Imagine, after being intrigued for years by one outdoor sporting activity or another, you finally decide it’s time to get serious. It’s happened quite a lot over the past year, as the pandemic has caused an 84% rise in participation in outdoor individual sports, according to a new study by McKinsey.
So you head off to the local sporting goods store to get your gear, like Eddie Vivas did when he wanted to start snowboarding. Guided by a 20-something jock in the shop, he got fully equipped with a professional-grade board and all the necessary accouterments, dropping a big chunk of change in the process.
Then he headed out to the slopes looking the part of an expert snowboarder, but without the skills to match. “Here I had all of this top-of-the-line professional stuff, and I was miserable,” he says.
In desperation, he hired a snowboarding instructor who quickly sussed out the problem. His gear was all wrong. So the instructor got him fitted up right and “it was a game-changer overnight,” he says. “I went from absolutely hating it to absolutely loving it.”
That experience stayed with entrepreneur Vivas, who’d successful founded and sold two companies, the latest acquired by LinkedIn in 2014. It became the creative spark that started his next venture, Curated.com in 2017.
“It clicked a switch in my head about a real problem people have when they are about to make a big purchase. They need the advice of an expert, so we built a platform to connect them with experts who can advise them objectively,” he explains.
Building a business through relationships
Vivas’ experience with LinkedIn taught him the power of personal relationships, which he has applied to a new retail concept. Curated.com plays matchmaker with people interested in starting or taking a step up in an outdoor sport with carefully-vetted experts in that sport to guide them on their journey.
For lack of a better term, let’s call it concierge e-commerce. Like a concierge, Curated.com’s experts know the lay of the land and match the consumer’s needs and personal preferences with what is available. And also like a concierge, they often get tipped for their expert advice.
Curated.com’s version of concierge e-commerce is a mash-up of social commerce and influencer marketing but with an important twist.
“Just because you have a ton of Instagram followers doesn’t mean you’re a very good expert. It means you’re good at posting photos,” Vivas says. “We provide true experts who give you good advice in a way that doesn’t exist on the internet today or in traditional retail. Curate.com is what social commerce and influencer marketing could be.”
Right now, Curated.com is focused on outdoor sports, but Vivas has his eye on other verticals where expert advice is needed.
“Our goal is to go into every category where consumers can leverage advice,” he explains. “My long term vision is that for a lot of basic purchases that you don’t have to think a lot about, you can to Amazon
It’s a highly sticky concept with huge upside potential, which attracted Forerunner Venture’s Kirsten Green as an early investor. Green has a eye for innovative companies that understand the evolving needs of consumers, like Glossier, Faire, Hims & Hers, Dollar Shave Club and Bonobos.
“People love the ability to talk to somebody knowledgeable before they are about to make a big purchase,” Vivas continues. “We do this every day in our personal lives where you go to get advice from them about something or other. But we don’t have somebody for everything. We built a platform to connect these people to make that happen.”
Finding the experts
Before he got customers, Curated.com had to get experts, like Jake Parker, who was literally raised on skis in Montana. As a grad student in physics and snowed under in student debt, he needed to make some money but felt that selling was a dirty business.
“You have a couple of brands and you have to push them on people who don’t know better,” he says. But then he learned about Curated.com where he could give unprejudiced advice and guidance in equipment selection that fits the customer’s needs, goals and budget.
Curated.com was a perfect fit for the selling-adverse Parker where he earns a commission on purchases no matter which of the 200+ partner brands they buy.
And even more positively reinforcing, Parker and Curated.com’s over 1,000 other experts get an unsolicited tip 90% of the time. Experts can turn their sporting passion into real money, with the top Curated.com experts making $9,600+ per month.
Delivering to the customer
Like Curated.com’s experts, potential customers are vetted too. When they come onto the site, they are asked a series of questions to develop a profile of their skill level in the particular sport, what they are looking for next, what they want to achieve and their budgetary constraints. By understanding the customer, Curated.com can match them with the right expert.
“If you are a 60- year-old man from the northeast connecting them with a 20 year-old, west-coast snowboarder may not be the relevant match,” Vivas explains. “Getting the right expert makes a big difference.”
Once matched, the customer can chat with the expert via the website or through the expert’s dedicated email address and phone number. The back and forth can extend over months and result in hundreds of phone calls, texts and emails so that the expert can compile a Curation that gives them a selection of recommended products. The relationships built extends well beyond the transaction, with experts offering not just product recommendations but counsel and sporting advice.
“It establishes relationships which is a powerful thing,” Vivas shares, adding that a fear he had early in the business was that people would take Curated.com’s recommended curation list and shop it around to find a better price. But that hasn’t happened.
“It turns out customers don’t go elsewhere. They want to do right by their experts who they’ve developed a relationship with,” he adds.
Today Curated.com has matched over one million customers with its cohort of experts with revenues increasing 300% in 2020. When asked if this huge influx of business might be triggered by the pandemic and that business would return to a more moderate pace once it resolves, Vivas is convinced Curated.com is onto something big.
“I thought at first this might be the case, but as time went on, I realized that all Covid did was accelerate what was going to happen eventually.”
Vivas has proven the Curated.com business model in the sporting goods vertical. What comes next is still under consideration, but be assured something will come next.
“The power of building these relationships is really strong, When consumers engage with experts, their conversion rate to purchase goes through the roof. The numbers are silly high, which allows us to hire more experts. It has a proven positive compounding effect,” he declares.