Snapette workstation: Sarah conferences with a 500 Startups colleague.

Last week UntappedSF, on special assignment, traveled down the peninsula to Mountain View, located in the heart of Silicon Valley and home to 500 Startups, a company created to accelerate the launch of technology startups by providing entrepreneurs with seed money, mentorship, and networking access. Participation in this incubator program is by invitation only, and the expectations are steep: the selected few have three months in which to get a product onto the market and ready to pitch to investors.

Snapette, an iPhone app being developed this summer within the clear walls of 500 Startups headquarters, 444 Castro Street, is the Internet baby of intrepid fashionistas Sarah Paiji and Jinhee Ahn Kim. A social networking community for sharing photos of women’s bags and shoes, Snapette makes available the latest fashion trends as photographed by shoppers perusing items in boutique and brand-name stores around the world. Users can “follow” their favorite photographers, comment on items of interest, search for specific brands or stores, sort feeds to see products nearby, and contribute to the online sharing by snapping their own feature photos of fancy footwear and purses.

Front entrance of 500 Startups office space, located at 444 Castro Street in Mountain View

The morning of the interview I downloaded Snapette, which had just been released on iTunes the night before.  The app interface is simple and intuitive, its defining feature being the large photo display, which frames bags and shoes so vibrantly colorful and textured that I could almost believe they were stored inside my iPhone, like a closet, waiting for me to reach in and pull them out to wear.

When the elevator doors opened to the 500 Startups floor, I was greeted by a ceiling-to-floor wall of headshots, each one of a 500 Startups founder or participant. There was no official reception area, just people passing quickly through the elevator corridor. It felt disconcerting-this office devoid of extraneous accoutrements and formalities. If 500 Startups was a song, minimalism would be the refrain, reflecting itself in the details of the furniture-ottomans functioning as chairs-even down to the computer hardware-laptops galore. Not a cubicle in sight to feign personal privacy, people openly sat in spacious warehouse-like rooms, huddled in groups of five, in groups of two, by themselves-their conversations blending into an aural soundscape of white noise with an occasional distinct voice rising above the rest. Dotting the simple visual landscape, white boards chock-full of lists and equations reminded me of science and math classrooms from my past; I laughed at the errant humorous profanity scrawled into their corners, signatures of sorts, evidence of the individuals behind the impersonal data.

An office space devoid of of extraneous accoutrements or formalities

Sarah came forward to greet me seconds after I texted her, alerting her to my presence. Tall and slender in stature, with long straight black hair, she wore a loose black-and-gray top casually tucked into blue-jean shorts. I had expected Sarah to be shiny like the fashion photos I saw on my smooth iPhone glass and impeccably articulate like her Harvard undergrad and business school pedigree implied-simply put, I had imagined her to be brilliantly gorgeous or perhaps gorgeously brilliant. Like an elegant Kate Spade handbag: clean lines, classic aesthetic and capable. As we sat side by side, she generously carrying the introductory conversation while I clumsily set up my computer and recorder, I noticed that my predictions were indeed correct, with the exception of one aspect. Soft, rather than shiny, described Sarah, who spoke as directly and clearly as I had imagined, but with a warmth I had not anticipated. This combination of savvy business smarts with feminine softness intrigued me. Her motions were graceful and fluid; they mirrored her mellifluous manner of lingering on open vowels.

Seated on an ottoman, Sarah camps out at her favorite work space.

Untapped: You come from a finance and consulting background. What made you want to design your own product and start your own business?

Sarah: During the fall of my first year at Harvard Business School (HBS), the founders of Rent the Runway gave a talk about their experiences as women entrepreneurs. They and the founders of Gilt Group came from HBS and were HBS success stories. I think that changed everything for me. I saw these women as peers. And while what they built was impressive, it wasn’t so far beyond what I myself thought I could do. After that presentation I thought I needed to just go. My background, prior to Snapette, was so much about preparation, making sure everything was perfect, being completely ready to do something, whereas these women just ran with their ideas.

U: So did you know after the talk that you wanted to launch a product like Snapette? What is the Snapette creation story?

S: Jinhee, my co-founder, came up with the idea for Snapette. After the Rent the Runway talk, my mind was racing with the idea of combining fashion and technology. I didn’t know exactly how. Mobile was especially interesting to me, as everyone is moving onto mobile. Two weeks after the presentation I met Jinhee at a Harvard alumni event. It was completely random. We were introduced by a mutual friend. The next week she was back in Boston and she sent me an e-mail. “I have this idea,” she wrote, “and I’m looking for a co-founder.” And I thought, “I hope this idea knocks my socks off.” At first when she shared the idea with me, I wasn’t sure. But three weeks later I got back to her in true consulting style. I had compiled a 40-page deck on what I thought the market was and who I thought the competitors were. In that sense we compliment each other very well.

U: What is the synergy like between you two? Why do you think you work so well together?

S: The nice thing is that Jinhee has a design background. After Harvard she went on to Parsons and worked as a designer in the fashion industry. She is the creative here. She thinks in terms of the big picture. I’m always the one paring her back, asking questions like, “Yes, but what is the next step?” and “How do we prioritize all of this?” I’ve been a good complement to her. Especially with startups, as there are a thousand things you need to be doing at any given point.

U: Today I downloaded Snapette, and I noticed the posts are coming in from all over the US. You’ve only been here at 500 Startups for a little over a month. That’s amazing. How were you able to produce and launch your product so quickly?

S: 500 Startups moves very quickly. One day we talked to one of their partners about our app conception. The next day we spoke to 500 Startups co-founder, Paul Singh. Two days later I was making plans to come out to Mountain View. I moved to California within a week. It was a big change in our plans. SF wasn’t going to be a launch city. I was supposed to be on the east coast for the summer.

U: What was the application process like for 500 Startups?

S: There isn’t an application process, which is why 500 Startups didn’t initially come across our radar. They find you through their mentor networks. They came to us. At that point we were still an idea on paper. We had a prototype that we hadn’t shared with anyone.

White boards-filled with diagrams, lists, drawings and errant profanity-pop up all over the office space.

U: And now you are up and running across the US. I noticed that you have interns in many cities to promote Snapette?

S: We have seven Stanford interns for the summer as well as interns from Harvard, around Boston, and in New York City. Our biggest success has been in recruitment, both on the technical side and with getting young girls excited about what we are doing.

U: How has being in this 500 Startups space helped and/or shaped your business plan? As you said, you were planning to move forward with a launch prior to being invited to move to Mountain View and develop your product here.

S: We hadn’t looked into incubator or accelerator programs. Accelerator is a better description of this program than incubator. Incubator makes it sound like you are a fragile egg, and someone is protecting and taking care of you. But really they light a fire under you and say, “Just go!” Everything is focused on Demo Day in mid-August, which forces you to get your product out there, figure out how your customer is using it, and based on that make changes-instead of trying to make something that is perfect before launching. Even with the Snapette app right now, I can name at least a hundred things that are coming, that I want to change, that aren’t quite right, that you might not notice, but I’m fully aware of. And if we weren’t in this program, the version you have would not be out right now. But because we have Demo Day in a month, it has forced us along. We even have Monday meetings [in which] mentors call us out, “Who doesn’t have a product on market right now?” And every day we get an e-mail saying [we] have this many days until Demo Day. That push has been helpful for someone with my background-very traditional, meaning everything has to be buttoned up. I would spend hours creating strategy, developing a work plan, developing a dashboard, tracking it. Early on in the program I showed one of the partners what I was doing. He said “You’ve produced so much paper. You just need to go.”

U: Explain to me this Demo Day. It sounds like Armageddon.

S: [laughs] Demo Day is actually a misnomer. It’s going to span several days. We will be presenting our product at least three times to 300 to maybe 500 investors. It’s a huge opportunity, and you want to be as far along as possible.

U: So the acccelerator program puts you in a place where you have a product on the market, so that you can get even bigger backing?

S: Yes. A lot of these investors want to see what your traction has been. They want more proof points than just a great idea.

Snapshots of 500 Startups entrepreneurs and key players greet visitors upon arrival to the office space.

U: What is daily life like here at the “office”?

S: This space is great. On Tuesdays and Thursdays various [guest] speakers are brought in and 500 Startups provides lunch and dinner. Also, having all the startups together to bounce ideas off of is invaluable. We [Snapette] sit next to another mobile photo app group, and the learning that goes on from being so close is great. Especially because their technical guys are right behind me.

U: So do you go over and ask them questions?

S: I’m always thinking out loud. And then they’ll turn around to see if they can help. In retrospect, had I been in Boston doing this, it would have been lonely. It’s nice being in a place where at 4 and 5 am, there’s still lots of bustle.

U: I get the sense of community here. You must be helping each other the generate even bigger and better innovative ideas.

S: Definitely. People are so supportive. They are always coming back to me with feedback, recommending other groups or startups here to help.

Conference call in minimalist fashion

U: You sound so excited and happy to be doing what you are doing. How has fashion been a part of your life? Where does your interest in fashion come from?

S: Fashion is a very social activity. You dress for other people and express yourself. It is a way of interacting with the world around you. Whether you like it or not, your dress affects how other people perceive you. Growing up I wasn’t into sports. Shopping was kind of my sport. And I think girls can relate. This is what you do with your girlfriends. Guys get together to watch sports, and we get together and go shopping. We grab coffee, chat, feel things, touch things. All this relates to physical shopping. Snapette helps people shop in the physical world. As much as there is e-commerce, physical commerce is still over 90 percent of the market. Normal people have time to go to stores and malls. That’s not going away. Going to is not the same. Maybe for men, e-commerce works better.

U: You emphasize that Snapette is an app for women made by women. Does this fact set it apart from other apps?

S: From the app perspective, e-commerce is more suited for men. E-commerce is about filtering and search. Whereas for women, shopping is more about browsing and discovery, going to the mall and wandering aimlessly, being surprised at finds. Oftentimes I don’t know what I want until I see it. Snapette plays a lot more on these emotions. We know what women want because we are women ourselves.

U: Why shoes and bags?

S: We’re starting with shoes and bags because they look they so great on their own. If we do fashion like jackets, all of a sudden we introduce people into the photos.Then all of a sudden it’s not about the product.

U: What does Snapette’s future look like?

S: We’re just going to start with women’s shoes and bags and see where it goes. Maybe it will take us into men’s shoes and bags. Maybe it will take us into all fashion for women. But women’s shoes and bags are a 100 billion dollar market, even excluding athletic footwear. There is plenty to do. And at heart, this is a short easy app that doesn’t take much attention. You log in and you know exactly what to expect.

U: In other words this app enhances the the shopping experience rather than redefines it. Although I can’t help but look at it while I’m on my computer and not supposed to be shopping.

S: Well a person can be at home and see if it’s worth going out to shop. A lot of boutique stores don’t have websites, or the website doesn’t show you what is currently in the store.

U: So shoppers can snap photos anywhere they see a shoe or a bag? Like at consignments stores even? Where should people be taking photos? I’m seeing lots of high-end product and brand stores in my Snapette feed.

S: Yes! We want people to take photos at independent boutiques and consignment shops, places where you can’t see things online. The app is perfect for consignment, as consignment finds are so happenstance. And Snapette is global and instantaneous.

U: Can you give readers any advice for using Snapette?

S: In August there will be a new exciting feature added to the app. Download Snapette to find out.

U: And what is the plan for Snapette after the summer, your time at 500 Startups, is over?

S: We still have to figure that out.

After the interview, on my way back to my car, I whipped out my iPhone to check my Snapette feed. I saw a cute Burberry bag photographed at a nearby Nordstrom. And I marveled at how mesmerized I was by the images refreshing and scrolling down my iPhone screen. It was a good while before I started the journey back north to San Francisco.

Follow Untapped Cities on  Twitter  and  Facebook. Get in touch with the author @annylam81.