Meet Lookboard, where Fab, Gilt, JackThreads, et al source their indie-designed goods

By Michael Carney , written on May 27, 2013

From The News Desk

With the rise of curation in ecommerce, it’s no longer enough to deliver known brands at discount prices, with the occasional celebrity endorsement thrown in. Merchants need to offer a point of view, and unique merchandise that sets them apart from their competition. But it can be extremely costly and inefficient to scour the globe for new and inspiring vendors to suit a curatorial point of view.

Lookboard is solving this problem with its a virtual showroom and social network. The site connects buyers and sellers in a way that was once the job of offline trade shows, print catalogs, and poorly designed and difficult to find websites. It allows sellers to visually display all of their merchandise and share details such as product description, wholesale price, quantity and availability, purchase terms, and shipping options.

Buyers and sellers can also “follow” each other and use Lookboard as a communications platform. Each time a user logs in, they are notified of new products added since their last session. Users can also log-in using their LinkedIn credentials, thereby connecting the two networks and making it easy to discover existing connections – apparently wholesalers use LinkedIn, who knew?

Fab, Gilt, Amazon, HauteLook, Rue La La, JackThreads, Wayfair, and Overstock, among many others, are already sourcing products via Lookboard. The platform soft-launched in November and has been adding an average of 1,500 new products* weekly since that time – which would put the total at approximately 30,000, although the company did not confirm this figure – with a focus on the furniture and home decor market initially. These products are contribted by more than 2,000 vendors.

Lookboard's vendor population is roughly 85 percent small and medium sized businesses (SMBs) and 15 percent large businesses with their own factories – comparable to the industry at large – with the largest global brands being the only segment not well represented. One consequence of the Lookboard platform is that it bridges the gap between these two tiers and makes it realistic for Fab and its peers to discover the best up-and-coming designers regardless of their location or network.

Before Lookboard, the closest thing to a digital solution to this problem was Alibaba, which hosts 8 million vendors listing everything from contract manufacturing to used equipment to ocean freight. Despite its ubiquity and scale, the Chinese-owned digital Yellow Pages is not well suited for design-focused industries like fashion and home decor, which are the mainstays of curatorial ecommerce. With limited product descriptions and miniscule thumbnail images, the platform simply isn’t well suited to telling a product story visually.

The current methods of product sourcing in both ecommerce and brick and mortar retail are "prehistoric," according to Lookboard founder and CEO, and former wholesale furniture manufacturer Mark Bader. “It’s the only industry I’ve encountered that still uses fax machines.”

“Our goal is to become the industry standard and something that buyers and sellers use daily,” Bader says. “It’s impossible to connect with everyone at a single trade show over three days, let alone attend all the trade shows in the world. There’s no limit to the connections you can make through Lookboard.”

Lookboard’s is free to use but it charges users to make connections. There is no limit on browsing, but vendors must pay to communicate to merchants by sending prepared “Lookboards,” or proposals, for their consideration. In the future, it’s likely that the company will verify vendor and merchant reliability through paid certifications – similar to Alibaba’s Gold Members – but that will be part of a future product update according to Bader. Another likely revenue stream is delivering suggested connections based on algorithms, the CEO says.

In an ancillary business model, the company has also been identifying vendors with no online presence and inviting them onto the Lookboard platform under a private label. While this is not the focus of the business, the company has generated $500,000 in revenue to date through these arrangements.

One feature that Bader and his team decided not to include in Lookboard was order management. It seems an obvious next step after connecting buyers and sellers – see Joor in the fashion world – but the company felt that it was too easy to circumvent and not central to the problem that they were solving.

The good news for Lookboard is that there is little, if any, competition in this space focused on making business-to-business (B2B) connections. Most product marketplaces being built today are Pinterest clones focused on driving business-to-consumer (B2C) connections. And while Alibaba offers a similar premise, its simply too ill-suited to this use case to be considered a competitor.

In this way, Lookboard is looking at a greenfield market. Its big challenge is to become ubiquitous throughout the industry such that merchants know that any vendor they’re looking for – whether they know it or not – is on the platform. Similarly, vendors need to know that all the merchants they care about are on Lookboard searching out new product. Ultimately, Lookboard needs to become the LinkedIn of wholesale marketplaces. The opportunity isn’t limited to ecommerce either, but that is surely the healthiest, and most technologically forward segment of the market.

Maintaining quality and trust as this community grows will be another challenge. It was certainly not deliberate that Alibaba became a digital cesspool of scam artists, brokers, and other undesirables, but that’s the unfortunate reality of open, global marketplaces. Lookboard will need to be diligent in avoiding the same fate, something that should be helped by the fact that it is focusing – initially – on a small segment of the market.

There is no shortage of aspiring and undiscovered designers and product vendors looking to connect with the world’s leading merchants. And as much as this can present a signal and noise problem for the merchants, the trend toward curation demands that they look beyond the known for new and differentiated product. The promise of the internet has always been that it adds transparency and efficiency to otherwise inefficient markets. Wholesale commerce is nothing if not inefficient and opaque, meaning that Lookboard faces equal parts challenge and opportunity.

* Update: When originally published this article incorrectly stated that the company had been adding 1,500 new vendors per week. It should have stated that the company was adding 1,500 new products per week. The article has been updated to correct this fact.