CEO Talk | Sukhinder Singh Cassidy, Chief Executive Officer, Polyvore

Sukhinder Singh, CEO, Polyvore | Source: Polyvore

MOUNTAIN VIEW, United States — As the digital revolution continues to exert a powerful democratising force on the closed hierarchy of the traditional fashion system, perhaps no platform has put more power in the hands of the people than Polyvore, a social shopping site. Polyvore gives consumers the tools to mix and match their favourite fashion items, creating “sets” for others to see and shop. In this way, everyone truly is an editor, stylist and merchandiser, all in one.

With over 6 million unique visitors and 140 million pageviews per month, Polyvore’s social commerce model is significantly reshaping the way people discover and shop for fashion online. But for the Silicon Valley start-up, this may just be the beginning.

Co-founded in 2007 by former Yahoo! software engineers Pasha Sadri (creator of Yahoo! Pipes), Guangwei Yuan and Jianing Hu, Polyvore has since attracted over $8 million in funding from top-flight private equity firms Benchmark Capital and Matrix Partners. But earlier this year, Sukhinder Singh Cassidy, former president of Google’s Asia-Pacific and Latin American operations and one of the search giant’s more visible executives, took the reins as Polyvore’s chief executive officer with a mission to scale the business by attracting more users, expanding global reach and exploring new revenue streams.

BoF spoke exclusively with Ms. Singh Cassidy — who was CEO-in-Residence at venture capital firm Accel and previously co-founded Yodlee, an online financial services company — to discuss the power of social shopping, the democratisation of fashion, and her plans for the future of Polyvore.

BoF: Before taking the job at Polyvore, you were CEO-in-residence at a Silicon Valley venture capital firm. What was it about Polyvore that caught your attention?

First, the market opportunity in e-commerce around apparel, home and soft goods is massive and still largely untapped. Polyvore is filling a large unmet need: there has been no good way to shop for products in these categories online, as they are not about search, but rather about browsing and discovery, which Polyvore does uniquely well. So the market opportunity and Polyvore’s differentiation had tremendous appeal for me.

More importantly however, Polyvore struck an emotional cord with me as a user, as a woman and as someone who has always believed in the power of fashion as a creative, empowering, fun and social outlet. I made my first Polyvore set in 2008 — two years before joining the company. It really helped me experiment, express my own personal style and share it with others.

BoF: Though it’s often described as a “social shopping” site, Polyvore doesn’t actually sell clothing or accessories. How do you generate revenue?

Polyvore is becoming the premier global platform for online discovery. We are both a content and a commerce company, in that we help people discover realtime trends and style and enable them to click through to websites to buy the products they love.

While our first priority at this stage is to increase awareness and user reach, we currently generate advertising revenue through first generation brand engagement products. What’s really exciting is the number of leading brands — from Tory Burch and Diane von Furstenberg to Coach and Nike — that are coming to Polyvore to generate excitement and launch new products to our community of 6 million creators and shoppers.

Members of our community create “sets” around new products, and then share them virally across the web via Twitter, Facebook and their own blogs.

Secondly, whenever users view our sets, they can click on any item in the set and click directly through from Polyvore to the retailer’s website directly to buy it. For those partners who have formal affiliate programs, we get paid a commission on transactions originating from our users.

It’s important to note, however, that our business model is still evolving and we will continue to test and iterate new revenue models as we grow. The most important thing is that we authentically connect brands with users and trendsetters in our community in an immersive and engaging way.

BoF: Traditionally, editors and buyers have been enormously important in interpreting and curating fashion for consumers. But with Polyvore, consumers can become editors, stylists and a merchandisers themselves. Is Polyvore part of a fundamental shift towards the democratisation of fashion? Will the wisdom of crowds one day replace fashion editors?

There are many talented and influential voices in fashion that help set trends. However, even great stylists and designers get inspiration from many sources — including people on the street. I think Polyvore and other sites like Facebook, Twitter and fashion blogs have accelerated the democratisation of fashion, allowing millions of voices to join the conversation and be heard. This global community is collectively becoming an authoritative source when it comes to discovering fashion and trends in realtime.

It’s not an “either/or” in our minds. It’s our view that there are many fashion influencers, both established experts, and now new voices whose perspectives on style are valuable, inspiring and sharable via platforms like Polyvore.

BoF: In a piece that appeared in The New Yorker earlier this year, Gail Helmer, a forty-three-year-old marketing consultant and Polyvore user, said: “making sets really feeds that shopping urge in me, without having to go and spend all that money.” What proportion of users actually shop from Polyvore? Does “social shopping” drive sales more effectively than traditional online retail?

Polyvore feeds our fashion urge because style and shopping are about inspiration, exploration and self-expression, and all those types of motivations can be found among our users. The vast majority of the 6 million people who come to our site monthly are browsers and shoppers, who are seeking style inspiration. About 1.5 million have created a set of their own, or saved a product they love. Our most dedicated creators — several hundred thousand or so — make multiple sets every day to express their own views on style.

Social shopping models like Polyvore offer several benefits to users that really enhance shopping on the web. First and foremost, these tools are bringing entertainment, engagement and social validation to online shopping, where they have not really existed to date. This is one of the key reasons you see online retailers moving to add content and social tools to their websites. For users, mixing and matching, browsing looks, sharing and getting feedback from friends is fun; for brands its also a valuable way to authentically deepen their relationship with their customers.

BoF: Polyvore is also a gold mine of intelligence about consumer preferences: what products resonate most and what’s being mixed and matched with what. How does Polyvore harness this data?

Visitors turn to the site as a realtime trend tracker that taps into what today’s tastemakers are thinking. In fact, we have an actual list of top brands, sites, trends and celebrities known as the Zeitgeist that’s updated daily based on our user activity. Every day, over 50,000 items are clipped and added to Polyvore and over 35,000 new sets are created — one every 2.5 seconds. That gives us a tremendous amount of realtime data to work with.

Lanvin and 3.1 Phillip Lim are the top brands on Zeitgeist today. Proenza Schouler and J. Crew are steady favourites in our top 20. I’ve learned about of a lot of emerging designers through our Zeitgeist list, so it’s been a great tool for me personally to stay on top of current trends.

We are also starting to hear from brands and retailers about how they’ve used our data to identify trends and restock items based on their popularity on Polyvore. For example, Diane von Furstenberg’s Opal wedge was used so frequently in Polyvore sets that the company saw this as indicator that they needed to restock their inventory.

BoF: What’s next for Polyvore? Any plans to venture into e-commerce itself?

While our business model will evolve, I’m sure, our focus will continue to be on amplifying the voice of our user community to help drive curation and discovery in fashion and related style categories like home. I see e-commerce companies as partners in this model.

The space is evolving rapidly, but I think the overall trend towards user-powered discovery and curation is very real. And, not only is it real, it is realtime and it is global.

Vikram Alexei Kansara is Managing Editor of The Business of Fashion

CEO Talk is BoF’s forum for in-depth discussions with the fashion industry’s global decision makers, conducted by founder and editor-in-chief Imran Amed.

This interview has been edited and condensed.