Updated: Thursday, September 28, 2017, 6:51 AM
Online commerce has taken the fun out of shopping, Curalate Inc.’s CEO, Apu Gupta, believes. At Amazon, it’s search and purchase, search and purchase, search and purchase.
Convenient, yes. But where’s the serendipitous joy of wandering the clothing racks at Nordstrom or Macy’s and finding something?
“Unlocking this discovery is the next big arc of growth for e-commerce,” said Gupta.
How? Through photo and video postings on social-media platforms such as Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and Pinterest: You see it, you like it, you click it, you just bought it.
Curalate’s platform constantly crawls the internet, capturing images that feature a brand’s products, tagging the images with information on what they are, and distributing those tagged images to social channels for shoppers.
That’s the vision of five-year-old Curalate, a Silicon Valley-like tech company backed by $40 million in venture funds and founded by Wharton grad Gupta and former Microsoft programmer Nick Shiftan. The 160-employee company, with offices on the 2400 block of Walnut Street as well as in Seattle, New York and London, has relationships with 850 brands or retailers as it interacts with 100 million consumers, mostly in the United States.
Curalate says it “makes social channels shoppable,” enabling brands and retailers such as Urban Outfitters, Forever 21, Alice + Olivia, Target and Nordstrom to put together image reels on websites or online catalog-type displays.
It’s just the sort of company that puts Philadelphia on Amazon’s map as the online mega-retailer looks to augment its Seattle HQ with a second North American site. One of Philadelphia’s proposed sites for Amazon is near 30th Street Station, only blocks away from Curalate’s offices. (Camden and Bensalem also say they would like to woo Amazon.)
“Amazon wants to see a healthy dose of Curalate-like companies, and there are more out there [in the Philadelphia area] than most people know,” said Dean Miller, chief executive of the nonprofit business association PACT, the Philadelphia Alliance for Capital and Technologies.
“Philadelphia has a lot going on, more than people would know. [Curalate is] not the only one out there, but they’re one of the most successful to date,” Miller said. “These guys have figured out their product, and they’re growing. I would put them near the top of the companies of their type, which is venture-backed.”
Robert Moore, president of Philly Startup Leaders, a city-based nonprofit, said Curalate works with brands on social media so they “stay relevant. Curalate sits at the nexus of those big brands and the way that consumers are developing brand loyalty.”
The University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School brought Gupta, the son of Indian immigrants who was raised in San Jose and San Francisco, to Philadelphia.
Here, he chummed around with a fellow Wharton student, Indian-educated Madhukar Gangadi. They dreamed up a chain of small, modern Indian drugstores. Months after graduating from Wharton in 2006, Gupta flew to India and opened 650 pharmacies in three years, serving as chief operating officer and chief marketing officer.
Gupta resigned from that company, MedPlus, in 2009, following wife Jasmine, a biomedical engineer, back to Philadelphia, where she had a job with a consulting firm.
Living in a Fitler Square apartment and desperate to do something, Gupta hit on the idea of renting out driveways for parking and basements for storage, based on Airbnb’s model. Gupta called it Storably. He also found a partner through a contact at Wharton, a like-minded entrepreneur, Nick Shiftan, who lived in Seattle.
In May 2011, Shiftan flew to Philadelphia for his first visit and to successfully pitch the Storably concept with Gupta to Josh Kopelman at First Round Capital. Kopelman gave the go-ahead within two hours, part of a $750,000 investment in the concept. (Kopelman is board chairman of Philadelphia Media Network, which owns the Inquirer, Daily News and Philly.com.) His First Round Capital remains an investor in Curalate.
In early October of that year, Shiftan relocated to Philadelphia — just in time to trashcan Storably. Between the pitch and Shiftan’s move, the cofounders realized that, despite Airbnb’s popularity, people weren’t comfortable with the idea of storing others’ belongings in their homes. Nor did they think renting their driveways or garages to others for parking was a good idea. Gupta told Shiftan they had to pull the plug. “He was looking at the same vital signs I was. But he was a realist,” Shiftan said.
Storably had run through half its $750,000. Gupta and Shiftan told their venture investors they could take what was left, but the funders told them to develop something new.
“I gave them a ton of credit for having the courage to admit that Storably was a bad idea and the creativity to come up with Curalate,” Kopelman said. He backed Gupta and Shiftan as entrepreneurs, and thought they still had “gas in the tank” with the leftover funds.
Gupta and Shiftan noticed an internet exploding with pictures in the early days of Instagram and Pinterest. So many pictures coursed through the internet, Gupta said, that he and Shiftan thought the “Web might break. People were now talking in pictures instead of words. That was our big insight.”
It was the same kind of “mega-trend” that sent Gupta to India to launch MedPlus. “When we started, we were interested in statistics, in these pictures. When they were shared? How they were shared?”
An intern came up with the name Curalate, a combination of curation and correlation, which really has little to do with the company today.
Domino Sugar was Curalate’s first paying customer, wanting to know which recipes were sparking the imagination on Pinterest — pies or cakes, cookies or brownies. In those first days, Curalate charged clients on a sliding scale: $20 a month, $50 a month, and $100 a month. “We had clients come and tell us, ‘You are going out of business at these price points. You need to raise your prices.’ At that point, we knew we were on to something.”
Curalate now offers a suite of products — a platform — to post content into social-media feeds, collect images, and package products into “showrooms,” or online catalogs.
Gupta, 42, and Shiftan, 36, keep the corporate culture loose with biweekly “all hands” meetings that combine news on clients and deals, with staff updates called “Curalattes and Jawns” — restaurant crawls, happy hours, employee “challenges,” and displays of fun photos.
Employees, dressed in jeans and sneakers, sit at long wooden tables or on stools near room-length windows through which you can see Vine Street Expressway traffic crawling, the Cira Centre and the Schuylkill — a classic Philadelphia view.
“I have never worked for a company based in Philadelphia,” said Eric Saltzman, 40, who previously worked for LinkedIn remotely in his Philadelphia home. “I didn’t want to work for pharmaceutical companies, and there weren’t too many tech companies.”
“I was looking for a tech company that was not only getting traction, but buzz,” Saltzman said. “Curalate is a bellwether for what success looks like.”