Like Blippy, Tophatter is a social shopping product. The vision, according to CEO Ashvin Kumar and COO Andrew Blachman, is to bring a fun, personal touch back to online auctions — the closest equivalents, Kumar said, aren’t sites like eBay, but instead the Home Shopping Network and QVC.
“We didn’t start with auctions, we started with fun and entertainment,” Kumar said. “We were thinking about the real-world experiences — where do you get that feeling? So we decided, ‘Let’s put everyone in a room together.’”
So Tophatter tries to recapture the live auction experience — the auctions can be held in a variety of virtual rooms, the attendees each have their own avatar, and they can talk amongst each other, as well as with the auctioneer. There’s even a little wooden paddle to signal the bids.
To be honest, when I heard the description, my mind immediately went to those underwhelming virtual conference rooms that I see everyonce in a while, but it turns out that’s not what Kumar and Blachman had in mind. Instead, the Tophatter design is loose and cartoony, with lots of fun little touches — for example, you can scroll to the sides of the screen to see what’s happening around the auction itself.
And the iPhone app is a natural extension of the experience. After all, in order to bid on an item you have to actually be in the room (virtually speaking) — live interaction is a key part of the experience. So an iPhone app allows you to keep up with the auctions when you’re away from your computer. You can even browse items that are going up later, set up reminders, then receive a push notification when the auction starts.
Tophatter has been working quietly on the site for more than a year, and it has built up a highly engaged community. When the team showed me the website last week, there were several of auctions going on at once, and each room seemed to be full of people. The same was true when I downloaded the app this afternoon. Part of that is because Kumar and Blachman said they’re trying to control the supply-and-demand, so that there aren’t any empty rooms.
Kumar said that more than half a million bids were placed in March, and a sellthrough rate of 80 percent — in other words, the vast majority of products that go up for auction actually sell. (eBay’s rate is reportedly 40 percent.)