Home The Art Of Technology And Vice Versa: Polyvore’s Jess Lee

The Art Of Technology And Vice Versa: Polyvore’s Jess Lee

ReadWriteBuilders is a series of interviews with developers, designers and other architects of the programmable future.

Six years ago, while working for Marissa Mayer as a product manager for Google Maps, Jess Lee developed the hobby that would eventually become her job.

Growing up, Lee aspired to one day draw Japanese manga comics, but her parents convinced her to get a computer science degree instead. As an adult, Lee channeled her creative impulses into Polyvore, a social network she joined in 2007 that allows users to curate “sets” of images, usually clothing and home goods, into artistic compositions. Manga and cosplay outfits feature prominently in her earliest sets.

But Lee didn’t stop at her own compositions. She dug up the email address of Polyvore founder Pasha Sadri and barraged him with detailed ideas for new site features and tools. Sadri wasn’t irritated; in fact, he was impressed with Lee’s thoroughness, comprehension, and empathy for Polyvore and its users. He hired her soon thereafter. Four years later, she was the company’s CEO.

What makes Lee, 30, a true builder is her willingness to learn and do anything—from coding to sales to management—to help Polyvore grow. While she still loves to create art on Polyvore, her greater passion these days is to extend a platform that allows her users to do their best creative work as easily as possible. 

ReadWrite: Could you offer some background about Polyvore’s mission regarding its technology?

Jess Lee: We believe e-commerce was pioneered by a lot of categories. Digitals and electronics. The way we shop for those is very different than the way we shop for lifestyle products. Stuff you want to wear to express your sense of style.

So for me Polyvore is a chance to—rather than me making the art, [it’s] making the canvas and the paintbrushes and empowering all these other artistic people, and that’s what is interesting to me. We mainly build technology, but it’s that technology that allows other people to be creative.

We wanted to do something different. We wanted to give people a way to express their own style. Our goal is to empower everyday people to have a voice and show off what they want to wear and put in their homes. So we built the platform Polyvore. It’s inherently social and we want it to be the best place to discover and shop for the things that you love.

We have 20 million people who visit the site every month. They make up our passionate, engaged user community. We drive a lot of traffic to retailers, and people shop a lot through the site. The average they spend is about $200.

ReadWrite: How does your computer science background inform your leadership at Polyvore?

JL: My background is that I’m a product manager. Great product managers are the people who, in addition to driving the product vision and coordinating across the company, they’re the people who catch the things that fall through the cracks.

A lot of times you have to make decisions, prioritization decisions, based on bang for the buck. How useful is this feature going to be divided by how much time it’s going to take to build it? If you don’t know what the buck is, if you don’t know how long it’s going to take to build, you might make the wrong prioritization decision.

So I think good PMs, if they have the technical background, they can do that calculation in their heads because they’re familiar with the code or have a CS background. 

That’s something that has always been useful for me. Because if we need to prioritize one product strategy, one product feature over another—because I have a CS background, as does most of our product and design team, we’re able to think about that, and it helps us make our decisions.

RW: Since it deals exclusively with fashion and beauty, outsiders might not take Polyvore seriously. But what’s going on under the surface?

JL: Polyvore is a platform built on pretty powerful technology. We do a lot of work under the hood. Our goal is to make it simple, beautiful, and effortless—and hide all the complexity from the user.

So we’re ingesting millions of products every month, classifying the images as, say, a shoe, or a lipstick, or a chair. We want to make sure we provide good product recommendations, so we need to understand what the product is and what makes one product similar to another. Which isn’t just its color or shape, it could be its style. We have a lot of data about taste in order to make those recommendations.

On top of that, we have things like the Polyvore editor [the tool people use to fashion their stylish compositions]…. It’s a drag and drop interface, both on the app and the desktop, so [a priority is] making that feel stacked and clean using JavaScript or Objective C. A lot of interaction design details go into that.

RW: Do you ever find yourself taken less seriously as a CEO since your startup deals mostly with women’s interests? Are people ever surprised by your technical know-how?

JL: Yes, I think sometimes people are surprised. The thing that personally bothers me is that people should be encouraged to work on things that they’re personally interested in. It makes work so much more fun.

I love art. I like fashion. It’s not often that I have a job where I get to do that, plus combine my computer science background. I think that means this is exactly what I’m supposed to be doing.

RW: So what are some of the technical challenges you’ve dealt with at Polyvore?

JL: Recently, expansion. We’ve always been a platform, but we’ve been growing and expanding across new devices, making the move from being a desktop-only site to having an iPhone app, and then trying to shift toward being a mobile first company. That’s one of the changes we’ve had to make over the last year.

Building up that iOS knowledge in house, for example. And figuring out how to design for the iPhone. It’s a very different design paradigm and also a different release process. 

RW: We’re both anime and manga fans. How do your creative pursuits influence the way you run Polyvore?

I came out of the Polyvore community, which has a very strong love of self expression and art. Some of the early sets I made were art in addition to fashion. I think I’ve got a couple of cosplay ones in there, too.

So I think [in terms of] “always putting the users first,” since I came from that community. Also, that’s something they taught us at Google: “At the end of the day, you need to make the users happy, that’s the only way to be a sustainable company.” So I think that’s definitely influenced me.

I think Polyvore is unique in that it has a little more creativity and artistry, even though it is also a shopping platform, and that’s something I’m personally passionate about.

One of my favorite things about Polyvore is that we build technology and a platform that is almost like a blank canvas. And then all our users fill it with their creativity. It’s like a blank canvas that they paint on, and that to me is really interesting.

You know at some point when I was younger, like in high school, I wanted to draw graphic novels or write manga and be an artist myself, and my parents, who are Asian were like, “No, go be a doctor or a lawyer.” [Laughs.] So I went into computer science. 

So for me Polyvore is a chance to—rather than me making the art, [it’s] making the canvas and the paintbrushes and empowering all these other artistic people, and that’s what is interesting to me. We mainly build technology, but it’s that technology that allows other people to be creative. 

Even the design of the site is inspired by art galleries. The sets, the content our community makes are incredible. We really think of them as works of art, so we want to make sure that our design fades into the background a little, the way that the walls of an art gallery are plain and white and simple, and it’s the art that draws your eye.

RW: Polyvore began in 2007, so it’s ancient in startup years. How do you think the technology you’ve created has helped it to sustain itself?

JL: What we’ve always been very good at is trying to keep things very simple on the surface. Designing our technology and our code in a way that’s pretty scalable and allows us to be nimble. A good example I can think of is that all of our UI [user interface] consists of components. So all the pieces you see on the site, the interface, every piece is designed as a small component that is assembled together, like puzzle pieces. 

What that allows us to do is make a lot of pretty rapid changes. And it also frees up engineering. Rather than having a process where you put together a pixel-perfect Photoshop mock, and then hand that off to an engineer, and they have to, for each page, hand tweak anything.

Instead, our UI consists of systems and objects. You can make a change in one place and it changes everywhere and it also forms into a design that is pretty simple. So that’s allowed us to iterate rapidly on the interface and make new pages and new types of changes pretty easily while also enforcing consistency and simplicity. 

RW: What’s on the horizon for Polyvore?

JL: There are three things we’re focused on:

  1. New vertical. Expand beyond fashion. We’ve always planned to do that, to go beyond fashion.
  2. New devices. Growing beyond the iPhone. 
  3. Internationalization. Right now we are only available in English and we want to grow the audience outside the U.S.

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