Ideas

Small Stores, Big Ideas

I discover a lot of small independent stores through Wanelo. These are relatively small operations, larger than your average Etsy shop or eBay business, but much smaller than your average corporation or retail operation with more than one address. You might call them boutiques, but they’re quite different from what that word conjures up on sites like FarFetch. They have a ton of personality, sell a wide variety of things, often have a physical address but primarily exist on their own domain online, and write copy about their products in a way that happens to be highly entertaining to read. Sometimes they make their products and sometimes they source them, and they always tell you the details of how they sourced them and from whom. They’re curators, to use a word I can barely stomach now.

Best Made Company is probably the canonical example of this type of store in my head. I discovered them before I started working on Wanelo, and now regularly open their emails and get excited about new offerings they come up with, like the Less Is Muir patch and the Shawl Neck Sweater Coat they created in collaboration with Dehen. They have a really strong brand with strong values, and as a consequence people pay attention to the things they choose to sell and why. I was pretty excited about the books they chose to sell when I first discovered them, as it seemed like a sort of cross-section of old DIY wilderness faves last featured in the Whole Earth Catalog.

Less Is Muir from Best Made Co

You can read about how Best Made came about here. They have ~24K followers at the moment on Wanelo.

Occulter is a new Wanelo discovery and the inspiration for this post. They’re based in New York and sell a lot of fascinating things.

Their Binchotan Toothbrush is blended with Binchotan charcoal powder, which is apparently “known to radiate negative ions, has a powerful deodorizing effect, removes plaque and attacks the causes of bad breath.” Occult dental products pretty much have my attention right away.

Binchotan toothbrush from Occulter

They also sell a sharp-looking Smith & Wesson pen, which is something I’m surprised I’ve never heard referenced before in rap lyrics.

Smith & Wesson pen from Occulter

And they sell these Woolly Mammoth ivory razors with quartz lenses featuring vintage micro-photography.

Mammoth straight razor from Occulter

Plus: very, very dark honey sourced from a beekeeper in Schenectady.

Occulter Black Honey

And, the perfect gift for any former philosophy major: Platonic solids!

Platonic Solids from Occulter

And these are just the things I’ve saved to my Wanelo.

ThinkGeek is another store of this dimension I’ve come into a lot more contact with since Wanelo, most recently with these rare earth magnets.

Rare Earth Magnets

You could even consider making your own. How? It’s very simple! You just find yourself a nice chunk of some Misch metal from the Earth’s substrate, then carefully extract any Neodymium, purify it, mold it, coat it in a small amount of nickel, and then wrap some plastic around it in the shape of a thumbtack.

They have ~118K followers at the moment on Wanelo.

Opulent Items is another store of this type. Operated out of Miami, I would probably never have come into contact with the astounding products they sell if it weren’t for Wanelo, where they have over 100K followers.

And there’s many more, like Fred Flare, straight out of Greenpoint, Brooklyn, with ~118K followers on Wanelo. And MoMAStore, RISDworks, Selekkt, Photojojo, Buy Olympia, House 8810, Moon Marble, Hammacher, Uncommon Goods, Poketo, Present and Correct, Street Market, FriendsWithYou, MollaSpace, Little Paper Planes, The Future Perfect, Totokaelo, Solitary Arts, Matter and others.

The point is that there’s a fast-growing audience for products worth sharing, and a rapidly expanding definition of what that entails.

My Wanelo Feed Erupted with Goodness Last Night

Feeding on Wanelo

This natural event occurred because we began surfacing the individual shops behind the hundreds of thousands of products from Etsy that have been posted to Wanelo by members. Members who had been following the etsy.com “store” on Wanelo and had saved Etsy products are now following the shops behind those products. If you happen to be following people like TouMou or anastridendeavor on Wanelo (or me, or Deena), your feed just erupted with goodness as well.

Store pages on Wanelo are created when members post products from a store. You can follow stores and get updates in your feed when new products from those stores are posted by members. (Did I mention that the new Wanelo feed is simple, lickable and alive?)

This is something I happen to have wanted for a long time: the ability to follow Etsy shops. I’ve favorited hundreds of excellent Etsy shops but when you favorite a shop today you don’t get updates from them, and you forget about them.

Another thing I’ve long wanted that now exists is attribution and ownership for products I’ve saved. When I save a product on Wanelo with a comment, I create a page with that context. If I tweet that save and someone resaves it from me or comments on my save, I get notified. It’s not unlike how reblogging works on Tumblr, and check-ins work on Foursquare.

A Wanelo save page

It’s a step toward helping every active member of Wanelo create content and get feedback on their activity.

Because shopping, since the Industrial Revolution anyway, has been about passive consumption. “Consumption” from “consumer”: a word with a telling etymology that didn’t take off until the late 19th century, after factories had begun manufacturing uniform products en masse and needed to advertise to generate demand:

early 15c., “one who squanders or wastes,” agent noun from consume. In economic sense, “one who uses up goods or articles” (opposite of producer) from 1745. Consumer goods is attested from 1890.

The internet was not designed for passive consumption (that’s what TV was for, and I like to think that the internet began with the creation of the Whole Earth Catalog). And I don’t think consuming in the traditional sense has much of a future. Buying things can be a lot more creative, meaningful and fun. Payment is a form of communication, as Jack Dorsey likes to say, and people prefer to communicate with other people. Left to their own devices, people also tend to seek out unique products and customize things for themselves.

Wanelo is reorganizing shopping around people. That can sound vague if you haven’t picked up Paul Adams’ book Grouped for example, but it’s simple and powerful, and I think soon to be obvious and inevitable: people first. People organize the content and help it get discovered. A typical content-driven ecommerce site will have lots of categories to drill down into, carefully organized by the retailer and created by the retailer. Social context around the products is usually minimal or plastered on, and the experience is often one-dimensional, with the retailer talking at you. On Wanelo you discover products through people, and through the entities that people create while using the site (stores, collections, saves and *more*, coming soon). People look to other people for clues and guidance, just like in real life. And we don’t tell them who to listen to or what to buy.

Tons and tons to do (I’m making commits and writing tickets in another window as I type), but OMG it’s fun. And my Wanelo feed keeps getting better.

The Discovery Problem

There are a lot of really awesome and well-made things being sold by creative businesses these days. Things you do not know you want until you see them, because you did not know they existed and wouldn’t have thought to search for them. Things that enrich your life because they have meaning for you (you discovered it!) and are special or rare.

There are a lot of great platforms for selling these things: Etsy, Shopify, Big Cartel, Goodsie, Gumroad. But generating demand for these things, and helping them get discovered, is a distinct problem on which I don’t think we’ve made a great deal of headway yet. Sellers and retailers are still shouting, or advertising, at people to buy their stuff, inefficiently. The best ones are telling stories and engaging people in conversations, but it takes a lot of work to gain traction. It also takes a lot of money and effort to build brands the traditional way. So a lot of awesome things are being lovingly made and never seen or sold.

Turns out seller-focused platforms may not be in the best position to attack this problem. It may not make a lot of business sense to try. When sellers are your primary customers, you must focus on their needs and keep them happy. Sometimes things that are best for buyer discovery do not make sellers happy. Sellers would not be happy to see other sellers’ items on their website, for example, or on listing pages that they paid for. Understandably so. Whether or not such a thing leads to more sales and more customers is inconsequential. If sellers aren’t happy, they won’t list items on your service.

A website from an individual seller, whether that seller is an independent designer or Macy’s, is never going to be wholly aligned with the interests of buyers. It’s naturally biased, and limited. And from the seller perspective, visitors will be hard to come by unless you’ve done the hard work of building up an engaged following, in addition to all the other hard work.

Amazon is focused on buyers, and will show you things from lots of different sellers, but Amazon is optimized for convenience, and for buying things you have already decided you want. Amazon is not focused on discovery.

I’ve been thinking that maybe what this world needs are seller-focused platforms optimized for selling, and buyer-focused platforms optimized for discovery.

A buyer-focused platform optimized for discovery puts buyer happiness first, and buyers in control. It’s a place where buyers help other buyers discover things, and puts the right buyers in touch with the right sellers. It’s a place where demand for unique items is generated and aggregated, and creative makers of things benefit.

Wanelo is buyer-focused, and has been inspiring euphoria among a growing legion of young females—the same generation I’ve been watching propel Tumblr to new heights.

I see a lot of work ahead, but I know there’s something there. So I’m going to go help Deena and Kristina Varshavskaya and team figure out what that is, then turn it all the way up, in San Francisco.

I’m going to miss Etsy, and New York, and the astonishingly awesome people I’ve been lucky enough to work with these last few years. Etsy is deep in my bones. I see the next step as a natural continuation of that work. And I won’t be stranger :)

Half-shopping

By Eric Cahan

Yesterday my Prismatic feed, which has somehow transmuted my Twitter account data into an unbelievably compelling news source, led me to a post by Ian Schafer on Pinterest, via a tweet by Arpan Podduturi. I think 60% of the stories in my feed lately are about Pinterest, so that wasn’t a surprise, but this one got right to the point:

Here’s one hypothesis: Pinterest is half-shopping.

It’s the next best thing to accumulating items, but without the cost associated with actually buying them. It’s a locker where you store the things you want, the things you find interesting, the things you want people to know you’ve found — each of which is a major psychological driver in the process of retail therapy, without the cash (or credit) expenditure.

A recent Atlantic story, Can Pinterest and Svpply Help You *Reduce* Your Consumption?, makes a similar point:

Just as Megan Garber explained the endorphin hit we can get from adding a great story to our Instapaper queue, I have found that adding items to my Svpply page gives me a similarly pleasant rush of some pleasure-inducing chemicals. When I spot something online that I think has nice design, might be worth buying later or would make a good gift, I’ll happily click the Buy Later button in my browser to add it to my Svpply page. Once it is there, I am able to revisit the product later and decide if it is really something I want to buy. I have often removed something later that, in an earlier time, I may have actually bought, not realizing I didn’t actually like the design as much as I had thought or simply that I didn’t need it.

My first reaction: active pinners may indeed be “half-shopping,” and there’s some truth to the notion that curating images of things you think are cool can be almost as satisfying as owning them, but shopping is definitely happening in the midst of this activity—ask the people behind any retail or ecommerce site on the receiving end of Pinterest traffic.

I think Pinterest is actually pitching in to support an important shopping behavior that retail and ecommerce sites have historically been lacking in—the ability to collect and stash away items under consideration in a pleasurable way. And this is because ecommerce has historically been optimized for the kinds of items you don’t necessarily want to bask in—cameras, books, computers, electronics and known, branded items. Items you research before you buy, and items you search for on Amazon after you’ve decided you’re interested in buying them.

Step into the world of softer, “unknown items,” where you don’t really know what you want and are looking to be inspired—as with clothing, jewelry, artwork, furniture, housewares, vintage things, cool things that are fun to look at—and collecting and gaining validation for your discoveries becomes really important. This has always been the case, but is just beginning to be supported well online. These categories have traditionally been thought of as more female than the “ecommerce 1.0″ categories—cue stats about the gender makeup of the Etsy and Pinterest user bases—but they’re also increasingly urban male (see Svpply and Fancy).

You could even say “half-shopping” is the future of commerce on the web.

Noted: Grouped


Paul Adams‘ book Grouped contains a lot of clear, rational sentences about human social behavior. They aren’t surprising sentences, but I don’t think anyone’s put all these insights in one place before in plain language. The insights are the result of years of research by many different people.

The book cuts through the noise of the commentary on all things social on the social web, pro and con, with simple facts. It makes a debate about the relevance of social influence on shopping behavior, for example, feel like a debate among fish about the existence of water.

Humans are social animals. Through the scientific method, we’ve managed to observe a few things about ourselves. We’ve learned that how we behave is learned from observing others. We are more influenced by the behavior of people in our group, and people we perceive to be like us. We may communicate infrequently with our many weak ties, but they are often better sources of information than the people in our inner circle.

One core premise of the book is that the amount of information accessible to us has been increasing dramatically, but our brains’ capacity for processing ideas and memory has not, so it’s natural to look for clues and guidance from other people online, as we’ve been doing offline for 10,000 years. The web has been catching up with how people naturally operate, as it gets “rebuilt around people.” Most of our decision-making happens in the nonconscious, emotional part of our brain, and it’s influenced by the behavior we observe among people in our group.

Facebook happens to make it easy to observe the behavior of people you’re connected to. It’s almost like the ticker on the right side of the screen on Facebook was designed for nonconscious observation of other people’s behavior. With open graph apps piping in the reading, listening and shopping behavior of people you’re connected to, you can start to see where this is going. It’s not that you’ll see your friends favoriting things and go and favorite or buy those things, but you’ll observe their behavior and get used to the idea of finding things to favorite yourself. Small requests for behavioral change are more effective than interrupting people with marketing messages. And behavioral change often leads to attitudinal change.

If you’re building something you want people to use, like a website, this stuff matters.

The only downside to the book, for me, is the acceptance of brands as they exist today as facts of life.

I recommend the ‘Further Reading’ section of each chapter in particular. Read it by your computer.

Sharing vs. Selling

C.R.E.A.M. by esymai on Etsy

So if sharing online is about validation, what if the objects being shared are for sale, and you stand to benefit from their sale? Does money always ruin it?

There is a lot of sharing and curating going on of objects that are available for sale somewhere. See Svpply, Fancy, Pinterest, large swaths of Tumblr, Polyvore, Delicious, Wanelo. Users of services like these are gaining followers and influence, expressing and discovering themselves, and having fun, but they aren’t benefiting financially from their curation. Some would say it would be a conflict of interest for them to do so, or would result in less compelling content. Or take the fun out of it. Or feel spammy.

The discouragement of self-promotion is one reason why Pinterest works so well, and why it’s often more compelling to follow someone’s favorites on Etsy than it is to follow the items they’re selling. When someone other than the seller says a thing is good, people listen. If a lot of people say a thing is good, even better. Especially if those people have influence. This is also a really simple way to think about the basis of PageRank.

It makes sense when you think about it. An endorsement from someone with nothing material to gain from the endorsement is more compelling and trustworthy than one from the person doing the selling, particularly if you know or admire the endorser. Someone constantly pushing what they’re selling is like someone who talks about him or herself all the time: boring, and suspect. Big brands have gradually figured this out as they learn how to talk to people on the internet.

So what if the people you followed for their good taste made money when you bought something they shared? Would it change your perception of their curation? I wonder if such a system would ultimately ruin good curation or further motivate it.

The closest thing I know of to this currently is ShopSense from ShopStyle. Its users are proprietors of fashion blogs and editorial properties—people who, for me anyway, don’t have nearly the authority and influence as the people I follow on Etsy and elsewhere. There must also be some interesting Amazon Associates sites out there.

The experience I’m thinking of though is more like what you get when you keep up with a really well-curated vintage shop on Etsy (there are many; see my favorites). The shop owner obviously has a financial incentive for their work, but is also just genuinely excited to share the discoveries they’ve made.

Refavorited

Refavorited is a Tumblelog (do people still say that?) where my favorites from Etsy, SoundCloud, YouTube, Flickr, Twitter and Wikipedia go, automatically, via ifttt.

If This Then That

Etsy is not yet an official channel on ifttt (but is so ready), so I’m using my Etsy favorites RSS feed as a trigger. As for Wikipedia, for a long time now i’ve felt compelled to save articles I learn from and like in a Delicious account for lack of something better and the time to build it, as a sort of record of random learning, and Delicious is a channel available on ifttt.

Other channels I would love to see on ifttt: Simplenote (I broke up with the ifttt-supported Evernote for Simplenote earlier this year and have never looked back; they have a backroom API), Findings (API on GitHub), Pinterest and Quora (no official APIs yet) (what’s up, Palo Alto?).

This all arose from extended rumination on sharing, and what motivates people to share things they like online. There is a good Quora thread on why people share; every answer is worth reading. Deena Varshavskaya’s is the broadest and most succinct:

Sharing is a basic unit of socializing. Humans are social animals and socializing is at the foundation of who we are. When people approve, appreciate or relate to something we do or say, we feel good. This can be explained in evolutionary terms. Social validation means reduced risk and uncertainty. Life is all about managing risk and one way to reduce risk is to do things the same way as other people do it (i.e., a lot of people are statistically less likely to be wrong than a single person).

Sharing various aspects of ourselves gives us a chance to get validation (validation = reduced uncertainty) in our life choices.

Validation is really at the heart of it, and systems that facilitate validation—alerting you when someone out there likes something you posted—keep you motivated to continue sharing.

There’s also this slightly crazy presentation on discovery from a few years ago that I return to regularly and still find valuable. Basically, enabling discovery is about allowing people to:

  1. Discover new, valuable information
  2. Get discovered by others
  3. Discover more about themselves

Which is another way of saying discovery is about facilitating social validation.

The New Delicious tagline is “Discover Yourself!” Services that can get you hooked on doing that can help other people discover things that they never would have thought to search for—like everything I’ve ever favorited on Etsy, SoundCloud, Flickr, YouTube and Twitter.

Consider the Albatross: Foraging and Activity Feeds

A is for Albatross by Chick Family Ink on Etsy

I came across this post on Quora on “Lévy-flight personalization” and optimizing Quora’s activity feed for novelty-seeking users. Its inspiration is the albatross, a long-range ocean forager that’s larger than you think.

Lévy flights are seen in the behavior of many animals. It’s the pattern that emerges when an animal darts around randomly in one area foraging for food (exhibiting Brownian motion) then, once they feel they’ve used up all the likely food sources, heads off in a random direction to a brand new area, and forages there. In the case of the albatross, that leap to a new area can mean a flight in a straight line across an ocean. Lévy flights are “random movements that can maximize the efficiency of resource searches in uncertain environments.”

Lévy flight pattern

Seth Godin has applied Lévy flights to website usage patterns. Edwin Kite, the author of the post on Quora, notes that Lévy flights are optimal for locating resources when those resources are:

  • Randomly distributed
  • Sparse
  • Once visited, are not depleted, but remain targets for future searches

He argues that Brownian motion makes sense for activity feed usage on “campfire” social networks, like Facebook. But Quora thrives on novelty and new connections, the effects of which can be addictive. “The kind of people who could make Quora great are allergic to sameness and want intellectual challenge. They need Lévy flights.”

This is actually how I experience the Etsy activity feed.

By Katty Bouthier

Someone in my Etsy circle whose taste I like will favorite an item of interest, and I’ll head straight there and start foraging. I’ll check out the shop, then check out the admirers of the shop and their favorites, then check out the shop owner’s favorites, then check out admirers of the item and their favorites, then see which Treasury lists the item has been featured in, the admirers of a list, the list curator’s favorites and their other lists. Any one of these paths can lead across the ocean to a new area rich with resources. And I’ll leave favorites behind as clues for the people who have added me to their circles.

Etsy is a rich environment but also an uncertain one, in that you’ve never seen most of things you’re likely to encounter there in a given session. It can be a murky or overwhelming place with short sightlines, like Kite says Quora is, until you get plugged in and start receiving guidance from the right people implicitly. Etsy’s activity feed, and the clues it can provide from other foragers, can facilitate leaps to new areas and lead to transactions you weren’t planning on. This ends up being addictive.

This Lévy flight post is a good example of why I like Quora, and why I’ve been gradually getting pulled in deeper and deeper since Quora engineer Tracy Chou startled me out of lurker mode with a direct question—the site is populated with smart people offering interesting perspectives on fields outside their own, in addition to their own. In this case, a grad student studying astrophysics and working on the the early Mars climate problem has me thinking about applying bird flight patterns to activity feed design. That doesn’t happen on a lot of websites.