It is not very often that you hear about a rocket scientist turned entrepreneur. Even more rare than that is an ex-rocket scientist who decides to focus on the fashion/e-commerce world, but Tyler Spalding, founder of Chicago based Styleseek, fits the profile: he left what he calls “the best job ever“ to take on the responsibility and pressure that came with founding his own venture, a Pandora-like recommendation platform for men’s fashion.
Originally from Palatine, IL, Spalding returned to the Chicago area after ten years to build his company and take part in the city’s growing entrepreneurial community. After graduating from University of Illinois with a master’s degree in engineering in 2002, Spalding acted as a faculty member in the engineering departments at the University of Miami and University of Alabama (he has also lectured at DePaul and Kellogg), and later took various research and development roles with NASA, Lockheed Martin and the US Air Force.
Ultimately, Spalding joined MIT’s Sloan School of Management, with the sole purpose of preparing to start his own company. He describes his MBA as the best environment possible, surrounded by 400 motivated, smart individuals from different backgrounds, each creating his own experience. “I might have graduated with the lowest GPA possible. Never did a resume, never did a cover letter” Spalding said, differentiating himself from his peers “Had I been at Harvard I would have been kicked out.” Tyler decided he preferred to spend time creating genuine friendships and relationships, building a network that would help him further down the road, instead of working towards high grades.
Like most young entrepreneurs, Tyler has seen the web mature; unlike most, he is not new to e-commerce. During the dot-com bubble, around 1997, Spalding built and sold two websites where people could shop online. As the web has evolved, e-commerce has moved beyond showing products and filters and into more personalized experiences, and that is where Styleseek comes in. Through a consumer web application, Styleseek shows its users thousands and potentially millions of images, and by analyzing its customers’ interaction with the platform, the system returns images of recommended relevant products and direct links to the sellers.
From the early days of his company, Spalding, a self-proclaimed expert on machine learning, set out to create a lifestyle algorithm that would not intervene with its users privacy. “I truly believe in not following you around the Internet and scraping your information. Tell me what you want and I will find it.” One of the application’s most interesting features is that as you use their product, you create your own StyleDNA and then import StyleDNAs from other users, famous characters like Don Draper and even real people like Lebron James and George Clooney. According to Spalding, his software is really scalable; he jokingly mentions that it would take them a month or two to include IKEA’s entire catalog in his site and move to furniture or even other verticals. “We started with clothing because it is something people interact with every single day. We started specifically with men’s clothing because no one cares about it. Although we weren’t hiding it, no one was excited about it, so we got really, really, good while getting a strong core user base.”
Want to found your own startup? Spalding advises undergrads to be truly passionate. “Time is the most valuable asset you can put in. Anyone can be an entrepreneur! You fill find the way and mold yourself. Don’t be afraid, just jump right in and work smartly.“ He also recommends actively seeking out opportunities to network with early stage entrepreneurs who you can relate to, saying, “If I sat down with Zuckerberg, he would not really be helpful to me. I’d rather sit with someone like [ContextMedia’s] Rishi Shah.” The strength of your network is indeed one of your greatest assets when fundraising and building your product, but being able to direct a group and constantly innovate is also key.
“Entrepreneurs have a very unique talent, skill and motivation to see the future. Every day, I try to figure out where my business will be in six months, never being complacent with the present.”