Late last year, Mauria Finley launched Allume as an answer to online shopping by curated subscription box. Her new company introduced an element that a lot of tech companies seem content to either leave out or minimize — the human one. Allume sets women up with personal shoppers they can talk to using text messages, with the shoppers — called stylists — free to browse a wide array of online shops before showing their clients what they’ve found. No surprises, either. Women see what the shoppers have found first, then decide if they want to have something shipped.
Allume has grown rapidly in the last six months, but that’s no surprise — this is far from Finley’s first successful project. I talked with her about her motivations for starting Allume and the advice she has for women looking to get into the tech industry. We also talked about her very first job in tech as a project manager at Netscape in the late ’90s, and what it was like to be in the business during the early days of the World Wide Web.
Here’s our chat, which has been edited for length and clarity.
Allume takes the idea of having a personal shopper and makes it more accessible. Part of the appeal in that is in developing a relationship with your personal shopper. Was finding value in that human interaction part of your philosophy with Allume from the very beginning, or did that evolve later on?
It was part of my philosophy, which is funny because I come from a pretty hardcore data background. I have a lot of business reasons why I founded Allume, but on some level I founded it because I’m a little insecure. Even as a 40-something woman who’s fairly accomplished, I always feel like a 13-year-old at heart who’s afraid she looks like an ugly duckling. It really struck me that I need people to help me feel better about that. And that’s a very human thing, for a shopper to both buy me clothes that will make me feel better and to actually let me know that they look OK. Humans are a really important part of it because we’re trying to help people feel put together and confident and feel like they saved time and made the process fun and easy. Those emotions are what we’re going for.
It sounds like it’s almost therapeutic, right?
Yeah it’s funny, both of my startups, if I had to boil them down, were in the business of making women feel better. I have a lot of business-y reasons I started them, but I tend to start businesses that I think will bring people joy. My last business [Citrus Lane] was for babies, for parents of young children. I was struck as a parent of two young kids how overwhelmed I would feel sometimes, like I wasn’t winning. The brand ended up making parents really happy and kids really happy! It’s not like we got your kids to not fight, or helped them learn to read, but in the moment of the busyness of parenting, we gave you a moment where you felt like I’m winning as a mom.
With Allume, luckily people really love it, especially because they feel a sense of connection with their stylist. They feel excited that their stylist found things they wouldn’t have thought about, and then they feel good and put together, with an extra bounce in their step. It’s helping give women a sense that they’re doing a good job in an otherwise busy world, you know?
How do you think about the problem of people being hesitant to shop online for clothes because they can’t get a feel for the material or fit? Do you see that as a problem for Allume or do you think that’s a completely different set of people that Allume isn’t really built to serve?
Shopping for clothes online is hard, but I think we focus on trying to use the stylist’s expertise to find clothes that she thinks will be a good fit. And, because we use real brands, we have a pretty good sense of the quality. The stylists have a good sense of what’s an investment piece, what’s a fun, fast fashion piece, and what’s the right play for the right girl. We also shop from stores that have very good return policies, so it’s easy to bring anything back to a store or send something back.
I think the bet we’re making with Allume is that we are not a subscription box. There are a lot of subscription boxes that send you clothes, generally a surprise, and you try them on and maybe return them. We’re making the bet that people really prize a true personal shopper that understands what they’re looking for.
Do you see the best way to use data as it being more a complementary tool, rather than relying on data and only data?
We would say data can help with fit, but it can’t help with what flatters. Data can tell you that a certain shirt will fit my body, but it’s not going to be able to tell you whether or not it looks good on me. Data will only let you know if an item of clothing has a shot.