South African shopping startup has one simple rule: No marketers allowed

By Richard Nieva , written on November 16, 2012

From The News Desk

Facebook has been desperately trying to lure marketers to its platform in an attempt to breath life into its stock. (Just today, the company started offering marketers software that tracks the purchases of Facebook users that have click on their ads. And the company has recently taken heat for charging brands for their social reach.) But one shopping startup is doing just the opposite. For now, Pashash is based on one principle: No marketers allowed.

The Cape Town, South Africa-based app is a social network for iOS that let's users take pictures of cool items when they see a good deal, and share them for others to see. In fact, the word "pashash" is South African slang meaning "cool," says Feheem Kajee, the company's founder. (As in, "This app is pashash!")

When a user posts a photo, he or she tags the store and the price, and it shows up on a feed sorted either by location (using GPS, bringing up stores closest to you) or interest. For the person who shares the photo, the incentive is being seen as a trendsetter, says Kajee. "For them, it's 'I found something great. I found it, and I want the world to know I found it,'" says Kajee.

Keeping it completely user-generated is the only way to maintain its credibility and build it up as a network of tastemakers, says Kajee. Indeed, as the app finds its footing, its traction depends on the strength of users' recommendations. "We didn't want them to come from the stores or Groupon. We wanted them to come from cool people," he says.

Still, Kajee is not religious about keeping the brands out. After all, an app's got to make money, and an entrepreneur's got to eat. Facebook's predicament began because the team didn't want to water down the elegance of the product and thought too late about inviting marketers to the party after the IPO.

So the key, especially for an app like Pashash, is delicacy. Though the company hasn't thought too far ahead, Kajee says he plans to bring in brands in an organic way. One model he is considering is using brand partnering or loyalty programs. He thinks he can uphold the app's integrity by, not rewarding someone for posting a picture, but having a company pay up when a user redeems something from their store because of a Pashash recommendation. He plans to begin trial runs in six months. It's a fine line, and if done too hastily, monetizing can ruin any chances of the app having the essential pulse of the zeitgeist.

Pashash is full of contrarian strategies. On top of keeping out marketers, they are also banking on brick and mortar retailers, since the app's appeal hinges so much on users snapping attractive photos while they are out in the world.

It's a refreshing take on retail, if a bit naive. The company has some growing to do. It's likely moving its base from Africa to New York, Kajee says, mostly because of the city's fashion scene -- and because only 5 percent of South Africa's smartphones are iPhones. But if the company executes perfectly, who knows? It can come out as pashash as a cucumber.

[Illustration by Hallie Bateman]