The entrepreneur with a ‘Vishion’: Give people the power to shop by color

It was one of those purchases that confirms you have officially reached adulthood — a big, beautiful, expensive bed.

Sam Smith, co-founder of Vishion, and her husband were graduating from futons and hand-me-downs and redesigning their bedroom. That bed, from Reinvented Charlotte in South End, was the focal point — a total splurge.

To celebrate the milestone, the couple went to dinner at Kindred in Davidson. They spent the evening talking through what they would buy after they trashed the rest of their bedroom furniture. Her husband looked at the Kindred bar — painted a distinct shade of green — and wondered aloud if they could find nightstands in just that color.

“I started Googling ‘green nightstand,’ and you realize you don’t really know what the word would be for that shade of green. And I’m one of those people — and I think this is a natural entrepreneur inclination — who tries to fix things when they don’t work right,” Smith recalls.

That was the beginning of what would become Vishion, a mobile application that will allow customers to shop by color across hundreds of retailers when it launches next year.

The Vishion concept is built to solve a few key issues in the retail space: For one, 85 percent of shoppers say color is the primary reason for purchasing a certain product. On top of that, 46 percent of shoppers have returned purchases because of color-related issues. And then there’s the 55 percent of shoppers who have abandoned a purchase altogether because they weren’t sure they could find an item that would match.

“Seeing that there was nothing really available and knowing that there are so many new technologies that would allow us to accomplish this goal more easily, I thought this was the perfect time,” Smith recalls.

She was working as the VP of customer experience for Virtual Strongbox, another Charlotte startup, at the time and halfway through her MBA program at UNC Charlotte. She decided to take the four weeks before her next semester began to decide if her idea was worth pursuing. She went to every startup event she could, read books, researched the market and pitched her idea to anyone who would listen.

At the end of those four weeks, her decision was made. In August of 2017, she left school and started building Vishion —quietly, at first, cranking before work, after work and on weekends. By September, she’d enlisted Michael Benning to join her team as co-founder and CTO. Not long after that, she brought on Kayce Hunt to serve as co-founder and head of finance. She also put together an impressive board of advisors, which includes current and former executives from Houzz, Microsoft, Nordstrom and Apple.

“I really figured out where my weaknesses were, and when I brought my co-founders in to tackle them, I asked them the same question: ‘In your realm, what are your weaknesses?’ And we built our board accordingly,” Smith recalls.

On March 1, Smith left Virtual Strongbox and took Vishion from side hustle to full-time job.

So how will Vishion work? Say you bought a yellow jacket, and you want to find something to go with it. You upload a photo of the jacket to Vishion, and the app will identify complementary clothing items in complementary colors. The technology will take into account user preferences and gender identity and will show you the pants, shoes or blouses that will work well with that particular shade of yellow.

But therein lies a problem: The colors you see online rarely look like the colors as they are in real life.

So Smith partnered with a color data company called Color Solutions International to help correct the digital representation of those colors across retailers.

That presents a potential revenue stream: Brands can pay Vishion and CSI to help with their color identification process and better depict their products online, which could help lower return rates. Vishion is also working with CSI to better predict color trends — another benefit to retailers looking to be on the cutting edge, rather than two steps behind.

In the near term, Vishion will make money when someone clicks on a product from the app or makes a purchase. The company will also make money based on impressions — or the number of times a product shows up in someone’s search. Smith never wants to allow brands to pay to show up higher in search results, preferring to keep that sacred, but she does envision an opportunity for brands to pay to be among the product suggestions listed in the app.

That concept is resonating: Vishion is a finalist for a $50,000 NC IDEA SEED grant (the recipients are to be announced in early May). Smith is competing in the pitch startup battle at the Collision Conference in New Orleans next week. And Vishion is a finalist for the 2018 New Ventures startup accelerator.

Smith has also been making the rounds, pitching to investors. She’s not raising capital yet, but she is building her network and laying the foundation for when she is ready for funding.

The process has been challenging.

“A lot of people who we speak with don’t realize this is such a big issue until they speak to women,” Smith explains. “Women understand this problem so easily, so that’s probably been the hardest part for me: communicating this problem to men.”

At the end of the day, most investors are men. Women make up just 8 percent of partners at the top 100 venture firms and 22 percent of angel investors nationwide. So she’s adapted her pitch and style accordingly.

“One thing I really set myself up for within this last month is to be grilled by people,” she says. “How do I change my messaging to match the individual?”

At the same time, she’s working to change the status quo.

Recently, Smith teamed up with two other Charlotte-based founders to create Collective Hustle, a networking organization meant to bring together female entrepreneurs and investors in the Queen City. The first event is taking place May 23 at Hygge’s Camp North End location.

“We are creating an environment to discuss how the collective can help our region become the most prestigious area to start a company, and we are focusing specifically on inclusion and how we can help female and minority entrepreneurs in Charlotte,” she says.

All this because she wanted to find the perfect nightstand to go with her brand new bed — which, by the way, she returned. When she decided to go down the entrepreneurial path, a big, beautiful bed became a luxury she could no longer afford.

“We sleep on a mattress on the floor,” she says with a laugh. “My parents keep offering to help and I tell them, ‘I’m going through my entrepreneurial experience. Let me have this!’”