If you look at IT executives in the finance industry around the world, it may be hard to imagine that any of them could have even the most remote association with a fashion website. Their wives, on the other hand, probably have a close relationship with a long list of favorite fashion websites. Therefore, while it may still be surprising that Flávio Pripas and Renato Steinberg, founders of the biggest fashion social network in Brazil, byMK, used to be top-level IT executives with more than 10 years of experience, it is understandable that it all started as a fun way of doing something nice for their wives, Marcela and Karen (hence the MK in the network’s name), who wanted an online store to sell women’s clothing and accessories.
After agreeing to give the online store a try and practice their programming skills that were no longer in use, Flávio and Renato realized they had to build something that required little to no maintenance, since they would only be able to work on the website during their free time, which wasn’t much due to their time consuming jobs. The answer was user generated content, so instead of creating an online store, they created a website where people could upload images from anywhere on the web, removing the need to upload images to the site themselves, and create looks matching different items of women’s clothing. Copyright issues were covered, as each image had the direct link to the website it was taken from. Among many interesting social features, the ability of commenting on looks created by users would become a great way to check what people think about what a user intends to wear or is considering to buy.
When byMK went public in 2008, there was an unexpected but welcome surprise: 5000 unique visitors in the first month, an impressive result considering that there were no marketing efforts to promote the network. Together with a high rate of returning users and average time spent on the site over 30 minutes, Flávio and Renato started to look into the network more carefully. In one year, more than 160.000 users had registered to the site.
At a certain point, it became obvious that in order to run byMK properly it would be necessary to abandon their careers as IT executives. Both Flávio and Renato have occupied leadership positions in the IT departments of JP Morgan and Credit Suisse respectively, so leaving had to be a carefully thought-through decision. They had established a good name for themselves in the finance industry, so they knew that if byMK failed they could pick up their careers from where they left off. Fortunately, that’s not what happened.
ByMK is now the 3rd most visited Fashion and Beauty website in Brazil, according to Comscore, with 500.000 unique visitors per month. Famous brands like Renner, a large Brazilian department store, and H. Stern, a renowned jewelry store, have partnered with the website to promote innovative interactions with its users. Traditional ads throughout the site and special projects with brands also contribute to increase revenue, but the founders are interested in exploring many possible revenue alternatives before settling for a more definitive business model.
Talking to Flávio on this topic, he makes it clear that user experience is a top priority at byMK, and they will not compromise it for a business model they are not comfortable with. This is probably one of the reasons why after months prospecting investors for byMK in Brazil and other markets, they decided to turn down every offer they got. If someone is looking to invest in byMK, they will have to be onboard with the founders’ view of exploring byMK’s capabilities to find out what it really is and can be.
While the future remains uncertain, the present is pretty much taken care of, with a set of goals to reach in 2011. Some of them include a redesign of the website, which was created by the founders who are computer engineers that recognize their limitations in creating an interface that truly represents their fashionable community; tweaks in functionality to improve user experience, and possibly the addition of new features.
Some goals were already reached, like the partnership with the recently created Elas Compram, a group buying store that only sells fashion items for women, but there is much more to be done, such as going international, which is not off the table for 2011, as Flávio confirmed his interest in opening byMK to the world. However, there is no information on how or when this expansion will roll out.
When Flávio is not working on byMK, he is helping to develop the entrepreneurial community in Brazil. One of the organizers of BR New Tech, an event that gathers entrepreneurs around the country and connects them with thought leaders in Sillicon Valley, Flávio has no intention of going back to his old life as an IT executive, and said that if everything goes wrong with his current enterprise, he would simply start all over again.