In this age of instant Internet gratification, it’s tough to imagine not being able to find just about any product or service that strikes our fancy. But that’s exactly what happened to 27-year-old Olga Vidisheva when she returned from a trip to Paris.
She had purchased a pair of high-fashion flats at a tiny boutique, then searched for the store online when she returned to New York. But it was nowhere to be found. “I wondered why there wasn’t a place online for a store like that,” Vidisheva recalls. It was the "ah-ha" moment that would eventually lead her to launch Shoptiques
, a platform that aggregates inventory from small boutiques, giving local businesses an online presence and the opportunity to reach an international customer base. Why doesn’t this business already exist?
Small specialty boutiques usually have loyal, local customers, and their owners typically don’t have the time or resources to cast larger nets by expanding their presence to the web. Vidisheva understood that, but nonetheless wondered why the problem hadn’t already been addressed. During her second year at Harvard Business School, in 2010, she decided to do a little digging around. “I wondered if there was something I was missing,” she says. “There should have been a platform already; it wasn’t like going to the moon.”
She interviewed over 800 boutique owners nationwide and discovered that most of them had no idea how to create an online presence. Others had experimented with existing platforms, but found the process too cumbersome. “They would take pictures of their merchandise with their iPhones, upload them, and they would look awful,” says Vidisheva.
A Soft Launch
Based on her research, Vidisheva envisioned a company that would make it as easy as possible for boutiques to sell selected merchandise online. She’d help them choose the right pieces (i.e., no pants, which don’t sell well online, and no black, which photographs poorly), have the items professionally photographed, and even coordinate shipping. She wrote a business plan for an HBS competition, was chosen as a semi-finalist, and launched a private beta of Shoptiques in October of 2011 with 50 boutiques from the West and East coasts. “I let 1,500 people in to test the idea,” says Vidisheva. “And I didn’t want to raise any money until I was 100 percent sure it would work.”
Shoptiques’ waiting list grew quickly, giving Vidisheva enough confidence in her idea to apply to the tech accelerator YCombinator. “I got accepted and was the first single non-tech founder in the program,” she says. At YCombinator, she refined the business and met Peter Delahunty, an engineer who she eventually brought on as a co-founder. And when it became apparent that Shoptiques could scale, investors came calling. Before leaving YCombinator in March of this year, Vidisheva had raised $2 million in seed funding from Andreessen Horowitz, Benchmark Capital, Greylock Partners, and SV Angel, among others.
Aggregating Boutiques Online
Shoptiques now has 180 boutiques on its site, arranged by city, and just recently signed on 20 stores in Paris. The company photographs all merchandise at its own studios in New York and Los Angeles, gathers information from boutique owners on how each items fits, and even visits the physical stores. Stores pay nothing to be on the site, but share revenue of items sold with Shoptiques. “We reject over 80 percent of the stores that apply to be on our site,” says Vidisheva. Among her criteria for inclusion: unique merchandise that can’t be found elsewhere; one of kind, or small quantity items to give shoppers the feeling of exclusivity; and a brick and mortar store that’s distinctive. “We give shoppers the option of picking up their merchandise at the stores, so we want the environment to be amazing,” she says.
For boutique owners, says Vidisheva, the benefits of being on Shoptiques are a “no-brainer.” They get broader reach and increased revenues with very little effort. “We also have owners telling us that people come in and say that they found the boutique on Shoptiques,” says Vidisheva. So what’s to prevent shoppers from using Shoptiques to scope out new shops but then bypassing the site and going direct to merchants? Nothing, really. But to incentivize shoppers to buy online, Vidisheva says she’ll soon launch a loyalty program that will reward returning customers.
If all continues to go well, Vidisheva says she’ll start thinking about raising a Series A round. “Growth has been incredible,” she says. “Better than I ever expected.”Read more Startup of the Week posts.
Image courtesy of Shoptiques.com