Whether your pad needs a complete furniture overhaul or the perfect signature piece, an innocent search can turn into image overload. That is, until Materiall saved the furniture finding day with some major machine-learning mastery.
Materiall co-founders Kyle Norton and Christopher Sandman, who built the home project platform that lets you Tinder swipe your way into your favorite finds and save your search where you left off, recently sat down with Hypepotamus. They discuss why they took the leap from McKinsey & Company to build their idea from scraps into a search engine magic with over 40 retailers and growing (such as big brands like Crate & Barrell, Pottery Barn, and West Elm).
On a high level, what does Materiall do?
Kyle: Materiall is a personalized visual search experience for furniture across retailers. We believe there is a real need for this in products where looks are a first consideration and where the retailer landscape is fragmented. As a consumer, you often have a picture in your head of what you’re looking for, that’s hard to put it in words. How do you find it in today’s search tools and e-commerce sites where everything is word based? It turns out to be tough for a lot of people. So our basic premise is to enable the visual recognition powers of what we as humans do best, which is to see and react to images, and build a search engine around it. We then make this experience unique to you by applying personalization algorithms to your reactions, helping to cut out the clutter quicker and to hone in on what it is you are looking for and which retailers have it.
How are you applying this to the furniture and home space?
Christopher: The way we’ve started is aggregating furniture from around the Internet. So we’ve gone out and pulled in sofas and chairs and coffee tables from all the retailers that are online and bringing them into one app. We actually have a version that is live, open-beta but we’ve learned a lot from that.
Right now we’ve got about 40 retailers and about 50,000 furniture skews focus on the home and furniture. It is a visual search, so you can think of it as Tinder in a way. You see an image and it’s very easy to react to it – whether you like it or not – all you do is swipe. If you like it, swipe to the right, if you don’t, to the left, and you go from there. As you swipe and you get deeper into your search the recommendations get better and better.
We are helping you survey the landscape, get a sense of what’s out there and then start diving deep. You identify retailers you like and styles you like. Then very simple tools for collecting and organizing that search so you can start building rooms and seeing how your favorite items look together. How does your favorite sofa look with your favorite coffee table?
Who’s your core audience in terms of acquisition of this product? Who will use it and what market impact do you see?
Kyle: Our core audience tends to be women aged 23-35 who care about what their home looks like, want to be actively involved in their search process, and are open to using technology to figure it out. In this regard, we find that people who like to use Pinterest, tend to enjoy what we’ve built quite a bit as a personalized furniture specific alternative.
Additionally, a few numbers and profiles to put the furniture consumer market into perspective. Over 50 million people buy furniture each year. When you dig into that a little further you start to see a few other things emerging in terms of who’s shopping for furniture and how. Roughly 20 million people are trying to get a sense of what styles they like and which retailers suite them best. This is evidenced by the 10 million people a month searching Google for furniture stores with no idea where to go. It’s people saying, ‘I really need furniture, where do I go and what do I like?’ So they’re a prime target for us given what we offer. We make it easy to rapidly see options, react to them, and hone in on the styles, pieces, and retailers best suited for these folks.
Another group of people that is similarly large is what I call the “value shoppers.” I kind of have an idea of what I’m looking for, but furniture is really expensive, it’s a big purchase, and once I know I want that chair, or a chair that looks like that, I want to find the best price. We are working to find ways where we can rapidly provide you more options of things you like so that you can settle in on the value that’s best for you.
Lastly, is Interior Designers using Materiall to work with their clients. We’ve heard time and time again from Designers that it’s a great way for them to rapidly learn not only what their clients do like but also what they don’t like. Given this, we have quite a few interior designers now using Materiall with their clients on a regular basis.
So your platform also has memory saving so users can keep what they’ve found?
Kyle: Yes, your searches get saved into what we call ‘projects’. You can build your project and store all the things you’ve saved along the way to not only see how they look together but also start to compare.
Christopher: So I can go into my ‘living room project’ where I’ve been looking for a sofa, a table, and a chair. I can click into my ‘chairs’ and I can look at all the things I’ve liked and disliked, and I can promote items that have grown on me. So, if I was to say, “You know what, I am starting to like this style more, I’m actually going to set it as my Top 5, let’s just move it to favorites.” It will move that item to the top. It also then follows back up the stream so I can see how that chair looks with my other favorites across the room I’m building. Then if I want to keep searching later, I can pick up from where I was last time. Today if you go to a retail site and do a bunch of searching, when you come back 3 days later you’re starting fresh. You’ve got to filter things out and look for the things you like again. But from our platform, you can just keep going.
What are some of the highlights you’ve hit since launching and what’s on deck for 2016?
Christopher: I’d say, the highlights for me would be that the idea for this happened late in the summer of last year. Since then, we’ve been able to raise money pretty quickly, build this team and get the first version of our app launched. I’d say the speed and the response we’ve gotten in particular from the retail community has been the other highlight so far. As we sit down with retailers about the problem as we see it, and how we’re coming at that problem, their enthusiasm for what we’re doing has been fantastic. A lot of them quite frankly say, “How are you going to do it? We agree this is a big opportunity, but how are you going to do it?” And we think we know how to solve it. So that’s probably the most energizing thing for me right now is this realization that it’s a big market, it’s a big problem, and there’s a lot of people who are hungry for a solution. We’ve got a lot of R&D in front of us, but we’re absolutely making a lot of progress on how you think about solving this particular consumer problem.
Kyle: From the forward-looking view, we’re working on a web-based and mobile-based browser now. So hopefully we’ll have that out pretty quickly. We’ve got something in mock-up, frame up mode right now that we’re really excited about. We think we’ll tap into what we can do on the phone, but take advantage or bigger screen space and more power that we think is going to be really cool. Hopefully, we have that and Android out sometime this summer which will require a larger seed round from the financing side than what we’ve raised so far.
So we are looking to do that this summer as well and continue to build out our team. Then the retailer partnerships, looking to formalize some more of those to give us better access to local inventory data.
You have the contacts and have lived throughout the United States, why choose to build a business in Atlanta?
Christopher: What’s funny is that neither one of us grew up here, but we both ended up here for pretty similar reasons. I think it was quite frankly a nice place to live. I was in San Francisco before moving out here and just from a quality of life standpoint, we found a really nice home here. It’s affordable, we found culturally a lot of nice people that we’ve met and made a lot of great friends. I’ve got two little kids now and Kyle’s got one, so as we think about a place to raise our families, it’s just been a really good place.
Kyle: I’ve lived all over the place including New York, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, and Texas. This is the longest I’ve lived anywhere and to be honest it’s now home. Being able to create opportunities that excite me and wanting to stay here is a priority. I also think it’s an exciting idea to build something here in Atlanta. There is a ton of potential here with the size of Atlanta, the great universities, and a cost of living that is roughly half of San Francisco.
Christopher: When I was first kicking around this idea, within 2-3 weeks I scheduled a flight out to San Francisco and set up a bunch of meetings with people I knew out there. Fundamentally, I was just going out there to get feedback about starting a team, raising money, all that good stuff, and so many of them said, “This is awesome” and had great feedback for me. And they said, “You’ve got to come back to the Bay Area to build something like this.” So our goal is to prove them wrong.
We are happy here and settled here. There are so many resources out there, it’s a massive ecosystem. So the Bay Area is amazing for this type of thing, but we are hoping to be successful, build something big and meaningful, particularly from a consumer angle. That’s the goal and I think we can do it.
Interview and photos by Editor-in-Chief, Kiki Roeder. Introduction and transcription by Assistant Editor, Kristyn Back.