Voila, a startup building infrastructure for social commerce, is bringing concepts from the Chinese e-commerce market to the US. The company offers an alternative to the “link in bio” solutions used by creators today, such as Linktree and Beacons, which direct followers to creators’ social profiles, personal websites, and other recommendations. Rather than a list of links or a landing page, Voila creates AI-powered customizable, shopable storefronts by automatically detecting items in creators’ online content and then generating shopable links.
With more than 10,000 creators signed up for the service, Voila today announced the closing of its $6 million Series A led by Sinovation Ventures and joined by Fosun Rz Capital. To date, Voila has raised $7.5 million, including from investors SOSV and Artesian.
Voila founder Ke Shang first moved from China to the US to attend college. He later joined a machine learning team at Google, thanks to his math background. But Shang was always interested in how to improve American e-commerce with technology.
For example, Shang recounts how he was once inspired by a joke on the TV show “The Big Bang Theory” to build a tech-enabled shopping tool. On the show, the character Penny asked the strange genius, Sheldon, to make something that would allow her to take a picture of a shoe she liked in order to immediately know where to buy it.
“Sheldon thought it was stupid,” Shang says. “But I thought this was a great idea – I could just browse all the content and immediately discover all the shopping options. And if you could tell me the best deal, it would be even better.”
He eventually experimented with the idea by building a large database of shoes by scouring online shoe stores like Zappos, DSW, and others, then used deep learning to train a model that would allow users to find shoes similar to those on their photo. The project was not really commercially viable, but led Shang to the creation of Voila.
Today, the founder explains, online creators act as the connector between the product and the consumers. But often, their followers who want to buy the item in question have to leave the social media app and go to Google to search for the product. And if the product has gone viral, it’s possible it may already be out of stock by the time you come across the photo or video that prompted you to buy it.
Voila offers an improved solution. While it will allow creators to enter the exact URLs for the products featured on their social media accounts, the secret sauce is how it can automatically compile a comprehensive list of recommendations. To work, creators connect their Instagram or TikTok accounts to Voila, which then scans through their content to detect items and generate affiliate links. As part of this process, it uses machine learning to also analyze the scene to suggest other relevant items to add.
That is, in addition to the specific product that the influencer suggested, Voila can generate a list of similar products at different price points and also generate affiliate links to those items.
“We like the lifestyle of certain influencers or celebrities, but we can’t afford those styles,” explains Shang. “That shouldn’t stop our pursuit,” he notes. “You have options. It’s just a way to make sure everyone finds the right thing and increases content-inspired sales from the creators.”
And if an item is sold out at one store, Voila can find it at another store.
It may also suggest items to accompany the purchase that are not in the photo or video. For example, if the influencer wore nice sunglasses on a warm, sunny day, Voila could suggest a moisturizing face mask in addition to the sunglasses.
To train his model, Voila crawled about 50 million fashion and style photos and learned north of 300 different attributes related to clothing items.
The products are showcased on online storefronts that creators can customize with their own text, colors and links. At the back, it provides creators with analytics detailing their store’s engagement, audience demographics, and more.
Since its launch in late 2019, Voila has signed up more than 10,000 creators to its service. More than 70% are located in North America, about 20% in Europe and the rest are from parts of Asia. Unlike some “link in bio” solutions, Voila’s service is free to the creators – there’s no freemium tier with a push to upgrade to a premium plan.
Instead, Voila works with affiliate marketing programs Rakuten and CJ to create the creators’ links that can be linked to a database of approximately 3 million products. The revenue comes from taking a percentage of the revenue the platform generates. Voila won’t reveal how much it earns, citing the early stage of its business and its competitive landscape.
Shang ended up fundraising for Voila after he got stuck in China after flying home to visit family just before COVID hit.
“I was detained there for two years,” he says. “But when I was in China, I wasted no time. I built the team. I was also able to pick up two rounds: a pre-Series A round from a small investor and a Series A round from current investors.”
Today, Voila has a team of 40 people, including former employees of Alibaba, ByteDance and Rent the Runway in both the US and China. The company is now looking for a CMO.
Shang, who is currently on the East Coast, is preparing to move to California to be in a better time zone for communicating with staff in China.
“I haven’t been able to sleep for 3 hours every day. I can’t do that anymore,” he notes.
With the additional funds, Voila plans to expand its user base and devote more of its resources to its database.
“That’s really the hardest job, and I think that’s the key to our success,” Shang says.