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mark evans

For Tara Hunt, it all started with a black skirt.

In 2007, Ms. Hunt, an enthusiastic online shopper, was searching for a black skirt but couldn't find one that met her exact needs. Google produced too many results; asking friends on Twitter generated few results, even though Ms. Hunt has a large following.

It led her to conclude that one of the problems with online shopping is that there are too many options but too few clear choices. It also got her thinking about how to create a way to discover the perfect black skirt.

The idea continued to percolate after Ms. Hunt moved to Montreal from Silicon Valley in 2009. That is when she met Jerome Paradis, who was thinking about creating a startup that personalized and filtered online content. Realizing their ideas were focused on solving the same kind of problem, they decided to work together.

The duo turned into a trio when Cassandra Girard returned to Montreal from New York, where she had been working with many retail brands. Their discussions gathered momentum and, by mid-2010, they had thrown themselves into creating a startup focused on making shopping easier.

The result is Buyosphere, an online service where people looking for specific items can ask questions, and then have them answered by in-the-know shoppers. For example, someone could ask where to buy high-quality, brown men's dress shoes for less than $100, and a member of the Buyosphere community could steer them in the right direction.

Ms. Hunt said Buyosphere is trying to address questions a search engine is unable to handle, particularly when the parameters around a product change. She said, for example, a skirt can not only be black but have pleats, be mid-thigh or have more of a wool blend.

"No search engine can understand that," Ms. Hunt, Buyosphere's co-founder and chief executive officer, said in a recent interview. "We're solving the problem of going through endless choices but not having enough clear choices when shopping on the Web. We believe humans are still necessary in the search realm. Algorithms are great when you know what you're looking for, but human beings can 'grok' the nuances of what you're looking for."

Buyosphere's biggest challenges are creating a big enough community with enough supply (questions) and demand (answers) to become valuable and useful. The service not only has to make shopping easier and a better experience, but Buyosphere needs to spread the word to attract both buyers and advisers.

Last month, Buyosphere raised the capital it needed to validate its concept by attracting $325,000 in seed financing from Real Ventures, and private investors Jesse Kaplan of Seek Capital Ltd., John Granger of Grassfed Capital, David Chamandy of Machkor Holdings Ltd., and Thomas Merlin.

Ms. Hunt said that, while Buyosphere is making a small amount of revenue from affiliate sales, the business model being considered a cost per lead model, under which retailers would pay a fee to answer specific questions. The idea is that if a retailer or supplier answered someone's question, the shopper might be inclined to make a purchase.

So far, Ms. Hunt, a well-known marketing consultant, said Buyosphere has been a learning experience.

"This is the first thing I have actually built. I came in thinking I had all this knowledge and stuff I had built, and realized I didn't know what I was getting myself into," she said.

"The startup world is so different than consulting. You have to think about marketing in a different way. I thought I had a bit of business acumen from building a consultancy but maybe the only thing I brought into this venture was a good level of risk-taking and the ability to hold on for my life when things are not going so well."

Special to The Globe and Mail

Mark Evans is the principal with ME Consulting, a communications and marketing strategic consultancy that works with startups and fast-growing companies to create compelling and effective messaging to drive their sales and marketing activities. Mark has worked with four startups – Blanketware, b5Media, PlanetEye and Sysomos. He was a technology reporter for more than a decade with The Globe and Mail, Bloomberg News and the Financial Post. Mark is also one of the co-organizers of the mesh, meshmarketing and meshwest conferences.

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