Interview: Kirsty Williams and Helena Ford, co-founders of DashHound

We recently caught up with Kirsty Williams and Helena Ford, who are the co-founders and engineers of DashHound. It’s a social commerce platform that empowers beauty consumers to make efficient, infallible purchase decisions.

The platform connects beauty enthusiasts, globally, with the products used by their online influencers. It uses edge machine learning techniques to enable the personalised tracking of influencers and the products they use.

TD: Why did you set the business up? 

KW: As strangers, and eventually roommates in Silicon Valley, Helena and I quickly bonded over our shared love of both Makeup and YouTube. Helena questioned the stash of barely used foundations on my dressing table to which the only response was “Beauty Gurus on YouTube had told me to buy them”.

No lie, this stash had travelled with me across the Atlantic! I was buying anything and everything to discover the perfect foundation for my skin. It was then that Helena shared the idea she’d had while studying for her Masters – a way to track what all our favourite influencers are saying about products in one place.

We would be able to quickly see who was using what, how often they were using it, and where to purchase it. With this shared problem, a problem no-one else was solving, and bitten by the infectious entrepreneurial spirit of Silicon Valley; we decided to build what has now become DashHound. We’ve since gone on to attract the attention of the largest US cosmetic retailer, Sephora, and secured a place on their Sephora Accelerate program.

TD: What problem is it solving? 

KW: There are too many pain points to count when it comes to making a purchase decision. Beauty enthusiasts are increasingly turning to social media to help with making cosmetic purchases and are overwhelmed with the masses of recommendations.

There are hundreds of thousands of online influencers creating a wealth of content that aids the consumer to make better-informed decisions. This vast amount of information spread across social media posts, blogs and articles, makes it almost impossible to keep track.

And, with more and more sponsored content, consumers are increasingly skeptical and demanding social proof. Beauty enthusiasts are currently resorting to taking screenshots and keeping random notes just to remember the products discovered. This process is time-consuming and often proves costly when blindly purchasing the wrong products.

TD: What makes your business unique?

HF: There’s nothing quite like our platform for beauty enthusiasts. Unlike other social commerce platforms on the market with a focus around products, we focus product discovery around influencers. With our patentable content automation technology, we can track any influencer and detect the products and brands mentioned from any source. This allows for a personalised, time-saving shopping experience.

TD: How does the platform work? 

HF: All someone needs to do to begin using DashHound is to sign up and connect their YouTube account. Optionally, the user can select influencers they already follow on YouTube, or, select new ones. The user can then start to see the products appear in their feed.

For the end user, it’s really about ongoing engagement that informs the individual about what products their influencers are using and whether or not they have used the same product in the past. Subtle features add social proof and clarify trending products within the individual’s network, as well as the community as a whole.

As a personal example, I subscribe to 60 beauty YouTubers, all for different reasons, some are daily vloggers that post monthly favourites, others post makeup tutorials. I log into my DashHound dashboard and I have custom feeds where I grouped similar YouTubers together. I can then choose a feed and see all the latest posts from the YouTubers in that feed.

I can see the products that a post mentions, see what others are saying about both the post and the products, and if I decide to – hit the purchase button and it will take me to a retailer in my country that stocks that particular product.

With preferences around when and how frequently you want to be notified DashHound will send a summary of the products mentioned by your influencers in the past week or whatever. Overall, our goal is to help beauty enthusiasts take ownership of their product purchases through personalised and unbiased information.

TD: What’s been your biggest success, and biggest obstacle? 

HF: Our biggest success to date has to be getting invited to participate in Sephora Accelerate in the US; a community of innovative female founders in beauty. Ten startups are selected each year to receive mentorship and an opportunity to demo to industry leaders and investors in Silicon Valley.

There have been plenty of obstacles. The biggest has been trying to be taken seriously as a Machine Learning company and not being referred to as another beauty blog or e-commerce site. As two females in tech and a chosen vertical with a primary audience of women, there is a difficulty that arises when pitching to male investors and breaking through the stigma around beauty companies.

TD: Where do you see your business in 5 years’ time? 

KW: In five years time, DashHound will be a global brand. We will be the leaders in empowering beauty consumers to make efficient, infallible purchase decisions. We will have delivered on our current defined objectives and be working towards new objectives set out by what we envisage the technology landscape being in the subsequent five years. We will continue to be a driver for change in the beauty space. We’ll be pushing the boundaries of Artificial Intelligence. We’ll be hacking.

TD: What do you think of Welsh tech? 

KW: Honestly, I was scared that deciding to quit our jobs in San Francisco and move back home would be the worst decision we’d ever make. I was petrified that we’d become cut off from the tech industry and forgotten about. I have to say, upon returning to Wales I’ve been blown away. The Cardiff Start community is one of the most active communities I’ve ever been a part of and it’s amazing to see the support Welsh tech companies are giving each other.

However, while it’s encouraging to see the number of tech startups in the area rise, we need to see the size of financial investment in these startups significantly increase if we want to see more of them competing on a global scale. There’s been 8 UK Unicorns, and there’s a reason 7 out of those 8 are London companies. If we want a Welsh TransferWise or Shazam, we need the right resources in place to make it a possibility.

TD: Do you have any advice for budding entrepreneurs? 

KW: While admittedly still learning a lot ourselves, there are a few things we’ve learned over the past year that will prove helpful to anyone else on the verge of pursuing a startup.

Focus on the problem. You will undoubtedly hear many contradicting pieces of advice, no-one is closer to the the problem than you, trust your gut and while taking into account the feedback, don’t be swayed by it. Your gut will steer you right. We learnt that one the hard way.

Go for it. It’s incredibly hard. You hear that so much but you don’t realise how hard until you’re actually trying it. You’ll say no more times than yes when your friends invite you to something. You’ll let many people down in order to execute according to plan. You’ll be flat broke, spending your Friday and Saturday nights writing code rather than socialising. All these sacrifices, when the odds of success are not in your favour – don’t let this phase you. If you fail – you learn so much, and open so many doors that the next time you start something it will be that much easier. If you succeed, it goes without saying – you beat the odds and made something people couldn’t live without. Just go for it! At the end of the day what have you got to lose?

Don’t waste time networking. Avoid conferences unless there’s a specific reason for you to attend. Don’t get swept away by the idea of a “tech startup” and all that goes with it; focus on your product – that’s all you need to be doing. Again, we learnt this one the hard way.

Think global. I’ve seen so many startups that have the potential to compete globally but don’t. They may be generating revenue, and operating successfully, but they fail to have the vision to reach that next level. Push yourself. Don’t limit yourself and think globally from the off.