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In the summer of 2007, three friends and I came up with a brilliant idea: lets create a functionalized social networking startup oriented around fashion — Xhibitr.

Two years later, I can see all the reasons it was bound for failure, but despite the difficulties, I can honestly say it was one of the most rewarding and educational experiences I’ve ever had. In no other context is it possible to learn so much about management, organization, business model development, marketing/public relations, and execution in one fell swoop.

The pictures below take a look at some of the designs and a sneak peek at the functionality that my team built for Xhibitr. A part of me still wants to see it happen (although the rational part of me recognizes that its nigh-impossible).

The design scheme for Xhibitr took a long time to develop, but thanks to our talented design gurus (Calvin and Joseph), we eventually created a very polished website with a simple color scheme and an elegant boxed layout (which was probably inspired a bit by the design aesthetic of Facebook).

The programming was led by our very talented coder Anuraag. The backend was built around Google new cloud service platform (Google App Engine) and relied on Django as the web framework and the Javascript library jQuery for the web effects.

This first picture here is a look at the heart and soul of Xhibitr: the look page. The idea behind Xhibitr was simple – normal people don’t think about clothing the way that stores and brands want us to. We don’t see individual clothing items, and we don’t see stores, we see an ensemble of items and stores — we see looks. To that end, the fundamental organizing piece of Xhibitr was the “look” and how we presented it:

The highlighted box above denotes a particular item (in this case Christine’s lovely Bottega Veneta Dress). The item further up with a gray dotted box referred to her Jimmy Choo headband. The panels on the right gave additional information about the selected item, showing not only the brand but also the website/store where the item was purchased – hopefully providing users with a quick-and-easy way to find out how to get what they want.

Orienting our site around looks also meant creating an interface which made it easy to see what looks were available and to quickly find the ones you were looking for:

But, we weren’t just content with helping people organize their looks, we wanted to change how people could actually communicate about fashion with their friends. We did this in two ways. The first was on the level of the social network itself (more on that in a bit), while the second was around the mini-widget we created to let people embed Xhibitr (with most of the functionality preserved) into their web pages and blogs.XhibitrWidget

The widget itself ran entirely within the browser using Javascript (no Flash plugin required) and supported sophisticated mouseover and transition effects to create a seamless and useful way for anyone to embed Xhibitr’s interface and features but on a different blog/website (and, of course, to encourage others to re-embed the widget on other blogs and pages!). In the heyday of our marketing push, we had even kicked off a separate blog (called Xhibiting) to feature these widgets as ways for people to make their own versions of street fashion sites like the Sartorialist only with enhanced usability.

Below is a picture that shows how these widgets are tied to the main site. The message box below comes up after you click on the “share this look” link within the look page interface. Building these boxes took many iterations and long planning sessions involving thinking about every possible click and user input. Thankfully, Anuraag’s coding experience and the jQuery library made it relatively simple to build:

The picture below highlights some of the social aspects behind Xhibitr – mainly the member page which served not only as a profile for the various users, but also as a way for members to keep track of their friends, their own uploaded looks, and (although this feature isn’t shown below) their favorite looks. Below is a preview of my co-founder/good friend Calvin’s profile:

And what was the business model, you ask? The team and I put together a pretty smart one built around two engines:

  1. Targeted in-site advertising using our Looks model – in the same way that many companies are now attempting to use games or virtual goods as a way to advertise to consumers, Xhibitr aimed to create “sponsored looks” which would have been relevant to the look/member which the user was looking at.
  2. Virtual storefront – in the same way that YouTube can set up customized pages for TV networks and organizations, we had hoped to be able to roll out virtual stores and customized pages for fashion brands and retailers which would have been coupled with preferential access to promoters/fans of those brands and retailers.

Both engines would have been fueled by the massive amounts of information we could gather from this platform, and we even had a long-term vision of expanding Xhibitr beyond fashion into automotive, interior design, and gadgetware.

Sadly, despite good design, functionality, and an interesting business model, the pressures of four people doing this part-time from remote locations (myself in the Bay Area and a consultant, Calvin in Chicago and working in marketing, Joseph in Southern California working in IT, and Anuraag in Japan studying computer science) wore down on us and at some point we decided that, to maintain our sanity, we had to call it quits.

But even despite the setbacks and lost hours, I don’t think I’ll ever regret the experience. Besides, its given myself, Calvin, Joseph, and Anuraag all something we can laugh about :).

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