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Social network for teen girls focuses on shopping

January 24, 2011|By Joan Verdon
  • Carla Larin, 18, was among PlumWillows first interns. Users of the site can put together outfits and share their choices with friends in their network.
Carla Larin, 18, was among PlumWillows first interns. Users of the site… (David Bergeland, The (Hackensack,…)

Reporting from Hackensack, N.J. — Venture capital investor Charlie Federman took his daughters to a Paramus, N.J., mall one day and went home with an idea for an Internet business with the potential to deliver a coveted demographic: teenage girls who like to shop.

Federman, a managing partner of Crossbar Capital, is the founder of PlumWillow, a website that piggybacks on Facebook to create a social shopping network for girls.

Federman and Crossbar Capital provided the seed money for PlumWillow, and he put together a team of executives experienced in launching Internet and technology companies. He also formed a brain trust that guided the creation of the site — a group of high school interns from New York and Bergen County, N.J. One of his daughters came up with the PlumWillow name.

"I have hundreds of girls volunteering to help me on a subject matter that they are truly more expert than most of the people in the company because they are that demographic," Federman said.

Carla Larin, 18, a senior at Bergen Academy in Hackensack, was among the first group of interns. She advised Federman to drop his original idea of a site where girls could dress digital avatars and encouraged him to make something closer to the kind of shopping experience that girls like. Girls, Larin said, want to talk to their friends and socialize while shopping, a reason many online shopping sites don't grab teen girls.

"If I'm going to be buying something, I'd rather try it on at the mall and go with all my friends, but with PlumWillow, all your friends are on PlumWillow," she said.

Federman's initial inspiration for the site came when he was driving his daughters to a mall and asked them why they never shopped online.

"It occurred to me that the sites we have now have been built in a time … before social networks," he said. "For girls, shopping is a social experience, like slumber parties."

The business plan for the site, which launched in October, is to focus on building an online community first and make money later. Retailers don't pay to be linked with the site, but PlumWillow earns the standard online commission of 3% to 7% if a user clicks through to buy an item. PlumWillow executives said the site is already earning some revenue from such commissions.

PlumWillow takes advantage of a decision by Facebook this year to open its social network to other websites that want to build a community of users with a common interest. PlumWillow members log into the site through their Facebook accounts and can send shopping-related messages to friends in their Facebook network. On the PlumWillow site, users can create outfits on a virtual palette — picking, for example, jeans and boots that go with a certain blouse or jacket. They then can share their choices with their network.

The members also build virtual closets of their favorite clothes. The items they choose come from the online stores of the 20 retailers linked to the PlumWillow site.

"Here's the vision," Federman said: "We know the girl; we know the type of jeans she likes because she's built closets with us. We also know the jeans her friends have bought. We also know the jeans the community has matched with that shirt. At the moment she clicks on jeans, on a real-time basis, we'll be able to offer her suggestions," he said. "Companies will pay us to reach the girl just when she exposes her intent that she's looking for jeans."

Federman enlisted Elad Baron — who co-founded Internet security company Whale Communications Ltd., which later was sold to Microsoft — as chief executive of PlumWillow. Baron, who also founded BitWine Inc., an online network of lifestyle and spiritual advisors, initially resisted Federman's recruitment efforts. "I thought, I'm not the right person for it because I've never been a teenage girl and I don't have teenage daughters," he said.

Baron's strategy is to minimize any pressure on PlumWillow members to buy, and not to bombard them with marketing messages, in hopes of building a network of shopping friends. "We want to build a community where they are actually having fun and they come back," Baron said. "I don't mind if they don't buy today. It's much more important for me to make sure that they'll come back next week and they'll talk to their friends. Once you have a very loyal community, monetizing it is very easy."

PlumWillow has almost 5,000 members, and user visits total about 1,000 a day, executives said. Federman and Baron acknowledge that those numbers are small in the vast world of the Internet, but "it's a nice beginning," Baron said.

Larin, the Bergen Academy intern, said PlumWillow has started influencing her purchases. "I created an outfit on PlumWillow and it was so cute, I bought the dress," she said.

Verdon writes for the (Hackensack, N.J.) Record/McClatchy.

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