Field of Dreams taught us, “If you build it, he will come,” but what if the members of your team have different definitions of “it” and “he”?
That’s the dilemma that faced the social commerce website Polyvore. The sales department considered “he” to be the advertisers while the product-engineering department thought “he” was the user, and the opposing ideas were causing problems with “it:” their Pinterest-meets-Amazon website.
Founded in 2007 and named one of Fast Company’s Most Innovative Companies in 2012, Polyvore allows users to express their sense of style by creating shoppable collages, called “sets,” from the site’s database of 100 million home and fashion products.
“We attract 20 million people each month to browse and shop,” says Jess Lee, cofounder and CEO. “It’s a super fun, vibrant community, and it’s a profitable business model.”
In 2012, its revenue was made up of 50% brand ads and 50% performance ads. While the diversity added to the company’s stability, it was also adding drama: “We were partnering with big advertisers like SmartWater, creating home page banner ads,” says Lee. “It was becoming difficult because one of our core values is delighting our user, and our users have told us they prefer a clean-looking experience. Our advertising department wanted to sell big splashy ads, but it was causing an internal conflict with our product-engineering team and our core values.”
Polyvore couldn’t please both sides, so Lee and her partners were forced to take a harder look at its business model. Recruiting a head of sales was part of the plan.
“As I was interviewing people for the position, I was getting differing opinions on where to put our focus,” says Lee. “We weren’t clear on what was the right thing to do.”
Then Lee met Arnie Gullov-Singh, who pointed out Polyvore’s unique selling proposition: a perfect combination of content, commerce, and community.
“He was echoing all of the things our product engineering team was worried about,” says Lee, who invited Gullov-Singh to join Polyvore. “Instead of hiring a traditional head of sales, we hired a chief revenue officer who took a product engineer approach to solving problems. He also created revenue philosophy for us: revenue must follow user experience, and repeatable revenue will build a sustainable company.”
Polyvore took a data-driven approach to running sales, got rid of its banner ads, and rolled out ads that looked like content. “The result is a clean look for our users that embraces our DNA,” Lee says. The company also launched a cost-per-click pilot program to gather feedback, and is working on a wider rollout. Today advertising revenue is made up of 80% performance ads and 20% brand ads.
“Making the changes felt like changing the wheels on a car while driving 100 miles per hour,” says Lee. “It was scary because we were walking away from a lot of money generated by brand ads, but we decided to embrace our core values of delighting the user.”
And it paid off. Revenue is up and the holiday shopping season traffic sent by Polyvore to retailers was up 75% year over year.
“It feels like a weight has been lifted; everyone on our team is now in alignment,” says Lee. “We learned that when you lead with user experience, great things can happen on the revenue side.”