Buyosphere CEO Tara Hunt: Massive Whuffie Trumps An Unclear Path
[Editor’s note: This is another in a series of profiles of social media influencers presented by the Social Media Club. The profiles seek to explore how social media influencers around the world became involved in social media, what makes them tick, and where they are going from here.]
In the social media world, newcomers are often cautioned to think carefully about what they say online because “you are what you Tweet,” and “you want as many Friends as you can get on Facebook.” One radiant, irreverent spirit who proves time and again that authenticity and a strong sense of community are more important, is Buyosphere CEO and social entrepreneur Tara Hunt.
Recently named one of the “54 Smart Thinkers that Everyone Should Follow On Twitter,” and one of “11 Women who are Changing the Tech World,” Tara has all the skills necessary for social media success, but her talent goes far beyond that. Like Brian Solis and Jason Falls, Tara is a natural sociologist – a highly perceptive observer of the social media scene – but with her entrepreneur’s spirit, Tara prefers to seize an idea and run with it.
She will be the first to tell you that she cuts her own path.
Tara has a degree in Communications and Cultural Studies from the University of Calgary. She has decades of experience working with computer software and Web tools. She is passionate and innovative at marketing and event organizing, and she was pushing integrated Web-based approaches before most people knew such things existed. In 2002, she founded a small but successful marketing brand called Rogue Strategies.
But it wasn’t until her journey brought her to San Francisco – the Mecca of social media – in 2005 that Tara’s social awareness and influence really started soaring.
Tara only needed a few months to work herself into the San Francisco scene with the slightest guidance from people like Social Media Club founder Chris Heuer. She jumped to the head of the class by defining a nascent social media movement which she called Pinko Marketing. It’s a concept which picks up where The Cluetrain Manifesto, the seminal work of Rick Levine, Christopher Locke, Doc Searls and David Weinberger left off.
Written at the height of the dot-com bubble, Cluetrain was a compilation of 95 theses urging people to examine the impact of the Internet on markets and organizations. With the advantage of post-bubble hindsight and knowledge of improved social media, Pinko Marketing took that idea a step further, urging a change from company-to-consumer marketing to consumer-to-consumer marketing.
Consistent with her style of proving ideas by putting them into practice herself, Tara co-founded the community-marketing consulting firm Citizen Agency with then-boyfriend Chris Messina, whose Carnegie-Mellon roots and open source philosophy heavily influenced her work from that point on. Citizen Agency was an early example of a co-working environment (“defined as office-sharing with a Utopian mission” according to Bernice Yeung in a San Francisco Magazine profile of the pair).
Citizen Agency was an experiment in Internet-based idealism, and it triggered a lot of creativity. It was during this period that the two founded Bar Camp, WineCamp and a series of similar user-generated “camps” and conferences, each designed to be easily replicated such that they are now held worldwide.
Social Runs in Her Blood
“Social runs in Tara’s blood,” said Harvard Business Review writer Nilofer Merchant (right), who has been a mentor to Tara for many years and is now the corporate advisor to Buyosphere. “It is second nature for her to think about how social aspects of commerce can transform a transaction into a relationship.” said Nilofer.
Observers noted that Tara and Messina were staunch believers in not just the emerging social media environment, but also open source software, and the freewheeling social networking culture at the intersection of both.
Still, the openness wasn’t without drama. Tara’s relationship with Messina was so transparent (they linked blogs and talked about each other constantly) that it created a certain celebrity. Their break-up was also widely followed, but by that time, they had generated enough social capital to walk away with their careers undamaged. (Messina is now an open source advocate for Google.)
Like any good sociologist or student of cultural studies, Tara reflected deeply on this experience and drew out of it some observations that turned out to be of great value to her career going forward.
She codified these observations in “The Whuffie Factor“, a widely acclaimed book whose title refers to the reputation-based currency of Cory Doctorow‘s 2003 science-fiction novel, “Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom”. In The Whuffie Factor, Tara gives practical guidance for nurturing and using social capital (Whuffie) online and in social media marketing. The publication led Fast Company to name her one of the most influential women in tech in 2009, affirming her position as a social leader.
Paradoxically, at this lofty point in her career, Tara was nevertheless turned off by the rampant money-grabbing taking place around her. Social media start-ups were attracting investors in droves, but few had the Whuffie Factor – the socially redeeming value – which she really takes seriously.
So she decided to move on.
In 2010, Tara left for Montreal where, along with co-founders Jerome Paradis and Cassandra Girard, she launched Buyosphere, a social site which characteristically lets users organize and share fashion buying trends with others. In 2011 the company was named one of “25 Women-Run Start-ups to Watch” by Fast Company.
Since moving to Montreal, Tara has also met a new beau, Montreal native Carlos Pacheco, who provides a remarkable counterpoint to Tara’s purposeful entrepreneurism.
As Buysphere shifts into a new phase of existence – a massive site redesign is due for reveal imminently – Tara has also found a new level satisfaction with the path she is on.
Tara has spoken at over 125 conferences and events including multiple appearances at SXSW Interactive, Web 2.0 Expo, Etech, the MESH conference, Web Directions and SuperNova. But it was at the 2011 TEDxConcordia conference that Tara gave the most passionate insight into who she is and what drives her. She began this highly recommended 18-minute speech, “The Unclear Path,” by saying:
“Although I am more broke than I have ever been, I am happier than I have ever been, too. My name is Tara and I am a start-up entrepreneur. Let me tell you that it takes Herculean strength to day by day hold the faith when you face the unclear path.”
“I have followed Tara’s leadership as an entrepreneur and social expert for years,” said Jeff Jarvis, the tech journalist and City University of New York professor who Tara names as an early supporter. “She’s not in the heart of the cult because she’s far away in Montreal. That’s fitting because she goes her own way. She leads from experience as a pioneer in blogging and social media, living there both professionally and personally. And she put her money where her mouth is, starting an innovative business.”
With well over 100,000 combined followers of her personal Facebook and Twitter accounts and many other social accounts under her management, Tara is still building up Buyosphere as much through her own Herculean effort as anything else. She’s passionate about the site because it is her project. It more or less reflects everything that she has come to value and believe.
That’s the story that most people know. What follows is a closer look at the unclear path.
Tara (pronounced tar-ah, not tear-uh) was raised in an environment that sounds like it is straight out of a young girls’ pony novel. She was born in Saskatoon, British Colombia and raised in the small town of Sundre, population 2500, in the center of Alberta, Canada.
Tara’s father Terry was a college student when she was born, but after graduating, he moved the family to Sundre and set himself up as the town vet, with his own practice.
Her mother, Marianne, had a degree in microbiology but her passion is art. Terry was skeptical of her ability to make a living as an artist, so he regarded Marianne as a stay-at-home mom. Still, she continued producing watercolors and other media, occasionally showing her work at local galleries.
“She just sold seven paintings at an art show and has a steady stream of income from her work now,” said Tara proudly. “So she’s doing well.”
At first blush one might think Tara got her name as a variation on her father’s name, but the story is more interesting than that.
“My name came from the TV show The Avengers,” said Tara. “You know, Mr. Steed and Emma Peel. Tara King was one of the characters they brought on when Emma was on maternity leave. My mom was pregnant with me at the time and she like the name so much she decided to name me after her.
“I really didn’t appreciate it as a child, but when I grew up I ended up watching some of the episodes with Tara in them and today I’m kind of proud to be named after such a kick-ass chick.”
Tara has a brother, Roy, who is two years younger than her. He is a world traveler, working as a civil engineer on green building projects from Abu Dabhi to Brazil. He met his wife in Sierra Leone and together, they have three kids.
“I don’t know how he has been able to balance all that adventure with a family life, but he does and they have a stable family,” said Tara.
Despite the idyllic environment of her youth, Tara always felt like an outsider, in the wrong place, disconnected even from her own family.
When I tell people that, and they’re like, ‘are you crazy? That’s every little girl’s dream, growing up in the country, having horses given to you.’ But I just wanted to live in the city.”
“I was not very popular, I was into fashion but in a crazy sense, I was into technology and environmentalism and saving the world. All of those things in a small town meant I was pretty much one of the unpop
ular kids, dressing whacky, speaking geeky, talking about causes.
“I guess that is why we all fell into the Web, because it was nice to us,” said Tara.
Still, she was exceptionally smart and articulate, making good grades and achieving the honor roll in high school.
“I really didn’t know what I wanted to do; there was no job in the occupational competency profile that described what I was interested in. I think they pegged me as a puppeteer or a set designer, stuff like that.”
“I think everybody in town was pointing at me as being one of those people who was destined to paint themselves silver and stand on a box with an upturned hat in front of them,” she said, laughing.
Tara said she disappointed her father’s hope that she would become a vet. “I was good in biology but I didn’t see myself as a doctor and I wasn’t really interested in surgery or putting my hand up cow’s rear end,” she said. “Law seemed really dry to me, and I didn’t want to be in a pink collar occupation like teaching or nursing.
“I had a lot of really crazy ideas of what I wanted to do. In junior high wanted to be a pirate, but I didn’t realize until later that meant you actually have to take over ships and hurt people. Later I realized that I like writing; I was always good at writing and always wanted to be an author. The advertising industry seemed kind of cool, and the fashion industry, I used to draw fashion designs for fun, but nothing really totally jumped out for me.”
Tara tried some acting during high school, participating in a local theater group, and even choreographed her own dance routines at local talent shows, winning for a couple of years in a row. But that only contributed to the perception that she was an oddball, she said.
Away to College
After graduating from Sundre High, Tara went to the University of Calgary, intending to major in computer science.
“I thought I was going to pursue my love of technology,” said Tara, “but after the first year I just hated those classes. I was not interested in learning anything more about COBOL or FORTRAN, so I switched to a liberal arts degree in my second year.”
The switch might have been radical for anyone else, but it was comfortable for Tara. Svelt and expressive, with a cheeky smile and brunette hair that she often colors blonde, Tara is a self-reliant, rebellious dreamer with a high-speed intellect that yearns for more.
“My new emphasis was in communications, gender studies and women’s’ studies,” said Tara. “It was great, because it was the whole cultural thing, my passion. I was heavy into writing; I even did an honors thesis and a research paper. I got lots of accolades for it and ended up getting my paper published and presenting at graduate-level conferences as an undergrad.
“My honors thesis was on the history of fashion and feminism,'” she added. “It was published in a journal on cultural studies. It had a lot to do with gender assumptions, that women should dress this way and men that. I turned it into an educational program for high school sex education classes, with exercises and questionnaires and discussion points and so forth.
“I tested the program at a couple of different schools and it went over really well. The kids were talking about how everything is gendered in the real world, and fashion plays into how they see themselves and limit themselves. Unfortunately it wasn’t accepted by the board of education. They were a little afraid of it.
“It was ‘heteronormativity for dummies,’ but it was too much for them.”
Although all of that work blends well with what Tara is doing today, there was a long road from college to Buyosphere.
“It seems like a lifetime ago,” said Tara. “I’m sure that my university experience created a sort of trajectory that took me into thinking about the world in a different way, and I got a lot of rewards from the discussions and connections and accolades. It started me down what I have been calling an ‘unclear path’ of questioning what is.'”
During college, Tara’s unclear path took her first to a job at a Chapters Store – a Borders-like bookstore – as well as serving at a private dinner club.
“I dropped a lot of stuff in that club,” laughed Tara. “I could never carry more than two plates at a time. I kept telling the manager, ‘Hey, my arm isn’t flat like everybody else.’ Needless to say I only lasted a short while.”
As fate would have it, she earned most of her money building websites for student clubs and friends. “I taught myself HTML and Flash and some web design in general. I was big on making Geocities sites, one was like a blog but back then it was just a site. I even created some content on fashion and decor, and I had another site that was essentially a portfolio.”
Tara said she had “lots of” relationships during college but two had the greatest impact on her life.
The first was with the father of her son. “I was just shy of 20, I wasn’t with him for very long, probably about six months when I realized I was pregnant,” said Tara. “We broke up shortly after Tad was born.”
Her next significant relationship was with a female professor from her women’s’ studies program.
“If you were in womens’ studies at that time, there was a lot of that going on, and it was all good to me. I believe that people are people and you love who you love,” says Tara matter-of-factly. “And that’s who I am. But it was definitely an eye-opening time for me.”
Tara notes that the relationship wasn’t a student-teacher thing.
“This was post- being her student, we started out going to cocktails after classes ended, and then enjoying ourselves, and then we went out again. We were together for about two years in all.
“She was not very supportive of the fact that I had a child, she was a come-and-go-as-you-please kind of person, and that is what ended up breaking us up,” said Tara. “I was tired of negotiating between the two.”
Tara said being a single parent in the University system wasn’t as difficult as she thought it would be. With subsidized housing for parents, excellent health care and benefits, being surrounded by peers and having the freedom to take her son to study sessions, the atmosphere was surprisingly supportive.
“There were a lot of places to go and things that I could take him to,” said Tara. “It actually worked out kind of nice that I was a single mom at the time. Things got a lot harder after I graduated, with the cost of daycare, having to pick him up at a certain time or being penalized…it was a lot easier in school.”
Tara graduated with a liberal arts degree in communications and culture, but she had no idea how that would lead her down the path she has chosen.
“If I had a time machine back then, to see what my life would be like now, I think it w
ould have been mind-blowing. I would be like, ‘You can do that with this?’
“My only thought at the time was to get into non-profit work, you know, I had a passion for saving the world.”
Incredibly, though, her next step took her in a polar opposite – but equally affirming — direction.
“I ended up getting a job in an oil and gas company,” called MAXX Petroleum Co. Ltd. of Calgary, said Tara.
In the Workforce
“Before I went to the university I was already pretty good at using computers, so I did some work for a temporary agency as an administrative assistant. By going to school I was able to upgrade my WordPerfect skill – which I know dates me – and learn Microsoft Word and Excel, PowerPoint…I had some web skills too. So they were able to put me to work right away even with my liberal arts degree with honors in queer theory.
“It was just part-time work, 15 or 20 hours a week, simple work. One of my tasks was to organize a Christmas party. The executive assistant to the CEO and I were talking about it, the CEO was kind of tech savvy and had this vision of doing something techie with the Christmas card. He had told her he wanted to send an email invite that would open into an interactive holiday party invitation.
“I had some knowledge of MS Director and Flash, so I just created this greeting card, it was really much more than they were hoping for, so one day I saw the CEO and he was like, ‘How did you do this? Where did you learn to do this?’ He was really a closet nerd, loved the Web. When you think about it, back then very few people had an internet connection in their offices, much less the CEO, they were all dictating letters and handing them off to secretaries to do. So by those standards he was very progressive.”
Tara said the CEO noticed that other companies were beginning to put their annual reports online, so he asked her to do the same for theirs. Tara grew the position into a larger set of responsibilities such as posting quarterly reports, planning webcasts for investors’ meetings, and emailing PDFs of corporate documents- all of which were considered really advanced for the time. Recognizing her value, the CEO called her employment agency in August of 1999 and hired her full-time as the communications assistant for the company, handling all of their online presence.
“He told me he was hiring me and asked me if I could do all of that,” said Tara. “So I said ‘Hell yeah!'”
“That was my day job,” said Tara. “It was cool; I quickly got a raise and my own office. I found myself working with communications firms and marketing firms, and web design agencies that I still keep in touch with to this day.
“I went to a lot of Web conferences, I learned how public relations agencies were using the Web for PR, so I upgraded my skills and learned things like Adobe Illustrator, and Photoshop, VHTML and CSS. It was a great time of transformation for me.”
The company was relatively small by today’s standards, and it was just a matter of time before it was acquired for its reserves, said Tara.
“They fired the CEO and went around the office looking at what everyone was doing, trying to assess what to do with everyone else. They didn’t know what to do with me, so I created this awesome Power Presentation on my duties but they didn’t care. They gave me a nice package though, and sent me on my merry way. It was like, a $30,000 package, and I was 24-25 years old, lot of money for me at the time, I maybe had a couple hundred in savings before that.
“So I went to Europe, I took my Mom with me,” said Tara. “She had been talking about taking a trip to Europe, and I didn’t want to go alone. My little boy was six years old at that time and had no interest in going there; it was going to be hard if I took him by myself, so he stayed here with his father, which was good for him, good for both of them.”
When she came back, Tara bought a used car and put a down payment on a condo.
“I was an established adult,” she declared, adding that she got a job at MGM Communications of Calgary as an account director. “It was one of the advertising and marketing agencies that I had worked with at the oil and gas company. I got the job because of my web skills. I became an account director and strategist.
“I loved the creativity; at that point the Web was still not looked upon positively, so it wasn’t a full-time concentration for anyone until I got there. They had an account manager on each account, and didn’t have a lot of money for me, so it was a labor of love for me basically, I worked on all these web campaigns it was cool because it was creative.
“I had a hand in developing overall strategy and I was thinking that all the Web content would be integrated, but they all thought it was more or less an afterthought, so after while the party was over,” said Tara. She stayed there for a little over a year and then started her own agency.
“That was when I started Rogue Strategies,” a PR and marketing company that took its name from a comic book character, said Tara. “The intent was to create fully integrated, experiential campaigns, online and offline, for a smaller but savvy clientele. I did a lot of work with a beer company and developed a creative campaign that won awards for its online game aspect, which was pretty advanced for the time. If you went into an establishment and ordered a Pepsi or a Coke you were given an avatar with a code that you could enter on your computer for more stuff.
“We couldn’t do that with alcoholic beverages because of regulations, but we could give out scratch cards at event venues that would allow you to unlock different levels of online and off-line club promotions, create your own avatars and get more scratch cards. We worked with a lot of different clients and leveraged the Web quite a bit. It wasn’t even called the social Web back then; we would do some of our stuff on forums.”
“This was back in 2002; there wasn’t even a way to comment on articles back then. Which was ok with the clients because they were always freaking out about somebody saying something bad about them. But we wanted to be totally integrated, so we were working with sales teams, package design, traditional advertising and placement, helping to create sell sheets and putting on events,” said Tara. “I didn’t hire people, but I was always seeking out other people to work with, designers, developers, media buyers…they were doing a lot of stuff for me on the side and some even quit their jobs and went to work as independents. I didn’t want to take the risk of having employees, but I probably could have, if only to beef up the perception of the agency with some prospective clients.”
Tara’s work with beverage companies was getting quite a bit of notice, not just for the companies but for herself as well. A major liquor chain in Ontario invited her to bid on a contract, but if she won, it would mean closing up shop in Toronto.
“Liquor advertising is controlled by the government, and to be really effective you need an integrated campaign where you are going into venues,” said Tara. “I thought this was a good opportunit
y so I bid and won. I sold the condo and pretty much everything I owned, and moved to Toronto. It was probably one of the bravest but stupidest things I have ever done.”
Stupid, because the concept had yet to pass liquor control board review.
“We submitted our proposal to the liquor control board and they turned us down,” said Tara. “The board said we had to be doing $4 million worth of business in Toronto alone to be considered for this, and the company just wasn’t that big. So they pulled out of Toronto and moved all of their focus to Vancouver.”
“So there I was, I had basically hacked off all my other clients, my main client was leaving, and I was in Toronto, alone. I had nothing,” said Tara. “It seemed like the end of the world.”
To make ends meet, she used the creative she had developed for the campaign and built a promotion around it, a “mod 80s theme event with a funky disco sound,” said Tara. “When the client pulled out, we were all set to go. We had posters and flyers and equipment, so I figured, we can do this, and I taught myself to DJ. We did that for about a year and actually made pretty good money at it. Lawrence Fishburn showed up one night, which was a kick.”
On the side, Tara was still looking for professional work that aligned with her skills. Eventually she found a gig as the digital media manager for the Human Resources Professional Association of Ontario, creating their websites, setting them up with a knowledge center and commenting abilities, creating a wiki. She helped them with their annual conference, created a blog, and conducted interviews – what would be considered podcasts today but we weren’t calling them that at the time.
Social Media Mecca
In 2005, a friend referred Tara to a Redwood City, California startup called Riya (later the image search engine Like.com, which was acquired by Google). Riya hired her as its online marketing director “while it was still pre-launch and running in stealth.”
“Chris and Kristie were great, they really helped me out. Chris is just the nicest guy, they were just starting to date, and this was even before the Social Media Club, before Bar Camp. And Jeff Jarvis was there, too.
“I wanted to do a documentary where I go around and talk to people on NetVibe, interviewing people like Caterina [Fake] and Stewart [Butterfield] from Flickr,” said Tara. “It was a super exciting time where everything seemed up-topic, the Web was going to save the world and we were all going to sing Kumbaya around the world together.”
“We were all going to the early TechCrunch parties and Bar Camp, working on stuff just for the sake of working on it,” said Tara. “People didn’t talk about user numbers really, and when they did, 10 thousand seemed like a really big number.
“Wanted to solve problems and help people, there was a lot of experimentation going on. Everything seemed really positive and fresh and bright. I could have probably stayed in San Francisco and made it work, I could have launched a company there and been successful.”
But with the emergence of a new wave of social media tools, things were changing on the Web, and Tara felt uncomfortable with the new direction.
“By about 2008-09 the conversation had changed, all the sudden the Web was like, another marketing tool, another way to capture eyeballs. It just seemed like 1999 all over again, there was this crazy frenzy of people throwing money at ideas that didn’t really help anybody, ideas that weren’t really good, whereas projects that really were helping people were being passed over.
“It was like a land grab, only this time it was a cash grab. The democratization of the Web had basically taken a back seat to monetization, and it really made me sad, I was sad all the time.”
“There was a time when the San Francisco Chronicle called us the ‘digital utopians.’ Chris Messina was the digital utopian. Chris as you remember started Citizen Agency, he worked with clients like Slideshare, Chipit, Scrapblog, the early Facebook, lots of Bar Camps, Wine Camps, and it was all non-profit, we were all working together.
“It was such a good time, everybody around us was building to change the world in little ways here and there… to improve peoples’ lives, which was really cool,” said Tara. “Not that the web was going to change the world, people change the world, but it wasn’t going to be more of the same. We really thought that things would change.”
It was in the midst of this spirit of Utopia – and contrasted with the money grab that she was seeing around her – that Tara published The Whuffie Factor. She was able, with the advance, to pay rent and stay in San Francisco or move back to Canada at put the rest of her resources into a startup company of her own design.
She chose the latter.
“I had a work visa that required me to be working at a company, I couldn’t just quit my job and create a new one. There are some alternatives visas that I could have pursued but they can be really expensive and it was just easier to come back here,” said Tara, adding that her only real quandary was where to go.
“I realized I didn’t want to be in Alberta where I was raised and I didn’t want to go back to Toronto,” said Tara. “Vancouver is lovely but I’ve never really been a huge fan. But I have always loved Montreal. We went there on vacations in my childhood and even when I was in San Francisco. The city itself is great, it has a wonderful art scene, and even though I don’t speak French, I already knew a bunch of people engaged in startups in Montreal.
“One was Austin Hill, I met him when I was living in San Francisco, and hung out with him at Ted. His energy is really a big part of the Montreal startup scene. Also John Stokes, who became one of our investors.
“I met Alistair Croll shortly before I made the decision to move up here. So knowing that Alistar and Austin and John were all in Montreal made it pretty easy for me to decide that’s where I want to be.”
Tara’s home now is in Montreal, near the Atwater Market. There are tech centers of innovation in Montreal, and there used to be a co-working space called Station City. The Notman House was another co-working space for startups, more of an accelerator that held events and such
But it clearly isn’t San Francisco.
“It was a little different, being in Canada, without the resources and early adopters around you, but I thought the social capital that I was gaining was something I could continue to use no matter where I went, and that did work a bit,” said Tara. “I spent some time there, pretty quickly teamed up with Jerome, basically when we teamed up we moved into his office.”
Meeting Jerome Paradis
Tara’s partner in crime these days is Jerome Paradis, CEO and co-founder of Buyosphere.
Sporting shoulder-length hair and a French accent, Jerome Paradis is a compelling choice for partner. He has multiple degrees in computer science from the University of Montreal and spent five years in and out of college working for Sobeco, a division of Ernst & Young, as a computer programmer and developer working on large-scale software applications.
He then went on his own, creating a consulting company called Paradivision that specializes in the development of complex software applications, custom programming and website development for e-commerce sites and other interactive sites.
He describes his current role as being “the tech-head behind Buyosphere…in charge of architecture and development.”
“I first met Tara via Twitter,” recounts Jerome. “We met for the first time (in person) probably sometime in late 2008. We just clicked because we were having fun when we would meet. She was sometimes visiting Montreal for some events and other times, I was traveling in the valley and we would meet for drinks or dinner.
“In 2009, she decided to move to Montreal and a bit after that, in Fall 2009, we began discussing ideas for a startup. I actually had an idea on implicit filtering of content (news, photos, videos, products, etc.) based on social capital (influence) of your network. I approached Tara with the concept since I thought she was the perfect fit – she had just release her book, The Whuffie Factor, about social capital.
“We would meet and brainstorm every other week on the idea. During one meeting, she showed me a business plan for a shopping browser concept. I almost fell off my chair because, years ago, in 2005, I had written a provisional patent about a Semantic Commerce API which was exactly the technology needed behind the more marketing-wise concept she was explaining.
“We were totally amazed and excited about our similar ideas. It surely was fate. That night, we went out at Gogo Lounge for a few drinks (well, more than a few), which was perhaps a bit instrumental in us concluding that that – even if it was too big of a project – we should scrap the previous idea and build a startup on the shopping experience we both envisioned. That’s how Buyosphere was born.”
Still, in charactericstically Tara fashion, Buyosphere started out being more utopian than focused on commercial success.
“When we started Buyosphere – which we initially and unfortunately named Shwowp – we had utopian dreams of changing the face of e-commerce and how we discover new products,” said Paradis. “And even though we’re far from our unrealistic utopian vision and our adventure had us changing directions a few times, I feel like we’ve always been innovating in the space. We first started as a place where you can aggregate all the products that you want or have.
We were in the first wave of companies to bring the concept of the WANT button. Now we’re hearing rumors that Facebook wants a want button! On the visual site we were part of a wave of visual browsing and discovery shopping sites. But we weren’t too much helping the ‘finding something’ part, which brought us in the ‘Q&A for shopping direction.”
Paradis said the project didn’t get top billing on their priority list until they met their third co-founder, Cassandra Girard, who they both describe as they driver who got the startup in motion.
“We continued meeting on and off while we were both working on other stuff and in early 2010, when a common friend introduced us to Cassandra,” said Jerome. “We realized she had the same kind of idea for a start-up. So Cassandra joined and kicked our butts enough so we all decided to stop working on other stuff and work full time on Buyosphere, which we did around April 2010.”
“We chatted about the idea for about six months,” said Tara, “and then spent our own money for the next six months developing it. After that we approached friends and family to raise our first financing which got us to about the 18 month point. We found it was important to constantly talking to family and friends. That allowed us to raise bits and pieces here and there, until at the end of that period we had raised about $200,000. That got us to the point where we were ready to launch what you see today.”
What users see today is a unique social shopping experience primarily for people interested in affordable fashions.
“The idea came from the understanding that we all come from personal pain points, and fashion is one of those,” said Tara. “Right now shopping online is still somewhat in the early adopter stage, and with everybody trying to do it, it’s becoming harder to find what you are looking for.
“I remember one time I was looking for a black t-shirt and it took me three-and-a-half hours and 14 sites to find it.”
Buyosphere attempts to solve this problem by acting as a “Quora for shopping,” allowing users to ask a question (“Where can I find a plain black shirt?”) which other users can then help to answer – with a link.
“It’s kind of based on the Doc Searls school of vendor relationship management,” said Tara. “The customer sends out the signals and the vendor comes to them.”
Buyosphere’s initial income model is based on networks operating in the background to affiliate users’ links for a small fee, much as Pinterest did at the outset. Tara said the company is testing an advertising model whereby small independent companies can advertise to their customers.
“Facebook advertising hasn’t been a very positive experience for a lot of retailers,” said Tara. “A lot of advertising networks are being ignored. So we are creating a kind of reverse advertising model, where I put a question in for example, asking for a shirt, and wait for a response. A peer can answer for free, and any of our vendors that carries a black shirt will also get a notification and can pay to answer as well. This allows them to get discovered by even more users. It’s a great model for new and interesting designers and stores. They get to see who is asking the question and can choose who gets their attention.”
Tara said the company hasn’t launched the new advertising model yet, but “customers understand that at some point in the future we are going to flip that switch,” said Tara.
“There are a bunch of ad
vertisers who are on Buyoshere, and if they mass answer it can look like the user is getting spammed or canned responses, so we are hoping that the advertising model will resolve this problem by helping users and vendors to build communities where companies with really cool stuff, like high quality vintage clothing, can answer questions that attract appropriate customers to their areas..”
Tara said the company is anticipating a mobile component as well.
“Mobile is going to be huge for us for sure. People on the go never have enough time for shopping. If I only have three hours to find something for my Dad for Father’s Day, I don’t want to spend most of my time driving from place to place trying to find something but I also don’t want to go home to my computer first.”
“Using a mobile application, I can put in a question with a price range, and get a notification back with a geolocated map and on offer to put the item aside until I get there,” said Tara. “As a shopper who has been in that situation a million times, I find a lot of value in knowing exactly where something is and how I can get there.”
Interestingly, Tara’s hypothetical situation is actually more real than one might think.
“I am the biggest user of my own product for sure,” laughed Tara. “I want to demystify the shopping experience the same way Gary Vaynerchuck demystified wine. A lot of people don’t want to be bothered about details, but in a world where good clothes can open doors, and where you don’t have to buy luxury goods to dress well or be on top of trends, it helps to know that you have an incredible amount of choice. Most users just have to be shown how to search for things and they are hooked.”
Buyosphere raised a seed round of $325,000 from Real Ventures led by John Stokes and a couple of angel investors, which closed at the end of last year, in December. The money was used for a redesign of the site.
“We’re launching the new design in two weeks. We took the last of our seed money and spend it on a really great design firm in New York that understands all about social commerce. So we’re now focused on getting this great new design done.
“We got surveys at the beginning of the year from users, and test results from power users on some new ideas, which combined to give us a whole bunch of feedback to work with. We used the same design agency to figure out how to better communicate things. They’ve helped us to decide on a better way to set up the structure for better usability, to prioritize what was important to change and how much we wanted to invest in those elements. So we invested in that feedback where we could, after figuring out which of these things to launch and which to hold for later or take away.
“It’s been an interesting process, just trying to decide what to focus on. We could have done it the obvious way and just tried to give them faster horses, but our feedback took us in different directions,” said Tara.” In some cases people told us they were confused with the tool and in other cases, they thought the way we presented certain things was kind of kludge. So we changed things around to make them more easily discoverable. Instead of having a situation where you kind of find your way to what you want, we’re creating a more familiar magazine style, with an editorial-looking lead and two main sections – one a style guide, and the other more of a fashion portal that will support the editorial. So, it will have a flow that supports how people ask and answer questions, with more of a point to it.”
“We changed the site to be more fashion focused. Like many changes before, it was made necessary from what we learned from our users and also from metrics. Some changes are no brainers: when more than 70 percent of your activity is in fashion, it makes total sense to be fashion-focused. It makes things way simpler for marketing to pinpoint your niche.
The new upcoming site is quite exciting.What I can say is that for us, it’s the culmination of the evolution of Buyosphere.
“The net is that Buyosphere is basically the same idea but it will just be organized very differently. We’re pretty excited about where it is going,” said Tara, adding that, “we’re very due for another round but I am waiting until we’re in right position to raise our Series A fund.”
Paradis said Tara’s personality combined with her huge social capital has been instrumental to the success of the company.
“Tara’s defining characteristic is that she’s a giver,” said Paradis. “Co-founding the co-working movement that is now so popular worldwide is a great example of this. In my opinion, if Tara is that well known, it’s probably because she gave and shared more than anyone within the social media scene. It makes sense that’s what her book is about: when you give a lot, chances are that’s you’ll get something back without asking for it.”
Indeed, part of the Buyosphere experience is Tara’s personal blog The Buyble, where she explores a wide variety of fashion trends, clothing styles and materials.
“I’m writing a post about lace today, did you know that the fight over lace once started a war?” said Tara. “I love these historical tidbits, they make the whole experience that much more interesting. Lace was once made by hand, and then with looms, but now most of the production is mechanized. Still, a lot of looms are in use. Did you know it can take up to two months to program the loom to make a lace pattern?”
“Fashion is art but it’s also like wine in that it can be very complicated to make a lot of this stuff,” said Tara.
“A huge part of what we do is about fashion and style, which is fascinating to me because it’s always been my passion. So I have come full circle.”
Part of that full circle involved finding her new beau, Carlos Pacheco.
“Carlos started following me on Twitter after I moved to Montreal. He was sort of in the industry, interested in startups, the Web space, social media stuff. He had read an article in a newspaper that said I was moving here, and he friended me on Facebook at about the same time,” said Tara. “I usually I don’t accept strangers to my Facebook friends but I had just moved to Montreal and I thought I should get to know more people here.”
“It was a couple of weeks before Valentine’s Day, I was organizing a night out where everyone gets dressed up to watch Casablanca at this old theatre, so I had put out a Facebook post to invite people to come along. Carlos saw that and posted it to his page, with a headline that sa
id something like, ‘Looking for a cheap date for Valentine’s Day? You should come watch the classics with us at Casablanca,”’ and then he added himself to the event.
“It turned out that he was there, he was just intimidated by my group, which creeped me out a little,” said Tara.” I had been disappointed by a couple of dates and was feeling particularly ready to give up on dating altogether, but a friend said, ‘Oh you should go out with him, maybe he’s the one, he’ll change your mind about giving up.’
“Anyway, he said we were going to do some sort of a dish crawl which actually sounded interesting to me, I thought that was kind of cool, so I accepted. I almost cancelled on the day of, but I went, I showed up, and that’s when I realized he’s really cute, it was really a nice time, the conversation was funny.
“So then at the end of the night he walked me to the metro station and said, kind of awkwardly, ‘Maybe we can do this again some time?’ and I thought, ‘Oh, you just blew this buddy, that was so lame, can we hang out? Be bold!’ So I turned around and started walking away and then I decided, ‘Oh shit, I blew that.’”
Tara paused, reflecting on her behavior. Feeling the moment.
“He surprised me later by asking me out again,” said Tara. “And I was like, ‘Okay, what are we going to do, brunch?’
“Then I kept getting all these messages on Gowalla saying, ‘Carlos has left a message at this place and Carlos has left a message at that place,’ and when I asked him about it he was like, ‘Oh no! I didn’t think you would see that!’
“It turned out he had been setting up this elaborate little scavenger hunt, we were going to check in to these places and I would get these notes with clues about him and about the history of Montreal…things that showed me he really had been listening to me.
“I was still a little skeptical , I’ve had a number of situations where a person figures out what my career is like and they chicken out and run in the other direction,” said Tara. “So I told him as much. And his reaction was like, ‘Really? Because I’ve been thinking, ‘what can I offer to this woman that she could need from me? How do you ever get to be just yourself with anybody?’”
Tara took a deep breath.
“I swear, I just about keeled over at that moment, he took my breath away, and I knew he wasn’t just saying a line,” said Tara, her voice faltering. “So I let him kiss me at the end of that date and the rest is history. He can tell the whole story much better than I, he masterminded the whole thing.”
With her start-up in high gear, her partnership running smoothly and her son living with friends in Calgary, Tara is now in a position to view her path if not with more clarity, then at least from a higher altitude.
For instance, Tara is a big fan of the commercial fashion industry – when it has a purpose.
“I love makeover shows in general, but especially the ones that help their clients find themselves and build character,” said Tara. “It’s amazing how much confidence people get when they feel that they look good.
Still, she understands the potential conflict in having a “save the world” personality and a sharp eye for style.
“The whole perception of style being the world of rich people is utterly based in classism as well,” said Tara. “You don’t have to have money to dress well and feel good about yourself. People don’t realize that there are actually tons of retailers creating clothes that are high quality, great looking, and give you the confidence that you need to get that job or meet people, without a lot of cost.”
“Deep down inside,” said Tara, “I know that this is exactly what we need to change the world. Gary Vaynerchuk demystified wine, made it cooler to drink and easier to find, and therefore easier for everyone to buy a bottle and try it. I want to do the same for the fashion industry.”
Nilofer Merchant likes where Tara is headed.
“Long before Quora, Twitter, or the Facebook IPO, Tara was decoding what social could mean for any business,” said Merchant. “Today, she has a vision for social commerce that we’ll look back at 10 years from now as the definitive path.”
But Tara still keeps a bit of the rebel inside, and that could spark new ideas and new paths in the future.
“I have accomplished a lot in my life, I’m happy with who I am and how I have gotten here,” said Tara. “I think I have a great resume but I feel like I really do lack some of those adult markers of success. I don’t have a car or a mortgage, I don’t have much in the way of savings, and every time I do get some money I spend it on start-ups and co-working space,” she laughs.
“I have written books, and I’ve met some amazing people that make me think all the time, but I still struggle to pay my bills every month, so I guess my definition of success is different than it might be for others,” said Tara.
“I kind of feel like, maybe success flies in my circles for me,” said Tara. “It still feels like high school, though. Just different antisocial behaviors.”