A Website for the World's Materialists
Nov. 24 (Bloomberg BusinessWeek) -- Web entrepreneur Joseph Einhorn's new site, The Fancy, is about what it sounds like: a collection of beautiful stuff. It's an invitation-only photo blog where more than 5,000 tastemakers and celebrities upload and tag images of their possessions, as well as the baubles they'd like to own. Actor Ashton Kutcher showed off a Leatherman multitool the other day; the magician David Blaine recently added an image of a Leica M9 camera.
It's a simple concept, and a window onto Einhorn's complex goal of building an online "catalogue of everything in the world," as he puts it. The Fancy is the outward face of Thingd (pronounced Thing D), the company Einhorn, 29, founded in June 2009. "Where Google is an index of websites, and Facebook is a database of people, we want to be the database of everything," he says.
Thingd is backed by a who's who of investors, including venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz, investment bank Allen & Co., and MTV founder Bob Pittman. Twitter creator Jack Dorsey and Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes sit on the board. They're betting that Einhorn, a New York City native who joined the financial information company Capital IQ at age 16 and built much of its technology, can mint money out of data once again. (Standard & Poor's (MHP) acquired Capital IQ for more than $200 million in 2004.)
Thingd's computer servers constantly crawl tens of thousands of product-rich websites, such as J. Crew (JCG) and Best Buy (BBY). When the program comes across an unfamiliar object—whether it be a shoe or a stapler or a truck—it collects an image, extracts whatever related facts it can find, and then adds the item to the database. So far, the crawler has identified more than 100 million items, and it aims for as much specificity as possible—a white 1999 Ford Explorer, for instance, rather than just an SUV. The Fancy is a crowdsourced supplement. When people upload photos to The Fancy, says Einhorn, "they're just training our database." The database becomes smarter over time—once it's seen several pictures of, say, a chandelier, it starts to recognize the same chandelier in other pictures, even when no identifying information is available.
Thingd plans to turn its data into revenue by raking in affiliate fees, the small sums retailers like Amazon.com (AMZN) pay Web sites when they refer visitors that end up making purchases. Einhorn hopes to partner with media websites such as Vogue.com, which could use Thingd's technology to automatically identify products in photos and provide information about them to consumers. Thingd would share the affiliate fees if links lead to a purchase. The company could also help private buyers and sellers of secondhand goods find each other and take a cut of the transactions (á là eBay).
Thingd has built an iPhone app for The Fancy and plans to open the stylish playground to the masses within the year. Board member Hughes says that despite being a "really simple" website and invitation-only at the moment, The Fancy "is moving through Twitter, moving through Facebook, and moving through blogs at the rate that you like to see." Sasha Charnin Morrison, the fashion director at Us Weekly, says it's a hit with her staff: "We love the presentation of it." Hughes suggests that the success of location-tracking applications like Foursquare and social networking sites proves that there's an audience for The Fancy. "If I can keep track of where I am physically in a city and if I can keep track of what my friends are doing," he says, "then I want to be able to keep track of the stuff that I have in my life."
Thingd isn't the only company to spot this opportunity. "The field of entity tagging is exploding," says Roger Ehrenberg, a New York City-based venture capitalist. Other startups, he says, are also working to categorize real-world objects. Einhorn says he's thrilled by the competition because it means Thingd is at least playing the right game. An online catalogue of stuff is "going to happen," he says. "The question is, 'Can we be there?'"
The bottom line: Thingd is categorizing the world's stuff, and plans to make money off affiliate fees and transactions of secondhand goods.