*Retrevo, a BizSpark One startup, makes you an instant gadget expert.*
Redmond, Wash. — Retrevo, a BizSpark One startup, offers consumers comprehensive, unbiased, up-to-date consumer electronics product information.
Consumer electronics are used nearly everywhere these days, from digital cameras to laptops to cell phones. With new versions coming to the market daily and new vendors jumping in, making a purchasing decision can be overwhelming. How do you get smart fast, and whose opinion should you trust?
Retrevo, a BizSpark One startup, is streamlining the process with easy-to-access, impartial, expert technical reviews and a straightforward thumbs-up, thumbs-down approach to scoring products. By keeping consumer electronics shopping simple and enjoyable, Retrevo is tapping into a lucrative market.
Co–founder Manish Rathi says that solving the consumer electronics shopping puzzle is what sparked the idea for Retrevo, whose name arose out of the concept of retrieving the best information and prices for the best gadgets on the market. He and co-founders Jiang Wu and Vipin Jain have a deep background in information retrieval and turning data into useful information, so they focused on the idea of a website that could help online consumer electronics shoppers.
“When you’re starting a company, you ask yourself what your core strengths are,” says Rathi, “and you look for a big enough market requiring something to be solved with that core strength.
“Five years ago, as we talked through the overall high-tech market and potential opportunities, we had the idea of how hard it was for people to determine which gadget was the best one to buy for their needs.”
After months of research, the trio settled on simplifying shopping for consumer electronics — a multibillion dollar market that has experienced sustained growth since the mid-1990s. Market research firm iSuppli Corp. estimates the sector will continue to climb steadily over the next four years to $385 billion by 2014.
“We actually went ahead and built a prototype,” says Rathi, “and then raised investor funding. We started out as a vertical search engine that was highly competitive with Google and received a lot of traction. But our users were still telling us they wanted more.”
The deeper technical challenges arose at that point: How do you transform an information retrieval issue into a layered process that could translate data into real-life, easy-to-use recommendations? The answer lay in the creation of new algorithms that could translate static data into relevant knowledge. The algorithms allowed Retrevo to keep human bias out of its product reviews, which meant users were given evenhanded tips not only on what to buy but also what not to buy.
Eventually, Retrevo filed for multiple technical patents that transformed its vertical search engine into an interactive review site that analyzes and compiles millions of real-time data points into simple, user-friendly resources. This lets shoppers quickly obtain comprehensive, unbiased, up-to-date product information for fast, informed consumer electronic decisions.
Retrevo was already committed to Microsoft technology and decided to take advantage of the benefits of the Microsoft BizSpark program, which helps fast track the success of early-stage technology startups by providing software, support and marketing visibility. The startup took advantage of the free software and technical assistance offered through BizSpark, which helped ensure the company was ready for its scheduled launch date.
“That absolutely helped to keep costs down and get us started,” says Rathi. “And the connections to people within Microsoft were very helpful, too. Probably the clearest value-add from BizSpark came in terms of getting the right software and technical help when we built our Windows Phone 7 product.”
The technical side of the business, as a result, wasn’t nearly as difficult as navigating the economic downturn experienced by most of the world over the past three years. “Conditions were extremely painful for startups, and there was very little funding available,” explains Rathi. “We survived those years fairly successfully while a lot of startups did not.”
The Sunnyvale, Calif.-based company stayed conservative in its spending and focused on innovation. Reflecting on that challenging time, Rathi says, “We had to provide unique features well beyond just a search experience to ensure our users began to return and engage with us.”
That focus paid off: In Retrevo’s early days, about 100 people visited the site daily. Now, an average of 6 million users visit Retrevo each month, making it one of the largest consumer electronics review and shopping sites in the world.
Another payoff for Retrevo is its dogged persistence in positioning itself as an expert in consumer electronics, using a nontraditional marketing route. The company conducts distinctive, sometimes tongue-in-cheek surveys, for example, to understand what people are buying, how gadgets affect their daily lives and what people want from new technology.
“We do surveys mostly as market research for ourselves, but then we share it with the public as free information,” says Rathi. “We try to make it entertaining because gadget shopping and the use of gadgets is about fun — people buy gadgets to enjoy their life. So we want to share not just the obvious but the not-so-obvious.”
“It’s about the brand first,” explains Rathi. “Our focus has always been to offer people value so that when they are ready to buy, they will remember to use us.”
Now, Retrevo is launching a neutral marketplace that will allow users to actually make purchases on the site. “We’ve built a reputation as an unbiased review site,” he says, “and now we’re in this interesting situation where we are going to add a shopping cart to our site. To stay true to ourselves, we’re only going to include ‘add to cart’ buttons on products that we recommend. For products we don’t recommend, the button will be inactive and say ‘do not add to cart.’”
The ‘Do Not Add to Cart’ feature just launched on Retrevo’s site, along with a ‘We Instead Suggest’ feature that helps users determine which products might work better for them. It’s a helpful, simple and objective idea that makes shopping for electronics easier for consumers overwhelmed by the sheer volume of choices in the electronics market.
Rathi says that dreaming big has led Retrevo down the path to startup success. “Just make sure that what you’re doing really matters. When we started thinking through the idea of Retrevo, we were not looking to build a lifestyle company. We were trying to do something that would make a large enough difference in the world.”
To 6 million shoppers every month, that little idea has made a big difference.