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cartblancheiphone_DetailPageCart Blanche founder Joel Espelien is trying to change the way you shop at the local mall, combining the best of social networking technologies with the brick-and-mortar retail experience.

His new startup, which is launching Friday at the Northwest Entrepreneur Network’s First Look Forum, allows shoppers to rate, review and share  the items they find on the shelves at the local mall.

The company is starting with women’s apparel, but Espelien isn’t stopping there.

“The concept can be applied to other categories — children’s clothing, home furnishings — where touching and interacting with the physical product in the store is an essential part of the shopping experience,” he says.

The arrival of Cart Blanche marks the second e-commerce oriented startup that we’ve featured on GeekWire this week, following the launch on Monday of BevyUp. The two companies do share some similarities, including a desire to highlight the social aspects of shopping.

It’s still too early to say which of these technologies, if any, will take root with serious shoppers. Here’s more from Espelien in the latest Startup Spotlight.

CB_Logo_taglineExplain what you do so our parents can understand it: “We are building TripAdvisor for the shopping mall. Today, most Internet-savvy people would not dream of booking a hotel room or trying out a new restaurant without going online and reading real reviews posted by other people who have gone before you. At the shopping mall, this just doesn’t happen today. When a woman stands in front of a $150 dress in the store, she has no idea what other shoppers think about that dress. Cart Blanche is building a smartphone app that allows you to rate, review and post photos and videos of items across stores at your mall. By seeing what other shoppers think, we make shoppers smarter and shopping more fun.”

Inspiration hit us when: “I was looking at the mobile retail problem from many angles, when I discovered a site called ModCloth that specializes in vintage clothing. They can get more than a thousand user reviews on a single dress, including many users posting photos taken from their cell phones showing themselves trying on the dress in front of a mirror. I went to the mall the next day and realized nearly every woman was carrying a smartphone, but there was no community for them to do the same thing with items at the mall. I realized this was a huge opportunity just staring me in the face, and literally ran out of the mall to start working on Cart Blanche.”

Joel Espelien

VC, Angel or Bootstrap: “We raised our initial seed money from angels within my professional network, including my former boss and the founder and former CEO of PacketVideo, Jim Brailean. We plan to raise a larger seed round once we launch the product.”

Our ‘secret sauce’ is: “We create social shopping communities around the real malls that people know and love. If I am at Bellevue Square, I want to know what my peers who also shop there think first. The opinion of somebody living in Orlando is nice, but probably not as important. It’s actually a hard problem, and we have filed a patent on our approach to it.”

The smartest move we’ve made so far: “Applying to NWEN’s First Look Forum program. Even for experienced entrepreneurs and teams, there is great value in connecting with coaches and mentors who want and expect you to get better. And there is nothing like the pressure and deadline of a “demo day” event today to focus everyone on shipping the product.”

The biggest mistake we’ve made so far: “It is easy to get distracted by what other companies are doing. For us, our mission is to improve the shopping mall experience, but some well-meaning folks wanted to compare us to the various “post-my-look” fashion apps that are out there. Some of these apps were kind of cool, and it becomes easy to think that’s what you should be doing also. It’s not, and we’ve rededicated ourselves to being the best in the world at what we do, and let those other guys do that other stuff.” 

Mark Zuckerberg. (Photo by Robert Scoble via Flickr.)
Mark Zuckerberg. (Photo by Robert Scoble via Flickr.)

Would you rather have Gates, Jobs, Zuckerberg or Bezos in your corner: “Zuckerberg. Amazon is an incredible e-commerce company, don’t get me wrong, but it is hard for them to partner with retailers. They really want to own the transaction and the customer themselves. Our focus is really on bringing the power of the online experience to people who are out shopping at the mall. The greatest challenge for us is getting the word out about how great an experience Cart Blanche is. Facebook has 163 million users in the US and does extremely well with our core demographic of young women, so a partnership with them would certainly be nice.”

Our world domination strategy starts when: “Millions of women start checking the reviews on Cart Blanche before every purchase at the mall in the same way they check Yelp or Urbanspoon before trying a new restaurant.”

Rivals should fear us because: “We do not think small. We are building a platform and team that is the best in the world at creating mobile shopping communities around the mall experience. Unless you have that same level of focus, you are not going to beat us.”

We are truly unique because: “We have combined the mall with a social networking platform in a totally new way. Not even Facebook gives every dress its own page. We do.”

The biggest hurdle we’ve overcome is: “The data problem at the shopping mall is really hard. It is why many companies are afraid of the space. There are a ton of SKUs, lots of retailers and, of course, the database turns over every 2 months as new merchandize comes in the store. Our approach has been to embrace, rather than fear, the complexity and turn it to our advantage. We now have over 100,000 items in our database, and we add new items every single day.”

What’s the one piece of advice you’d give to other entrepreneurs just starting out: “The only way to learn how to build your product is to build the product. Meaning, you have to be willing to go attack the problem even if you don’t have all the answers yet. If you are working on a real problem in a big and growing market, and you surround yourself with smart people who understand both technology and the space, you’ll find solutions. But you have to you keep at it, and not lose focus.”

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