a small amount of money. This summer, we launched at Urban Outfitters, which has been so exciting, as it is proving our point that paint should be sold alongside all your other home design purchases.

How has your Comm School education helped inform your work? What experiences are you still able to draw on as you grow Backdrop?
My Comm School education has been so helpful in founding Backdrop. Exposure to so many facets of business has been pivotal: from crafting a personal narrative and learning to write emails and memos (as much as I hated it at the time) to touring factories and ports. They have all been a tremendous help throughout my career. I remember touring a Fareva factory and learning about quality control, thinking it was cool but not that useful since I was going into finance. Now I work with our factory on a daily basis and see for myself how important those quality metrics are.

How can students interested in starting their own company get the most out of their time at McIntire?
Make friends, and enjoy the process. McIntire has so many great programs, faculty, and events to get involved in. Go to everything you can, and really immerse yourself in all the community has to offer. Most importantly, leverage your classmates: Your peers are all going to do impressive things. You’re lucky to be surrounded by an incredible network of students who are going to go out into the world and be really successful. I leaned so heavily on the friends I made through McIntire when we were starting Backdrop—and really at every stage of my career so far.

What other advice can you offer to current McIntire students interested in entrepreneurship or launching their own startups? What are some concrete things they can do now?
Be curious. Starting a company takes a lot of work and doing a lot of doing things you don’t know how to do. The more you can learn about different things (even things you don’t think are relevant) and pay attention to new perspectives, the better off you will be. You never know what might come in handy down the line.