SAN FRANCISCO — Ever receive a gift and thought, “You must not know me at all!” (or, “Ugh, thanks for giving me an errand.”)
Perhaps you’ve scoured the globe in search of a brilliant gift, only to come up short and resort to a gift card.
Wantful, a new startup company based in San Francisco, feels your pain. One year ago, founder and chief executive John Poisson spotted a gaping hole in the market. (And no, it wasn’t gift baskets packed with fruit.) He’s been trying to fill it ever since.
The premise of Wantful is to streamline and personalize the gift-giving process. The service allows you, the giver, to select sixteen high-quality gifts (cashmere scarves, Napa Valley wines, a charity:water donation) you believe would suit the recipient. Wantful then crafts a small, personalized gift book for them. When the recipient chooses the gift that they most prefer, Wantful will wrap and ship it.
It seems simple enough, but the potential is massive: Americans spent more than $100 billion on gift-giving in 2011.
Wantful, which launched in 2011, is not Poisson’s first startup. The entrepreneur cut this teeth after film school working for digital editing pioneers Avid and Softimage and subsequently founded two of Canada’s largest animation studios.
The experience was formative, he says.
“I realized I was an entrepreneur,” Poisson said. ”I had a knack and a passion for it, but I had started two businesses that were service businesses. It’s a treadmill — you bring in new things every day — so the economics of it were less compelling.”
Changing gears, Poisson moved to Tokyo in 2002 to lead a research and development group for Sony. He spent two years forecasting the emergence of new technologies, such as the use of cameras in phones.
“Everyone thought we were crazy, but it turns out we were right,” he said.
Returning to San Francisco, Poisson launched the startup Tiny Pictures, a mobile photo and video sharing startup acquired by Shutterfly in 2009. (Think of it as Instagram before Instagram.) Once the deal closed, Poisson took some time off, left for Europe and traveled around with one eye open for the next big thing.
It would be born out of his frustration for finding an appropriate wedding gift for a friend.
“This struck me as an opportunity,” Poisson said. “Shopping has been a life long passion, and I was in the best shopping cities in the world, and I’m still struggling to find anything. I had a lead that dovetailed with past experiences and passions of mine, and opportunity that retailers weren’t going after. I felt uniquely equipped to come up with an idea. It was keeping me awake at night, a sign to get back to work.”
“It’s not hard math,” said Poisson. “Last year at Christmas, my mom gave gift cards and felt dejected. In my own personal sphere, everyone struggles with it. We look at other proxies like the gift card business — a billion dollar business. It’s built on an unsatisfactory experience for both parties, and a good choice to go after.”
Wantful seeks to capitalize on a rupture in the business of consumption, where two of the latest trends move in the opposite direction: deals (such as Gilt, Groupon, LivingSocial, and so forth), and customization (Birchbox, Svpply, et cetera).
The products Wantful offers will not be available in department stores, bypassing what Poisson calls a broken retail system in which inventory costs force retailers to bet only on popular, mainstream products.
“The retail experience is soul-sucking because you see the same things over and over and it’s all about hokey come-ons,” Poisson said. “What’s more interesting for consumers we’re interested in is saying, ‘Here are the things we think you’d like,’ and giving them a rich experience discovering the product, learning the story and acquiring it. It’s an opportunity to delight our customer who is getting not delighted.”
Wantful’s challenge is finding that customer — the one who cares about quality, is willing to spend a little more to get it and isn’t stuck on only familiar brands. (To compare, Birchbox takes common products and assembles them, with an editor’s touch, in a careful combination for a customer; Svpply is more of a restricted social network that assembles its members’ favorite items from nearby stores.)
“There are people who don’t place the same value on the quality of products that we place,” Poisson said. “A Walmart customer might not get why you bought this gift, instead of one at Walmart. We’re looking for a customer who understands why we do what we do.”
For now, Poisson is focusing on building long-term value, rather than rapid growth, with the hope that his service is seen as something more special than the rest. His next tests: this year’s holiday season, already underway, as well as a budding corporate gifting program.
“The only way to prove things are possible is to get started,” Poisson said. “That’s when investors come in and say we want to put capital in it. The startup game is really about answering the right questions at the right time.”