Krush Comes Out of Stealth, Driving to Own the “Product Graph” for Action Sports Fans, Brands

What do you get when you cross a Jewish guy from Argentina with a Turkish Muslim from London, and a female entrepreneur from New York who, by all accounts, shouldn’t even be alive?

Answer: You get Krush.

The Cambridge, MA-based Internet startup is unveiling its new site today. The company has an intriguing vision for helping clothing and lifestyle brands tap into the 16-to-24-year-old consumer demographic. It doesn’t seem to matter that the company’s founders—Alexis Kopikis, Alan Osman, and Gina Ashe—are all well past that stage in their own lives. They have hired a growing staff that reflects the diversity of their target demographic, and they have done a year and a half of research to understand how young people find and share products that they choose to identify with.

In short, traditional ads don’t work with the younger set, Krush says. High-school to college-age kids decide what to buy by watching what products their friends like on Facebook; they watch what people they admire are wearing on YouTube; they share their brand likes and dislikes broadly via social media; and they decide together what’s cool and what to buy based on all of the above. It’s a far cry from checking out the local mall or watching TV ads, though there is surely some of that going on too.

As Krush would tell it, marketing-tech and customer-research firms like BzzAgent and Communispace are great for 25-to-40 year olds (and older consumers), who tend to be more traditional in how they find new products and make purchasing decisions. Their tastes also don’t change as fast. But with the younger set, “this is a really different market,” says Ashe, who is Krush’s CEO.

The startup chose to target action sports—snowboarding, skateboarding, surfing, BMX—and streetwear brands first, because consumers are particularly passionate and social about how these brands reflect their own lifestyles. You’ll see kids posting items from big brands like Nike SB, Oakley, and Quiksilver, and emerging brands like Skullcandy, 10Deep, and Obey.

Krush plans to make money by playing matchmaker and connecting young people with these brands. Its software platform lets brands tap into consumers and fans to predict demand for their upcoming lines. The approach is a mix of crowdsourcing, social networking, game mechanics, and e-commerce—but I’m showing my age with those descriptions. The idea is that users browse future styles and gear and vote for their favorite items online—which could potentially help brands make decisions about what to produce and how to capture the biggest market.

For instance, Krush wants brands to use its platform to see which particular model of sneaker, or color of watch or headphones, gets the best (or worst) response. Brands can then drill down into Krush’s database and see detailed breakouts of consumer preferences by product type, features, geography, and so forth.

A key component: Users compete to see who has the most influence among their peers in terms of starting fashion trends. The top performers in this lovefest between brands and their fans will get recognition—and free merchandise. (Indeed, according to Krush, “kids respond to two things: stuff and fame.”)

The overarching goal here is to own the “product graph,” which is analogous to Facebook’s social graph—it is the tangled online web showing which people like which types of brands and models, where they are, and how these entities are all related to each other.

Krush has attracted more than 10,000 beta users so far. And for now, it’s free for brands to use, though the startup will charge for certain levels of data—things like more detailed product trends across cities, for instance. The company has also set up its site to pre-sell certain products that aren’t on the market yet. Krush also tries to emphasize that it is doing the opposite of Groupon and other discount group-buying sites, as well as flash-sale sites: it is trying to get ahead of the product curve rather than sell surplus goods.

“We want to help the brand get it right, and get out in front of their product line, so they don’t have to dump products for 80 percent off at the end of the season,” Ashe says.

Krush was founded in early 2010 and has nine employees. It is backed by a combination of angel and institutional investors from Boston to Tennessee to California, having raised a $2 million Series A round at the end of last year.

My take is that the startup is an interesting effort to cash in on young people’s penchant for expressing their individuality through the products they like. Thanks to social media, brands are a more visible part of people’s identities than ever before. So, on one hand, the younger generation might seem depressingly commercial. On the other hand, with software like Krush, their personalities and tastes could help drive new products and trends, instead of the other way around.

None of this matters to Krush as much as signing up more users and brands, and generating more buzz. “We want to see how to put it in a bottle and scale it,” Ashe says. “We want brands to mobilize their own fanbases to drive the future of their business.”

And ultimately, Krush wants to owns all of that data about consumers’ preferences (though I suspect Facebook will have something to say about that). So if the company can draw a big enough following in the coming year or two, it could be on its way to building something very valuable to brands and marketers, who are all trying to find new ways to get closer to their customers.

“This is huge,” Ashe says. “It’s like a giant ethnography experiment with a market that loves to showcase the brands that reflect who they are.”

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