Joy Tang was a folk and pop singer and a children’s TV show anchor in her native China. Now, she’s turned her creative skills to fashion technology. The 31-year-old Chicago entrepreneur’s startup firm, Markable, developed visual-recognition technology to identify an item of clothing from a photo, then let people buy that item or something similar from another brand via a free app. With six employees, Markable recently opened its technology headquarters in Chicago. Tang spoke with reporter Sandra Guy of the Chicago Sun-Times. An edited transcript follows.
Question: You came to Chicago in 2007 to take a job as a high-frequency trader after graduating from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology with a bachelor’s in math and economics. At the trading firm, you tracked social media and fashion bloggers on one of your eight computer screens. How did you make the leap to starting a company and developing an item-recognition algorithm?
Answer: I thought about the idea for a year. I’d see photos of fashions on Instagram and Twitter and think, “OMG, that is so pretty. Where do I get that?”
But I didn’t quit my job. It took me and a team of computer-vision scientists and engineers two years to create the science behind Markable and to set up partnerships with 800 retailers in the United States.
The technology’s accuracy rate for a product is over 85 percent. From a financial point of view, I knew never to invest more than 30 percent of your savings in high-risk assets. A startup is a high-risk asset. I invested much less. I put in $50,000 to start — enough to do a demo.
We started with fashion retailer Akira here in Chicago. We now work with retailers such as Macy’s, Neiman Marcus, Free People, Forever 21, Shopbop, Express and Banana Republic.
Our core female shopper is 25 to 35, professionals and young college graduates who have disposable income but want trendy clothes, reasonably priced. The average purchase price is $40. Chicago is one of our top 10 markets.
Q: How are you making money?
A: The company takes a cut from the retailer — 5 percent to 25 percent of the purchase price, depending on the amount shoppers purchase.
Also, I appeared on the Chinese TV version of “Shark Tank,” called “I Am Unicorn,” and made a $1.5 million deal with one of the five investors. That happened in December 2015 but didn’t air until March. Our audience-vote ranking among e-commerce startups on “I Am Unicorn” this year is still No.1.
We’re doing a round of [investor] funding now.
Q: You’ve just signed exclusive deals to let crowds at fashion shows in Chicago (the Midwest Fashion Week show Oct. 19-22), New York and Los Angeles pre-order outfits they’re seeing live on the runway. How does that work?
A: It’s called Markable VIP, aimed at high-income people who will at the fashion shows.
Markable is the only platform to let people use smartphones to take photos of styles they see on the runway and pre-order from the designer. You can put 50 percent down and pay the other 50 percent when it’s shipped. The designer hasn’t made it yet. You are literally ordering from the runway.
Q: Why the name Markable?
A: You just mark any photo online, and we show you the products that we sell pictured in the photo. The name also sounds like a tech company.
Q: What do you do for fun?
A: My husband is doing his residency as a doctor in neurosurgery. We are obsessed with watching “Game of Thrones.”
We’re also health freaks. We enjoy doing outdoor activities like hiking and camping. When he’s not around, I like karaoke.
For relaxation, I like modern classical music. When I’m working out, I’m listening to hip-hop. My favorite workout is definitely yoga. I like dancing a lot. I do hip-hop dancing.