Wesley Tansey just wanted to surprise his girlfriend. The 27-year-old Ph.D student in machine learning at the University of Texas at Austin was searching for a pair of sunglasses seen on the TV show "Twilight."
"My girlfriend at the time really loved Bella's sunglasses," he said. He searched online for hours but couldn't find anything close to the pair Kristen Stewart wore onscreen. "Geez, I'm trying to give someone my money," he thought, "But no one would take it."
The girlfriend may be gone, but a business was born.
Tansey and his friend, Scott Werner, have created Curvio.com, a site which aggregates the clothing and accessories worn by actors in top shows and provides users with links to lookalikes they can purchase. “See it. Love it. Buy it.” Curvio combs through each program episode by episode. Want that sexy black dress Megan Draper wears singing to her husband, Don, on “Mad Men”? Curvio found it. That short, black wig Kim Kardashian wore to look like her mom? Bingo.
"We want to be the IMDb of products,” Tansey tells CNBC. “There’s all this data floating around Hollywood and no one is organizing it.”
Why hasn't this been done already? Tansey says some have tried in the past — Microsoft, TiVo — efforts which failed because they assumed people would want to shop on their TVs. "People don't want to shop on their TVs," he says. "They're engrossed in the shows." However, with new technology, people are watching TVs while using their iPads, or they’re streaming programming online. Shopping while watching this way is catching on because "it is less of a jarring experience...you can still be in the show."
Tansey and Werner launched Curvio.com in February with $10,000 to $20,000 of their own money. He claims the site gets thousands of hits a day, and its user base is growing 50 percent every two weeks. They have partnership deals that allow them to collect a cut of revenue on about 40 percent of the click throughs to merchandise which is then purchased, but Tansey claims he’s not currently focused on the money. “I know, it sounds cliché.”
Hunting down lookalike fashions "as seen on TV" takes a lot of work. Tansey says he's hired seven buyers, some as far away as Thailand, who have proven they can find good approximations of onscreen fashions in a timely manner. He's also hired four people for his content team. The good news is that word has spread, and he says Curvio.com no longer has to hunt everything down. Brands are coming to him. Currently the site is adding one new TV show every couple of weeks, "but we plan to add a ton of shows in the fall."
Tansey says the company chooses which shows to ad by using Google Adwords and finding out which programs get the most fashion searches. The most popular show so far has been "Gossip Girl", and the most popular item has been Serena's iPhone case. "We've sold 100 of them."
The next step in Curvio’s business plan is to build a platform for brands to sell clothing seen on TV directly through the site. The company also wants to provide tools for costume designers to create looks for shows that can be immediately sold online. Beyond that, Tansey wants to put his Ph.D to work. He wants to open up the product placement market, which he currently values at $4 billion and only covers about 1 percent of all products in TV shows.
Tansey says being able to analyze what items are searched for, and where the best placement is within programs, "opens up a whole new set of analytics" which he hopes to capitalize on. This is something advertisers and networks could be especially interested in as people increasing skip traditional commercials.
All this analysis, all this work, for a website to help people find Sue Sylvester's green track suit? Shouldn't Tansey be going to work for Google or Apple? "I want to be the next Google or Apple," he replies.