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Fancy's plan to know what you want before you do (Q&A)

Joe Einhorn is trying to create a post-Amazon world in which social shopping rules and images replace keywords.

Fancy CEO and founder Joe Einhorn

The social-media darling Pinterest is a not a site Joe Einhorn likes to talk about. In fact, Einhorn seems almost annoyed when I lump it together with his startup, New York-based Fancy. Sure, there are similarities: both sites offer ways for people to create streams of images they like -- rather, "pin," or "fancy" -- from around the Web. But Fancy has something more: a growing revenue stream.

Fancy, which is backed by an all-star cast of investors that includes Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes and Twitter and Square co-founder Jack Dorsey, added a shopping tool in February. This lets brands sell the products that users are Fancying. On Pinterest, you can drool over a picture of a pair of boots. On Fancy, you can buy the boots you're drooling over. You can do that on the Web, through mobile apps, and in 17 different languages.

The upshot? The number of registered users on Fancy has climbed fivefold to more than 1 million, and Fancy's now doing $50,000 a week in sales. It's all part of Einhorn's dream of creating an e-commerce giant on par with Amazon.

I recently caught up with Einhorn.

Q: You've had big celebrities -- Kanye West, Bar Rafaeli, even Mark Zuckerberg -- using Fancy. You've gotten great press. Yet your user base only really took off when you helped people spend money.
Einhorn: There is a lot of excitement around self-expression and curation and discovery on the Web, and there are a lot of great sites that do cool stuff with it. But the use case that is really catching on -- where we have seen growth in getting people to register -- has been since we launched the ability to make items available for sale and for consumers to have an all-in-one-place shopping experience. All other growth now is really tied towards that.

Why the need for new e-commerce businesses?
Einhorn: I love to shop in real life, and I wanted to make something that feels like going to your favorite store. When I go to the Apple store, it's an amazing experience. I see the coolest stuff and I'm am able to buy it there. But when I go to the Web, I don't get that experience. Apple's my favorite company, but even Apple's own Web site is not really a joy to shop on.... We've seen lots of disruption from the Internet, but commerce still hasn't really been disrupted other than one company, which sort of has no competitors and can move at the pace it wants to move.

You're talking about Amazon, which is a powerful place for merchants to sell their wares.
Einhorn: Today, these are the main options merchants have: They can have their own Web site with traditional e-commerce, and that's convenient for shoppers and people who know what they want. And you can sell on Amazon, and many do. But certain high-end fashion brands are not, and Amazon is mainly keyword-based commerce. Ours is a different medium. With us, if you see demand for products you sell, or for products like yours, you insert yourself in and try to sell against it.

Fancy's app Fancy

Explain how brands sell on Fancy.
Einhorn: Merchants and brands will come into a given post and say, 'I want to sell here.' They create a merchant account. They create a listing, and they can add images, some description, and pricing the way they would if they had an online store. The listing then goes into a queue. Right now, we vet everything because we want to make sure it's something relevant or high quality.

Once that goes live, when a person places an order, the merchant manages everything through an admin counsel. And we introduce the buyer to the seller over e-mail. That's really important. If I'm a fashion company and I sell a product in Barney's, I never meet that customer. But when they sell through us, they'll get their e-mail, phone number, and that money minus our 10 percent commission.

What sorts of products are selling best?
Einhorn: The categories where we do a lot of stuff now are fashion, gadgets, and housewares. And we just launched a service -- and you'll now see a new button -- that says, 'Make it for me.' That's for things you can't buy. We've plugged in with Zaarly so you can put in a request for someone to make those cupcakes or do that craft. We will be selective as we roll it out. If it's something that's buyable, we of course won't do it.

What about Pinterest as a competitor?
Einhorn: I don't know what Pinterest has these days. I know that big sites get a lot of traffic. Look at Stumbleupon -- it can drive a lot of traffic to e-commerce sites and sometimes that converts to orders.... I love all these sites, but it breaks down for me when I can't buy on it. Tumblr already did all this, but the problem was I could ever act on what I saw. We want to let people discover the items and buy them. Or when you see a travel destination on our site, you can book the trip there.

At the end of the day, this is a Web site that I wanted to see.... We're just trying to make things the way we want them to be. I realize that this social self-expression curation has given birth to a thousand wannabe inspiration-board sites. But if you try to look at us from the lens of this guy wanted to make a newer version of Amazon, maybe you'll see us in a little different light.

But couldn't Pinterest turn on the shopping part?
Einhorn: Building a marketplace is really hard -- not just technologically but filling it with buyers and sellers and having things that people want to buy and sell. We have a unique DNA here. Anybody could do anything.

Also, when you look at all these social networks, just because you find the implementation of clipping items from other sites similar, it doesn't meant that the reason people are there is the same.... People say, "What if Facebook does something similar?" I don't think people use Facebook for this purpose.

So who are your main competitors?
Einhorn: We want to be competitive with whatever your favorite store is in your favorite city. I'd also say that online, we're inspired by Amazon, which is a $100 billion public company that is a convenient all-in-one shopping experience. The difference is Amazon is keyword-search oriented and we're about finding out about cool things through people who have great taste. We're trying to extend what we think is a dated keyword-search paradigm into something that is more modern.

Say more about that.
Einhorn: With our system, you are seeing products in the stream, direct from people with great taste you admire, so you are not really shopping on your schedule, you are shopping on theirs.

I think about it like the movie "Minority Report." The way shopping works now is you know what you're looking for. You're searching for black boots or you're on a site and it's broken down by category. I want to plant that seed in your head a month before you realize you need those black boots, and I want to sell them to you by the time that you need them. We're trying to figure that out. Just as "Minority Report" was the precrime, I want to get you as preshop. We want to be the precrime of shopping. That's the dream.