In the age of the always-online consumer, it might seem one could expect to find the exact information they need about whatever they want to buy simply by typing in a few keywords and exploring pages of “best of” product listicles.
Those lists work great in some scenarios, particularly for relatively simple products with low ticket prices, Curated Co-founder and CEO Eduardo Vivas told Karen Webster in a recent conversation.
However, as the ticket sizes get bigger, the products get more personal and the purchases become more rarified, there is an increased risk associated with those transactions. And those lists as a tool “really just fall apart,” Vivas told Webster.
It was a lesson he learned the hard way over the course of a decade of taking an annual ski trip with friends. He was living in Florida for most of that time, and there weren’t a lot of local downhill skiing experts. So he did what any digitally-savvy consumer would do: He went online and searched for the “best” ski gear – and then bought it.
However, that didn’t translate into a “best of” ski experience with his friends. It was during one of those trips that Vivas decided to hire a ski instructor in hopes of getting a few tips on his form. One of the first things the instructor did was to march Vivas down the mountain and into the ski shop to buy the correct gear.
The difference was night and day, said Vivas.
“I thought of myself as a savvy shopper and I did my research, but I was using equipment that was far too technical and advanced for my intermediate skier level,” he explained. “Once I got the right stuff, I started actually enjoying these ski weekends, and then it clicked that there are a lot of people out there with knowledge that could be useful in these kinds of situations.”
Thus, the idea for Curated was born – a platform that pairs consumers interested in making an expensive purchase with experts capable of personalizing the purchase to their needs. After all, Vivas noted, what is determined to be “best” is subjective to the specific circumstances and the customer’s use for the product.
Creating a Curation Match
As of today, Curated focuses on a few areas that are all connected to outdoor activity: winter sports, yacht charters, golf and cycling. Fishing, hiking and camping are all on the expansion agenda for the relatively near future.
The outdoors were a natural starting point for a few reasons. On the customer side of the platform, outdoor enthusiasts comprise a wide niche of customers who are making an unusual and expensive purchase. Everyone has a different budget and context for their purchase, Vivas noted, and they need non-generic guidance to meet their specific needs – a lesson that he took from his days as head of talent solutions for LinkedIn.
That’s where the experts side of the platform comes in. Those curators are assigned to consumers who are seeking advice on what to buy. The relationship starts with a roughly 15-minute conversation about the consumer’s needs and desires for the specific purchase. From there, the interaction varies based on the individual situation.
The Curated platform was designed to be multi-channel; while it generally starts with online signup, it ranges from there. Usually a series of texts are exchanged as the curator sends product links, which the customer reviews before offering additional feedback. In some cases, thousands of texts are exchanged. Others prefer corresponding via emails or phone calls.
And the recommendations aren’t limited to the Curated platform. Though they try to offer all of their recommendations for purchase, they might also direct customers to other merchants. The curator is still paid their percentage from sales made at different sites. They also receive a small fee for meaningful conversations with customers, and derive a fairly significant amount of income from tips.
“The majority of consumers are tipping our experts, and tipping meaningful amounts. That makes sense if you think about it – you just spent a week with this person talking over what might have been a major purchase,” Vivas noted. “And often, they will have saved you money. Our experts really don’t consider themselves salespeople and won’t go for an upsell – more often than not, they will point customers to a less expensive product that better meets their needs.”
And better meeting customer needs as an unexpected reward, said Vivas, gives Curated a path to scale forward.
The Path to Scale
In the two years they’ve been operating Curated, Vivas told Webster, they discovered something that was a bit surprising: Their return rate is extremely low. That is likely because the experts on the platform are peer-reviewed by a panel of experts to make sure they “really know their stuff” before their application is accepted, he said.
Additionally, most of the experts are extremely passionate about the area for which they are curating, Vivas added. As one might expect, there are a lot of ski instructors who want to talk about skiing and snowboarding and improving on the mountains. However, what one might not expect is that there are also many PhDs and real estate agents serving in the same capacity – because they just really love talking about gear.
“There are message boards all over the internet where people are doing this for free anyway,” Vivas pointed out. “One of our experts actually said they can’t believe we are going to pay them tens of thousands of dollars a year to talk about snowboarding.”
Though people assume there would be a challenge in finding sufficient experts, Vivas said that has not been a constraint. The next big challenge the firm will face is expanding into categories that complement each other, so they can pick up on more of those cross-category purchases and tap into a larger share of the consumer’s wallet.
“The benefit Amazon has is that their customer is going to buy 60 items from them over the course of a year,” Vivas noted. “We don’t have that, so we have to think very carefully about where we are going to focus.”
But it is a model that works. Consumers do tend to come back, because getting exactly what they want on the first pass, particularly with a complex and expensive purchase, can be a very sticky experience – provided Curated can properly expand to give them more things to purchase.