Praveen Rajaretnam co-founded Wooplr along with Arjun Zacharia, Soumen Sarkar and Ankit Sabharwal in March 2013. All the four had worked in the same team at McAfee at multiple points of time and hence knew each other very well. On one of their usual outings, they realised they were doing the same thing every weekend. They ended up going to the same hangouts. They hardly discovered any new places. This process of discovery was limited to their friend circle, i.e., only when a friend spoke about the new place, did they go try it out. They realized that this was the situation with everyone and wanted to collect the details and provide information about new places they could shop or dine out in their respective cities to the public through a portal because even though friends will be limited for people, social media can change that by letting unknown people tell the public about the cool hangouts that they have been and that is the beginning of Wooplr.
The fact that discovery is inherently social in nature makes the process more fun compared to online shopping. Online shopping at that time was an endless catalogue and there was no social gratification because you are removing a major shopping element. They came up with their biggest differentiator as a feature, where for eg, if your friend bought a pair of shoes, they take a photo, share it on Wooplr on where they bought it, which leads to new product / store discovery. A lot of fresh new local and original content was thus being created. They studied consumer buying behaviour and introduced a social feed that suggested products based on her friend circle, her interests, her location, shoppers she follows etc and recommend products. Shopping needs to be social, recommendation and funnel needs to be introduced. They researched on what sort of people to target using the fashion accessories dominated platform which led them on a research which revealed that men buy two pairs of shoes in a year, but the average woman buys a pair of shoes at least six times more often. Hence the four brains decided that the target audience for this platform needs to be women.
After they had quit, they wanted to get their idea to be validated. Wooplr existed only in concept and they were yet to begin coding. So, they quickly hashed up a site where they aggregated photographs uploaded on Wooplr’s facebook page with essential details like the product name, where they bought it from and a comment. They put up a stall at Jyoti Nivas College’s annual cultural fest ‘Scintillations’ and did a contest called ‘Shopaholics Unleashed’ which ended up going viral. They chose JNC as it was Girls college and they realized quite early on that they were essentially building something that was predominantly going to be used by women. The idea of the contest was simple. The students had to snap what they wear wearing – shoes, tops, accessories, etc. – and upload it on Wooflr’s facebook page and get as many people to like it. The snaps with the most number of likes got gift vouchers from them. At the end of the 2-day event, the contest which was initially meant only for the college fest had spread to other cities including Kolkata, Bombay & Delhi. The site was down for a couple of hours due to the high traffic and they had logged over 30,000 page views by then. And the best part was that even though the contest was over, they saw people continuing to upload pictures on their facebook wall. At that point they were convinced that this was a concept that had to be pursued.
4 months later, they launched the beta version of Wooplr. It was by invite only. The first users were naturally our own friends and family. Once they had gotten initial the feedback, they started inviting people from outside their social circle – primarily influencers. These are shoppers who like to explore new places and try new things and have a large online following. They got them to recommend things that they found interesting or might want to buy later. And these are shopping finds which if someone didn’t tell them about, they had probably never hear about them. And that’s essentially what Wooplr is doing. Bringing these word-of-mouth recommendations online so that more people get to know about it.
They had actually either personally met, spoken or written to the first 600 people who joined Wooplr thru’ direct invites. We went to places where our initial target audience (content creators) was like flea markets, colleges, foodie meetups, etc. They then started building our mobile app once they had gotten enough feedback to improve the product and get their features set right. On March 8th 2013, which coincided with International Women’s Day(Date of this interview being published), they opened up Wooplr to everyone.
Now that the model was validated, the next three to four months were spent in working on the beta version and from then on over the period of a year they began building the community of users who will recommend. They took an important decision of making the recommendations “an invite only” model because the success of the portal depended on the quality of recommendations and did not want any one who will come in and make noise and diffuse the purpose of the portal. This worked in their favour because the platform became exclusive and instead of giving the invites to friends and families only they approached fashion bloggers, designers, photographers, models and people who normally spend a lot of time on social media including influencers on twitter etc. The four of them personally met around 600 of these types of people to invite them to join and contribute on the platform. This involved lots of sales and follow up efforts and when they finally launched the platform they had reached out to more than 2000 people and kept taking continuous feedback from those social media influencers on their opinion on this portal and made the user experience much better. Praveen recollects one such instance where one of the input of reducing the number of categories to make it more fashion oriented (they removed books). A key decision to remove the feature of recommending a store (now you can only recommend products) was also influenced by feedback. There were more useful inputs from the community which resulted in reducing the number of fields / clicks to sign-up or recommend a product, changing the UI (they iterated four times by the time of the public beta launch), bringing mobile first were all feedback that came in from the influencer community which helped make it a great product.
Praveen also talks about his second meeting where he met a person who runs a bunch of restaurants and gave them five minutes to talk. The restaurant owner liked this concept and listened for more than 30 minutes and said that he liked the recommendation portion than anything else because this shows the other people that “They get what they see” as it is user generated content than an advertisement. He helped them realise that recommendations are an important aspect for people to buy products and gave them more conviction in their model.
Praveen’s Advice to startup founders – Get your hands dirty. Keep trying. That is when you make a lot of mistakes. It helps you figure out what works for your product. What works for some other startup or competitor might not work for you. So, come up with new ideas. Execution has to be tailored for your customer. In their case, their exclusivity in inducting influencers became a master stroke which may not work for other platforms. So one needs to put in lots of efforts in this and identify their target audience. Praveen says that their targeting of what most other founders or sales people will categorize as unapproachable or difficult people (super models, designers, influencers etc). He says that he tried and was pleasantly surprised that they were more than approachable and very helpful because of the value they saw in Wooplr. He still continues to actively talk to his users in spite of the product reaching maturity stage and takes feedback to this day. People love to help and like it when they believe that their feedback is valuable and makes the product better. They like to know that their feedback went in to the product, that someone is listening to them. That helps make a strong, loyal community for your product.
Wooplr,today have around 100,000 users using their app. They were one of the 9 finalists on QPrize 2014 which is a global competition held by Qualcomm Ventures for startups. Wooplr also won the Google App Expo organised by the Google Developer Group. Economic Times also featured them as one of the 15 hot startups to look out for in 2015.