Entrepreneurs are, as a rule, pretty excited about their ideas. They almost have to be, since the journey from idea to instantiation is arduous under the best circumstances. Only a true believer is likely to ever make it across the finish line, as the less convicted and committed are more than likely going to be worn down and out by the process itself.
Alexandra Van Houtte, founder of TAGWALK, is no exception in this regard. TAGWALK is a fashion site that has been billed by The New York Times as “the Google of fashion.” When the New York Times asked her about the potential for her innovation, her description was brief but potent: “We think it’s a simple idea but with revolutionary potential.”
That simple idea was developed while Van Houtte was working as a fashion assistant in Paris, combing through fashion magazines on a mission to research and catalog various looks for fashion shoots. It was grueling, tedious and time consuming, which made Van Houtte wonder if there were a better way to be doing this.
“For a multibillion-dollar industry that is all about being on the cutting edge, the whole system was totally hopeless,” Van Houtte told PYMNTS.
At the time, there really wasn’t a better way to do it. A person could order a car on demand or have anything under the sun delivered in a few hours, but when it came time for fashion professionals and enthusiastic amateurs to build a look to love as their own? The technology wasn’t there.
That is, until 2015. That was the year Van Houtte realized that if she built it, they would come, and so she set about creating the kind of searchable fashion product that she believes the world needs. The early days were slow going, and so, to fundraise she didn’t seek out investors — she sought out tenants through Airbnb to rent her apartment while she built her product.
Investors might have been nice, Van Houtte noted, but at first she really couldn’t find them. They were skeptical.
“A lot of them were very dismissive,” she said. “They said it was too niche, that it only catered to bloggers and assistants and lower rungs of the fashion industry, that it couldn’t scale. Even my parents started having their doubts about where the business could go.” At the beginning, she was hand-tagging all the thousands of images on the site (algorithms have mostly taken that on, though all things are reviewed by human eyes before being uploaded).
But she persisted, and that product today is called TAGWALK. Billed as the first fashion search engine, it is catching a lot of media coverage. Using a directory of 2,800 keywords, a user can search by brand, trend, city, season, fabric or color — all pictorial, all at a user’s fingertips.
It’s the capacity every serious fashionista needs, according to Van Houtte, because the human mind can only hold on to so much data at once. But, in a world where anyone can remember a few details of a look, TAGWALK helps that user search out the other necessary information.
“Now, if you remember that Prada used neon last season and want to see who else did for a mood board, you can do it fast and with just a few clicks of your mouse,” Van Houtte said.
The turning point for the brand was Carmen Busquets, a Venezuelan businesswoman and angel investor who came to prominence as an early backer of Net-a-Porter. She put seed funding into the business when it was just two months old, because, like Net-a-Porter before it, TAGWALK had the potential to be much more than it seemed. Busquets later introduced Van Houtte to a secondary major investor: Adrian Cheng of C Ventures.
“Investing early on in disruptive ideas is always a big risk, but it’s one I’ve taken many times because you become a co-founder and partner as well as an investor,” said Busquets. “Alexandra’s business plan immediately made sense to me.”
That model makes money in few ways, with none of them being the traditional advertising or subscription service route. They consult with brands on digital and social media expansion; they are an eCommerce site that lets people buy the looks they search for, and they allow smaller labels to pay a monthly rate to be featured on the database alongside bigger houses.
According to merchants, it’s a major boost because of the industry exposure it offers.
“Within a week of being on TAGWALK, I was getting editorial requests from a different level of industry power players, those inside a bubble that had been so hard to crack before,” said Rosh Mahtani, the founder of Alighieri, a jewelry label sold on Net-a-Porter.
“But the really valuable part of the partnership is data. Insight into what trends people are looking at on TAGWALK, or keywords that are consistently popular, has helped me shape my next creative and commercial steps, from how many pieces to produce to what kinds of stones or materials to use,” Mahtani said.
That user data, according to TAGWALK, is the backbone of their money-making engine, because their small (but growing) user base is made up of regular users with a lot of influence in the fashion industry. While data is always of value, these users’ data is particularly valuable.
TAGWALK is still new, and there are complaints that its selection is too limited to date. But it’s getting bigger, and all the right people use it.