Rob Smith, Founder at The Phluid Project, on How Self-Discovery Led to the Creation of the World’s First Gender-Free Store

The work you’ve done to create a gender-free brand and community beyond the brand is extremely admirable. Was there a specific event, or series of events, that catalyzed the launch?

I had spent 30 years of my life in retail. My last job was Global Chief Product Officer at Levis and Nike Kids. I was managing multi-billion dollar businesses and always loved what I was doing. I was also super active in non-profits, especially those that served the LGBTQ community. I was living the last 10 years of my life raising money and making money, and it felt good at the time.
And then something happened to me…I went to my first Burning Man. I didn’t realize the impact it would have on me.

You’re in this utopian society of people who are giving and open and accepting of everyone. Within days, a whole social construct exists, and everyone adapts to it. You don’t talk about your profession. You don’t know anyone’s sexual orientation. By the end, it’s just love and giving and caring.

There’s this saying, “Don’t quit your job after your first Burning Man” because you question whether what you’re doing professionally is benefitting society. I felt like I was ready to do something different, but I didn’t know what that was.

I quickly gave my notice and decided to spend time in self-discovery. I wanted to understand ancient civilizations, cultures, religions, and traditions. My plan was to go through Central America, South America, India, Nepal, and Tibet. It was a highly spiritual and educational experience. I spent time in with indigenous folks in Central America, and in the Amazon, in Peru, I spent three weeks doing Ayahuasca. One of the most profound moments in my life was when I was a young kid. I was very creative, artistic and sensitive, and it wasn’t working for me.

Going into high school, I decided to manifest as a new guy. I was going to play football and hang out with the popular kids. I became this new person and left that kid behind. It took a long time for my 12-year-old self to forgive me. It wasn’t until I was at this retreat that I was finally able to. During the next ceremony, I went in and I said, What am I supposed to do with my life?, and in the morning I wrote down, Consider opening a gender-free, non-binary shopping environment. “Phluid”.

I finished my travels, found a retail space, signed a lease and opened 10 months later.

The mission of The Phluid Project must be incredibly motivating, but I’m sure you’ve run into obstacles along the way. What are the most important lessons you have learned? What should future founders be most aware of before launching a brand?

Be original. Do something that resonates with you and what you’re passionate about because you’re going to do it every day for 24 hours a day. If you don’t love it and believe in it, it’s going to torture you. The only thing that is going to get you through is your passion.

Also understand that whatever you plan, even when you have great experience and great plans, so much happens that you can’t foresee so don’t expect anything to go perfectly. Also, be ready to pivot. Start with an idea and a plan, but be ready to pivot and listen to the signs and where it leads you. 6 months ago, I never anticipated creating a gender-expansive initiative, but I’m so excited about it.

Culture must be of utmost importance at The Phluid Project. Can you describe your company culture and how you are able to achieve it?

I surround myself with people who are reflective of the community and bring their voice and their perspective. The Phluid Project has grown to 20 team members but only 3 of them are full time. To attract young talent, I’ve had to give them the ability to work multiple jobs if that’s what they desire. To create cohesion among the team, every week we all get together in the office to debrief and make sure everyone is on the same page. Our office is in the basement of our brick and mortar store. It is a conference room that we use during the day, and at night we make it available to anyone who wants to have a free meeting space as long as their intentions are good.

At Assembled Brands, we understand the importance of creating a community as a part of our core business. The community you are building is so important and really inspiring. What steps have you taken to nurture this and how do you plan to continue to grow?

I wanted to open up a store because, first of all, I wanted to try something new, and I needed to engage in the community and build trust. Who I wanted to serve at the core was queer young folks, but particularly non-binary transgender because of their shopping experience. I wanted to create a community space so I devoted a third of the space to community space for events. We’ve had over 200 events since we’ve opened. It’s been great to build trust with the community and for them to get to know who we are and for us to get to know who they are. It has been so powerful. The foundation of the brand is the community.

I’m creating a brand that transcends retail. It’s a brand that young people trust, and when they see it they know that I’m standing up for them, whoever they are. They are free to be who they are.

Learn more about Assembled Brands here!

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