Jess Lee: How She Became CEO and Saved Polyvore

Jess Lee helped shape Polyvore into a community of 20 million users. How did she do it? Jess breaks down the steps she took to keep users coming back.

What’s a community and why does my startup need it?

Jess Lee: How She Became CEO and Saved Polyvore

For most people, being asked to build a strong community is kinda like a cooking noob like me being asked to whip up a gourmet meal…

…I’d have NO idea where to start

…I wouldn’t even know what tools to use

…I’d start making something, but how would I know if it was a success or not?

……And what the hell does puree even mean?

When I hear the word community I know it’s something EVERY successful startup has, but I’m just left with so many questions:

Is community just a message board for users to chat with one another?
How do you even create a community?
How do I grow it?
And does a strong community actually generate revenue?
These are just a few of the 100′s of the unanswered questions I had.

But that all changed after listening to Jess Lee, the co-founder and CEO of Polyvore, during our pre-Hustle Con conversation.

How Polyvore built a community of 20 million users

You see, Jess has grown Polyvore, a shopping discovery site, from just a dinky website into a global community with tens of millions of diehard followers… and in the process Polyvore transformed into an profitable company.

About Polyvore:

  • A global community that helps people discover and shop for things they love in fashion, beauty, and home decor
  • $22 million in funding and profitable (!!!)
  • Has over 20 million monthly users
  • Founded in 2007 and has over 100 employees

At Hustle Con, Jess is going to give her step-by-step process on how she grew Polyvore’s community from 0 to 20 million monthly users and why she thinks building a strong community is the #1 way to grow your startup’s revenue.

In the meantime, check out this excerpt from Jess’s interview in WIRED.

Humble Beginnings

Jess Lee – CEO and Co-founder of Polyvore

Polyvore began with a humbler mission: help two people redecorate their home. Company co-founder Pasha Sadri was outfitting a new house with his wife, clipping furniture images from magazines and assembling them into inspiration boards. Sadri, a Yahoo employee, realized it would be much easier to assemble these collages digitally.

He did so using a new version of Yahoo Pipes, a tool he’d co-created to enable users to combine web content in novel and unexpected ways. Pipes included a drag-and-drop editor that Sadri realized he and his wife could use to place pictures of bathtubs and faucets next to one another in order to see how they paired.

Sadri was itching to strike out on his own. So, in 2007, he left Yahoo and convinced fellow Yahoo engineers Jianing Hu and Guangwei Yuan to join him in starting Polyvore. The idea was to take Sadri’s idea of a drag-and-drop online collage builder and really run with it, taking the interior design tool and adapting it for other types of creative work. Sadri chose fashion for his first adaptation, reasoning that it would draw more repeat visits: Most people complete only a handful of home makeovers in a lifetime, but revamp their wardrobes constantly.

Just a few months after launch, Sadri received a pointed email from a hardcore user, praising the site as “the Flickr of fashion” before launching into a lengthy critique. Super-user Jess Lee had a lot to say. “I listed out all my complaints and little issues,” she says. “And then I asked for a rotation tool, which didn’t exist at the time.”

Sadri immediately invited Lee to meet for coffee. “The email was unlike any feedback we’d ever gotten,” he says. “It was a two-page-long analysis, detailing ‘this is broken, we can fix it this way.’” At coffee, Lee remembers Sadri arriving in a giant orange puffer jacket. “I was like, ‘This man runs a premium fashion site?’”

But the pair found they were in sync about how to improve Polyvore. “We had very similar ideas on what to do with the product,” Lee says.

From super user to CEO

Childhood Dream Reborn

Lee was obsessed with Polyvore because it allowed her to rearrange outfits and art drawn in the style of Japanese Manga comics, an abiding passion. As a teenager growing up in Hong Kong, Lee dreamed of becoming a Manga artist, but her parents nixed that ambition. So she began working toward a computer science degree at Stanford, drawing Manga-style art to help pay the bills via eBay auctions.

After college, an interview with Google VP Mayer led Lee into management via Mayer’swell-regarded Associate Program Manager training program. Lee subsequently helped lead the development of Google Maps, spearheading the creation of the “My Maps” custom map builder and draggable driving directions.

While working as a Google Maps product manager in 2007, Lee became obsessed with Polyvore. She was hardly alone in her addiction. The site offers a bookmark that feeds a compulsive loop: Click the bookmark on any website, and you can use it to “clip” out a piece of clothing or other item, even if it’s part of a more complex image. The clip is then added to your image library, where you can combine it with other clips to make a set. It’s common for Polyvore users to spend hours hoarding clips, and then scaling, cropping, and rotating them into meticulously-arranged sets. “I was spending probably two or three hours a night on the site,” Lee says.

Once hired into Polyvore, Lee quickly rose from product manager to vice president of product to honorary co-founder, helping, along the way, to focus the company on growth. She did this in part by setting measurable, statistical goals for every project she touched. Her first task, which she assigned to herself, was coding an internal web dashboard that charted Polyvore’s progress by counting user registrations and set creations.

But Lee also aggressively expanded her portfolio beyond engineering, developing wide-ranging skills in sales, community, and personnel management. At one point, Polyvore received an unsolicited inquiry from Piperlime, the Gap-owned clothing and accessories retailer, which was receiving tons of online buyers from Polyvore and wanted even more. Trouble was, Polyvore had never sold advertising of any kind.

“Being scrappy, I was like: ‘You can buy ads from us,’” says Lee. “‘You can even buy…a contest?’” She asked users to assemble sets incorporating certain shoes sold by Piperlime — and the best set won a $250 Piperlime gift card. It was native advertising before the term existed, garnering 3,854 entries.

Lee soon found herself working with major ad buyers for giant companies like Nike, dispatching complex advertising pitches, but she wasn’t particularly good at it, so she hired a sales division.

From Fashion to Cash

Today, Polyvore does a robust business selling similar forms of advertising to online retailers and clothing brands. But it earns most of its revenue from affiliate fees: Each item in a Polyvore set links back to the page where it was clipped, often a product page inside a web store.

Polyvore drives millions of clicks to such pages every month. Its engineers have invested hundreds of hours in making these revenue-generating links robust. Even if a retailer changes the web address of a product, as happens frequently, Polyvore’s software bots will quickly find the new product address and rewrite the links.

Thanks to affiliate links, advertising, and a growing community of users, Polyvore turned profitable in June 2011 as more than 10 million unique visitors poured through the site (half of today’s traffic). In contrast, much-hyped collage site Pinterest, founded in 2009, remains unprofitable and revenue free, mid-2013. The contrast is down to Polyvore’s focus. Pinterest deals in whole pictures while Polyvore’s atomic unit is individual pieces of clothing, making it much easier to turn user attention into cold, hard cash.

Thanks to affiliate links, advertising, and a growing community of users, Polyvore turned profitable in June 2011 as more than 10 million unique visitors poured through the site.– Jess Lee –

Venture capitalists have rewarded Polyvore’s focus handsomely. In January 2012, the company closed a $14 million funding round. Sadri became chief technical officer and, as a reward for driving user and advertising growth, Lee was promoted to CEO. The super-user had gone from sending critical emails as an outsider to calling the shots as an insider.

“She was clearly developing to become one of the great leaders of Silicon Valley,” says board member Peter Fenton, comparing Lee to Jack Dorsey, co-founder of Twitter, in which Fenton was also an early investor. “When Pasha [Sadri] brought that up with the board, there was unanimous, overwhelming support” for making Lee CEO.

How to Clone a Super-User CEO

This year, Lee is trying to elevate other super-users, to turn largely anonymous Polyvore users into stars of a famously snooty industry, influencing the creation of fashion and even entering the industry directly.

For example, blogger and Polyvore user Olivia Lopez worked with the designer Madison Harding on a shoe for the Coachella music festival. The result was a black, ankle-height bootie with a cutout to keep feet cool and a low heel. After actress Whitney Port was spotted in the boots, they sold out two production runs.

“Influencers in fashion right now are a cliquey club in New York that’s very hard to get into,” Lee says. “The question for me is, can we make a random girl, with great taste, who lives in Minnetonka, influential? Can she gather enough followers that when she says, ‘This is cool,’ it’s actually cool? Can we shape the actual trends that happen?”

Lee and her team plan to eventually turn Polyvore into a broader lifestyle-meets-commerce platform, adding verticals other than women’s fashion. High-priority categories for that expansion include sites focused on weddings, babies, interior design, and men’s fashion. Polyvore will deploy at least one such spinoff later this year.

With the expansion will come another test for Lee: Having leveled up from college student to Google manager, and then from Polyvore user all the way up to CEO, can she stretch again, from leader of a comfortably niche community to operator of a community-building machine? For now, the answer doesn’t matter much, if only because it’s impossible to imagine a better pioneer for Polyvore’s unexpected new directions than the woman who came to the company as a bolt out of the blue.

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