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Maven Exchange CEO Jess Waldeck. (Maven Photo)

Maven Exchange wants to be the accessory you pair with online shopping.

The startup, founded by Seattle marketing vets Jess Waldeck, Michael Kimmons, and Marcus Tewksbury, helps shoppers earn a commission when they recommend products to friends online. It’s a win for retailers, who know recommendations are a powerful marketing tool when harnessed.

“Unless you are already a very successful blogger or have a commissioned sales position, there isn’t an easy way for you to earn money by recommending products,” said Waldeck, Maven’s CEO. “We looked at that and asked, ‘How do we enable sharing in a way that benefits everyone: not only the friend who gets great advice and the retailer who gets a new customer or sale, but also the person making the recommendation?’

Users create lists of products (like Pinterest boards) from retailers in the Maven Exchange network. They can share them on social media channels and Maven’s site. When friends click the link and buy the product, the “maven” earns a commission.

“Our goal is to give everyone a fun and easy way to earn by recommending products and services they love to other people,” said Waldeck. “People who have great taste or shopping expertise, ‘mavens,’ can earn doing something they already love doing.”

We caught up with Waldeck for this installment of Startup Spotlight, a regular GeekWire feature. Continue reading for his answers to our questionnaire.

Explain what you do so our parents can understand it: “Maven lets people earn money by recommending products and services.”

Maven boards.
Maven boards.

Inspiration hit us when: “We wish that we could say Maven came from an epiphany one night and work began the next morning. I can’t imagine this is the case too often. We actually began our business experimenting with an online personal shopping prototype focused on tackling conversational commerce. Through this experience, we found a market segment with highly specific expertise interested in sharing and helping others. The prototype failed to provide these users a mechanism to earn at scale. We asked ourselves – ‘How could we cultivate this passion and provide these users a more scalable way to earn?'”

VC, Angel or Bootstrap: “Bootstrap. We have chosen to personally invest in our business to prove that we have market/product fit. That will let us approach investors with a more compelling opportunity that is clear and that has lower risk, with the investment focused on growth.”

Our ‘secret sauce’ is: “Personal referrals are the number one influencer of retail purchase decisions. Before Maven, these recommendations weren’t rewarded. Now, our users can earn real money by recommending products and services. Not only does this drive retailer revenue but creates valuable user generated content from a trusted peer relationship. These recommendations are authentic and sincere, creating not only an earning tool but an asset for our business.”

The smartest move we’ve made so far: “Choosing to do less so that we can do what we focus on well. We see a wide array of opportunities for our business. But in order to ensure our members have a great experience, we’ve maintained a focus on our core customer group and the features in the site they need for success. This has enabled us to deliver a great experience in the site and build loyalty.”

The biggest mistake we’ve made so far: “Overinvesting in ‘early’ ideas. Though a great learning experience, we invested time and money in a prototype for an early idea that was not successful. The lesson learned was to calibrate the level of investment with the level of validation.”

2016-05-10_13-18-18Would you rather have Gates, Zuckerberg or Bezos in your corner: “That’s a tough choice for us. We’re retail focused but social media is our channel. What if we get both Zuckerberg as well as Bezos in our corner?!”

Our favorite team-building activity is: “It seems to be sharing cute baby pictures! People on our team seem to all be growing their families. So, we’ve had a lot of baby pictures shared on email and chat. I think it’s slightly competitive!”

The biggest thing we look for when hiring is: “Employees at Maven have diverse backgrounds and areas of expertise. It is an absolute strength for us. When we’re hiring, we look for skills and competence. But we’re also looking for people who are comfortable engaging in discussions with strong and varying perspectives along with the ability to embrace and execute on the direction set once the decision is made.”

What’s the one piece of advice you’d give to other entrepreneurs just starting out: “Startups are exciting and challenging. One challenge is understanding priorities. If everything is a priority, nothing is. So, know what stage of development your business is at – from seed to startup to growth and expansion. Each stage has its own set of goals and priorities. For us, that has helped focus on the right things. And, it also puts successes and failures in the right context which makes it easier to manage through the inevitable ups and downs of a startup!”

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