LOOKBOOK.nu is at the forefront of two kinds of innovations: Crowdsourcing and street fashion. In one of Allentrepreneur’s best interviews, learn how you can profit from user-generated content by catering to a specific community; how determining the core mechanics of your website is one of the surest way to success; what the future of online shopping might look like and much more, in this candid interview.
Allentrepreneur: Welcome Yuri! I’m always on the lookout for original start-ups and yours fits right in. In LOOKBOOK.nu’s FAQ section, you label yourself as “just a girl hailing from San Francisco who likes art, fashion and culture”. What else should we know about Yuri?
Yuri: I hate talking about myself? Just kidding. Hmm what is there to know…Well my boyfriend and I make up the team behind LOOKBOOK.nu. He does most of the application development and I do everything else that needs to be done (a little bit of coding, a bit of design, but mostly community moderation and heading up our marketing and collaboration efforts). We’ve known each other since college, and after graduating we moved up to San Francisco to work and live together — him as an engineer at a startup and me in random jobs that an art history major could manage to land. Shortly after relocating we randomly discussed ideas for websites and that was when I brought up fashion. It didn’t take long for us to realize that fashion, especially street fashion, was a niche that was just starting to become popular on the internet but still in its relative infancy. So we launched LOOKBOOK.nu together from our small apartment and after a month or two it started to take off. Since then we’ve both quit our jobs and now work on the site full time.
Allentrepreneur: LOOKBOOK.nu was launched in April 2008 and has grown tremendously ever since. To what would you attribute your success?
Yuri: Ironically, keeping the site invite only–which was not the plan originally–has definitely contributed to the growth and awareness of LOOKBOOK.nu. Limiting registration to invited members not only helped to uphold a certain expectation of quality for the looks posted on LB, but the users love it because they’re part of a more exclusive and tight-knit community. When it comes to word of mouth, we reap the benefits of new users who are more likely to send their one and only invitation because it’s more valuable than it’d be if anyone could freely join. Plus, at any given moment there’s always a constant stream of people who are buzzing in forums, Facebook, Myspace, etc. about getting a coveted invite!
I think another success factor is simplicity and usability. A lot of people who first stumble upon the site compliment its clean design and easy to navigate interface; this means a lot to us because we’ve spent a lot of time getting that right. When we launched, LB had almost no features. All you could do was browse looks, post looks, and hype or comment on looks. Even though we’ve now added several features, like the ability to search or filter looks by brands, colors combinations, geography, etc., the site is still centered around the same three things: surfing, posting, and hyping/talking. Those are the core mechanics of our site and we try to continuously improve in those areas. My best advice for anyone starting up would be: don’t launch a loaded product with tons and tons of features. Figure out what the core mechanic of your site is going to be (what users are going to do 90% of the time), get that experience as smooth and easy as possible, and launch. If you’ve done a good enough job, the community you’ve just earned will guide you on what features to add next. Even now that the site has grown quite a bit, we still take a minimalist approach and try very hard not to add unnecessary complexity. I think our users appreciate that.
Lastly, our growth has been almost entirely word of mouth, which is always easier said than done. Mentions of LOOKBOOK.nu in fashion magazines like Teen Vogue and Cosmopolitan, though we’re grateful for them, have not helped nearly as much as cultivating relationships with our community and with influential bloggers, and giving them the tools to easily spread the word about us via blogs, Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, etc.
Allentrepreneur: What was, to date, the biggest hurdle you have had to overcome and how did you do it?
Yuri: When we launched we had very few direct competitors. Now, we have quite a few. Competition for market share in an un-dominated space like online fashion can be pretty intense, and can throw you off at times. To overcome it I think you just have to focus on what makes you stand apart, embrace it, and just keep executing. Competition is nothing to worry about, execution is everything. We also learned quickly to not get discouraged too easily and to not expect to appeal to everyone, because with any successful product there will be people who love it and people who feel strongly opposite. (That’s definitely true of LB.) I’m glad to be able to confidently say that we are now the leading fashion destination in our class and home to the internet’s largest street fashion gallery (now approaching 100,000 looks with several hundreds added daily). Even though our community is still relatively small at 30,000 members, our global viewership has grown to around 1 million people per month and we are yet to see any signs of slowing down.
Allentrepreneur: While The Sartorialist is largely a one-man operation, LOOKBOOK benefits from a large community to generate its content. Was this something that was intended from day one? If so, what steps did you take to reach out to world-wide fashionistas?
Yuri: Of course it was. I’m a fan of the Sart; his blog was one of the main inspirations for the idea behind LOOKBOOK.nu. But the idea all along was to see if a global community of creative and talented people could pull off a virtual “LOOKBOOK” that was just as visually compelling as that of any one magazine editor or fashion industry “insider.” That’s why we originally called LB a “social experiment in style.” To get LB off the ground we just did a little bit of market research and found out that there were tons of fashion lovers already using their blogs or forums or Flickr groups like wardrobe_remix to snap photos of their daily outfits and share them on the internet. The concept of “What are you wearing today? / What I Wore Today” was nothing new, we simply wanted to make it more streamlined and more global than anything that was in existence. So we reached out to the people already familiar with this concept in the forums and blogs and communities they were hanging out in and asked them to participate. Luckily, enough people showed interest in our idea to be the first members of our eclectic community, and to our astonishment it has now stretched to over 80 countries around the world.
Allentrepreneur: With the amount of participation you receive on a daily basis, how do you manage your daily operations? What is a typical day at for Yuri at the LOOKBOOK.nu headquarters?
Yuri: I spend a good amount of each day monitoring the site, moderating the community and making sure everything is groovy and peaceful! I hate doing this, but with a site dealing with something as personal as fashion we sometimes have to step in to make sure people are being positive, open-minded and constructive with their feedback rather than negative and derogatory. I’m also responsible for collaborations which we’ll sometimes do with other sites; for example last week I hosted a Shop Live event on Etsy that was a lot of fun. Some days I get to field the occasional press inquiry or fill out flattering interviews such as this 🙂 I try to keep a vigilant eye out for what people are saying about LB across the interwebs while maintaining our presences on Facebook, Myspace, Twitter, and Tumblr. We need money to pay off our expensive internet bills, so I also spend some time reaching out to potential advertisers I think would be a good fit for our audience, as well as making sure our current advertisers are happy with their campaigns. Lastly, there’s always additions and improvements to LOOKBOOK.nu underway, so when I’m not doing the above I’m probably drawing wireframes or mocking up new features in HTML/CSS.
Allentrepreneur: You describe LOOKBOOK.nu as “an international social experiment in style”. What do you think gives it an edge, if at all, against traditional fashion mediums such as magazines and retail stores, whom are both increasing their online presence?
Yuri: By now, practically everyone recognizes the immense appeal that street fashion has over more traditional fashion media outlets — it’s just so much more real, you know? I think it’s no wonder street style blogs and party photo sites have seen such runaway popularity over the past year, simply because on the streets is where real fashion comes to life. What gives LOOKBOOK.nu its edge in the realm of online fashion is that our content is 100% produced as well as democratically sorted by the community members themselves. There are no editors behind the scenes picking and choosing which looks are good enough to show on the front page, and which aren’t. Instead, our “hype” system, modelled after social news sites like Reddit, allows everyone to collectively determine the most interesting outfits at any given moment simply by awarding “karma” to looks they find inspiring. The result is a much more intimate, interactive, and addicting (so we hear) way to contribute and consume fashion inspiration.
Allentrepreneur: Fashion is a big business with big names, some of which get promoted on LB. Has there ever been a case of legal infringement and if so, how did you resolve it?
Yuri: Yes. There have been impostors, there have been people who post content that doesn’t belong to them. We have no tolerance for these types of users and ban them immediately as they come to our attention. For the record, all content on LOOKBOOK.nu are copyrighted to their respective owners, and we take that very seriously.
Allentrepreneur: LOOKBOOK.nu seems like a great platform for up and coming designers and even established ones. What has been the reaction from independent designers so far?
Yuri: Several small-run indie designers and vintage or handmade clothing/accessory sellers have used LOOKBOOK.nu as a way to promote their stuff. We fully support independent designers and people who make their own clothes and accessories, but we also have to balance helping them out with maintaining the original purpose of the site, which was to showcase individual style and street fashion–not professional LB photoshoots. Sometimes there are conflicts, but we’ve generally been able to find a good balance by allowing designers to post other people wearing their creations, and indie boutique and shop owners to post items they are selling only if they themselves are modelling the clothes.
Allentrepreneur: Worldwide appeal, intensely creative with sometimes fanatical dedication, etc., fashion is a good place to be! In your opinion, what other industries do you think possess the above-mentioned qualities and could benefit from a similar crowdsourced model such as LOOKBOOK.nu?
Yuri: Honestly, I’ve been so focused on LB that I couldn’t tell you any useful speculations about other niches. But I agree with you that fashion is a great industry with a lot of potential opportunity. People always say social networks can’t make money because they’re places for hanging out, not shopping. We have the advantage of being sort of both…but we’ve still yet to figure out how to really take advantage of this.
Allentrepreneur: Like a lot of my peers, I take most of my fashion cues from people I see on the street. LB offers this from the comfort of my own home. What do you think the future hold for the world of fashion and, to a larger extent, online shopping?
Yuri: The ways in which fashion is consumed by the masses is definitely changing into more of a two-way street. Thanks to the internet everyone now has the ability to reject what the magazines and advertisements are saying is “chic” this season; they can look to each other and to everyday people around the world for inspiration and decide for themselves. I think we will begin to see, if we aren’t already, a bizarre cycle where fashion from the streets ends up influencing designers and creative directors who end up putting said fashions back on the same streets! I’m happy that LOOKBOOK.nu is playing a role in that democratizing shift.
Allentrepreneur: Finally, what’s in store for LOOKBOOK.nu in the near future?
Yuri: In this economy…well, we just want to keep growing and surviving. Maybe someday, we’ll be able to publish an actual printed form of the best of LOOKBOOK.nu. That would be pretty cool, wouldn’t it?