Product reviews

If recent scandals from CNET and Nokia have taught us anything, it’s that commercial product reviews aren’t worth the physical or digital paper they’re printed on. The best and only way to gauge a new consumer electronics product, other than testing it yourself, is to find trustworthy reviews from fellow consumers with a similar use case. Unfortunately, this is no easy task.

A new social product testing and review site, fresh, launched today to connect companies and their products with passionate reviewers who want to take them for a spin and provide feedback to friends and strangers alike. The model makes sense, given that gadget buyers prefer peer reviews to editorial reviews three to one, according to stats cited by the company. It also ties in nicely with the resurgence in hardware startup funding in Silicon Valley.

Fresh is the creation of former YBUY, Dineonme, and Audiocasefiles founder Stephen Svajian, and Yammer Chief Product Officer James Patterson. The startup is backed by an undisclosed Seed investment by Yammer Founder and CEO David Sacks and Two Bridge Capital’s Ben Hanten, among other angel investors, as well as Svajian and Patterson themselves.

Fresh is all about authenticity. Not all reviews have to be good, but they should at least fair and pure – rather than tainted by ulterior corporate motives. To foster such an environment, all fresh users must login via Facebook, meaning there will be little to no anonymous profiles or phony identities on the platform. This small fact should go a long way toward elevating the average review quality on the site.

Each user that wishes to test a given product signs up and takes a place in line. In order to move ahead in the digital line, users must refer friends to the products they’re excited about, until manufacturers eventually send products to a select number of testers at the front of the line. The notion is that only the most passionate consumers end up reviewing products, something brands currently desire but have a hard time targeting.

In some cases, 20 test units may be available per item, in others there may be 100. Fresh hopes to provide insights to its hardware partners into the optimal number of reviewers, but ultimately, it will be up to manufacturers to decide the course of action. In most cases, reviewers will get to keep the items, but in some – such as resource-constrained, early stage companies or unusually expensive products – they may be asked to return the items after demoing them for a period of time.

Fresh has replaced the generally ineffective five star rating system with a 100 word feedback system that asks, “Would you recommend the product to a friend, and why?” The goal is to limit extreme reviewers who often leave only a 1-star or 5-star review.

“We don’t like to think of reviews as stand alone objects,” says Yammer and fresh’s Patterson. “We hope to foster an ongoing conversation around each review.”

It’s not explicitly stated anywhere that reviewers must participate in such dialogue, but fresh’s founders feel that by receiving free items to test, reviewers enter into a social contract. The result is that they feel compelled to provide adequate value through their reviews, thereby driving a highly engaged community.

“Our model works and there’s proof,” fresh CEO Stephen Svajian says. “Yelp became relevant when people were able to review restaurants and tell strangers about them, serving as a signal about their quality. Before Yelp, chain restaurants dominated, but now I can find an authentic mom and pop restaurant that would have previously suffered from the marketing engines afforded to big chains. Part of what drove the need for Yelp was the fragmentation that existed in restaurant markets. Now, fragmentation is coming in markets for physical products.”

Fresh hopes to be the service that sits in between product manufacturers and consumers, facilitating reliable recommendations and driving informed commerce. If it’s successful, both constituencies stand to benefit.

Products currently available for review include the Lytro “light field” digital camera, the FitBit activity monitoring wristband, and the Ouya open-source gaming console, among several dozen others. These are no throwaway items, but rather are all highly desirable products among the gadget-centric crowd.

“Getting a sous vide product like ours in the hands of real foodies is what is going to help us grow as a business,” says Lisa Fetterman, co-founder and CEO of cooking hardware startup Nomiku. “Fresh gives us that platform to engage with consumers and gain incredibly useful feedback.”

The launch of fresh ties in nicely with a resurgence of hardware startups in Silicon Valley and elsewhere in the ecosystem. Buoyed by crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter, rapid prototyping tools like 3D printing, and lower than ever costs of customer acquisition through social media, we appear to be entering a golden age of hardware startups.

People typically point to the Pebble smartwatch, which raised $10.26 million on Kickstarter, as the golden example of the phenomenon. But, other crowdfunding success stories like the Hidden Radio, Soma water filter, and LunaTik iPod nano watches prove the trend. More established companies like Jawbone, with its Bluetooth headsets, portable speakers, and Jawbone UP activity monitor wristbands, and Quirky, a venture-backed social product design studio, further validate the space.

Fresh doesn’t rely on proprietary or defensible technology to defend its market position. In fact, Svajian recoils at the notion of such artificial protections. Instead the company will rely on providing the best possible experience to its consumers and hardware partners. It sounds simple enough, but this leaves a lot more questions than answers.

The company has yet to figure out how to monetize its new platform either. The founders initially planned to incorporate an ecommerce element – and they still might in the future – but an early incarnation didn’t resonate with users and was thus removed. Currently, some hardware partners pay for use of the review platform, but this seems inconsistently applied at this stage. The one thing Svajian and Patterson promise never to do is to serve ads on the site.

With a deluge of new consumer hardware products flooding the market, a phenomenon many expect to accelerate going forward, fresh has the opportunity to be the central place where trusted product reviews are available. It also has the opportunity to be another online product review site that fails to stand out in a crowd. As a consumer, I hope it’s the former.