How apps are putting the science into shopping

June 30, 2014 10:04 am The UK Domain

Creating Snap Fashion

What is the Snap Fashion app?
Snap Fashion is a multi-award winning visual search engine for fashion. That means that you can see a garment you like, take a photo, and the app will find you similar fashion items within seconds; searching hundreds of thousands of online retailers and items for you. If you love something, the app directs you straight to a retailer’s website to buy it, or you can add it to your wishlist to save it for later – we’ll even email you if it drops in price.

What prompted the idea for Snap Fashion?
I invented Snap Fashion when I was at University studying Computer Science. I’d always thought that it was strange that we searched the internet using words when certain things are just so visual. Fashion is a really personal thing, and it’s sometimes really hard to describe what you are looking for when browsing. You often end up finding items that are either out-of-stock or not even remotely similar to what you want. Using search terms usually means that you have to manually filter through thousands of items to find what you’re looking for. Searching using pictures seemed like the obvious thing to do, and I’m proud to say that we were the first people to do it.

What challenges did you face with Snap Fashion?
The first hurdle that I faced was the technology. Computer vision is one of those areas that seems incredibly simple – “just take a photo and we’ll find something similar” – but because computers have no brains and no contextual awareness, it’s actually a really tricky problem to solve. Many months were spent coding away, and it definitely changed the way that I was looking at fashion at the time!

The other challenge was a confidence thing. Making the decision to quit a job with really good career potential and a great team, for an unpaid startup and working for myself was pretty life changing. When you start a company you meet some really supportive people, but you also receive a lot of knocks along the way. Being able to get up and dust yourself off is essential!

How did you fund the project whilst at university?
Because Snap Fashion was born out of my studies I didn’t really see myself as ‘funding it’ when I was at university. It was just part of my every day life, so I was doing the normal thing of saving up by working during the summer break, and then using that to keep me going through term-time.

After I graduated I won Bristol University’s New Enterprise Competition, which gave me a bit of funding to pursue my idea, which I invested entirely into Snap. I also worked full-time as a Project Manager at an engineering company, so was earning money during the day and then moving my idea forward during evenings and weekends. Eventually I quit my job before I was funded, moved back to my parent’s house and lived without a salary for about half a year… quite a scary decision! I took the decision to raise investment for Snap when I felt that the lack of capital was holding me back.

All about the app

How does the app work?
To use the Snap Fashion app, you take a photo of a specific item that you love and the app will find something similar based on the cut, colour and pattern. I use it to get inspiration from celebrity style and new catwalk trends.

We also have a new app called Snap ColourPop which is really simple to use. You take a photo of a colour you like and it will find you everything in that shade from our 150 retailers. I used it the other day to find shoes to match my outfit. I also find it really fun to take photos of colours that I love, from colours trending on the catwalk to really vibrant flashes of colour in street art.

What elements of the clothing does the technology focus on to generate matches?
That’s our secret sauce sadly! I can’t tell you too much, but we look at things like cut and shape, colour and pattern. We’re a bit like a text search in a sense that we’ll present you with what we think are top matches first, and as you scroll down the list, results get less relevant. The fun thing about this fashion app is that you end up discovering things that you wouldn’t normally go for if you carry on scrolling past the first results.

How do visual search algorithms benefit shoppers?
Normal search engines are obviously amazing for certain things, but fashion isn’t one of them.  It’s really hard to articulate what you’re looking for, and you end up constructing strange descriptions like ‘mini skirt dropped hem waist purple less than £50’.  You’ll get a mix of results depending on how images have been tagged, rather than what they look like.  If it returns results that you like then they’ll be invariably out of stock, featured on a fashion blog from a couple of years ago, or not shippable to the UK.  Everything in Snap’s database is available in the UK and we do daily stock checks to make sure that we’re all up to date.

And when it comes to shopping when you’re out and about, it really helps that most people now own a smartphone with a pretty good camera in their pocket. There are some things in life that are so much easier to search for using a photo rather than tapping away at tiny keyboards and running into autocorrect woes, so I think it’s only a matter of time that it becomes the normal thing to do.

Kick starting the business

How did you approach retailers as both a new business and a young entrepreneur?
At the beginning we were approaching retailers through affiliate networks; affiliates basically earn money for referring people to your services. I’m a big fan of affiliate networks, as they’ve created a structure for brands to reach out to people that really want to engage with their content – it makes knocking on doors a lot easier. Since the launch though we’ve been approached by brands directly, and we’re beginning to work with more brands on their personal projects too, like #editme for Westfield.

Who has been the biggest source of help on your journey?
It would be impossible to pinpoint one person! I’ve got a really great network of mentors who can offer me advice on different aspects of the business and get used to me bombarding them with seemingly strange questions. I really believe in gut feelings, so having a network of people that I can trust for big decisions has really helped me along the way.

There are a few organisations that have made a huge difference too. The Technology Strategy Board were the first people to recognise the potential of Snap and invest through their Tech City Launchpad competition – that was actually what gave me the confidence to do Snap full time. Cisco have been amazing as well – we won their first annual British Innovation Gateway awards in 2012, and they’ve been so supportive ever since.

Did you expect the app to take off so quickly?
It’s a very strange feeling to know that something that I’ve invented has reached so many people; we now have over a quarter of a million users to date. I find it really weird when I overhear people talking about it to their friends when I’m out and about, and always have to hold myself back from chipping in to their conversations and asking them loads of questions! Naturally though as a startup founder I still think that we’ve got a long way to go… I’ve got some pretty big plans and goals for the next few years.

What top three tips would you pass on to other young entrepreneurs who want to develop their own app?
Number one would be to learn to code as it allows you to prototype your own ideas really quickly and cheaply. It’s important to understand how to communicate with developers later on when your company’s grown bigger.

Number two is to know when to stop coding! My motto is “know your strengths” – find out what you’re really good at and stick to it. I’m all about ideas so I love working with the development teams to deliver something, rather than coding every element myself. I then focus on where the product will go in the future. Conversely, if you’re a developer at heart, find someone who complements you with the business development and strategy side of things.

Number three is to not expect it to be an overnight success. Believe in your product, put everything in to it, listen to your users’ feedback and use that to move it to the next level.