#StartupsEverywhere: Providence, Rhode Island

#StartupsEverywhere Profile: Sarah Fletcher, Co-Founder, Stylaquin

This profile is part of #StartupsEverywhere, an ongoing series highlighting startup leaders in ecosystems across the country. This interview has been edited for length, content, and clarity.

Stylaquin Reimagines Online Shopping

Sarah Fletcher, Co-Founder of Stylaquin, knows that female entrepreneurs can see opportunities and solutions that men might not notice. Based on her decades of experience as a catalog designer, she knows how women and men tend to shop, and her company is merging the convenience of digital browsing with the enjoyment of paging through a catalog. And Stylaquin has created a tool that appeals to different shopping styles. Fletcher is excited about her company’s potential to revolutionize online shopping and envisions a future full of innovative opportunities.

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Can you tell us a little about yourself? What is your background?

I have been a catalog designer for about 30 years with a laser focus on how women shop. I worked for a lot of big companies, including L.L. Bean, and then started my own company called Catalog Design Studios.

As I watched the Internet grow, I thought that there just wasn’t anything exciting about online design. E-commerce actually started with catalogs, because companies figured out, “Wow, we can save a ton of money by getting people to order online.” The Internet was designed to be fast and efficient, and it was built by men for the way men shop. Men are very efficient when they shop and they’re largely item shoppers. They know what they want, they get in, they buy it, and they’re done. Women shop differently. But online shopping never really changed to accommodate that. And then one day I had this epiphany of how we could keep online shopping great for the people who like to get in and out quickly, without changing the website, but also do this add-on that would make it great for people that love to shop.

Tell us about Stylaquin. What is the work you’re doing?

Stylaquin is a website enhancement that brings any website the tools and experience that women value.

Stylaquin puts a bar on the side of the website, you drag an item onto the bar, and then it expands out and you get an additional area to use. Stylaquin basically adds a whole other page to the website, but it doesn’t change the shopping experience if you don’t want to use it. Stylaquin is easy to work with for merchants because it’s template-driven for sites with quick merchandise turn who don’t want to do any work, or they can design the product presentations however they want using any graphics program.

Stylaquin gives you a styling board that allows you to see all of the things you’re interested in, but not sure if you want to buy. So if you like something, rather than putting it in your online shopping cart, you can put it on your styling board. You can change colors, you can change sizes, and move items around and see them next to each other, and it gives you a running total of what’s on your styling board. When you’re done, and you know what you want, it goes right to the checkout. It’s a completely reimagined shopping experience without changing the website.

When a woman shops, she has like 18 open tabs, so she can see all the things that she wants. Stylaquin will also let her see items from any Stylaquin enabled site on one styling board so she can mix and match across sites as well.

Are there any policies at the federal, state, or local level in particular that have helped your business grow?

We’re just coming out of beta, so it’s been straight bootstrapping and we’re just starting to look at funding. Rhode Island does have some funding programs for women, but they’re mostly in biotech because of the state’s focus on the biotech industry.

Why is it important for female entrepreneurs to receive more support?

Women shouldn’t get more funding just because they are women. Women should get more funding because they think differently and bring different ideas to the table. They see the world differently than men do, and there’s huge opportunity in that.

The ideas women bring forward aren’t just about making money. Men aren’t going to solve women’s online shopping problems because they just don’t see them. And the problems that women are solving are often problems that women see, but men don’t. Companies with a good diversity of women in their culture tend to be far more successful than companies that aren’t as diverse.

There’s a huge opportunity in the funding community to create funds for women and minorities, who are definitely underserved. And the venture capital world shouldn’t be saying, “I need to do this because it’s the right thing to do.” And, yes, it is the right thing to do. But, they should also be aware that if you’re not in those communities, you don’t know what their needs are. Every one of those needs has a solution that is potentially profitable.

What has been your experience applying for a patent with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office?

It takes a long time to apply for and obtain a patent. It took us four years from when we filed our earliest application to when we got confirmation that we would be granted a patent. And of course the first patent application you submit is generally turned down. So after we received our first rejection, we made some amendments to our claims and went back to the examiner and explained. My lawyer said it’s like talking to your most skeptical friends--you just have to convince them. So we did, and now we have patent protection which is very awesome and unique and exciting!

I would like to see the U.S. government do something though, like create a program for women and minorities, because it’s just such a heavy left. Because I have Catalog Design Studios, I was lucky I had the flexibility to weave Stylaquin in as we grew it. But not everyone can do that. If you think about minority women, for example, their ideas matter, and they should be nurtured and cherished. So I think the government should consider setting up programs to help reduce some of the financial burdens of the patent process.

I know you signed on to our recent letter in support of net neutrality. Why is it important for you to support strong net neutrality protections?

Net neutrality is huge. Not having it is like saying some people get to have electricity and some people don’t, and we’re going to let the utilities decide.

So why should you get better Internet service than I do? Why does an Internet provider get to determine who uses the Internet and how? It makes no sense to me, and it really is going to disproportionately hurt startups.

What is your goal for the next year? The next five years?

Ultimately I would like to see Stylaquin on every website! It’s so much faster and so much more fun to shop with Stylaquin, that once you use it, and then go to a site that doesn’t have it, you’ll try dragging a product onto the bar, realize it isn’t there, and be sad. It normalizes really quickly. In the next year I want people to try it, and play with it. I think it’s just a matter of getting it on a bunch of sites and then it will hopefully take off.

Stylaquin’s a tool, and people come up with ideas for it all the time. I don’t know where it’s going to go. I think I’ve barely scratched the surface of what it can do. So do I know what it’s going to be in five years? No, but I know it’s going to be cool!

Engine works to ensure that policymakers look for insight from the startup ecosystem when they are considering programs and legislation that affect entrepreneurs. Together, our voice is louder and more effective. Many of our lawmakers do not have first-hand experience with the country's thriving startup ecosystem, so it’s our job to amplify that perspective. To nominate a person, company, or organization to be featured in our #StartupsEverywhere series, email edward@engine.is.