‘The best VC on Instagram’ is now VC-backed

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About 18 months ago, Jenny Gyllander created an Instagram account by the name @thingtesting.

The premise was simple. Gyllander, who was at the center of the London startup ecosystem as an investor with the British seed fund Backed.VC, would upload photos of interesting direct-to-consumer products with a caption that served as a bite-sized review. The experiment began with Birchbox, a provider of curated boxes of beauty products that rose to prominence amid the subscription box hype of yesteryear. In her short review, tailored perfectly for the Instagram generation, Gyllander admitted to being “like 10 years late to this much hyped subscription-everything party,” adding that “after two boxes and ten products, only three products were relevant to me.” Her honesty, and perhaps more importantly, her brevity, garnered her a small following of venture capitalists, founders and consumer brand enthusiasts.

 

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Since that first post, Gyllander has featured and reviewed more than 100 products on her Instagram account — which today counts 32,800 followers — quit her day job and began building an Instagram inspired, full-fledged review business.

“I found something I am very, very passionate about,” Gyllander tells TechCrunch. “Finding the D2C niche was for me a little bit of a holy grail. It’s where brands and startups align for the first time in a concrete way.”

With a $300,000 pre-seed investment from angel investor and Homebrew co-founder Hunter Walk, who previously called Thingtesting “The best VC on Instagram,” early Spotify investor Shakil Khan and more, Gyllander wants to create a full-scale D2C review platform with a team of reviewers and content creators, and a portal for her loyal followers to write and submit their own reviews. She compares what she envisions for Thingtesting to that of Rotten Tomatoes. Akin to the popular website for movie and television reviews, each product review on her future website will include a Thingtesting score and an audience score. The goal is to help consumers shop smarter and filter through the D2C noise.

“People are confused right now by the sheer amount of products launching,” Gyllander said. “I want Thingtesting to be a filter for people to consume better … It’s a role department stores used to have back in the day but no body has really filled that role in the online world.”

Gyllander, already making money from what was once a side project, has plans in store to generate significantly more revenue. Currently, she’s capitalizing off Instagram’s Close Friends list, which the social media hub launched last year to allow users to share content to fewer people. Gyllander, like a slew of other Instagram Influencers, however, quickly realized an opportunity to monetize content using the feature, a trend explained in detail in a recent report from The Atlantic.

Gyllander charges a lifetime fee of $100 to her followers hoping for a spot on her Close Friends list. Those followers are then provided exclusive content, including behind-the-scenes looks at her product review journeys. So far, 300 people have been granted access to the exclusive group as others sit on the waitlist. Gyllander explains she hasn’t green-lit every request to enter the coveted group because she wants to maintain a sense of community as the account grows in popularity. Early next year, she hopes, she will have launched a Thingtesting website and a new subscription-based membership tier targeting D2C connoisseurs, investors and anyone interested in a front seat view of the booming D2C industry.

As Thingtesting morphs into a digital review platform and expands from the bounds of Instagram, Gyllander will have to work harder to differentiate what she’s built from other review sites and D2C blogs. Her secret weapon, she believes, is her authenticity.

“It’s my honesty,” Gyllander said. “And it’s the fact that there’s no payment involved from the brands and that I’m not being paid to review products. That’s something quite rare in the Instagram world today. There aren’t that many accounts that are just talking about new products with non-monetary incentives.”

 

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Since launching with a review of Birchbox, Gyllander has shared her thoughts on Magic Spoon, a D2C cereal company: “one bowl kept me full for hours,” she wrote, ultimately concluding she wouldn’t continue eating the cereal. More recently, she referred to the D2C aperitif brand Haus as “stunning;” wrote a lukewarm review of the blue light-protecting eyewear brand Felix Gray; and posted a glowing summary of Dripkit, a D2C coffee brand.

To secure a spot on Gyllander’s grid, a product must bring something new to the market, as well as boast killer branding and packaging. The former VC says she tries out about 20 products a month and shares official reviews of four or five.

“The majority of people today, when it comes to modern brands, they have their first interaction through an ad or an influencer telling them about the product,” Gyllander explained. “Discovery is in a weird place right now when it comes to the general consumer.”

It’s difficult to imagine a venture-scale business within Gyllander’s vision for Thingtesting. But one should never underestimate the value of an exclusive and hyper-focused network. Gyllander, in a short time, has created a meeting place for D2C aficionados and venture capitalists and, as she’s proven, her thoughts are worth paying for.

Startups Weekly: Part & Parcel plans plus-sized fashion empire

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Hello and welcome back to Startups Weekly, a weekend newsletter that dives into the week’s noteworthy startups and venture capital news. Before I jump into today’s topic, let’s catch up a bit. Last week, I wrote about Stripe’s grand plans. Before that, I noted Peloton’s secret weapons

Remember, you can send me tips, suggestions and feedback to kate.clark@techcrunch.com or on Twitter @KateClarkTweets. If you don’t subscribe to Startups Weekly yet, you can do that here.

Startup spotlight

The best companies are built by people who have personally experienced the problem they’re attempting to solve. Lauren Jonas, the founder and chief executive officer of Part & Parcel, is intimately familiar with the struggles faced by the women she’s building for.

San Francisco-based Part & Parcel is a plus-sized clothing and shoe startup providing dimensional sizing to women across the U.S. The company operates a bit differently than your standard direct-to-consumer business by seeking to include the women who wear and evangelize the Part & Parcel designs by giving them a cut of their sales.

Here’s how it works: Ambassadors sign up to receive signature styles from Part & Parcel, which they then share and sell to women in their network. Ultimately, the sellers are eligible to receive up to 30% of the profit per sale. The out-of-the-box model, which might remind you somewhat of Mary Kay or Tupperware’s business strategy, is meant to encourage a sense of community and usher in a new era in which plus-sized women can facilitate other plus-sized women’s access to great clothes. 

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“I bought a brown men’s polyester suit and wore it to an interview,” Jonas, an early employee at Poshmark and the long-time author of the popular blog, ‘The Pear Shape,’ tells TechCrunch. “I was that kid wearing a men’s suit.”

Clothing tailored to plus-sized women has long been missing from the retail market. Increasingly, however, new brands are building thriving businesses by catering precisely to the historically forgotten demographic. Dia&Co., for example, raised another $70 million in venture capital funding last fall from Sequoia and USV. And Walmart recently acquired another brand in the space, ELOQUII, for an undisclosed amount. Part & Parcel, for its part, has raised $4 million in seed funding in a round led by Lightspeed Venture Partners’ Jeremy Liew.

The startup launched earlier this year in Anchorage, “a clothing desert,” and has since grown its network to include women in several other underserved markets. Given her own history struggling to find a fitted woman’s suit, Jonas launched her line with structured pieces, including suits and blouses — though the startup’s biggest success yet, she says, has been its boots, which come in three different calf width options.

“Seventy percent of women in this country are plus-sized,” Jonas said. “I’m bringing plus out of the dark corner of the department store.”

This week in VC

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Image: Bryce Durbin / TechCrunch

Must read

TechCrunch’s Megan Rose Dickey published a highly anticipated deep dive on the state of sex tech this week. The piece provides new data on funding in sex tech and wellness companies, analysis on sex tech startup’s battle for public advertising and responses from industry leaders on how we can destigmatize sex with technology. Here’s a short passage from the story:

Cindy Gallop sees a market opportunity in every type of business obstacle she encounters. That’s why All The Sky will also seek to invest in startups that tackle the infrastructural tools needed to fuel sextech, like payments, hosting providers and e-commerce sites.

“I want to fund the sextech ecosystem to maintain and sustain a portfolio for All the Skies, to create a bloody huge sextech ecosystem and three, to monopolistically build out the ecosystem to be a multi-trillion-dollar market,” Gallop says.

On my radar

I swung by Contrary Capital‘s Demo Day this week, in which a number of startups gave a 4- to 5-minute pitch. Next on my list is Alchemist‘s Demo Day in Menlo Park. The accelerator welcomes enterprise startups for a six-month program focused on early customer adoption, company development and mentorship.

Also on my radar is Females To The Front. The event began this week in Palm Springs and if I were based in SoCal, I would have swung by. Led by Amy Margolis, the event is said to be the largest gathering of female cannabis founders and funders to date. Here’s how the group describes the event: “Females to the Front Retreat will mix immersive and hands-on workshops, pitch training, investment deck preparation and business skill set education with investor meetings and plenty of shared meals, pool time, yoga, connections, rest and rejuvenation. Every workshop is built to directly engage attendees instead of powerpoint and panels. Be prepared to return home inspired, engaged and with so many more tools in your toolbox.”

For the record, I don’t advertise events in my newsletter just wanted to give props to this one because it’s a great development for the cannabis tech ecosystem.

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Time to Disrupt

We are just weeks away from our flagship conference, TechCrunch Disrupt San Francisco. We have dozens of amazing speakers lined up. In addition to taking in the great line-up of speakers, ticket holders can roam around Startup Alley to catch the more than 1,000 companies showcasing their products and technologies. And, of course, you’ll get the opportunity to watch the Startup Battlefield competition live. Past competitors include Dropbox, Cloudflare and Mint… You never know which future unicorn will compete next.

You can take a look at the full agenda here. And if you still need convincing, here’s five reasons to attend this year’s conference from our COO himself.

And finally… #EquityPod

This week, the lovely Alex Wilhelm, editor-in-chief of Crunchbase News, and I gathered to discuss a number of topics including WeWork’s IPO and Uber’s attempts to bypass a new law meant to protect gig workers. Listen here.