Earlier this month, Toutâ€™d, theÂ social media platform for swapping recommendations with friends,Â acquired Villij. It also changed its name to Villij,Â pronounced like “village”.
The company began more than a year ago by launchingÂ WhichDoc, a platform that aimed to help patients looking for doctors.
In 2012, the startup dumped WhichDoc and pivoted to a focus on store and restaurant recommendations.
In June 2012,Â Toutâ€™d was launched, helpingÂ customers to decide where to shop and eat with information that has been friend-sourced from their social networks. The site’s “secret sauce” was to connectÂ users based on shared interests and similar online activity profiles.
During the summer Which Ventures raised $1.4 million in a seed round led by Warner Hill Angels.
This month it bought Villij, part of the 2007 startupÂ acceleratorÂ TechStars class in Boulder, Colorado.
The revenue plan is to generate income from selling ads to local vendors next to the recommendations and fromÂ prompting users to execute transactions through various affiliate programs, such as AmazonAssociates and OpenTable.Â Partnerships to book hotel rooms, airfare, and restaurants reservations are likely.
Villij lets users post a question to Facebook. If someone clicks on the link with the question they are taken to Villij.com to provide answers.
VillijÂ aims to spotlight questions that might otherwise get lost in the stream of updates on Facebook.
Villij also aims to mine its database for all answers to similar questions posed within the users extended social circles. The goal is best illustrated by an example: If you are looking for a sushi bar in San Francisco, the site would fetch a list of the Japanese restaurants that have been recommended by your friends and acquaintances in other conversations and contexts.
With its seed funding, the company plans to work on a mobile app. It has just unveiled a website redesign, which adds a map representing locally recommended business, greaterÂ mobile web optimization, andÂ a fresh ability for users to search a word or phrase and find who else on Villij has been talking about that term the platform.
Q&A about VillijÂ with co-founder Rob Morelli:
How is the way you are solving this problem more special or effective than previous attempts you or the market has seen before and how different do you have to be to succeed?
The greatest distinction for us is in the way we source recommendations. The entire site is framed in a question and answer format which means that recommendations are almost always in response to a question.
This is a very important distinction for a few reasons.
First, it means that the asker will get recommendations unique to their situation. I can ask for recommendation on something very specific like â€śIâ€™m looking for a hotel in Seattle for over Easter weekend. Need something semi-nice in downtown within walking distance of the ferry terminal.â€ť
Or you can ask something less specific that could provide for a wide variety of answers like at this link here. These recommendations come from the visitorâ€™s social network who are more likely to have similar interests as them.
Second, there is now a very different motivation for providing the review or recommendation. Other sites rely on consumers who have been moved to one extreme or the other to post about their recent experience.
Lots of 1 star and 5 star reviews. Loved it or hated it. The primary objective of these people is to be heard. At Villij, the motivation is to help someone at the exact moment they need your help.
Lastly, since the motivation of a user is to help a friend we are now more likely to get reviews and recommendations from people who are not necessarily the kind of people who run to Yelp or TripAdvisor to broadcast their opinions.
Our users are not subject to the heavy selection bias that is currently rampant across existing sites filled with reviews from the extremely vocal minority of consumers. We are capturing the usually-silent majority.
Other review sites allow reviews from anyone and anywhere without any means of assigning accountability to the reviewer.
Yelp has a real â€śfake reviewâ€ť problem on their hands. So does TripAdvisor. They are attempting to address this by weeding out what they think are fake reviews and by tagging businesses who get caught.
But itâ€™s not enough… and it certainly doesnâ€™t do anything about the motivation problem.
We are going to have fewer reviews but the reviews they receive will be more meaningful to them and thus more likely to be acted upon.
Why should people or companies use your startup?
At the end of the day we are replicating what happens in the real world and doing it better. Friends ask friends for their recommendations on everything because they value their opinions.
Word of mouth is still the best form of marketing. Villij is the digital version of word of mouth.
We are helping consumers spread word of mouth faster and further than they could on their own. We then store all of these one-on-one conversations and make them discoverable for the entire community to benefit.
Search â€śWeekend Getaway near New Yorkâ€ť and see what your friends have recommended to other friends.
Other than going viral and receiving mountains of positive PR, what is the strategy for raising awareness and getting customers/users?
Ideally, we want to see this grow organically through our existing user base. We want to provide an incredible user experience and be so valuable to our users in making everyday purchasing decisions that they want to spread the word to their friends.
This is happening already. We also have some strategic partners lined up that could help us bring on board large groups of users at a time.
What other options have you considered for the business and the team if the original vision fails?
Failure is not an option! We are a bit too early stage to be planning for our demise just yet, but that said… we are not afraid to pivot.
Saro and I launched a social recommendation engine targeted at physicians, WhichDoc, in the spring of last year.
Arron joined us in the summer and within just a few months we all made a big decision to pivot away from healthcare to local businesses and products.
That pivot also included creating the platform as question and answer. I am sure there will be lots of small pivots between today and 12 months from now.
What mistakes have you made in the past in business and how have you learned from them?
Donâ€™t spend too much time perfecting what you think your users are going to want.
Instead, build it â€śleanâ€ť. Build the parts of that are core and then watch how your users interact with it.
It doesnâ€™t feel right to ship something that doesnâ€™t look pretty but it feels worse to spend too many hours building something no one uses.
What is wrong with the travel, tourism and hospitality industry that requires another startup to help it out?
There are lots resources out there providing travellers with reviews on where to go, where to stay, what to do and see, and where to eat.
They are all ripe for manipulation by the businesses themselves and they do not offer a true representation of travellers.
There needs to be a better way to capture the voice of the masses. We also believe that big brands can sway public opinion by throwing lots of ad dollars at consumers.
We can help the little guy who doesnâ€™t have the big marketing budget to find new customers. A social endorsement is worth more than any ad you can buy.
We want to level the playing field for the smaller businesses who provide great services or produce great products.
Companies that overlap in the social recommendation space Villij is playing in include Livestar, Angieâ€™s List, and Gogobot — and less directly, Facebook, TripAdvisor, Google, andÂ Yelp.
The fake review problem significantly diminishes the value of many social-recommendation sites.Â Villij is a clever effort to use the social graph to filter out the noise for the quality advice.
The founders have a thought-provoking insight in their notion that the users of crowd-sourced review sites like TripAdvisor and Yelp often have Â ”a motivation problem.”
As Morelli has pointed out, there is a self-selection that takes place with sites like Yelp and TripAdvisor, where the people feel compelled to state extreme commentsâ€”â€śloved itâ€ť or â€śhated itâ€ťâ€”out of emotion from some recent experience (which likely diverges sharply from the norm).
In contrast, the motivation for posting a review on Villij is to help. If true, that could make Villij reviews more trustworthy and actionable.
To get there, the founders may want to study closely the examples of Yelp and Pinterest, which scaled up quickly.
Each company emphasised marketing, and avoided the pitfalls of spending too much time perfecting algorithms or heeding the advice of all Street venture capitalists.
Both Yelp and Pinterest used meetups and parties to get the word out virally about their product. Pinterest’s peer-to-peer marketing campaign is especially interesting.
To get there, the founders may want to be rigorous in prioritising items on their product road map.
It might help to consult The Goal, by management guru Eliyahu Goldratt, which argues that the key is to pinpoint the worst bottleneck in the system and focus on fixing it, before tackling the next-worst one.