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I can’t stand shopping. As a mother, filmmaker, talk show host and founder and CEA of A TOTAL DISRUPTION, I simply don’t have the time to spend hours in a store trying on clothes and and rummaging through endless racks searching for the best deal. Online shopping promises to save time & money, but this just hasn’t been the case for many of us trying to balance life and work in our increasingly busy schedules. Now we have the data to understand why it’s not as painless as advertised. “90 million Americans used promo codes online last year and they saved 4.7 billion dollars. But believe it or not for every dollar they saved they spent one hour,” says Susan Akbarpour, founder of Mavatar. Like I said, I can’t stand shopping.
If you manage to find a good price it comes after a huge time investment – switching back and forth between tabs, slamming the keyboard because you accidentally close one or two out when your family calls you back to the here and now. Once you’ve made a purchase you’re guaranteed to be inundated with endless discount offers on future purchases and incessant email newsletters with the latest deals “For A Limited Time Only” and “Special Weekend Offer.” And when you do go back online to use one of those coupons… it’s expired.
With each webpage you visit, item you put into a cart, and purchase you make, data about you is collected. And while you’re sharing your data with these markets, you get nothing in return, “except more recommendations, more advertisements, more junk,” says Akbarpour. Mavatar was founded to streamline the process of finding the best price at top-retailers by aggregating the data for the user and apply coupons, discounts, and individual incentives automatically. This means you can spend more time AFK (Away From Keyboard) and users responded immediately. After launching last year, Mavatar climbed the charts in the iPad App store, quickly breaking into the Top 100.
In our latest episode for A TOTAL DISRUPTION, we sit down with Akbarpour and her team of Phd’s to discuss why the traditional models of retail translate poorly to the new digital economy and how they’ve focused on top retailers and users to create a better shopping experience online. As Akbarpour points out, “Online shopping is a new paradigm shift…we shouldn’t look at old models of offline shopping to make it more compelling to people. You should create new tools for that. You should create new technology to take advantage of this new opportunity.”
Susan Akbarpour came to the US in 1997 with just $2,000 dollars in her pocket. A former journalist in Iran, she’s no stranger to adversity. At the age of 12, her lost her was killed in an accident and at 19, she lost her father to cancer. Always pushing herself outside of her comfort zone, she came to America to find new opportunities and in just a few months realized she could start her own publication. She brought together a community of writers and provided them an open forum which allowed them to write about anything they wanted. It is an industry she grew up in. “My parents were journalists and publishers, and my father, over 50 years ago, started the first advertising agency in Iran,” says Akbarpour.
With that background, she knows well the way products have been marketed in the past, and how different the world is today. Having founded Teksia Inc. where she created entrepreneurship initiatives, tech conferences, and the company’s online and print publications, she knew there was a way to a create a better ecosystem between writers, publishers and advertisers. She wanted to scale, but knew she had more to learn. Dr. William Miller, a mentor and former CEO of SRI International and decorated professor, encouraged Akbarpour to go back to school.
So, at age 40, with a three year old daughter, she enrolled in the Stanford Business School, as her “mid-life crisis resolution” and the story of Mavatar began. It was born in a class called Modeling & Optimization – where our unprecedented access to data, and how we can use it, is the focus. “In 2009, when I was at the school, there was this study… the amount of the data that was accumulated for the last year equaled everything that we had about the entire human history.” She quickly discovered that much of the data was poorly-optimized and rarely benefitted the user. She connected with a prodigy from Stanford’s Info Lab, Panagiotis Papadimitriou, who was studying new advertising models and user privacy, and they began to form the idea of Mavatar – using data to create an optimization engine and create a better experience for consumers.
Focusing on users played a big role in attracting Chris Kelly, former Chief Privacy Officer at Facebook to get involved. “What I see in the company more than anything else is the possibility of empowering consumers,” says Kelly. Placing an emphasis on a user-centric product is the harder way to attract investment, but if you’ve watched our episodes withLadar Levison andMichael Chasen, you’ll know that consumers today are increasingly wary of what information they share and how their data is used. Mavatar wants to let the user take advantage of all this data.
Mavatar sifts through terabytes of information allowing users to place items in a more robust universal shopping cart. “Universal carts they may give you some sort of universality but you have to have 20 apps to do about ⅕ of what Mavatar does for you. So we decided instead [to] go after a disruptive technology and make a car while everyone is looking for a faster horse,” says Akbarpour. With your items in the cart, Mavatar goes to work again, automatically validating coupons from a variety of sources – coupons you’ve entered previously, shared with friends, or shared from other Mavatar users.
But Mavatar wants to be about more than finding the best price. Its application focuses on creating a more enjoyable shopping experience by bringing retailers, publishers and consumers together at “the click of a button.” With her vast experience in publishing, Akbarpour brings publishers and advertisers together in a way that has not been possible previously. Instead of text heavy posts with countless links to each product, Mavatar Connect allows bloggers to create visually appealing layouts. With a single “Shop Collection” button consumers can place any of the products seen on their favorite blogs into their universal cart.
Mavatar, in many ways, is the culmination of Akbarpour’s life experience and frustration with inefficient and old ways of doing business. “I’m always running against the direction [of] everyone else,” says Akbarpour. She wanted to share her knowledge and experience to solve problems for people like herself, and not just create technology for big businesses.
“I had offers from VC firms that if you do this as a B2B product we [will] invest in you, right now, for like 10 million dollars. And I was just like, ‘No.’ I want to give it to consumers. I want to give it for free and I want to enable them to do things they couldn’t do in the past.”