Will TastemakerX Crack "The Taste Graph"?

By Sarah Lacy , written on March 6, 2012

From The News Desk

Software may be eating the world, but these days it seems like content is eating all the startups.

There's a massive move underway from comprehensive to curated, from the Web shoving every imaginable option in your face to a human picking and choosing what it thinks you would like and leveraging the Web to deliver it to you, from brute, machete-like algorithms to delicate, scalpel-like human curation.

It seems like nearly every company I've written about since coming back from maternity leave has played into this trend in one way or another.

  • Ecommerce companies like Jetsetter and Fab are really selling things by becoming modern versions of travel and fashion magazines.
  • Driven by the limitations of mobile commerce, HotelTonight makes its site drop-dead easy and quick because it only lets you do one thing: Schedule a last minute stay at one of three hand-picked hotel per city. Similarly, Karma chooses eclectic gifts for friends, writing the content and photographing the objects themselves.
  • Startups like ShoeDazzle, Honest, BeachMint, and the newly launched Dollar Shave Club are all using content and celebrity to build sticky brand connections.
Increasingly it's not about an algorithm ranking everything you could possibly have in the world, it's about a human being selecting or designing the best thing you could most want in that category.

This trend boils down to taste, quality, trust, presentation and user experience. This trend isn't just about less is more; it's about better is more. And it's not a surprise that a lot of the leaders are coming out of New York and LA, not Silicon Valley. As Shervin Pishevar of Menlo Partners said to the Fab duo, "You've proven taste can be a differentiator." That was a new concept for the mechanistic minds of Silicon Valley, but it's one that entrepreneurs here are grabbing onto quickly.

So in addition to a social graph and a work graph and a family graph, why not have a "Taste Graph"? The amalgamation of not only who you know, who you've worked with or who you may be related to, but what you like. The sum total of your aesthetic in one place. It'd be interesting for users, but talk about advertiser nirvana.

That's the long term plan behind TastemakerX, a company that's launching its private beta at SXSW this weekend. TastemakerX's first app is essentially a stock-market-style game that allows you to be a fantasy A&R man. You surface new bands and "invest" points in them. As their stock rises, so does your indie cred. If you are that insufferable person who goes around saying, "I was totally into that band before everyone else"* now you can finally prove it.

The app is pretty cool, and a lot of people will write about the various details and game mechanics when it launches tomorrow.

But would I use it? Not really. I'm not a trend spotter in music. I let my much-hipper husband fill up my iPod and usually turn on Pandora and let it do all the work for me. But I do like to be a trendspotter in other areas. I like to brag about being the first one to wear a trend, eat at a hot new restaurant, use a cool new Web service, read an up-and-coming author, or watch niche cable TV show. Everyone has some category they want to be a trend-spotter in.

And that's really the big vision for TastemakerX. As it goes along, new verticals will be launched that allow you to brag about whatever it is you like to spot first. It's about building a taste graph for all the things you like in each category, and how they intersect with what your friends like. "It's basically a stock market for taste," CEO Marc Ruxin says. "We're trying to gamify popular culture."

What's brilliant about this idea is we do it already when we recommend movies and actors and brands and restaurants and fashion, and we get social points, when we turn someone on to something. TastemakerX is just making it more efficient and more tangible, easier to keep score. And if we've learned anything from sites like Klout, people are obsessed with making previously unquantifiable things about who they are into a number they can brag about.

A lot of potential investors disagreed with Marc Ruxin's bigger vision, arguing that music was a good enough vertical to own. But I totally agree with his take: It's not the music itself people love bragging about, it's being first. The company is trying to tap into the same game mechanics behind fantasy sports and apply it to whatever it is the user are passionate about. Everyone wants to be the Warren Buffet of something.

Of course, there's a gulf between having the right premise and executing on it. And there's a reason there are only a few "graphs" of any consequence on the Web. It's incredibly binary -- you either nail it in a huge way or fail trying, and most companies fail. You have to offer users so much value that they are consistently willing to spend enough time with you to amalgamate that much info about them to make the network effects really work.

Whether TastemakerX can pull that off remains to be seen. Hunch got close to this, and may push its approach even more mainstream with the eBay acquisition. Pintrest is another player, assuming the product evolves. But with so much of the Web starting to push in on the taste differentiator, I suspect someone will.

(*I am married to one of those.)

(Our chairman Andrew Anker is an investor in TastemakerX. Image courtesy of Shutterstock. Browsing Shutterstock has become a highlight of my day. Seriously, what is supposed to be going on in that photo?)