Wantful’s Customized Catalogs Aim to Bring Back Thoughtful Gift Giving

I’m not the kind of person who loves to flip through retail catalogs. I’m very goal-directed when it comes to shopping, and to me, a typical catalog is just a confusing mish-mash of miscellaneous merchandise that takes too much time and effort to sift through.

But if somebody gave me a catalog where every item had been selected by somebody I know, with my specific tastes in mind—and better yet, if they’d paid the retailer in advance—I think I’d react very differently. You probably would too.

Well, that’s the exact idea Wantful is bringing into the world. The San Francisco startup operates a website where a gift-giver can say how much she wants to spend, browse hundreds of items in that price range, and choose 16 items to be included in a customized gift book. The recipient gets the book in the mail and chooses his or her favorite item, which is then delivered directly by the supplier.

More than just a mini-catalog, each elegantly printed Wantful book is like a gift in itself—the startup even wraps the books in Japanese washi, or rice paper, to enhance the “reveal” moment when a book is first opened. It’s a deliberate nod to gift-giving rituals in Japan, where great care goes into the selection and presentation of most gifts.

All in all, Wantful’s service represents a clever hybrid of convenience and personalization, and an advanced example of mass customization. A Wantful book is like a gift card, in the sense that the giver only has to pony up the money and isn’t responsible for the ultimate gift choice. But the giver has to take some time to figure out which items the recipient might like, so there’s also an element of thoughtfulness and curation. (The giver even chooses the image for the book’s front cover.) And behind it all is some sophisticated technology, from the recommendation engine that helps givers narrow down their gift options to the printing process that makes it affordable for Wantful to print thousands of gift books, each a unique one-off.

John Poisson, founder and CEO of Wantful

“If you aren’t a big shopper but you want to give a thoughtful gift, our goal is to help you discover interesting products and put them together into an experience that feels good for you and the person you are buying for,” says John Poisson, Wantful’s founder and CEO. “But if you love to shop, and you really enjoy the hunt of finding the perfect gift and presenting it in an inspiring way, and upping your game from the gift you gave last year, then we represent the chance to discover products that even you wouldn’t have come across, and present them in a way that is as good or better.” Poisson says both kinds of customers are flocking to the site.

Startups marrying gift-giving with curation on Web and mobile platforms have been popping up at a rapid pace lately—the market research firm TrendWatching.com calls the phenomenon metail. Right here in San Francisco, for example, there’s Karma, which has released a social gift-giving app for iPhones and Android phones, and Sincerely, which makes a variety of iPhone and Android apps for sending greeting cards and photos. But Wantful is a more elaborate and audacious bet. Unlike his competitors at app development startups, Poisson has had to solve major practical business questions such as how to find and recruit wholesale vendors, how to get them to drop-ship items directly to customers, how to print the gift books, and what kinds of retail margins to charge.

So far, the bet seems to be paying off. The company collected seed funding from angel investors like Foursquare’s Dennis Crowley and Path’s Dave Morin, and has been growing fast since unveiling its service last November. It’s now got 20 employees—five in New York and 15 working from Poisson’s overcrowded Haight Street apartment—and just last month it collected $5.5 million in Series A financing from Polaris Venture Partners, Harrison Metal, Greylock Partners, and Forerunner Ventures.

I sat down with Poisson yesterday and asked him to walk me through Wantful’s story, starting with his own varied background, which doesn’t actually have much to do with product merchandising. Poisson studied film production at Boston University, developed digital editing technologies for Avid, ran two large visual effects and animation studios in Montreal, researched camera phones for Sony in Tokyo, and created the early media sharing service Radar and sold it to Shutterfly. “I have always been interested in photography and filmmaking and design—those are the through-lines in my career,” he says. “I’m not sure any of it translates directly to retail, except that when it came time to design what we were building, I had an obvious bias toward the tangible experience—the quality of the photography and the print piece.” An edited transcript of our conversation follows.

Xconomy: Where did the original idea for Wantful come from?

John Poisson: I took some time off after Shutterfly and moved to Europe for an indeterminate period. I wanted to see some friends and not think about what to start next. I have seen a lot of people assemble their friends and say ‘We’re smart and we have some capital, let’s think up a startup,’ and those things usually come across as disingenuous and they often don’t succeed. I wanted to experience a bit of life.

In the course of doing that, I realized I was spending a fair bit of my time bouncing through all of the amazing cities in Europe and looking for product and meeting with designers. Being fascinated by retail has been part of my personal interests for a long time—thinking about where trends come from. I also happened to have a pressing need to buy some wedding gifts for a friend. Actually, I was there for nine months and in the course of that I had a whole bunch of gift occasions. And as much as I was spending time going through the most amazing boutiques in Europe and meeting amazing designers, I still struggled with … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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