Tinder for AliExpress: Thieve curates products online

Thieve is an unusual retailer in that it doesn’t actually sell or manufacture anything itself.

Instead of selling things, Thieve curates a selection of products, offers links to the Aliexpress sites selling them, and clips the ticket on each successful referral it makes. Founder Tim Scullin explains more.

Scullin started Thieve as a side project last year while running an agency called Launch Agent. It arose out of a fascination with the Chinese uber-retailer, and has grown fast over the last six months.

Scullin’s Auckland-based team of five now treats Thieve as a “main client” of Launch Agent. We asked him for more details about what Thieve is, how it works, and what he’s got planned for it.

Tell us about the arrangement you have with AliExpress that makes Thieve possible.

We are a member of the AliExpress affiliate program, which means when someone clicks through from Thieve and buys something, we get a small commission on the sale.

How was AliExpress to deal with? Was the company difficult to contact?

They’ve actually been really easy to deal with. It was just an application and review process for us to join the affiliate program, but as we’ve grown bigger we’ve had some great chats with senior Alibaba members who actually reached out to us.

Can you explain how the goods are selected?

We have about 400 photographers, designers, bloggers and other creatives who curate products for the site. Initially curation was limited to only our team and the curators we had invited, however we have recently opened up the ability for anyone to submit a product via the Thieve Chrome Extension.

Once a product gets submitted it actually goes through a few steps before it makes it to the front page. First it needs to be approved by a team member, to make sure it meets our quality and style guidelines. We make sure we like the product aesthetically, then check the product and supplier ratings, check review comments and photos, etc, before approving.

Once a product gets approved, we’ll let users vote on it via Thieve Swipes (our Tinder for AliExpress game), and then the most popular products make it out to the front page.

So anything you see has actually been pretty well vetted before it’s published.

What’s your target market and demographic? The site seems planned to appeal to a global market, but the offering is pretty clearly targeted at young people.

From day one it’s been a global approach, with most of our traffic coming from the USA, followed by New Zealand, Australia, Canada, the UK, etc. Which is interesting because AliExpress is actually biggest in Russia, followed by other European countries.

We’ve definitely curated an aesthetic that appeals to young people, but we have a lot of fans of all ages. I think AliExpress is also more popular among young people which probably changes the type of products that are popular and have a lot of feedback on AliExpress.

I can see a few themes coming through in the goods offered – gadgets, homewares, jewellery. The offering is also quite trend-led. Is there a conscious directive to focus on anything in particular or is this all up to your curators?

Curators can add whatever they like, but one of the factors when deciding if something gets approved is the value. And as items are being shipped individually, some types of items seem to work out better. Small and light is definitely AliExpress’ sweet spot. So there's a lot of accessories, jewellery, clothing, gadgets and electronics on there.

Also products that get published need to get through the community vetting process, so ‘trending’ products are more likely to get published.

Thieve Swipes is an innovative idea. Tell us more about that?

Haha, yeah. Well, one of the guys in the office was big on Tinder, and we thought it would be funny if could do the same thing for AliExpress products. So we hacked it together in one weekend, and launched it the next week and it went really well. We thought it would just be fun to play, but the feedback we were getting on products was so valuable we now use that to decide which products to publish to the homepage.

Every day there are thousands of swipes, so we can post a new product and within a few hours know whether it will be popular or not.

Tim Scullin.

How’s the uptake been?

Really good, we started the site as a side project last year, and it has grown organically with no advertising at all. Most of our traffic comes through people telling their friends, which is always a good sign that you’re onto something.

Thieve as a business seems quite automated – is it as low-maintenance as it looks?

We wish! The day to day running of finding products and reviewing submissions isn’t too much work, but we’re focusing on building out new features and tools with most of our time.

We just launched a Chrome extension and have a few more things in the works launching 2017!

What’s been the hardest part about setting Thieve up? What about the easiest?

The hardest part was launching something we thought was amazing, then realising there were 100s of things we needed to improve to make this thing work. The easiest part was the logo.

What’s the next step for Thieve?

We’re looking to launch an app in 2017 as well as support for language and currency switching. Very exciting!

This story first ran at The Register.