"Like fantasy football for shopping." The Hunt grabs $10M to spin social shopping into intent-based gold

By Michael Carney , written on April 10, 2014

From The News Desk

It’s better to give than to receive, the saying goes. And, according to many women, the best part of shopping is the thrill of the hunt. Combine these two well-worn cliches and it’s little surprise that crowdsourced shopping startup The Hunt has been a roaring success.

The Hunt is a community of shoppers that will track down that red dress you saw in Cosmo or those leather boots you saw on Instagram. The company has grown to 100,000 daily active users and 500,000 monthly active users since launching its iOS app in November, and the average user engages with the app multiple times daily, an atypically high rate for the category. App Annie ranks The Hunt as a Top 25 Lifestyle app and a Top 250 app overall for iOS.

Today, The Hunt announced $10 million in Series B funding led by Khosla Ventures with participation from existing investor Javelin Ventures. The company has raised $15.5 million to date, including seed funding from Ashton Kutcher, Tyra Banks, and a handful of other celebs.

The Hunt was created to solve the problem of knowing exactly the look you want to achieve – thanks to seeing it online, in a magazine, on TV, or in person – but not where to buy the items at a reasonable price. Users simply post a photo of the look, setting a budget and an personal preferences around fit, and asking for help from a growing community of expert shoppers to track it down.

"Try typing 'little black dress' in Google and you get 331 million results. Try finding the perfect one (conservative or edgy or silky or flowing) and you'll see how time-consuming this task can be," says The Hunt co-founder and CEO Tim Weingarten. "The Hunt is the first solution to shoppers' deep-rooted frustration in trying to find exactly what they're looking for, fast. If you have a photo of a dress you really like but can't find, chances are our community of like-minded shoppers will have a suggestion for you, probably within a day."

The Hunt doesn’t currently offer any extrinsic rewards for successful hunts, relying instead on the intrinsic motivations of competitiveness and social validation of being known as an expert Hunter within the platform. But that doesn’t mean gamification and other engagement mechanisms aren’t part of the company’s long-term plan.

The simple reality is that its mobile platform is just five months old, meaning the feature roadmap remains in the early stages. Launching an Android app is also a top priority, something that Weingarten hopes to accomplish by the end of Summer.

Over 2 million new Hunts are started and followed each week, the company says. Marketplace health, meaning the balance between hunt requests and hunt solutions is a key metric for the platform, according Weingarten. The platform today maintains a “Hunt density” or number of answers per query of 1.7, a figure that the CEO believes he can increase substantially. Just 15 percent of active users regularly solve Hunts, but those who do are prolific and regularly solve multiple Hunts per session, according to Weingarten. The Hunt’s average user spends 9 minutes per session in the app, an engagement level more akin to gaming and messaging apps.

“We’ve had a number of users tell us, ‘this is like fantasy football for shopping,’” Weingarten says. The company reaches a 90 percent female demographic with the average user falling between 13 and 30 years old – this is the Instagram and Snapchat crowd, not the housewives of Pinterest

The Hunt didn’t set out to raise this B round so quickly on the heels of its fall 2013 Series A, but with the rapid growth over the last two quarters, investor interest was inbound. When the right investors came knocking and offered attractive terms, the deal was too good to pass up, according to Weingarten.

“We were really excited about working with Ben [Ling at Khosla Ventures.],” he says, speaking of The Hunt’s newest board member. “We really believe that his experience at Facebook could help us build out an engaging product, and his experience at Google could help convert and monetize user intent.”

And therein lays the opportunity. The Hunt has yet to monetize, but it appears to be sitting on a gold mine of consumer intent, which is the holy grail in advertising and lead generation. Unlike when a consumer likes a brand or a photo on Facebook, or pins an attractive image on Pinterest, The Hunt has a crystal clear intent signal that its users want to find and purchase a particular item – or something similar – at a particular time. How it chooses to convert this data into revenue remains to be seen, but there are no shortage of compelling options.

The company currently sends its users off to third-party ecommerce sites to transact based on its Hunters' recommendations and does not capture any referral or affiliate commissions along the way. The Hunt users convert at a far higher rate than typical ecommerce shoppers, according to Weingarten, in large part due to the high levels of intent with which they begin the product search process.

“Over time we want to figure out a way to make this purchase process seamless, whether it be through some sort of global shopping cart or payment system integration,” he says.

"In the last ten years, Google scaled its search revenue by understanding intent through text queries,” Ling said in a statement. “Today, The Hunt is changing the way that people shop online by identifying intent on the visual Web. Monetizing the visual Web is the next big opportunity."

Yes the opportunity is big, but The Hunt remains very early in its lifecycle, and this Series B round is a relatively large bet by its new and existing investors that the company will be able to continue executing at a high level. The company doesn’t have the “millions of monthly active users (MAUs)” that has become a standard pre-requisite before being considered a breakout mobile success. Yes, it’s only been five months, but half-a-million users is a relative drop in the bucket these days.

It also strikes me that gamified experiences can be particularly fickle. Just look at the passing fancy in Foursquare checkins and mayorships, or the decline of eBay’s auctions in favor of buy-it-now and classified listings. And it’s not like social shopping hasn’t been tried before. The category has seen its share of carnage, with no one yet proving that they can create lasting engagement and convert that into meaningful revenue.

“The challenge with 99 percent of social shopping platforms is that their founders simply don't understand shopping pain points, and thus they don't solve a problem,” Weingarten says. “Too many of these platforms are trying to create new discovery mechanism – to change top of the purchase funnel. But people don't have this problem, they're getting inspired left and right every day.”

The Hunt will need to proceed carefully with its monetization strategy so as not to jeopardize the fun and altruistic characteristics driving its early growth. That said, it will also need to strike while the proverbial iron is hot.

“Our growth has been primarily organic word-of-mouth to date,” Weingarten says, “and that’s something we’re really proud of. We routinely hear our users saying on social media that they’re ‘addicted’ and ‘obsessed’ with The Hunt.”

The company has already doubled its headcount to 17 in the half-year since raising its Series A round, so a major staff-up isn’t in the cards following the latest funding. Rather, Weingarten says he hopes to hire the right four-to-five people to really push The Hunt over the edge in terms of operational excellence.

Women’s love of fashion and enjoyment of tracking down the perfect look isn’t going to change anytime soon. The Hunt seems to have found a way to harness that passion and combine it with a community camaraderie to create a fun and viral feedback loop. With the proper massaging, there looks to be a significant business to be built on top of this enviable foundation.

But like offline hunting, the prey of profit can be elusive. Weingarten and his team may only get one shot. They better hope their aim is true.