Techies Try to Make It Work in Fashion, But It's an Awkward Fit

Digital Divas and Frustrated Fashionistas Faceplant on the Runway

Mr. Kia had also tried to work with other technology platforms to brand his clients, a sometimes rocky experience. “Let me be clear our experience with all of these platforms has not always been without its problems. Not all Facebook reps have been fantastic, Twitter support for the longest time was hard to come by, Tristan Walker for a long time was a lone ranger at Foursquare—you get the picture—but I can with my hand on my heart say one thing with full confidence: at a senior level all of these networks and platforms showed us empathy in the face of our concerns.” Mr. Kia added, “PS. This blog was written using WordPress. I love Tumblr. I have a Tumblr page. It is really fun—but then again so is the Disney store.”
(Tumblr president and resident grown-up John Maloney issued a terse response on his Tumblr: “Gradatim Ferociter” which translates loosely as, “step by step, courageously.”)

And some of the issues are technical. “Like everyone else, I am amazed at their user growth and engagement,” said a veteran New York techie. “I think they are becoming one of the big ten sites on the web. But at the same time, the evolution of the product has been painfully slow, especially from the business side. With their backend squared away, there should be a team of product people banging stuff out, like you see with Foursquare. Instead you get these little, incremental changes.”

Mr. Kia’s wife, Jessica Coghan, who has also tried to work with Tumblr, and reps brands like Ann Taylor and Kate Spade, was also peeved–and naturally, took to her Tumblr to say so:

“So, I am sure you have all heard that Tumblr is sending some bloggers to fashion week again this season,” she wrote. “I have also had the pleasure of seeing their sponsorship proposal being shopped around to brands, which I am not supposed to be talking about. I will say this… someone is completely out of their goddamn mind.”

Ms. Coghan complained that what Tumblr most needed was an analytics dashboard—a complaint echoed by many other partners and potential partners as a primary technical limitation, usually on Tumblr itself. “We are on all here managing blogs with the help of Google Analytics, but there is nothing catering to the Tumblr-only based metrics—reblogs, likes, followers, etc. There is nothing out there to help brands quantify their presence here. What works? What doesn’t? And it’s not about visitors- it’s about engagement.” And engagement is what makes Tumblr’s “magic”, as Mr. Hecht characterized it, happen.

“They could actually make money from this analytics platform,” wrote Ms. Coghan. “I would pay for it for my clients. I would absolutely get behind a cost like that on an evergreen basis, which has to make way more money than this flash in the pan Fashion Week nonsense.”

But so far, the company has been unable or unwilling to deliver on these kind of dashboard features, even when big brands have offered to pay for them. Tumblr says it’s already “generating meaningful revenue.” Mr. Karp likes to joke with his team that Tumblr could be profitable in a day if it put just one ad on the dashboard. On principle, Mr. Karp said he opposed placing ads on a service that gained traction for its pretty, minimalist design.

And he thinks the company does a perfectly job of understanding the needs of its users and clients. “I’m generally really proud of how we communicate as a company,” Mr. Karp told Reuters social media editor Anthony DeRosa, “It’s not particularly easy when there are so many subsets of the community with dramatically different interests and questions.” Mr. DeRosa, an avid Tumblr user who goes by the handle “SoupSoup” on his blog, recently walked away from the platform in frustration after one too many problems with the service.

Mr. DeRosa ends his piece by noting that, “I walked away from my conversation with Karp feeling like they want to operate similar to the way Apple does, protecting their vision for how their product looks and choosing who gets to appear ‘in their store.’ Apple has managed to make that aspect part of what makes their products great; it remains to be seen if this approach will work for Tumblr as well.”

As for Mr. Karp’s comments that he was proud of how they communicated with their partners, Mr. DeRosa got on the record a story The Observer also heard about Mr. Tong, Tumblr’s fashion director, in which he ignored and then insulted AOL’s StyeList blog. While Tumblr had early success partnering with fashion companies, Mr. Tong soured many of those relationships when he arrived by failing to return emails, showing up to meetings unaware of who the client was, snubbing former partners during fashion week and replying to their hurt feelings with, “You can do business the way you see fit, and we’ll do the same.” The Observer reached out to Tumblr, but the company declined to comment.

And perhaps these sort of problems are the traditional ones—after all, the tech industry didn’t invent customer service or client management, or doing either well or badly.

For her part, ToVieFor’s former founder isn’t sure what her next step is yet. She told The Observer in an email that she’s evaluating two opportunities at the moment and plans to speak more publicly about her experience at ToVieFor and her take on the fashion industry in the next couple months; last week she announced a stealth fashion startup called Elizabeth + Clarke.

Ms. Moore recently wrote some of her thoughts on the fashion 2.0 space in a blog post called, “Building a Fashion Company on the Internet? Please Stop. Just Stop. And Read This,” about the tendency of investors and web entrepreneurs to overemphasize “discoverability” when the real business opportunities are closer to the supply chain.

“Fashion 2.0 is really not that much different than Fashion 1.0,” she wrote. “In order to win, one must focus intently on building a better product that solves a real problem—you know, just like every other successful business in the world.”