Naval Ravikant joins board of Wanelo as the fast-growing social commerce site expands beyond its mall rat demographic

By Erin Griffith , written on May 7, 2013

From The News Desk

Naval Ravikant, co-founder of AngelList, Epinions and Vast, gets asked to join dozens of startup boards each year. He declines each request, even though doing so makes him feel bad. At our PandoMonthly in December, he said he wished his "mediocre superpower" was the ability to say no without guilt. With its crowdfunding platform, AngelList is in the position of trying to help all startups, he said. "You can't help all the startups." As full-time CEO of AngelList, he's also significantly cut down the number of startups he invests in to three or four a year, too.

Except for one. Wanelo is a "Pinterest with shopping" website and app that's exploded among mall-going teen and 20-something girls. In the last six months, its user count has jumped from 1 million to an astounding 8 million who spend an average of 50 minutes per day on the site. Wanelo also holds the distinction of being Ravikant's largest investment. Now he's doubled down on that investment, joining the company's two-person board. An early investor in Twitter, Ravikant said he believes Wanelo is giving users the power to organize products online in the same way Twitter gave users the power to organize information online. "It's trending in that direction," he says. "Users are going to organize the Web and it's not going to happen by editors."

Wanelo (named for want, need, love) often gets compared to Pinterest because of design: a bottomless feed of tiled images that can be saved or shared. Wanelo's growth is comparable, too, with two years of slow user growth turning into explosive adoption in recent months. Ravikant said CEO Deena Varshavskaya had a similar founder experience to Ben Silverman, co-founder of Pinterest. "Ben Silberman pounded the pavement in the Valley for a long time before anyone took him seriously. Deena has been doing the same thing," he says.

The big difference between the two, besides around $336 million in VC funding, is Wanelo's dedication to commerce. Somewhere along the way, Pinterest became about more than just stuff-lust. It's aspirational, sure, and there is a "Gift" section which highlights shop-able items, but it's also bigger than that. There are home products, and recipes, and travel inspiration, and DIY projects, and wedding theme ideas. It's a magazine. Which makes Wanelo a catalog -- every one of Wanelo's five million product are shop-able.

The second biggest difference between the two are their user demographics. Where Pinterest is known for its popularity with Midwestern moms, Wanelo serves a younger mall-going set, and the products in its feed reflect that. Until today, the only way to scroll Wanelo was through a main feed of trending products (it reminds me of Fab's activity feed). Logging on, you'd be shown products that reflect the tastes of 20-something girls: an array of Urban Outfitters-style fast fashion and accessories mixed with zany Skymall-style novelties (try the Booty Pop Enhancing Panties, for example! Or the Buddy Bumper Ball, and the ever-convenient jacket that doubles as a tent).

But now, with its third and latest version of the product, Wanelo is making the site more accessible for a wider range of tastes. It's doing so via personalization. That way, when Midwestern moms, or dudes, or grandmas, or whoever, joins the site, they get a feed of products from people, brands and trends they've chosen to follow. Whether I like it or not, the filter is here. There is simply too much stuff out there on the web, from Skymall novelties to news to recipes, for us to absorb in the normal top-down, editor-appointed manner. Sites like Wanelo (and Twitter, if you follow Ravikant's line of thinking) are surfacing products without the top-down distinction of an editor.

Currently Wanelo makes money from affiliate fees, despite the fact that many of its biggest recipients of referrals (Etsy, for example) do not have affiliate programs. This also raises the issue of sending users off to a third party site to make purchases -- at that point Wanelo is no longer in control of its user experience. The site does thoroughly vet its vendors before allowing products into the system.

Product discovery is in its early stages, and the quick adoption of Wanelo in proves that, even though Pinterest dominates this market, it's not a winner-take-all game.

In addition to Ravikant, Wanelo is backed by Floodgate, First Round Capital (where PandoDaily investor Josh Kopelman is an investor), Forerunner Ventures, Roger Dickey and Aayush Phumbhra. Its total funding, raised in 2012, is $3 million.