Trendsie Turns Online Shopping Invites Inside Out

On a grand scale, the current economic landscape is tinged with a shade of post-bubble caution. Fewer entrepreneurs are venturing into the abyss, while those…

On a grand scale, the current economic landscape is tinged with a shade of post-bubble caution. Fewer entrepreneurs are venturing into the abyss, while those who do tread onward warily, aware of the shaky ground beneath. Innovation, from the outside, is scarce and limited, centered around industries with an unpredictable future.

Conversely, New York City and some of its metropolitan counterparts have become home to pockets of buzz, where startups and entrepreneurs see the broken market structure as an entry point. Their approach is a relieving alternative, propelled forward by excitement, but it remains grounded in reality - a long, sometimes arduous journey is a viable possibility, but certainly not a deterrent. This grounded optimism, especially these days, is refreshing.

Jordan Garner is part of that New York scene. His venture, Trendsie, released self-funded in late August, has the classic markings of a forward-thinking startup. The site was launched by Garner and two others over a rapid-fire two weeks, under a well-calculated set of limited but provocative initiatives; namely, it serves as a social platform for online shoppers, where users list their favorite sites, follow friends with similar taste, and benefit financially when their followers take their recommendations. For the time being, it stands just as a glimmer - a promising, fully-functioning one - of its future self.

The idea, Garner said, was to take the referral process now standard on sites like Gilt, Net-a-Porter, and Bonobos, and turn it inside out. Rather than send individual invites from each site to each friend - a move for which sites generally provide a monetary reward - Trendsie makes it possible for your friends to see all of your favorites in one portal; should they wish to join one, they can follow the personal referral link attached to your profile. In turn, they’re exposed to new venues, and you’re awarded with whatever perk that site provides to its promoters. “The problem is if I have five places I like, or more, that’s five different emails I have to send. And we all know how everyone’s inbox is so clogged right now with daily deals,” Garner said. “It makes refer-a-friend programs opt-in. You choose which friends to follow and if you click ‘shop here’ for a store that they've uploaded a personal invitation link, then we take you to that shop through your friend's link. And if you buy, they get the credit. Simple as that.”

Garner, a Harvard Business School graduate who spent time in finance and consulting before venturing out on his own, has an entrepreneurial strategy rooted in problem solving, saying he prescribes to the mindset, “You want a business that’s an aspirin, not a vitamin.” Trendsie came to fruition after Garner stumbled upon Lot18, an invitation-only website for wine and epicurean products that seemed, to him, a venue of which he should have otherwise been aware. “I thought, ‘Okay, this a great site. Why haven’t I heard about this?’ It’s been around for six-plus months. There’s clearly something broken about this referral process,” he explained. “I think that one of the things that’s wrong with referral programs and one of the reasons I didn’t get one from my friends is that it feels a little tacky.” In its place, Garner presumed, should be a dynamic platform that brings together social networks and an integrated recommendation system.

Two weeks and $9,000 later, Garner, along with Trace Wax and Cemre Güngör, launched Trendsie from Dogpatch Labs in Greenwich Village. Their goal over that first two weeks was to “figure out a minimum viable product,” Garner said, with a list of interlinking social goals for users: list favorite shops on Trendsie, attach a personal invitation link to each store on that list, easily follow friends to which you’re already connected through the Facebook API, and receive shop recommendations based on user popularity. In addition to their ability to build such a site, Güngör and Wax were favored, in part, for their design aesthetic, and Trendsie has subsequently taken a look desired by online consumers - clean and navigable, with a clear tie between content and form. “I definitely wanted a very minimalist feel,” Garner said, “and I didn’t want to try to do too much.” Now a month and running, stores are gathering followers, with Gilt, Jetsetter, and Bonobos - arguably the more well-practiced brands in an expanding online boutique market - leading the pack.

Despite an eye for high design, Trendsie’s plans remain social, with particular concern for creating a database of like-minded consumers. “In terms of competitors, I think SVPPLY and Fancy are phenomenal sites but are used to find interesting things you might aspire to buy,” Garner explained. “But our site will help users find shops through their friends where they will actually buy.” Trendsie, being composed largely of user-generated content, fosters accessibility through its social component. Though sites focused on high price points can be found on the database, their visibility is subject to the taste of your friends and followers. “No matter who you are, whether you’re a teenage girl or a woman in her 40s with kids, that’s probably true - your friend group has similar taste,” Garner said. “What you really need is a dynamic site that allows you to incorporate your social network and then basically have the recommendations tailored to you based on who of your friends you think has good taste.” More simply, have a majority of your friends mark a site as a favorite, and the more likely it is to be recommended to you. With a system geared toward a realistic shopping experience, the more likely you are to accept the recommendation; in turn, your friend is more likely to benefit as well.

Monetization, of course, is the necessary endpoint. Some methods, predictably, are both more straightforward and appealing for users, leaning toward partnerships with merchants hoping to optimize Trendsie’s user base by offering deals and incentives. In time, though, piggybacking of sorts is a potential goal, with funding coming directly out of the shopping purchases made through Trendsie recommendations. “The way that you could eventually make money, at least initially, was at places like Net-a-Porter, where someone goes through my affiliate links at Net-a-Porter, and I get 7-percent commission. That can really add up over time,” he explained. The interface, though already done in good taste, has planned additions as well, including search and filter functionality directed at gender and product personalization.

As with all startups, particularly those with boostrapped funding like Trendsie’s, forward momentum is vital, as the window for establishment is financially limited. The site, still invite-only, was launched with a tightly-controlled set of goals, largely technical, and now some aggressive moves are in order. Versed in user-experience design, Garner is juggling these additions and adjustments, among others, to move the site from 100s of users to 10,000 and beyond. Steady pacing has allowed for thorough production on the development; now, Garner said, he’s looking toward the user experience. “I’m trying to look for the thing that’s going to really propel it,” he explained, adding, with that refreshing vision now rare, “there are a few more things I really want to push, and if I can get those, then it’s going all-in.’”

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