Liz Gannes

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Aardvark Founder’s Social Shopping Site Luvocracy Creates Market Around Recommendations

Nathan Stoll’s grandmother was an Avon lady for 50 years, and he wants to reimagine that role for the social media age.

“Recommendations are an ancient thing; it’s different than reviews,” Stoll said in a recent interview at the headquarters of his startup, Luvocracy. “It’s part of the way we think. It’s someone you know and trust saying: ‘Go get that.'”

Luvocracy CEO Nathan Stoll

For his grandmother, selling cosmetics door to door was never about the money, Stoll said. It was about the satisfaction of knowing that her recommendations worked.

Even though there are lots of websites for finding pretty pictures of products people like — Pinterest, Wanelo, Houzz, Fancy, OpenSky — Stoll thinks he has arrived at a new angle on social shopping.

The invite-only site, which Stoll created with co-founder Roger Barnett, aims to create a marketplace around recommendations. It “closes the loop” on social recommendations by making everything on the site directly purchasable, Stoll said. New items are personally vetted by a team of “shopping assistants.”

Here’s how it works: A Luvocracy member recommends a product. Then shopping assistants find the best price and availability for the product and publish it on the site. Other users, who are following the person or the category, find the product and buy it. The original recommender gets a cut.

Eighteen-month-old Luvocracy is actually more established than you might think. Stoll previously co-founded the social search service Aardvark, whose acquisition by Google brought him back for a short second stint there, after he was an early employee who worked on products like Google News.

Today, Luvocracy employs some 25 people in downtown San Francisco. It has been written up in fashion magazines. It hired Christine Martinez — one of the most popular Pinterest users, with 5.5 million followers — to recruit a community of early users. It raised venture capital funding. (Stoll wouldn’t disclose the details, but sources said Bing Gordon from Kleiner Perkins led the company’s Series A round and sits on its board.)

Still, most companies that do social shopping and recommendations can tend to be kind of gross. They pollute your Twitter feed with junky celebrity endorsements, and take way too much advantage of whatever Facebook permissions you give them.

While Luvocracy doesn’t seem to be up to those usual tricks, the site is not shy about the social stuff. For instance, the default setting is that any time someone visits the page for a product you recommend, you immediately receive email asking you to elaborate on why you love it.

Christine Martinez’s recommendation of pencils with quotes from the movie “Mean Girls” has been one of the more popular Luvocracy items to date.

But the key features are ensuring that everything is buyable, and rewarding people for the value they create, said Stoll. “What we’re trying to build isn’t just a shopping site; it’s an economy,” he said, just a little grandly.

Luvocracy is not set up as a get-rich-quick scheme, but rather a way for people to feel their taste is validated, Stoll noted.

Active “tastemakers” who are chosen by Luvocracy can expect to earn up to 10 percent of purchases. Everyday users can earn up to 4 percent.

Martinez added that she likes that active Luvocracy users get to create a sort of static living store of everything they’ve ever recommended. She also argued that recommendations also tend to be high-quality, because Luvocracy users can choose from any product that’s sold on the Internet, rather than just a set catalog based on affiliate relationships.

I’ve ordered one thing from Luvocracy so far: A clothes-cleaning gadget recommended by a friend who was also trying the service. At first, I was disappointed to see that the Luvocracy checkout process slapped on an $8 shipping charge. Plus, no product showed up at my door for at least week. Then I got an email apologizing that the product was backordered. I was ready to blow Luvocracy off as a prelaunch startup that needed to work out the kinks, badly.

But then it got much better. A follow-up email arrived saying Luvocracy had found the same gadget in stock in Japan. This version had Japanese text on the packaging, but a shopping assistant had checked to make sure it was compatible in the U.S. And I would get a significant savings from the Japanese store — nearly half off. So Luvocracy was sending me a refund.

I don’t have my purchase in hand yet, but I gotta admit that’s not a bad first experience.

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