Tara Hunt speaks on The Unclear Path at TEDxConcordia. Photography by Eva Blue.
Tara Hunt is talking to me from her home in Montreal, overlooking the city as its overrun with Osheaga-bounds in pursuit of musical happiness. She’s prepping for the festival and we can’t stop talking about Fun., unanimously agreed upon to be one of the best bands of 2012. But we’re not here to talk about that. She just announced she’s about to pen her second book and her startup, Buyosphere, is set to re-launch from beta mode late this summer.
“We connect treasure hunters with treasure makers,” Hunt says about Buyosphere, but there’s actually more to it than that. Buyosphere serves more as a human search engine. Say you were looking for a sexy-but-not-too-sexy dress for a night out, a search engine would pull up regular Hollywood style hits, but Buyosphere engages a live audience of users that tend to recommend lesser-known within-budget designers, or sightings at stores such as Top Shop.
“The vision is that by doing this we’re going to get around the same old same old that we see in advertising, high Google rankings, the Apples, Amazons and the Macys of the world, and actually be able to connect people with emerging designers in their price range,” Hunt says.
Through research, Hunt began to recognize patterns of consumerism and, even more so, patterns of want similar to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. She was walking her dog when the ideas began so resonate in a self proclaimed Elizabeth Gilbert meets Ruth Stone moment.
Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love, gave a Ted Talk on your elusive creative genius. She describes meeting the late American poet Stone, who told her that when she was growing up, she would be out working in the fields when she would feel a poem coming at her from over the landscape like a thundering, earth shattering shake. When she felt it, she would “run like hell” back to the house as if the poem was chasing her to grab a pen and paper to write it down. Other times, she wouldn’t be fast enough and it would go through her and continue across the landscape, as she put it, to find another poet. Other times, she would catch the poem by its tale and pull it back into herself.
This is how Hunt found herself contacting her literary agent to pen a second book. Her first, the Whuffie Factor, has made Hunt a pioneer in online marketing. The book is a smart and funny look at how to use social networks to build business — one of the first books to cover this topic. “Whuffie” could be used interchangeably with klout; it’s the idea that social capital is the currency of the digital world. The book is in the top one per cent of book sales.
But Hunt didn’t know this.
She thought she had given everything she had to her first book. When people asked her about writing a second she told them she’d “rather eat razorblades.” Then through Buyosphere she started to realize that consumerism and status were not necessarily linked to luxury, but rather a positioning within culture. Her book will pull together the sciences and psychologies of consumerism and put them in a perspective of what this can do for a brand’s image. She uses Warby Parker as an example. The glasses company has become huge with hipster style because they position themselves as a fashion-forward brand, but at the end of the day they’re actually a charity.
“The book is a culmination in everything I’ve learned from the time I was in university and interested in the culture, fashion and consumerism of everything to my experience with fashion startups and technology,” Hunt says.
In her talk, Gilbert also describes the inherent risks of creativity, the expectations of the creative and the resulting impact this can have and has had on the mental health of writers since the beginning of time. She describes how in order to survive; writers need to separate themselves from the genius that is the “maddening capriciousness of the creative process.”
This is something Hunt has felt in both her entrepreneurial and author endeavours, which have uncanny parallels as in both cases “you build something from nothing,” you pitch to investors, you release it into the world and wait to see how its received. In Hunt’s own Ted Talk, she discusses the importance of being a delusional dreamer with an unbreakable spirit, someone who’s audacious and makes mistakes and is miserable yet happy. She talks about these things because she knows what its like to want something so bad that it becomes you. She knows what its like to not be able to pay rent at age 37 and to keep dreaming anyway. She knows what its like to experience extreme highs and lows in a single day then wake up and do it all over again — on purpose.
“A switch is flipped in some of us and once its switched you can’t go back,” Hunt says. “I think you’re born a certain way, with those innate qualities and that desire to change the status quo. You become an entrepreneur when you actually take that leap. That’s when the audacity kicks in. You can already be a delusional dreamer but remain in a job that’s stable. But the switch gets flipped at some point.”
Hunt sees patterns and turns them into disruptive movements that change things forever. She cofounded the now international coworking movement, shared workspaces so common and essential in the entrepreneurial community now that it’s hard to imagine life without them. Even me, I spent a year working for in the Centre for Social Innovation, a coworking environment that allowed me to be a part of something bigger even though I was working on a writing project. It’s why Fast Company called her one of the most influential women in technology and why she’s spoken at more than 150 conferences on entrepreneurship’s peaks and valleys.
“Its such a great feeling to build something from scratch, but its not for the timid,” Hunt says. “There are a lot of tears, frustration and self-doubt that happens between that blank page or that url with nothing on it, and when you start to see things in bold. The second piece of turmoil is right before it hits the shelf or you hit the launch button. Now is the time for judgment. The amount of times I stumble is embarrassing, but I’ve gotten past it and I’ve learned to stick to my guns and listen to my gut.”
So I asked her, you could do anything, you’re smart, well known and ambitious, why stick with something that many compare to a dangerous lover?
“It’s like a bad habit, like smoking,” she says. “You shouldn’t be sneaking that cigarette and you know its bad for you, there are serious consequences involved if it goes the wrong way, but it feels so good in that moment. When you’re not doing it or you avoid it it’s on your mind and it makes you cranky. It’s more an addiction than a lover.”
If all goes to plan, Buyosphere will launch August 31 and Hunt’s new book will be released sometime next year.
Sheena Lyonnais is Toronto Standard’s Tech and Business Editor. You can follow her on Twitter at @SheenaLyonnais.