How This Tech Founder Is Giving The Internet A Facelift By Changing The Way We Shop
Shirley Chen’s list of experiences is as diverse as it is impressive: she spent her childhood on China’s national gymnastics team, studied biochemical engineering at Columbia University, interned at Chanel, Bergdorf Goodman, and Vogue, and worked as a media and retail consultant at McKinsey & Company, a global management consulting firm.
Chen never imagined her resume would include founding a company. But when a former Vogue colleague tapped her on the shoulder to run the marketing and business development for luxury goods brand Moda Operandi, a seed was planted. Chen was tasked with driving customer acquisition with a specific focus on digital e-commerce, and that’s where she spotted a gap in the market.
Companies were so focused on the traffic from traditional platforms like Google and Facebook that they were missing a valuable source of customer acquisition—online content. When consumers wanted to find the trendiest swimsuit, most effective blackout curtains, or best-priced coffee maker, they looked for the answer in online magazines and blogs. The problem with that was two-fold. On the one hand, thanks to an aging internet, many older links on publishers’ pages are dead, leading consumers to 404 pages. On the other, many publishers were using hardcoded, static links to Amazon product pages (some 650 million times per month), meaning consumers didn’t have the opportunity to consider purchasing from other retailers, even if Amazon didn’t have the best price. In either case, it was a lose-lose-lose situation for consumers, advertisers, and publishers alike.
Chen devised a solution with Narrativ, a tech company that’s using AI to #EndThe404 and build a better internet for shoppers by making sure that every time they click on a product link on a publisher’s site, it will lead not just to an active page, but to the retailers with the best price.
“We built a SmartLink technology that repaired broken links online, and we democratized that pipeline that was being hard credited to Amazon through content,” Chen explained. “The mission is to improve the consumer shopping experience and build a better research experience as well when it comes to buying products.”
The results so far have been stellar. In the year since their launch out of stealth mode, Narrativ has raised over $3.5 million in venture capital, rewired more than one billion links, and impacted more than 200 million internet users each month. Narrativ, who has also partnered with notable brands like Dermstore, Ulta Beauty, and New York Magazine, is set to deliver more than $600 million in advertiser value in 2018, and has earned a nod from the World Economic Forum as a Technology Pioneer.
Chen stands at the helm of it all, CEO of a game-changing tech company she was once almost too afraid to build. She recalls the nervousness she felt when the idea first came to her. She approached two former employers to build it, but both declined. That’s when Chen’s mentor, head of McKinsey’s North America Media spoke the words that fired her up: “Why don’t you build this thing on your own? I think you’re being a real coward.” She knew that he spoke not to discourage her, but to push her to make a move.
“It takes mentorship to build that confidence to take that kernel of an idea and build it into a company,” Chen said. “That night, I went home and took the time to write a five-page deck and sent it to one of the investors from Moda Operandi, Tony Florence at New Enterprise Associates (NEA). NEA was our first check, and they’ve been some of the biggest supporters in this journey.”
NEA and Talis Capital did contribute a significant portion of funding that Narrativ raised in venture capital, an impressive feat for a female-run company at a time when only 2% of VC dollars were going to female-led companies and even less so to AI and media advertising technology. Chen boils down her fundraising strategy to this: it’s not what you say, it’s what you show.
“You have to show that there is this ability to both think broadly, have a big vision, follow through and execute. [You have to be able to] attract people to your vision and both recruit and develop talent. The 30-minute or hour conversation isn’t what moves a VC to invest. It is being able to demonstrate that over and over with consistency that builds trust and the energy to invest.”
Chen has demonstrated all of that, particularly her commitment to recruiting and developing talent. “I think that the ability to find talent and to be able to grow it in-house is a core differentiator of ours, and the degree of mentorship and side-by-side coaching that our senior team invests is something that is very unique to our process.”
Narrativ has given specific focus to diversity of all kinds. The staff is described as coming from “Bensonhurst to Beijing and everywhere in between.” As a female founder, Chen has recognized the opportunity she has with Narrativ to create spaces for women in the tech industry and has a staff that is more than 50% female on both the business and engineering sides. She has also made a point of hiring staff from different careers and educational backgrounds, which she says has led to greater collaboration, conversation, and problem-solving.
Narrativ’s dynamic team will undoubtedly be important as the company charges ahead with their mission. While Narrativ currently works with large multi-brand retailers, Chen plans to expand their audience with the launch of a self-serve platform for small and medium businesses, getting us all one step closer to an internet that’s rich with evergreen content, free of link rot, and built for shoppers.
This article originally appeared in Forbes.
Sign up for the Moguldom newsletter — business news you need to know about economic empowerment for the digital age, delivered to your inbox.