“When I started at Perch the world was convinced there was a ‘Retail Apocalypse,’” Trevor Sumner says thinking back to 2017. That’s not a good environment to break into when your goal is to redefine how brands use their retail spaces.
But where others saw a negative—department store closures and stale settings, Sumner saw a positive—a chance to try something new and exciting. This sort of optimism and forward-thinking is at the heart of everything Sumner does, both in his professional life and his personal life. He’s not looking back, but instead always has his eyes on the prize.
For instance, whether it’s starting a new business, eating something strange or head butting sharks, he’s always pushing boundaries and going at breakneck speed. And if you think he’s going to slow down so you can catch up, guess again.
Instead, you’re better off trying to keep up—with his successes, with his adventures, with his innovative ideas. To give you a head start we’re happy to with you some insight into how he thinks, works and plays.
When you’re a kid the future can seem far off—something that’s only found in a book, way off in the night sky or in a science fiction show on TV. But growing up, Sumner experienced visions of tomorrow, everyday and firsthand.
“My father was one of the leaders at Bell Labs, the legendary hub of American technology innovation in the 20th century,” Sumner remembers. “His team was responsible for the T1 line, the first commercially viable digital transmission system and the foundation of early Internet communication, Unix, C++ and modern OSS and BSS systems.”
As any kid would, Sumner looked up to his dad and wanted to be like him. Though Sumner didn’t know that what his dad and his colleagues were creating would one day make possible the work he would be doing years later, Sumner did understand the importance and applications of these groundbreaking technologies.
“I followed in his path, at first naively as a child does, but quickly was attracted to the ways that computer science as a general principle was about solving problems,” Sumner explains. “You could build programs to tackle virtually any informational or interactional challenge.”
With that type of background, it doesn’t come as a surprise that he studied computer science at Princeton. Just like any great idea finds success by delivering what the market needs when it needs it, he entered the working world at the perfect time.
“When I graduated in 1998, at the height of the Internet boom, every business was being reimagined as a digital, online version of itself, reinvented in code,” he says. “The possibilities seemed limitless. The optimism in the power of technology was electric.”
Riding that positive wave, he worked at a handful of high-growth tech companies, always moving forward and up the ladder. “At my first job, I was employee 250, then 40, then 30, then 20 then 7, and then I founded my first company, LocalVox,” he says. “It felt like I was always gravitating to that moment of inception.”
Part of this drive forward obviously came from his dad, but it is also from his environment growing up on New York City’s Washington Square Park in the late 1970s and 80s. “It felt like the center of it all. The B-Boys breakdancing on cardboard boxes, the skater punks, the gay rights movement,” Sumner recalls. “NYC has a metabolism unlike any other city. It’s diverse and energetic and we are all moving at a relentless pace.”
With the combination of his upbringing and surroundings pushing him ever forward, Sumner didn’t stand pat with LocalVox, which was named one of the top startups in NYC by Business Insider, Forbes and Huffington Post. Instead, he continued to innovate starting businesses and advising and mentoring other doers until taking the role of CEO of Perch in 2017.
At first glance, a company that deals with brick-and-mortar stores wouldn’t seem to fit with Sumner’s fast-paced, cutting-edge ethos. But at second look you realize that’s exactly why Perch founder Jared Schiffman saw a perfect partner in Sumner, who realized retail wasn’t dying it was just stagnant and ripe for reinvention.
So what do you get when you bring a tech guy into an analog space? How about the Jo Malone Fragrance interactive retail experience that helps customers visualize, smell and identify complementary fragrances, a touchscreen that creates purse personalization at Kate Spade New York stores or an augmented reality that virtually helps people wear CoverGirl, MAC Cosmetics and Bourjois makeup so, as Sumner puts it, “you can try more combinations without ending up looking like the Joker.”
With an expertise in computing and a penchant for being a step ahead of the curve, you’d think that Sumner would believe technology is the solution to every problem. But that’s not the case, which is why everything that Perch does focuses on the relationship between the customer and brand, not the customer and a keypad or video screen.
“Most important in the process is understanding the end shopper, their buying process and frictions. If you are not solving their problems, what’s the point?” he asserts. “Getting a solution out there at scale means really grokking all the parties that are necessary to bring the solution to market and solving for their needs. You need experience. You need empathy. There is far too much technology out there for technology’s sake.”
This same notion underlies Sumner’s strategy for both creating and running a company. In terms of the latter, again, it’s not the tech that tells you if you are on the right track with a new idea—but the people.
“Ninety-percent of startups pivot their solution because as they explore the problem set and get customer feedback, they realize why their initial approach won’t work or that there is a hidden opportunity within the problem set that is more valuable or exciting,” Sumner explains.
Since the human element plays such an important role in figuring out solutions as well as the dynamics to make those solutions work, it stands to reason that employees are the key to a business finding those answers and implementing them. That’s why when it comes to running a business Sumner focuses on the human element.
“Leadership is about people, aligning them to a mission, making sure each understands their responsibilities, and setting expectations on behavior,” Sumner says. “If you empower your people with the right frameworks, you can build extraordinary organizations. You’ve got to love your team to be willing to go to war together because that’s what startups are.”
LIFE IN THE FAST LANE
If startups are war, then life is a thrill ride for Sumner. Actually, comparing it to a roller coaster doesn’t even do his free-time adventures justice. We’re talking about a guy who travels the world in search of unique experiences and exciting escapes like exotic meals, big mountain skiing or whitewater rafting.
One such trip took him scuba diving in Antarctica where he came face-to-face with a leopard seal. “It’s the size of a grizzly bear, has a head of a lion, swims faster than penguins and is the top of the food chain,” he remembers. “If you flinch and run, then it knows you are prey. The objective is to hold your ground so it thinks you aren’t afraid, which is what we did, and it left us alone.”
What does one take away from an encounter in which your life is on the line? “There are a lot of threats in life. You get remarkably far by not showing weakness and standing your ground,” he remarks. “People treat you differently. See strength as substance. You may still get eaten alive, but you didn’t make it easy on them.”
Easy is not a word that’s used often to describe anything Sumner does. He tries to get up early and meditate, and when he does, he finds it extremely valuable. But even with that calming influence in his life, you get the sense that adrenaline does more for him than relaxation.
Maybe that’s why he defines his way of life by the quote, “When you find yourself walking on thin ice ... dance!” It reminds him to take chances, try new things and not to be cowed by the possibility of failure. “You’ve got to walk confidently across that thin ice, because that’s the path you’ve chosen and you might as well walk it your way,” he says. “You can’t play your life scared. Dance your way through and hopefully you will enjoy the moments all the more.”
And it’s not just on ice that Sumner likes to takes chance. Come wintertime, his drive for excitement manifests itself in his love of snowboarding, a passion he shares with his wife, Emily, a thrill-seeking, fashion, fitness and outdoor adventurer in her own right.
“I love that moment at the top of the mountain, looking down the steep edge and saying to yourself, ‘You’ve got to lean in. You get tentative and lean back and you’re dead,’” he says.
“The wind, the rush, the feeling of asserting your control on a force so much greater than you. Dancing down that mountain and making it your own. It’s exhilarating.” And, as with everything when it comes to Sumner’s business or pleasure, try to keep up.