I feel like this is a long-overdue introduction. But I thought I'd finally jot write a quick update on what I've been up to lately.
For the last couple years, I've been working with some really good friends. We've gone through a few 'pivots' in that time, but we've also gelled and grown into a really effective team together.
The full story of our time and adventures is far too boring to tell without the accompaniment of a fine wine, but for the past year, we've been focused on a project that has been working really well and showing promise. That project is Shopswell. Here's a bit of background...
We started out by orienting around some of the large problems that we saw beginning to plague the online landscape: rampant distrust, attention-abuse, inauthenticity, violations of consumer privacy, and a kind of general de-humanization. These are Big Ideas™ and while worthy of discussion, debate, and maybe even research, they are not particularly great foundations for a product or business. As we thought through these issues, the online shopping experience became a recurring theme and ultimately made for an appealing beach-head from which to attack several of these larger problems all at once in a pragmatic, value-bearing way.
Many of the worst trends happening online in our digital age tend to manifest most acutely when and where money comes online. Money tends to corrupt and toxify relationships and the speed and anonymity of the internet seems to worsen this trait. Of course, there are lots and lots of ways this happens. For instance, woe unto anyone who uses their day-to-day browser to research home loans. But shopping is something that nearly everyone does with regular frequency.
The e-commerce aspects of shopping online have matured to such a point that the 'buying' experience is fantastic. Amazon has brought the nearly infinite inventory of the world to our fingertips with secure one-click buying, and even same-day delivery. They've even managed to make returns relatively painless, at least relative to the alternative of taking things back to a store.
At least for Amazon Prime members in relatively large urban areas, buying things online has become a near-paradise of convenience and efficiently. So everything's great, right? Well, not so fast...
As the online 'buying' experience has matured, the 'shopping' experience has not kept pace. In fact, the closer we looked, the more we started to feel that shopping is ruining the internet and that in many ways, the internet is ruining shopping.
We began to see various problems everywhere we looked. From the cognitive overload of having that infinity of choice at our fingertips, to basic out-dated design, to everyone's least favorite aspect of the web: advertising. We see every day the use of big-data to spy on our every click, scroll, and search term only to bombard us with retargeted advertising. After you've waded through the morass of products available online, how do you evaluate which is right for you? For a while, Amazon reviews and star ratings were helpful, but now they are littered with phrases like: “I received a discount on this product in exchange for my honest review”. It’s getting to the point where you can immediately identify bogus reviews simply by scanning for words like ‘honest’ or 'unbiased'.
Further, although the shopping landscape is overwhelmed with new companies and startups, there is really no one out there caring about or looking out for the consumers. There are lots of new ad-targeting technologies. Lots of price-club subscription services. Lots of product information blogs. Lots of prettily designed product curation sites. All essentially exploiting consumers or at best simply exacerbating the issues by selling consumers' time, energy, and privacy in the form of yet more advertising.
So into this mess of crazy advertising, and misleading subscription scams, and untrustworthy reviews, and biased search results where everything is paid for and nothing is true, we launched Shopswell.
The idea behind it is simple: to bring people together to help them shop smarter. This can happen only if people are put into a safe environment where they are encouraged and able to simply and honestly share their experiences and help each other... not to sell, or scream, or shill, or be bribed for their 'unbiased' reviews.
At the heart of Shopswell are really two basic questions:
1. Is it possible to create a place where people can discover, share, and get authentic information about products without being spied upon, or hammered by advertising, or motivated by corrupting incentives?
If this is possible, it is clear that the real value in the place will be provided by the users themselves in the form of advice, reviews, and helpful information. So, the second question becomes:
2. Is it possible to create such a place in true partnership with its own members so that they have a fair chance to be compensated for the value they provide to each other?
It immediately became clear that if such a place were possible, it would be extremely valuable. Not only for us as the founding team, but especially for the members and users of it. Can it be done? We don't honestly know. As with any kind of startup, sometimes it feels like it is entirely possible and even inevitable, and other times it seems like the dumbest idea anyone ever had. Come what may, I'll try to keep you posted on the blow-by-blow :)