Thursday, February 28, 2008

Inside StyleFeeder: A Discussion with Founder & CTO Philip Jacob

If you are serious about online shopping then you are no stranger to StyleFeeder, the personal shopping engine that can make your online shopping nightmares disappear. However, if you've read the About StyleFeeder page on their website then you know exactly why I was so excited to get an interview with Founder and CTO Philip Jacob... here's a quick excerpt to get you up to speed (you can read the rest here and read more about what StyleFeeder does on my earlier post here):

"...Call them Bea and Phil. Call them us, who made this site for ourselves and now for you.

In the winter of 2005, Phil noticed that Bea was spending a lot of time emailing to her friends things she had found online. Bea didn’t know what Phil knew, that although email is good for many things, it’s a private and inefficient way to share links.

And Bea finds a lot. And Phil thought it would be nice if Bea and her friends could share things online, and maybe a hundred other people could watch.

So StyleFeeder is Phil’s answer to Bea’s obsession: some things are so damn cool that the world has to know."

I can definitely see why StyleFeeder is so successful, they have a great team of laid back and fashion obsessed employees, they treat every user like a rock star or celebrity stylist, and they focus on quality. I sent Philip a couple of questions about his baby, StyleFeeder, and I'm sure you will be as delighted about the responses as I was.

1. First off, amazing application. From your point of view, what does StyleFeeder stand for?
Thanks for the compliment :) StyleFeeder is a personal shopping engine, a service that uses the intelligence of the network to help you find new products based on your preferences. StyleFeeder is to retail what blogs are to media, netflix is to movies, is to music and so forth. We're reinventing e-commerce around the individual. E-commerce today is very much based on making it easy for sellers to get in front of buyers, which seems totally backwards to us. When you're shopping, you want to see products that are relevant and interesting to you - it's a simple concept, and the way we do this is to rely on the massive amount of preference data that we've collected so far and use that to power our recommendation service.

2. One of the best qualities of StyleFeeder is the concept of user personalization and customization. Basically I felt that when Phil made this app for Bea, Bea was me! In the development stages, was there a lot of user input, especially with the strong emphasis on user personalization?
Actually, at the very beginning, I developed StyleFeeder for Bea's needs and my needs. We wanted to create a service that made sense to us, so the best way to do that was to build it around our own usage patterns. Very quickly, though, we realized that this just wasn't going to be compelling, since we still didn't have a way to help people shop outside of their own little network of friends. One night during dinner, I had a conversation with Jason Rennie about the work that he was doing on his PhD at MIT, specifically, the power of the algorithms he'd worked on to help people filter large amounts of data based on preference. He subsequently joined StyleFeeder and still works on making our algorithms perform the magic that helps you find the cool pair of shoes found by someone in Sweden.

3. Online shopping has kind of been in limbo, everyone uses the same process, social networks and web 2.0 kind of skipped over the online shopping industry. Now we've seen a large amount of developers trying to fill the void through virtual dressing rooms and social online shopping. Some people say that StyleFeeder kind of paved a path for innovating online shopping. How do you think StyleFeeder fits into the online shopping world?
What's happening is that the ownership of the store catalog, an asset traditionally owned by the retailer, has started to transition to individuals. There are a lot of reasons for this, but you see it everywhere: people creating a collection of products that is appealing to them and merchandising their own virtual storefronts. All of this product information used to be in retailer's catalogs... when you wanted to see the latest J Crew stuff, you'd typically look in the J Crew catalog. Nowadays, you're more likely to find out about new products from your friends or people you interact with online, which, frankly, is much more interesting and compelling.

4. StyleFeeder does so much, how did you guys squeeze all of that into this sleek design that can fit into the corner of a blog, a profile, the side of your browser, or as a little button on your toolbar without feeling intrusive to the user?
We are pretty vicious when it comes to being concise about what we do, especially on the UI. Some of it is process and some of it is
instinct. But thanks for noticing ;)

5. A lot of widgets, although I would not necessarily give you guys the widget label, focus on providing services to one or two popular websites, i.e Facebook, MySpace, YouTube, and kind of disappear behind the big names. Was it a decision from the start to not associate StyleFeeder with any one application, but to keep the brand strong and independent?
Funny - the decision was to stay out of the way of the users and just show them cool stuff rather than to focus on beating them over the
head with our logo. We are definitely independent and offer cool, customizable widgets for any platform (or RSS feeds if you care to
develop your own...).

6. Depending on the user, StyleFeeder can mean lots of things. However I'm curious of what could it mean for business users like upcoming fashion designers or magazine editors?
For magazine editors, it's an opportunity to come down from their ivory towers and see what people are really interested in and find out what looks from the runway are actually making their way to user's wishlists. There's a difference between style and fashion: style is your "way" of doing things whereas fashion indicates the preferred way of doing things. To us, it's more important that StyleFeeder is a way for you to explore your own interests rather than learn about what someone in an office in NYC thinks you should wear.

For business owners, StyleFeeder represents a huge opportunity. If you're a retailer, wouldn't you love to get to know a few thousand of your customers on a deeper level? To know what products that you don't sell are interesting to them so you can offer them something
new? To send a discount code to someone interested in your product? We've worked with a few retailers so far on initiatives like this and we're always eager to do more in that regard.

7. I'm personally excited to watch StyleFeeder evolve in the future, are there any plans for improvement?
Yes :) In 2008, you'll see the capabilities of StyleFeeder improve, by becoming richer and offering you a much more capable shopping
experience. Among other things, the UI will become more personalized, and we're focused on improving search. Stay tuned.

8. Finally, I know everyone whose has read the StyleFeeder start up story on your website wants to know about Phil and Bea. But what I want to know is where can I find Bea's StyleFeed...?!?
Aha... Well, her blog is here:

... and her StyleFeed is here:

Be sure to add her to your watchlist!

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