Shelf9.com is somewhat of a hybrid between an e-commerce platform and a social network. It’s a website where your neighbor’s house meets the department store. Create shelves of your favorite music, movies and games as you might to showcase them to visiting friends at home, or surf the shelves for apparel, home and garden goods, sports equipment, beauty products, electronics, toys and more as if shopping at a nearby big box retailer or shopping center.
James Blewitt and Christoph Gerdes do all the carpentry for Shelf9 in Munich, Germany. Let’s hope England and Germany don’t clash in the 2012 Olympics, because the English-German duo seem to work together quite well. One likes coffee, one likes tea; one prefers Android, the other Mac. And they still managed to sit down together and answer questions in tandem for KillerStartups, telling us more about building their startup with e-hammers and nails.
Tell us about your first tango with the Internet:
James: I remember in school creating a web page with some programming tutorials. It was just a static page, but it included tips on how to write text adventure games and so on.
Christoph: I created my first web page back in ’94. Unfortunately I don’t have a copy of the page, but it was epic! Of course with the yellow under construction sign.
What time do you usually start work each day?
James: I usually get to the office just before 9am. I’m not particularly an early bird.
Christoph: Between 8:30 – 9am.
Do you have an office or work at home?
James: We have an office in the old city center of Munich, Germany. I’m a keen cyclist, and I like to enjoy a half-hour ride along the river Isar, which run through the city. This takes me from my home to the office. It’s a great route that lets me enjoy some of the nature the city has to offer and some nice parts of town.
Christoph: Our office really boosts our productivity and it’s worth every cent. I live just 5 minutes away from the office–a beautiful walk through Munich’s English garden.
What’s the very first thing you do at work everyday?
James: Change my shirt. After cycling for a half-hour, I’m in need of a fresh shirt and some deodorant. After that, I make a pot of tea while my laptop boots up. I’m an Englishman living in Germany and, as such, tea is an integral part of my day.
Christoph: Getting a coffee is definitely number one. After that, I check stats and sales. We go through the most important things of the day before we start coding, go to meetings or get on the phone.
How did you come up with the name for your company?
Shelf9.com is shopping portal, shopbot (i.e. price comparison) and social recommendation on one platform. Our users can find the best deals on designer clothing, gadgets, and living accessories with our easy to use search across more than 1,000 shops. You can set an e-mail alert to be informed if a new deal from your favorite brand or shop is available. Finally, you can group your favorite products on a ‘shelf’ and get recommendations from your friends.
Shelf9 comes from the idea that people have shelves at home, which are not just for storage. People often put books, movies, and other items on shelves in order to show other people, especially visitors, what kind of things they like. It can be seen as an expression of personal taste. We see Shelf9 as a digital extension of this. You can find cool products that you like and save them onto shelves. Shelves can be named and shared with friends. This lets you, for example, design an outfit, or choose your favorite movies and send the shelf to your friends. We wanted Shelf9 to be as easy and fun to use as possible, without the forced registration and e-mail bombardments we see at so many other social shopping services these days.
How many people did you start the company with and how many people work for you now?
We are a two man team and remain as such. We find that we are able to outsource quite a bit of work, which means we really don’t need more than our core team.
Remember the early days starting up? Maybe you can share one anecdote that describes the struggle you went through?
We were quite lucky to meet with the right people in the beginning. So it was straight forward to get all the paperwork done and start the company. Right now, as we are scaling the business, we continue to extend our network. Sometimes this can be tricky and time consuming, but it’s always great to meet with people and exchange ideas.
Who or what inspires YOU? Role models? Quotes? Running? Video games? Snack food?
James: I’m a big fan of Felix Dennis, one of Britain’s most successful entrepreneurs, and I particularly enjoy his poetry. I admire the creator of Minecraft, Markus “Notch” Persson, because he has not only created an extremely innovative game, but also found a great way to monetize it as an independent company.
Christoph: I’m inspired by many people, not just one particular person. I’ve always lived in larger cities. One thing I really like is bumping into people that have something interesting to tell, wear funny clothes, or think somewhat differently. Tony Hsieh, the founder of Zappos, once recited Edward Glaeser: “If you bring a bunch of creative people within a square mile of each other, something wonderful happens.” I think this is true.
How did you fund this venture? VC? Self-funding? Crowd-funded? Where, did you get the money, man?
We are self funded. We’re currently looking for VC to help with marketing.
Got any great bootstrapping tips for lean startups out there?
James: Find a way to test your concept as early as possible. Stay focused on your idea, but don’t let that stop you from adapting it, or even dramatically changing it, if necessary. Also, by drawing mockups and getting feedback before implementation, you’ll spot problems earlier (which will save you time).
Christoph: Start to discuss your idea with others as early as possible, but don’t listen to feedback unless it comes from your customer! We started talking early on with potential customers and got a lot of feedback. Mostly it was very positive, but it often led us on the wrong route. Even if it hurts, you have to get to the point where you get honest feedback. From our experience, this happens when someone is paying you or is recommending the product to all their friends on Facebook.
What would you be doing if you had one year off and $500,000 to spend?
James: Start a business. OK, I’d probably take a couple weeks of holiday first, maybe improve my Spanish. I’m a fairly frugal kind of guy; indeed, I’ve had to be to in order to fund the business up to this point. Generally, I can find enjoyment in small things, like a take-out meal and a movie on a friday night, or hiking up a mountain. You don’t need a whole lot of money for those things really.
Christoph: Definitely start a business.
Web App or site you couldn’t live without and why:
KillerStartups.com of course.
Haha. Thanks Guys. What about a mobile App you’re in love with?
James: Skype and WhatsApp are two of my most widely used apps. I love to talk to people.
Christoph: WhatsApp and Scoop.it.
Dogs or cats?
James: I’m a cat person. I have two of them and they are awesome (even though they wake me up every few minutes during the night).
iOS or Android?
James: Android for me. I like having more control over my devices. Most of my music collection is in Ogg Vorbis on an external hard disk, so I don’t have much use for iTunes. Actually, I didn’t even have a smartphone until a few weeks ago when I got myself a Samsung Note. It is halfway between a phone and a tablet, which is perfect for me.
Christoph: iOS. I’ve been a Mac developer (e.g. JarInspector) for many years and I love their frameworks.
What’s the greatest thing about your company/website/idea?
James: Social Shopping doesn’t have an established market leader. There are quite a few players, all of them trying out different ideas. We think Shelf9 really hits the sweet spot between minimalism and pragmatism. A super minimal web site is all good and well, but often you find yourself craving those features from more complex web sites. We have a clean design that’s fun to use, with just enough features for the site to be useful for the regular visitor.
Christoph: In the last two years, we saw e-commerce booming. After electronics, online sales channels for fashion and shoes become quite popular. On the innovative side, we see great services like Pinterest and Fancy and other social commerce services with amazing growth. We felt that, while some services are fun to use, they can be time toilettes and make online shopping really complicated–forced registration, tons of daily “deal” emails, non transparent pricing, silly incentivation and gamification. We wanted to take away all the clutter and create a platform that integrates all the benefits of social commerce with a great shopping experience. At Shelf9, the customer can just buy a product, or he can delve deeper into the social stack and get great recommendations and discover amazing products.
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