The shift to ecommerce has been a natural progression for companies that sell everyday, approachable items like clothing and beauty products. But brands that sell pricey, technical and often highly variable products like skis, golf clubs and camping gear have historically struggled to make the online transition, as consumers tend to prefer in-person consultation at physical stores.
However, the best product for individual consumers might not be available at brick-and-mortar stores, and the sales associates might not necessarily be the best qualified to recommend the right gear.
Enter Curated. The company has developed a three-sided marketplace to replicate the valuable in-store experiences people want – and need – when purchasing high-consideration items. Curated works with a team of experts across various specialties who connect directly with consumers, then make recommendations for products from brands on the platform based on the individual’s skill level, goals and budget.
The company, which just raised $39 million in Series B funding led by Greylock, is currently focused on sports and outdoor gear, but plans to ultimately expand into everything from cameras and cars.
“We want Curated to be the place where you buy everything that matters,” says CEO and co-founder Eddie Vivas.
In the latest episode of Greymatter, Vivas sat down with Greylock general partner and Curated board member David Thacker to discuss the company’s long-brewing formation; the technical challenge of building a three-sided marketplace that is driven by humans – not chatbots; how Covid has accelerated business; and the company’s bold ambitions for the future.
You can listen to the podcast here
David Thacker: Hello everyone. Welcome to the Greymatter Podcast.
My name is David Thacker, I’m a partner here at Greylock, and we’re excited today to have Eddie Vivas with us, he’s the CEO and founder of Curated.com. As we announced recently, Greylock just invested in the Series B of Curated, and I’ve known Eddie for quite some time now. He and his three co-founders, we worked pretty closely together at LinkedIn. So, excited to have him on our show today. Welcome Eddie.
Eddie Vivas: Thanks for having me here David.
DT: Okay Eddie, let’s start off. My first question for you. Maybe you could spend one minute telling us how you ended up in Silicon valley.
EV: Sure. My intro to the valley was a little different than most. I dropped out of high school, I started my first company, and due to the inability to raise any venture capital, I bootstrapped it from the ground up. It was an ad tech company. This was during the Wild Wild West of the internet. I got a little bit of luck, a lot of hard work, I did well.
But I realized, after about six or seven years of doing that, that I didn’t love what I was doing. I sold that business and started another company that I was very passionate about called bright.com. The idea behind Bright was that we’d be able to use AI to help companies identify who they should hire, the idea being that between a resume and a job description, there’s a lot of interesting information that you can extract, and you could identify people who would have been otherwise overlooked.
About three years into that journey, LinkedIn approached us, and I made the decision to sell the company and join LinkedIn. There I led our talent solutions business, which is where I met you, you were my boss there. And where I thought I was going to come in and have an easy rest, invest, I definitely worked my back off, trying to learn as much as I could and build our business there.
Towards the end of my tenure, at the very end, just as I was about to leave, Microsoft went and acquired LinkedIn. And there was quite a few people there who knew that I was going to start my next business, people who were beyond my imagination that I got the opportunity to work with, who said, “As much as I love Microsoft, I think I’m ready for something new.” So there, Curated was born.
DT: Terrific. And tell us about Curated. It’s an e-commerce marketplace startup, give us an overview of what Curated does and how it works.
EV: So the idea behind Curated is that, whenever you’re making a major decision, it’s always best with the advice of a friend or an expert. So what we do is we connect consumers to experts, who give them unbiased advice with regards to purchases.
In our case today, we focus on the outdoor, so think of that as somebody who’s looking to buy a set of golf clubs or snowboard or a bike. And the way that the process tactically works is a consumer will come in, and we’ll ask them 10 to 15 questions. So we’ll ask them things like, “What’s your skill level?” “What’s your age and your height and your weight?” “What’s your budget?” “What are you looking to improve?”
And then based on that, we decide what’s the right expert to connect them to, based on that expert’s background. The consumer and the expert will go back and forth, initially on our website and then over text messaging, and then the expert will send a set of recommendations, we call them curations to a consumer. “And here’s what I think would be best for you and why.” And then when the consumer decides that they want to buy those things, they can actually check out on our site.
DT: Great. So it’s a pretty unique model. That’s one of the things that attracted us to the company. The idea of consumers going online and getting free expert advice, unbiased advice from people about important product decisions is really compelling. Can you talk a little bit about the founding of the company, the impetus for it and how you brought the idea in the early days of the company?
EV: The idea is one that I’d had for 10 years, but always dismissed it as something I would actually try to go start, due to the difficulty of building a three-sided marketplace, and one where you have to vet the supply so well, meaning in our case our experts, where you have to think through how do you like load, balance things in a real-time basis.
But the story behind it was one where, I actually had a personal experience when I went on a snowboarding trip, and I’d go on this trip every year for three or four years.
And it was with a group of friends who were all great skiers, I’m from Florida, so naturally, I didn’t have that much experience doing so, and while I loved spending time with my friends, I absolutely was miserable, when I go out there because the entire time I’d be afraid of falling or hurting myself, or just not being able to keep up. So, one day I decided, I was like, “I’m going to hire an instructor and see what I’m doing wrong here.” And when I walked up the instructor, walked him through my background, he was like, “Well, I don’t know what the hell you’re doing.” And I didn’t know what he was talking about. He looked at the gear I was using, and essentially I had gone and bought all the most expensive stuff. I’d bought a carbon fiber snowboard, the stuff that all the pros use, super stiff boots, and sure enough, I was just using all the wrong things.
So, we ski down to the bottom of the mountain, we go to the store, we buy or rent some of the cheapest stuff in the store all meant for beginners, and it completely changed the game for me. I was just on all of the wrong things. And that’s when it clicked in my head from an idea that I had had where I felt like we need a better way of connecting people who have knowledge to those who need it.
DT: Great. Yeah, I know having the right equipment is so key for any of these activities, like golf or skiing, and I think really online, you’re missing the ability today to talk to an expert that can help you through a purchase decision, much like you’d find in a specialty retail shop or something like that.
Talking about retail – the retail industry is going through some pretty profound changes right now, even before the pandemic, but with the pandemic it certainly accelerated those. How has that created an opportunity for Curated?
EV: Yeah. Obviously you’d have to be living under a rock to not realize that retail has been completely transformed due to COVID. For us, the retail landscape changed by virtue of the fact that, historically brands in our category just relied on brick and mortar. The vast, vast majority of sales in the categories we operate in – today it’s outdoor sports – were all done in stores. And convincing brands to work with you was always a really challenging thing. But with COVID, brands rethought their strategy. They knew that digital had to be part of it, and we had the opportunity to start working with them. One thing led to another once you land one brand, the next will want to start working with you, and things snowballed from there.
DT: Great. And when you were thinking about (when you started the company) how you wanted the customer experience to be? What were the values and norms that you instilled from the beginning?
EV: There’s two that immediately come to mind. One is, we were experts-first. I just believed that if we take good care of our experts, they’re going to take good care of our customers. Because at the end of the day, experts are at the heart of what matters at Curated. They’re our biggest asset.
And the second is to keep our experts unbiased. One thing that happens in retail is, there’s a lot of spiffing that goes on in the background. [For instance] If you sell three of this item in a month, you get a bonus of a hundred dollars. Or, experts or salespeople can be commissioned based on margins, so they might sell you something that is not exactly the right thing, [but will do so] because they’re going to make a little bit more money on it. And keeping experts unbiased, is incredibly important, because at the end of the day what we sell to a consumer, more than a product, is just trust and advice.
DT: Yeah.It’s really rare you see that these days in commerce.
We’ve talked quite a bit about how Curated has invested heavily in your technology stack to provide this customer experience. I know you pulled some of the most talented technical people out of LinkedIn, to found the company with you. Tell me about them and tell me about what you’ve had to build to get the company up and running.
EV: The thing behind Curated that makes it such a tough technical problem is that we can’t really use many third-party platforms. And having that strong engineering team from the beginning was incredibly important because we had to build the majority of our tech stack from the ground up. What are the challenges that we ran into was – while we identified product market fit quite early – consumers appreciated the ability to talk to somebody and get unbiased advice, and experts loved getting paid to share their knowledge. One of the challenges was that most e-commerce tools that were out there were all about, “I engage with a brand, I buy something from Allbirds, not one where I engage with a person.”
That concept is much more found in B2B tools. and the tools that did exist, it was very much a customer support type model.You’ll chat with somebody when you have a ticket assigned to you. But never will you chat with somebody who like that is their permanent phone number and email, and they have context on everything you’ve done in the past and things you’re looking for in the future.
Another one of the big challenges that we learned quite quickly was that traditional products are very linear in nature. A user goes from step one to step two, and you’re able to track that and understand what part of the journey they’re in. Conversations are like a web – they go in every direction. So we had to build a no-code system, called our trigger system, to allow teams to go and say, “When this happens, tag it as such, and then allow for XYZ actions to happen.” It turns out that the hard part is knowing that people will enjoy this type of experience, but how do you enable it to happen at scale?
It was incredibly frustrating, but it took three years. I mean, I, as an entrepreneur, I always want to move quickly. I think it was the right decision to build everything from the ground up, because now there’s some really incredible things that we’re able to make happen that would’ve never happened if we just stitched a bunch of 80% solutions on top of each other.
DT: Yeah. And in terms of building out the engineering team to accomplish all this, when I talk to startups, that’s oftentimes the biggest problem they face is just acquiring and hiring great technical talent. You’ve done this obviously with quite a bit of success at Curated. Can you tell us what’s the secret you’re employing to get the best technical talent out there?
EV: Great talent attracts other great talent, that’s one, and then two is just being incredibly honest with people. We knew that we were going after something that was very hard to do, so instead of trying to early on tell people that it was going to be all rockets, rockets, rockets, we told them it was going to be really hard, and that it was going to take a long time to do this. And I believe that smart people can call bullshit out on you really quickly, and there was a lot of people I think who appreciated the level of candor and honesty we had.
We went from zero to 10 people in a matter of two weeks, but the irony of the whole thing was that we had no idea what it is that we were going to work on. We just all knew that we wanted to work together.
It started when Alex (our CTO) and I decided we were going to start a company. And Qi Liu – one of the best engineers on LinkedIn – finds out about it and says, “I don’t care what you guys are doing. I want in.” And Annabel Liu – who is my engineering partner and somebody I was very close with– basically finding out and having the same reaction. And once we had that core group, the whole thing started to really snowball. Then Joe Florencio – another one of the best –basically sees the group that’s been assembled and he says, “I want in.” The same with Peter Ombres, who’s our COO.
And then at the very end, I basically realized we’re onto something really special here. And I start to send out some bat signals to some of the best people I’d worked with in the past. Whether it was the Kyles, or Cecchi, or Aaron, or Sameer, or Rodrigo – as a group of just unbelievable people, one after another, to my disbelief, they all decided to join a company that had no idea what it was that we were gonna work on. And it’s a good reminder that every entrepreneur should be honest about – which is that a lot of this is luck. I mean, you do manufacture your own luck, but, but this was, this was also a lot of real luck and a lot of really fortunate timing, kicked off by Alex who, you know, a lot of, a lot of these people really wanted to work with.
At that point I thought to myself, “All right, well, what’s one of the most ambitious problems that I thought of in the past that I thought was a little too challenging to tackle?” And the idea I had for Curated just came to mind, which was one that I always thought would be a really interesting problem to solve, but what that was, um, really, really hard at the same time.
DT: Terrific. Let’s turn now to the marketplace. So, you’ve described Curated as a three-sided marketplace that connects brands with experts, with the consumers. So let’s talk about the expert leg of the marketplace. How did you decide to work with experts, and how did you build this expert community on Curated?
EV: The initial idea early on was that we would work with experts that were in retail stores, with the idea that we would find the demand, and then we would connect them with the person who works at the ski shop.
The thing that we didn’t think through was that – and it was a romanticized mistake in our mind – was that there was actually latent labor available at ski shops, or at retail stores, that were just not busy. And the reality is as e-commerce has put a lot of pressure on retail stores, and they keep struggling to keep just enough people on hand.
The second thing we saw was that the caliber of people in those stores were much more hit or miss. A lot of retailers unfortunately started to, [cut staff] by a matter of virtually cutting costs.
So before we gave up on the idea, we asked ourselves,”Can we go find these experts ourselves?” And it turned out the value prop of, “Get paid to talk about the things you’re passionate about,” resonated really well with people, and we were able to just attract a ton of experts.
Interestingly enough, unlike most of the other sharing economy or gig economy, our challenge is not in acquiring a supply, or people who want to work with us. It’s actually just identifying who are the best ones.
DT: And how do you do that? What’s the difference between a good expert and a great expert on your platform,?
EV: I think a good expert answers your questions, and a great expert is one that gets to know you and you build a relationship with. A great expert is the one that you’re going to tell all your friends that they should come work with them. The way that we identify the difference between good and great is by leveraging other experts. So we have a panel model where experts hire other experts, and we specifically look for experts on our site that know how to spot the difference between good and great talent. We put them through a series of tests to make sure that they’re going to be successful on our platform.
DT: Great. So you’ve got these great experts on the platform now that are helping consumers with free unbiased advice.
The other part of the marketplace: you’ve attracted some pretty incredible brands onto the platform. Tell us about that. How did you attract these brands? You’re a new e-commerce startup, why would a brand want to work with Curated? What challenges are these brands facing when you talk to them?
EV: Brands have always known that experts mattered, and that is the way they’ve always done business, by partnering with retailers. You walked into a retailer and somebody gives you advice. And what happened with COVID was, you couldn’t chat with anybody when you couldn’t walk into those stores. So what Curated does is take that same experience that you could have in a great store but brings it online.
And the reason that we became such an interesting partner for brands was because many of them tried their own direct consumer strategy.
EV: And they spent a bunch of money on a website, and they marketed it, but they were producing substantially less sales than they would expect. And that was due to the fact that within high consideration commerce, anything that costs, call it over $500, you need to be able to talk to somebody to be able to feel confident in your purchasing decision. And that’s not something they could offer. To the extent that they do have somebody on their own sites that you could chat with, it’s just not the same because the consumer is going to feel like they’re getting a biased opinion.
DT: Great, yeah. I can see why this is a new and interesting channel for brands to sell online.
So, we’ve talked about the experts, we’ve talked about the brands and the consumers, and you’ve fused all this together with technology, to create this delightful consumer experience. Can you talk about maybe how you think about AI? A lot of e-commerce players have created AI chatbots that they put on their site to talk to customers, to consumers, and if you’ve used those products, the experiences are not very good. But I know you have a very talented team of folks with AI, ML backgrounds. How are you leveraging your newer technologies to improve the user experience?
EV: To steal from my partner Alex’s analogy, we’re trying to build Ironman, not the Terminator, in that, we want to make our experts more efficient by leveraging AI, and our goal is never, ever to replace them. Chatbots are an interesting thing. I think that three or four years ago, that was all of the rage. But you have to be honest with yourself and ask, “Would you ever spend $2,000 chatting with a chatbot?” Is that ever something you would logically do? And I think the answer is no. I think that chatbots have their own purpose. When my Lyft doesn’t show up and I want to ask for a $5 refund, I prefer chatting with a chatbot because the answer is going to be immediate. But it’s our belief that their role is in simple customer service tasks, and an AI is going to be all about things like, how do we make the expert’s experience more enjoyable?
So, for example, “How do I connect an expert who is an incredibly passionate backcountry skier with other customers that are interested in going backcountry?” Or, “How do I give them data about how other experts have recommended certain products, so that they can learn from one another?” “How do we presort things?” So for example, if a customer is a certain size, these other products on average typically fit customers well, so they don’t get returned very often. But AI is all about creating efficiency and leverage for experts,It’s there to enhance the experience, not replace the experience.
DT: Got it. So it’s assistive technology that helps these experts to be better experts and help their customers?
EV: Yeah, and ultimately try to use it to help them make more money, and help them be more successful.
DT: Got it. And on this topic, there’s been a lot of discussion in the industry about conversational commerce, which I think could mean companies and brands engaging with their consumer customers over a text or messaging. How do you think about conversational commerce, and does Curated fit into this thing?
EV: I would consider ourselves a conversational commerce company. Conversational commerce is interesting. I think a lot of companies think conversational commerce means, “I have my customer’s phone numbers, and I am just going to bulk SMS them when we have promos available.” While that may be an effective strategy in the short term, you can only do that so many times before you really start to turn people off.
At Curated, we use SMS every day: our experts communicate with customers both on our website, but 90-plus percent transition over SMS. I think that conversational commerce has incredible uses when it’s relevant. So for example, if I’m buying a T-shirt, conversational commerce doesn’t matter. What really matters is, customer reviews, how often does it fit people of certain body types, and what does that look like on the model that I’m looking at? If I’m doing something that’s very complicated, where I need to give somebody context on my purchase, and there’s going to be a significant amount of back and forth, then yeah, conversational commerce is a perfect medium for that, and that’s at the heart of what we do.
DT: Great. When you built the model, and you started testing it, and you were rolling it out, and now you’ve scaled it to a certain size, how did you know it was working? What were the signals you were looking at, and how do you tell today that you’ve really found something that’s resonating with the consumers?
EV: Very early on, one of the things we did was, we built a simple quiz and marketed it, and tried to understand what it would cost us to acquire a customer who would answer 10 questions and give us their email and phone number? This is day one. And we learned that as long as the questions were really relevant, we could get people to give us their information and then want to get advice. So that was the very first step. So we knew on the consumer side, there was demand.
The second major inflection point was around the first time that we posted ads on Craigslist to try to find experts. We got A) inundated with applications, but B) we got asked several times whether or not this was a scam or not, because it was almost too good to be true.
We had experts say, “There’s no way on earth you’re going to pay me to talk about snowboards.” They just said, it didn’t sound right. So, knowing that there was that much interest on the expert side got us just even that much more excited.
And then, the evolution of product-market fit in terms of, when we felt like we “had it,”I believe it was our first, maybe our second sale, and we had customers reach out to us and say, “Hey, I want to take care of my expert. How can I tip them?” So, we sent a PayPal link out with a tip jar, and that started to become this repeated pattern where we kept getting asked for that, and then we added it to the site, and now the vast majority of our customers are tipping experts.
EV: And I say that because we have incredible reviews on the site and people say all these nice things, but I think that in the context of a retail purchase where tipping isn’t the norm, the fact that the majority of customers are actually taking additional dollars and paying experts, I think is a true testament to real product-market fit.
And from there, we knew we had something, and we just doubled down on building all of the infrastructure that would be required to make this experience really happen.
DT: Yeah, that tipping is a great example, and I’m sure part of that is when you’re interacting with real humans, in e-commerce environments, you’re going to be much more likely to tip, than if you’re just interacting with an overall brand. It’s that human touch and someone’s helped you.
Okay, great. Well, let’s talk about the future of Curated. So, when you look out over the next 12 to 18 months, what do you want to see the company achieve?
EV: Over the course of the next 12 to 18 months, the focus is going to be on just adding more categories. Today, Curated operates in the outdoor space, so we help customers buy golf clubs and skis and snowboards and bikes, but we want to go into all types of high-consideration goods. The next most likely category is helping photographers buy cameras, but we could see a world where we help people buy vintage watches, or we help people buy cars. Anything where the concept of making the purchase online sounds very difficult, we want to make it possible.
DT: Great. So where you see friction, you see an opportunity to help people purchase the right product online.
EV: For sure. And I think that that’s one of those things often where you see the least competition, because if it’s difficult today, is where there’s the most opportunity.
Our long term vision for Curated is one where you buy everything that matters on Curated, where we’ve assembled the world’s greatest experts that are going to give you unbiased advice, and they’re just there anytime you need them. And it’s one where experts, increasingly, have more influence and control over the platform, where they continue to hire other experts and bring more people into the platform, where they continue to share their knowledge, whether it’s publishing articles, or writing reviews on products, a platform that really comes to life with expertise, where as a consumer, you get just as excited talking to one of our experts, as you do walking into a surf shop, or whatever offline experience you have, we want to recreate that same feeling.
DT: Terrific. It’s a really bold vision.
And I had one more question for you before we wrap up. And that’s, as venture capitalists, we spend a lot of time trying to think about, how is the world going to change with the pandemic? What are the permanent changes and what things are going to go back to normal? When you think about the commerce landscape, both retail physical commerce and e-commerce, how do you see things either going back to normal or changing, as a result of the pandemic?
EV: I think that brands are going to increasingly start to invest much, much more into their online strategy, and a lot of really cool new things are going to come to life. I think that the concept of, “Am I a retail person, that’s brick and mortar, or am I a retail person that’s e-commerce?” All those lines are going to be blended; that’s no longer going to be part of the conversation.
What I’m saying right now sounds super obvious. But a year ago was, that’s not the way companies thought about things would be, they really embraced one or the other, and I think that it’s really just the beginning, and people often like to say that, but if you take a look at other places of the world, specifically China, there’s just so much more interesting innovation that’s happened in e-commerce, and unique experiences, and I think that hopefully Curated, it’s a good example of that, but there’s going to be a lot more of things to come.
DT: Great. Well, thank you Eddie for coming on our show today, I appreciate the perspective and congratulations to you and your team at Curated for the success that you’ve had. We at Greylock are really excited to be investors in the company, and can’t wait to see what you will do next. And if you haven’t, for our listeners, if you haven’t tried the service and you’re looking for some skis or camping gear or fishing gear or golf clubs, I’d encourage you to go to curated.com, and try out the product. And is there a mobile app coming, Eddie?
EV: There is a mobile app, it’ll be out in late June.
EV: Okay. Thank you for having me on the show.
DT: Thank you. All right. Well, thanks everyone, that concludes this episode of our Greymatter Podcast.