For those of you who don’t know Polyvore, it’s a platform to discover and shop for things you love with a global community that has created over 100 million collage-like “sets” that are shared across the web.
Jess has an amazing story, going from an early power user of Polyvore to becoming the CEO, bringing the company to over 20 million monthly unique visitors, raising over $22 million in funding and changing the face of online fashion communities forever.
She has experience as a coder, product manager, community builder and everything in between. That means she brings a wide range of perspectives to the discussion about how businesses can build community into everything they do.
At CMX Summit, Jess will be sharing her story and the tactics they’ve learned to make community a core part of your company culture, to bring in community feedback into your product and to love and support the members of your community.
You can get your tickets here.
In anticipation of her talk, we asked her a few questions about her background and about building the Polyvore community.
Q: How did you go from Google to fashion?
A: While I was a product manager on Google Maps, a friend showed me Polyvore and I became addicted to it. What caused me to fall in love with Polyvore was not the fashion aspect of it, but the idea that Polyvore empowers people around the world to express their sense of style and set trends. I knew I wanted to help build a platform for others to creatively express their style. One of my favorite things about Polyvore is that we’ve built technology and a platform that is like a blank canvas – and then all of our members fill it with their creativity.
Q: How important is your technical background (degree in CS from Stanford) to your success at your job?
My technical background has been tremendously helpful throughout my time at Polyvore. In the very early days, the most important thing was to build the product, so I mostly wrote code for dashboards and new features. When I transitioned full-time to product management, my understanding of how the code worked helped me make better prioritization decisions on what features to build. When I was selling ads to advertisers, I could make up ad products on the fly based on what was actually possible. Even now as CEO, I still rely on my technical background to understand what’s possible when it comes to our long-term product strategy and vision.
Q: How did you go from being a “superuser” to an “honorary co-founder” and CEO?
A: While working at Google, one of my friends showed me Polyvore, and I just fell in love with the product. Even though I didn’t really know the founders, I wrote them a note filled with compliments and complaints. They wrote back and said: “Hey, why don’t you fix this stuff yourself? Why don’t you join us?” We met for coffee and we clicked.
After joining, I tried my best to find ways to make myself useful, beyond my given role. At a startup, there’s no shortage of things to do and there’s never enough people to do them. I volunteered especially for tasks that were either boring or annoying, but actually important.
For example, figuring out how to first sell ads, fixing UI bugs, or finding our first office space. After a while, Polyvore’s three co-founders felt like I had taken on a founder-level amount of work, so they decided to recognize me as an honorary co-founder and CEO. That was a really nice thing to do. The gesture meant a lot to me. It also says a lot about our culture of empowering and rewarding people who make an impact.
Q: What community building tactics did Polyvore use to succeed where so many other fashion communities fail?
A: From the beginning, our focus has been on community. We know that we would be nothing without our members, and so our members are at the heart of everything we do. We take a hands-on approach to really get to know them. We hold in-person meetups for members to meet and exchange ideas to iterate on the product. We create hacks to share member feedback with the entire company, and decorate our office in love letters and sets from our users. As Polyvore has grown, we’ve created opportunities for members to pursue their real-world career dreams with retailers, or to serve as ambassadors for fashion events and report back on our company blog. This focus on community has helped grow Polyvore to more than 20 million members today.
Q: What skills or traits do you think have contributed most to your success as a community-minded CEO?
A: Part of what motivates me personally is building products that impact real people. I get a real thrill from hearing our users say that Polyvore has touched their lives. At our last meetup, one of our members told me she had been using Polyvore since the age of 11, that it helped her discover her talents, and that she moved to New York from North Carolina to pursue a degree at Fashion Institute of Technology because of Polyvore. Another member sent us a copy of her college application letter, which was all about how Polyvore inspired her to want to major in computer science. Those stories totally make my day. I draw strength from that.
The other thing that’s helpful is that I participate in a lot of online communities, which helps me understand how to build great communities. I’m a total fangirl, I’m big into Tumblr fandoms, I’m a diehard Reddit user, I attend conventions, I cosplay. I get the pull of being in a community.
Thanks again to Jess for taking the time to share her story and for joining us at CMX Summit. It’s going to be a really special event.