Liz Gannes

Recent Posts by Liz Gannes

Meet Deena Varshavskaya, CEO of Social Shopping Sensation Wanelo

Wanelo founder and CEO Deena Varshavskaya seems kind of obsessed with Squishables. They’re spherical stuffed animals that come in varieties like narwhal, owl and panda. She pulls out her purse so she can show off her latest tiny plush find. They’re the new Beanie Babies, she says, and everyone should buy one right now.

Varshavskaya is basically the embodiment of the service she created, which helps people share and discover products to buy.

Wanelo CEO Deena Varshavskaya

Wanelo is mostly used by young girls and women — 90 percent of users are female, and 60 percent of them are 24 and under.

Items that do well on the site, according to board member Ann Miura-Ko: Things with sparkles, anything turquoise, and booty shorts. And Squishables, of course.

Founded three years ago, Wanelo (a portmanteau of want-need-love) had 1.3 million unique U.S. visitors in January 2013, according to comScore. (By comparison, Pinterest had 32 million.) But the majority of Wanelo’s usage now comes from mobile, which isn’t included in that count, according to a Wanelo rep.

Perhaps the most important feature of Wanelo is that everything is for sale. Where on Pinterest or Facebook or Twitter it might be gross for a brand to promote its products without sprinkling in some stories and inspiration and more personal posts, Wanelo is all about products. If users report that an item is no longer for sale, the site hides it from search and community pages.

Another contrast: While a trial with affiliate links pissed off Pinterest users who felt the site was exploiting their activity, Wanelo explicitly sends all product referrals through VigLink so it can get a cut of sales.

“On other platforms, buying products is not the intent, so users may feel exploited,” said Varshavskaya. That’s not the case on Wanelo. “On our site, we get overt complaints when people post blog links [instead of direct links to products].”

Wanelo last year raised $3 million from investors including Miura-Ko’s Floodgate, Naval Ravikant of AngelList, Kirsten Green’s Forerunner Ventures and Josh Kopelman’s First Round Capital. After quick growth it has been a hot fundraising target in the past few months. (It’s pretty easy to see why if you search the company’s name on Twitter.)

Wanelo’s “Things I want as gifts” page features a background of flying cats.

As a sole founder, Varshavskaya is particularly compelling, according to Miura-Ko, because she’s so authentic. “I meet a lot of dude entrepreneurs trying to replicate the experience of girlfriends going shopping,” Miura-Ko said.

Varshavskaya, who is from Siberia and previously founded and ran a user-experience design firm in Los Angeles, is different from the usual startup dudes in other ways, too. Sure, she can talk your ear off about how the future of shopping is aggregated, personalized, social and democratized — but she’s not some drone.

Varshavskaya personally writes the iOS release notes for new Wanelo versions, leaving little Easter eggs, like an announcement that it was one of her employee’s birthdays, so everyone should send him an email. He got hundreds.

At company meetings, her employees attested, Varshavskaya frequently stops to ask, “Are we having fun?” She admitted this was true, explaining, “We take our fun very seriously.”

Another example: Where other Wanelo sections have normal white backgrounds, the “Things I want as gifts” part of each user’s account features a background of flying cats. Each release comes with a new type of cat, with past versions including Grumpy Cat and astronomer cats. The current version (see above) is a rotund cat that definitely resembles a Squishable.

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Another gadget you don’t really need. Will not work once you get it home. New model out in 4 weeks. Battery life is too short to be of any use.

— From the fact sheet for a fake product entitled Useless Plasticbox 1.2 (an actual empty plastic box) placed in L.A.-area Best Buy stores by an artist called Plastic Jesus