Saturday, July 13, 2024

Swipe For Styl: Duke Startup To Become The Tinder For Shopping

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Dhruv Bindra (L) and Rahul Bhandari are co-founders of Styl, an AI-powered “Tinder-like” fashion application. Styl was also one of the 36 startups that presented at the Duke Startup Showcase in April.

Described by its founder as the Tinder for shopping, a Duke University startup is striving to change the way that we approach online retail. 

Dhruv Bindra is the CEO and Co-Founder of Styl, an AI-powered fashion app on which users can “swipe” and shop for personalized clothing recommendations. Bindra is also a senior at Duke University, where he will receive his B.S. in economics and computer science this coming December. But even before Duke, he always knew he wanted to be an entrepreneur. 

With tons of ideas in his entrepreneurial head but no way to actually bring them to life, Bindra decided to add computer science as a second major and learn to code himself. Through that process, he became fascinated with recommender systems, a class of machine learning (ML) that uses data to predict and narrow down what people are looking for among a range of options.

While sitting in class, then-sophomore Bindra noticed that his classmates would scroll endlessly on their phones—and specifically clothing websites—when they were bored. But he also noticed that they were just looking, rather than searching with intent or buying things they liked. Enter the conception for Styl.

“After digging deeper, I realized it’s a design issue,” Bindra said. “When websites like Zara show you nine items at a time and you scroll past them, Zara doesn’t know if you didn’t see something or didn’t like it. It’s a problem in data scarcity known as unary ratings. We figured if you showed users one item at a time, you could collect explicit preferences, you wouldn’t have the sparse data matrix and you could build much more robust recommender systems.”

With this idea in mind, Bindra and his Co-Founder Rahul Bhandari, a rising junior at Duke, started a focus group of 35 college girls interested in this idea. The results from that group led to the creation of Styl’s easy-to-use interface and user-specific insights that would help with the app’s recommendations. The app launched in July of 2023. 

Styl was also one of the 36 startups that presented at the Duke Startup Showcase back in April. Although Bindra and Bhandari weren’t chosen as finalists to pitch, they did win a “Best in Showcase” prize of $5K in non-dilutive prize money, having been the audience choice winner for their idea. (This represents the only notable cash infusion for the otherwise-bootstrapped startup to date.)

Even beyond the preferences of that showcase audience, Styl’s growth in internet virality indicates that the “Tinder for clothes” idea is one the Gen-Z audience has been waiting for. Following months of consideration of marketing strategies that would resonate with that audience, Bindra said that Styl promo videos have received more than 3 million views on Instagram and over 500k on TikTok. 

Today, the app stands at more than 60,000 downloads and has facilitated over 10 million individual swipes. 

But if Gen-Z loves this form of gamified shopping experience, why hasn’t it been done before? According to Bindra, it has—just not as well. In fact, there is a whole graveyard of “Tinder for clothes” concepts dating back to 2014. 

However, past startups in this space failed to do what Styl is doing now for a couple reasons. Some prioritized brand partnerships more than building a good user interface and experience, and some weren’t focused on establishing a scalable audience. 

“Rahul and I were very clear about two things,” Bindra explained. “One, we wanted to build a really solid user experience and the brands will follow suit. Second, we very intentionally picked a college audience, most importantly, Gen-Z girls who particularly spent a lot of time online-window shopping. So there was a really big opportunity there for a fun, gamified, Tinder-like experience to be the predominant way for them to do that.”

With Styl, retailers can also understand the metrics for their items and what their audiences are looking for, tapping into about $4 trillion in unrecognized revenue, according to Bindra. The app currently has over 30 brands integrated into its feed, including popular retailers such as Free People and PacSun. And while the app is not yet monetized, it is poised to ultimately generate revenue from both the consumer data that retailers will use to tailor recommendations and, potentially, small percentages of sales it generates. 

“My hope is that someday…Styl can save people X [number of] days in a year by not wasting time aimlessly scrolling on these fashion websites,” Bindra said. He added, “I think fashion is a gateway that we use to be able to express ourselves and our styles and hopefully we can share that passion with other people.”

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