Our guest is Barkha Saxena. Barkha serves as Chief Data Officer at Poshmark, a leading social commerce marketplace for fashion apparel and accessories. In her role, Barkha has spent the last six years developing the company’s data function and overseeing Poshmark’s team of data scientists, analysts and data engineers.

Join us as we explore how Poshmark built a community-driven social marketplace, the power of personalization and how the resale business model will lead the retail apparel sector toward a future of sustainable fashion.

Hosted by Julia Raymond
Researched, written and produced by Gabriella Bock
Edited by Trenton Waller

Episode 54 of RETHINK Retail was recorded on Dec 17, 2019

 


Hosted by Julia Raymond
Researched, written and produced by Gabriella Bock
Edited by Trenton Waller

TRANSCRIPTION

Julia Raymond:
Hi, welcome to another episode of RETHINK Retail. Today’s guest is Barkha Saxena. Barkha, it’s a pleasure to have you join the show today.

Barkha Saxena:
Thank you so much for inviting me, it’s great to be here.

Julia Raymond:
Barkha serves as chief data officer at Poshmark, a leading social commerce marketplace for fashion, apparel and accessories. Barkha, will you first describe a bit more about yourself and how you became the chief data officer at Poshmark and what you do in your role?

Barkha Saxena:
Absolutely. I’m chief data officer at Poshmark, I have been here for five plus years. I started in the company when we were small, like 35 people company and I was the first one to join in the data function and have spent last almost six years in developing the data function. And the charter of this function is to create the maximum value from the data for Poshmark and our amazing community. My team includes the data science machine learning data tools and technology as well as the data management, and my team, essentially just uses the different types of data technologies to build a variety of data products ranging from the insights to machine learning models to deliver faster and higher other way for the business teams it costs the company, from the use of acquisition, to marketing, to product, to operations, to working with the finance and even our CEO and again just making sure that we are using the data in the best possible way to continue to deliver tremendous value to our community.

Barkha Saxena:
And I have been in the data space for, I mean my entire career. I started in this data field when it wasn’t such a hot field and I started my journey in the financial technology and it’s after spending almost 12 years in FinTech and digital advertising, I was looking for this next big challenge and I was thinking about like, hey, I want to do something in the mobile social or maybe the eCommerce space. And Poshmark was just a perfect combination of all the three. But to be honest, what drove me to Poshmark was it’s the people I met, all the co-founders and it just felt like the company which will give me the intellectual satisfaction of doing something new, as well as I would work with the people who are just this fun team, and five plus years have gone by and I’m still having as much fun.

Julia Raymond:
Certainly and that sounds like quite the journey, 12 years in FinTech and then you know, joining Poshmark just a couple of years after it launched in 2011 and what are some highlights of working with such a fast growth company like Poshmark especially from the data side of things?

Barkha Saxena:
There are so many fun memories. I mean in six years we have seen like 10 fold growth to over 50 million users and seven million sellers. I mean if I look back, one thing is in the fast moving and startup, sometimes you don’t even realize the milestones you are hitting because you are just moving really fast. But when you look back, I mean think of it, I had joined this small company that like 35 to 40 people and we had a goal of building this resale marketplace for mobile, but mobile was really [invesent 00:04:15], it was just starting up. But Maneesh and our founding team believed and of course I bought in that belief was that is the shopping is inherently social.

Barkha Saxena:
So if we brought that social aspect to the shopping, it should have an impact. And from there, if you think of it like from the modest goal to, we have pioneered a new category of social commerce and our community has basically just, I would say it has … We had a belief that social commerce it will be a … people will find that social commerce very, very interesting and whatever the community and how it is so engaged is spending 23 to 27 minutes per day, it basically just had solidified that data, the idea our founder’s had was correct. People enjoy the social commerce a lot more than just buying the stuff and not having those social connections.

Julia Raymond:
Absolutely. And is that still the average time you’re seeing today is people are spending 23 to 27 minutes? Is that in your app or just in general?

Barkha Saxena:
In our app, in Poshmark, people are spending that much time and the 23 to 27 minutes goes, a lot of it is in the social interactions people are doing in the platform and it is very, I mean that’s a significant amount of time, but I think the reason people do it is because it’s not just the transactions. There are relationships being built in the platform. Like we have people who started their friendships at Poshmark, now they go and they meet offline. Like they travel, they fly to meet each other.

Barkha Saxena:
So Poshmark has really brought that social connections back to the shopping. And it is something, I mean if I think of my childhood, that’s how I remember the shopping to be. Like, we will go to the same set of shops and they will know our entire history even though they were shoppers and that was a lot more fun because it wasn’t just about engaging in a transaction, you were meeting people to build these social connections. And I think Poshmark has done a phenomenal job of bringing that social back to the commerce. I mean, people are inherently social and I think we just made the commerce a lot more fun.

Julia Raymond:
Absolutely. And it sounds like it’s a pillar of Poshmark’s brand is the community aspect.

Barkha Saxena:
Yep. And that’s why we are so proud, I mean you were asking me about the data perspective, the milestones. Right? In the last five plus years, I have the memories of bringing the entire team when we were hitting the milestones on like, hey, when we did our first 100,000, first 200,000, first million and similarly from the users. But the speed at which the milestones come is just amazing. Just in September we released a report that we have distributed our sellers $2 billion and one billion of that happening within just last year.

Julia Raymond:
Oh my gosh.

Barkha Saxena:
So the speed at which we are able to get from milestone to milestone and the success we are delivering to our community is its very satisfying. I mean, I’m very proud of working for the company which is creating so much economic opportunity for such a large community.

Julia Raymond:
And it’s definitely in line with some of the reports we are seeing about the trend of the secondhand market with stats that will reach 51 billion in just five years. Is that, why do you think secondhand is becoming so popular?

Barkha Saxena:
I would say there’re multiple reasons. First one I would say the stigma around the whole resale and the secondhand is reducing as people are becoming more conscious about the sustainability and there are platforms like Poshmark emerging where you can trust the things you will buy. And one of the thing I noticed definitely at Poshmark, the amount of inventory which you get exposed to because it’s curated by people that is just to us. Like you cannot go to any store and find that variety or worth inventory as you will find at Poshmark. At the same time-

Julia Raymond:
The return scale almost.

Barkha Saxena:
Exactly. And there is a, at least in the market place, like the way the Poshmark has built that community driven marketplace, a social marketplace, it is a lot of personal experience people get. So when you are buying and selling these things, it’s not that you are just buying this used item and you don’t know where it came from. You’re buying these things from people and every item has a story and you get to hear and feel and understand those stories as when you’re buying and selling from the real people. So I think bringing that people aspect to resale has also helped just taking the resale to the next level.

Barkha Saxena:
And the other thing I was going to say was again, the trust also which gets delivered by the platforms like Poshmark and the protection, right? When you buy things, the buyers are protected from the item will be what you are buying, or when you buy luxury items, we provide the authentication services so you can feel at peace that I am a buying a good quality thing.

Julia Raymond:
Right. Versus off, you know, Craigslist or Facebook marketplace or some of the older channels that people used to resale in online.

Barkha Saxena:
Absolutely.

Julia Raymond:
You mentioned sustainability, curation at scale, community and social aspects and then the trust. So those are all really good reasons I think why resale is growing at such a crazy pace. Like you mentioned a billion dollars in just 2019 on Poshmark. So what are some of the challenges or pain points that you helped Poshmark solve early on from a data perspective? Was it more user-experience focused?

Barkha Saxena:
There are many and just for that reason I had joined a startup, right? So we were still, I mean I was the first person to show up in the data world. But I will take a few examples. So the first one will be the time I’m sure is a very classic of any startup company. So when I joined Poshmark, we didn’t have that much data because part of the excitement of my role was to actually get the whole data infrastructure built. However though, whatever the data we had, there was a lot of confusion on it. So Poshmark is a very data driven company, which means every decision gets made based on the data. So you go to these meetings, in those early days people will come in, but they will have, they all have pulled their own set of the data, which they are interpreting in their own way. Same metric can be defined by two different way, by two different people. And the whole meeting they’ll just get focused on just trying to align on what is this metric and how are you analyzing the trends, which is not very efficient.

Barkha Saxena:
So the very first project which I engaged on was, we call it the project Newt, which really comes from the Harry Potter. If you are into the Harry Potter, which basically means lastly exhausting, bizarre test. And what we did in that project was I looked at data across all the businesses and what are the key metrics, give them a standard definition, coded them up in our data of systems and the [inaudible 00:11:59] of reporting and the visualization et cetera to make it a standard approach for how the data should be looked at. And that had such a phenomenal impact in making our meetings and the decision making so efficient, which we really need it because every hour counts in a startup board. And that product we are still using because we have more than more data but the need for standardizing and making sure that everybody is looking at the data in the same standardized way, it has a lot of value. So meeting focus on, you look at the data and then meeting focuses on the strategy of what we are trying to do as opposed to just arguing on the data.

Julia Raymond:
Sure. So increasing efficiency like you said and that project sounds like a huge undertaking. I’ve heard some people say just the data cleaning and organizing aspects of data science takes 80% of the time sometimes. So yeah, definitely and the fact that you’re still using it today is a testament to your skill in that area. So that’s really cool to hear, especially the visualization part. I love asking people from the data world this question because I think your view is a bit different than maybe people from the marketing side or the product side. Do you see personalization especially when it comes to the resale market as something that’s even possible?

Barkha Saxena:
Absolutely. And we have invested tremendously in that personalization. However, with a, I would say a little bit twist because our personalization also has the personal aspect to it. So it’s not just the data driven based on what you have shopped. The social is such a crucial part of that personalization that when we, in our different parts of our platform and experience we have used personalization in different ways. So for example, if you, so the very first place where we do the personalization is the people matching. So we are the social commerce platform so when you come to the Poshmark and even when you are here every day we are recommending you the people you should connect with.

Julia Raymond:
The client.

Barkha Saxena:
So we use a personalization approach to make sure we are connecting you with the people who we think you can build a meaningful connection. Two of you have some common themes around the fashion and the style and different things you might like and we use of course the footprint of the data you are living in the platform as well as historical data we have, but we make that recommendation of the people very personal to you. Similarly, in our feed as well as the shopping, like when you are searching for an item, you are browsing, we send you these emails to recommend people and recommend items. We use personalization to make sure that we are delivering you the content, which is very unique to you. But even in those algorithm, the social connections you have made in the platform play a huge role to make sure that we are exposing you to the content to which resonates with you. It’s not just from the commerce perspective, but again we are very focused on building the social connections in the platform.

Julia Raymond:
And sounds like that’s probably, we could say one of the competitive advantages of Poshmark is the social platform you’ve built as a foundation.

Barkha Saxena:
Absolutely. I mean I do think that we are what our community … we exist because of our community and the social connections are just strengthening this community. Like we do all these events, like there’s a Posh fest once a year conference and we do this Posh parties multiple times where the people actually travel and these are the in person meetings and in person events. So people meet each other and it’s just amazing to see how people really are tied in those social connections and they are even helping out each other. So the sellers in our platform, theoretically they can be competitor, but every time I have witnessed a conversation, I have found them to be helping out each other.

Julia Raymond:
And you allow for some customization too from the seller’s point of view with branding and all of those opportunities for the store.

Barkha Saxena:
Absolutely. And similarly the personalization tools which we have offered to our sellers so that they can actually have their own personal connections built. So the sellers have tools where like, let’s say there are buyers who are connected to them, they can make them like the public or the private, the discount. So offer them different things to close the deal. So we do the personalization, but we also offer these tools to our sellers so they can actually offer a more personal service to the buyers.

Julia Raymond:
Yeah. So it sounds like personalization from both sides, the seller platform and then also the buyers with the people matching that you do on the backend. And then also the emails you send based on searches they’ve made and their feeds.

Barkha Saxena:
We do have the standard recommendation which few hear, like the everyday, I mean we are sending out these emails and the push notifications which we call the just picked for you. That’s the classic recommendation engine, ML driven based on your interaction with the platform, we pick a certain item which you think that will be interesting to you.

Julia Raymond:
So your recommendation models and I’m guessing are those proprietary, do you guys have …

Barkha Saxena:
Yes, we have built them internally and I think the main reason is because every algorithm we have built, it has a very strong component of the social and that is so unique to Poshmark that we can’t use off the shelf. I mean we used them as a starting point but then we have to customize it because the social is something which is so critical to our platform that we have to customize any algorithms to fit it for what Poshmark is.

Julia Raymond:
And it seems like Poshmark was a bit ahead of their time. Launching in 2011 to fast forward we’re almost in the new decade. So having those recommendation models and other custom models you’ve built, which are learning over time and have the social component makes it very strong it sounds like.

Barkha Saxena:
Yeah. There are so many things I mean, I would think that we have pioneered in so many ways. Like I remember in my early days on the user acquisition side, right? Like any other startup, we spend enough energy and the resources in acquiring new users. And just the standard definitions of the CAC to LTV then to work for Poshmark, because our users do not give us the value just because you make the purchases. When you create listings in the platform that has value when you share items that have value, when you interact with each other that has a value. So in the early on, we’ve worked on coming up with a more holistic definition of how we should be measuring the value of a user.

Barkha Saxena:
And the one interesting thing which I learned as you are looking at those users and the value and how those cohorts shape over time, it was so interesting to see that how the cohort curves looked so different for Poshmark as compared to, I would say a traditional eCommerce company or the traditional social companies. Because what happens is that as a social or commerce working together, our user cohorts join and just like any other cohort, there’s some decay in the big thing, right? But as we are bringing the new users in the platform as well as enabling the newer connections among existing users, we will see the user cohort rejuvenating. That is something very unique and you don’t find that often that the cohorts to go over time. And in the beginning, it took us, because we were piloting the social commerce but it took us some time before we exactly understood how to measure and define it from the data perspective.

Barkha Saxena:
So, in the beginning, we just used to call it Poshmark love effect because that got to be it, right? That people are just so happy and engaged in the platform that we see this rejuvenation and go out of order user cohorts. Now, of course from the data perspective, we have mapped the social connections and we understand how the cohorts who go to the social and the commerce journey together behave over time. But all that has been a very exciting work. But another example of how any concept we take, we have to modify it and customize to the uniqueness of Poshmark.

Julia Raymond:
And it sounds like you called it the Poshmark love effect at first before you mapped out basically how the cohorts or the cluster grew over time.

Barkha Saxena:
Yes. We are all about love. The love is also one of our core values, like of one of the four core value is the first one is lead with love. So we are all about love, which makes sense because this is the company who is building the love and the social back to commerce.

Julia Raymond:
And it also ties in with a pre-loved items. Right? Because that’s a pretty common phrase when it comes to the resale market as well. And how do you see, I know you guys also have some luxury items and they’re verified on your end before they’re sent to consumers. And do you think the luxury market is, you know, the demand for discount luxury goods will grow based on the data that you guys are seeing?

Barkha Saxena:
Absolutely. I mean, if you think of it luxury items just naturally have a longer life than any other fashion items. So resale just is a very natural fit for that category. And we have seen like the growth on the luxury recent market. Just like this holiday shopping, just to give you an example, we saw that the Channel earrings year over year growth was almost 230%.

Julia Raymond:
Oh wow.

Barkha Saxena:
And the Moncler puffer jacket, they had a year over year growth of almost 100%, so in one year it doubled.

Julia Raymond:
That’s amazing.

Barkha Saxena:
So we are definitely seeing a growth and it kind of also, if it makes sense from the economic perspective as well, right? The availability of the platforms like Poshmark where you can buy a luxury item with peace of mind. It has made luxury affordable to a larger population. So people are able to buy that very expensive item at a discounted price, but they still know that hey, it’s a good quality and it is what I am buying. So definitely I expect the luxury market to continue to grow. I also think that it will eventually have the impact even on the overall luxury. So the two things are just going to feed on each other, right? So luxury resale is growing, which is making the luxury more affordable to a larger population. But at the same time, even for the premium luxury, like the first time purchase, people will start looking at the purchase and the cost of that item by factoring in that, hey, I can resell that item back.

Barkha Saxena:
So let’s say it is a $2,000 handbag, you might have hesitated in buying because hey, I don’t want to spend $2,000, it’s too much. But then if you know that, hey, I can sell it back for a thousand dollar in the platform, your cost of ownership reduces. Which means that the demand for the luxury will go because you can get actual monetary value out of it when you are done with that item. And I think the two are just to feed on each other, they’ll actually will grow and along with that, the resale will grow and because resale is growing … So I would say it’s a positive spiral which is kicking off because of the options like Poshmark where you can buy luxury with peace of mind.

Julia Raymond:
And I love how you just described that because it makes so much sense when you break it down in that story you’re telling, which is so reasonable because in the past there weren’t a lot of easy ways to resell your luxury goods. You know, maybe you go to your local consignment shop or you know, post on your social media accounts. But now it’s so easy to just snap some photos and post it to Poshmark and get in connection with you guys and resell knowing that the value will be there because of the demand that’s feeding into it both ways. So I love how you described that. Is there, as we’re looking into the future, do you think sustainability is a trend or do you think this is something that’s here to stay?

Barkha Saxena:
In my opinion, I think it’s here to stay. People are very passionate about it and I think people have been, it just that now there are avenues to be able to express it and also engage in it economically. So I mean if you think of it, most of the fast fashion has been criticized lately, like for the sustainability practice and we are starting to see the traditional retailers evolving to become more sustainable. We see so many examples of these retailers exploring the partnership or trying to build their own version of the resale platform so that they can change their positioning from like hey, this fast fashion to sustainable fashion. I mean Neiman Marcus invested in Fashionphile, which is a pre-owned eCommerce company, which is focused on luxury handbags and accessories. And most recently, I think just a couple of weeks ago, I think I vetted with the [inaudible 00:26:12] that is launching an in-house resale program.

Barkha Saxena:
So I think there is a lot more effort and the awareness of sustainability and I think it’s a great thing. It’s here to stay and I think a lot of innovation will happen in just making these programs just better and better. I mean, I think that Poshmark was again just ahead of time in like even when like we were not talking about sustainability, that’s what Poshmark was offering. Even the fast fashion items, were getting recycled at Poshmark instead of showing up in landfill and we are really proud of it, that we were ahead of the game, even in offering sustainability.

Barkha Saxena:
Our community is very passionate about Poshmark because they have seen Poshmark delivering that value. You know, I’m a mom of three and I hate to throw things in the garbage or like I’m done with this, but now to Poshmark like all these cute clothes I have, they actually find a home and get used a second time. And that’s just personally very satisfying. And honestly I sell it at Poshmark, not … I mean, honestly money is a very small part of it. But just seeing that, hey, my kid wore this dress and now somebody else is going to wear it as opposed to me just throwing it, it’s very personally satisfying. And so I think even when I had those thoughts, I don’t think I was thinking sustainability exactly with that word, but the idea was there that I just hated throwing things in the garbage.

Barkha Saxena:
And now there’s a place where somebody else actually finds value and they can with all the comfort can buy these items and use them and have fun in that buying process. Because when people have bought things from me, they actually tell me that, oh my son wore the tuxedo in a wedding. And it just amazing. It just makes it so much more personal when somebody shares how that piece of cloth got used. So along with the sustainability, I think these items are also getting a story built and we as a human, we love positive stories. So I definitely think sustainability is here to stay because it just resonates with human basic nature.

Julia Raymond:
It really does. And the meaning, like you said, it extends deeper than just getting some money back, right? For your clothing purchases. And I wanted to just end this on a note asking you, Barkha, what you’re excited about for this new decade and what are some of the things that maybe Poshmark is doing or that you’re personally doing that excited about?

Barkha Saxena:
Yeah, absolutely. So a few things. First of all, I don’t know if you saw it, but Poshmark became international this year. So we went into Canada in this June and we also went beyond just the fashion category. We launched home market. So I am looking forward for the tremendous growth in launching newer categories and also going internationally because again, the social commerce is what’s everywhere. Human beings are the same, people want to have fun and the personal experience in shopping. So that’s coming and I’m very excited about that. We are also constantly just working on finding a new way for people to create more and more engaging content at Poshmark so that people are engaging with each other. I won’t go too much into detail into what that is, but that’s coming out soon and I’m very excited about that.

Barkha Saxena:
We are of course continuing to invest in our machine learning driven product recommendation that people mentioned the algorithm, we have long way to go and as our community allows us to learn more and more about what they like, we want to be able to use that to continue to make Poshmark even more enriching experience for them. We are also thinking more and more personalization into our communication channels. So the way people are interacting with each other, the way Poshmark is interacting with our users. So a lot more exciting things coming on that next year. And of course, I mean I had to spend my five years building the data infrastructure, which is scaling beautifully as Poshmark is growing, but it’s a journey which is not going to end. We will just continue to build out with a goal to make sure that our community continues to get better and better experience with Poshmark with time. So I’m looking forward to next year.

Julia Raymond:
Me too. And I’m excited, you know, expanding internationally opens new doors for products that might not be as available to people in certain countries. And so I’m really excited to see how that goes. Also with the home goods, home market that you mentioned and just some of the other interesting stuff with engaging on the seller side and the buyer side and the recommendation models. So really great stuff. Barkha Saxena, thank you. Chief data officer at Poshmark, loved hearing from you today and thanks for joining.

Barkha Saxena:
Thank you for inviting me.