Q&A: Curalate CEO talks Pinterest deal, the future of e-commerce, and Philly's tech scene | Crain's Philadelphia

Q&A: Curalate CEO talks Pinterest deal, the future of e-commerce, and Philly's tech scene

Curalate CEO and Co-founder Apu Gupta | Photo courtesy of Curalate 

Among the biggest names in Philadelphia’s tech scene is Curalate, a startup co-founded by Apu Gupta and Nick Shiftan in 2012 to capitalize on what they suspected, at the time, was a shift in the way people communicated online.

“We saw that consumers were increasingly using photos instead of words,” said Gupta, Curalate’s CEO, pointing to the rise of Pinterest. “So one of the things we thought about was: How does this change the way consumers interact with brands?”

It’s pretty safe to say their suspicion was spot-on, as were the products they developed to help brands adapt with the times: With its Like2Buy platform, for example, Curalate became one of the first companies to make Instagram shoppable, with a link connecting users to the products depicted in a brand’s posts.

“Our platform is really focused on driving commerce wherever consumers are,” the Wharton MBA said.

Curalate has since raised a total of $40 million in venture funding and today employs 170 employees in offices in Philadelphia, New York, Seattle and London.

Gupta announced earlier this month that the company would be partnering with Pinterest to help power its Shop the Look feature, which lets users single out and buy individual products within certain pins.

Crain's Philadelphia caught up with Gupta to talk more about the partnership, as well as his vision for the future of e-commerce and the state of Philly’s tech scene.

What does this partnership mean for both Curalate and Pinterest?

This is a great partnership for us in that it so squarely fits what we’re trying to do, which is bring commerce to wherever consumers exist. Historically, users pin products from brands’ websites, and oftentimes they’re singular products. Most of us, though, are not interior designers or stylists – we need some help. That’s where lifestyle images come in: A photo of a person wearing a sweater out on the streets of Philly gives you a better sense of how to pull it off than a photo of that sweater, alone, so you’re more likely to buy it.

Curalate sits on a huge amount of lifestyle imagery created by our brands, and Pinterest uses our platform to identify the products in these photos, which can then be purchased by users when they click through. It’s a win for Pinterest users, one that allows for a richer experience; a win for our brands, because they get more traffic and awareness for their products; and it’s a win for Curalate, because we bridge the two.

Curalate offers several different products, but they all generally help make images shoppable, correct?

Our platform is really focused on driving commerce wherever consumers are, and that fundamentally wraps all of our tools together. Historically, we haven’t necessarily expressed it that way.

Why is that?

I think as we’ve gotten more successful in delivering value to brands, we’ve also gotten more emboldened in what we think we can do for them. Fundamentally, one of the things that really bothers us is that e-commerce really hasn’t evolved that dramatically in the last 20 years; the sites look almost the same back then as they do today. In technology terms, that’s unacceptable.

The whole model behind e-commerce is rooted in the mental model of the catalog, with a bunch of images laid out next to each other. I think our question is: Is that construct meaningful today? The idea that you actually need to go to a brand’s website to buy something is a notion that is starting to change, and it’s certainly already changed in places like China, where a tremendous amount of e-commerce actually doesn’t happen on the brand’s website — it happens in the various channels where people discover products.

There’s a very profound shift happening in e-commerce that’s going to disrupt the way it all functions. At our core, what we’re trying to do is enable that disruption to occur.

So, say you’re browsing Instagram and see an item of clothing on an “influencer" you follow. You like that item of clothing, so you click on it, and are taken to some point of sales where you can purchase that product. Is this, to you, the future of e-commerce?

Absolutely. The reality is, when you pick up your phone today and start scrolling through Instagram, you almost certainly don’t think to yourself: “I’m going to go shopping for a specific object,” because that’s really the most inefficient way to shop. But when you do happen to discover something you like on Instagram, the resulting experience is pretty frustrating because now you’ve gone from this moment of “Oh wow, what is that?” to “Seriously, how do I get that?” That needs to be solved. Channels like Instagram are really good for content, but were never really designed for commerce. And as result, as a consumer, where does that leave you?

The general framework is to make it less about any specific channel and more about the idea that this is how consumers actually come to learn more about products, now it’s in these little serendipitous moments where you happen come across something that captures your imagination. If a brand doesn’t capture you well on that, that’s a loss.

What drove you to plant Curalate’s roots in Philly?

Interestingly, I’m actually from Silicon Valley. I went to Wharton, though, and later moved back to Philly because my wife ended up getting a job here. Because the tech scene back in 2011 wasn’t nearly as large as it is today, I began thinking about starting something myself, met Nick, and said “Let’s go build the future.”  

For us, starting in Philly was a little more circumstantial, but what’s more important is that we never left. Philly’s been a great city to start and grow in; I really applaud the city for recognizing that tech matters, and for putting senior officials in a place in which they will cheerlead for our community. It’s very reassuring to know that our leaders care about that.

Do you see Philly having a booming tech scene one day?

It’s growing, and it’s healthier today than it’s ever been — at least, since I’ve been around. There’s at least one or two companies that I think will be real breakthrough companies for the Philadelphia tech scene that will shine an even brighter spotlight on the region, which I’m excited about. I think there’s some good stuff brewing here.

February 17, 2017 - 4:23pm