Seattle entrepreneur acquires Sook, a software to tackle Amazon and increase small enterprise discovery

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Products from a variety of small businesses on the Sook website. (Sook Image)

To satisfy his desire to help shoppers better discover products from small businesses and to help those businesses compete against Amazon and other tech giants, Ryan Mulcahy did some shopping of his own. He came away owning Sook, a tool created in Seattle and aimed at solving the problem he was focused on.

Mulcahy acquired Sook this summer from Jonathan Sandals, a Seattle transplant who built his Google Chrome extension two years ago with the same small-business-minded plan to take on Amazon, Facebook, Google and others.

Sandals’ mission was to surface product listings from numerous small store websites in one place and make it easier to “browse online and buy from the boutique next door.”

Mulcahy is expanding upon that objective a bit. He’s gone beyond the browser extension to launch a full-fledged website, and the products and brands that are listed aren’t just from Seattle, they’re from smaller businesses across the U.S.

“Having people be able to purchase outside of Amazon and go directly to local is hugely important and it’s what we’re building Sook into,” Mulcahy said. “But when you think about it, if you’re buying something online, does it really matter that you’re buying local from Seattle, or would you be just as happy to support a small business in Los Angeles or in New York?”

Ryan Mulcahy. (Photo courtesy of Ryan Mulcahy)

Mulcahy is a former senior director of global sales and business development at Seattle-based Allrecipes, where he spent five years. He didn’t share how much he spent to acquire Sook’s backend tech, and he’s bootstrapping things right now. But he’s interested in pursuing venture funding. Sandals has stayed on as an advisor and a couple developers are providing help.

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Sandals believed he had a powerful narrative with Sook when it came to supporting local businesses and underdog brands in an easy way. But he was stuck on how to move forward and make it a vital service.

“I was a little like the dog who caught the car,” Sandals said. “I spoke to about five potential buyers and Ryan was the only one who had a clear, ambitious vision for the impact Sook could have in the way we discover small businesses we actually feel good about buying from. He saw potential in it that I couldn’t.”

The “small-batch brands” that Mulcahy is spotlighting are those that he says you normally wouldn’t find on Amazon, whether it’s because Amazon takes too much of a percentage of sales or, Mulcahy says, because if Amazon likes your product they “Amazon Basic it” and make their own. Peak Design, a company whose products show up on Sook, went viral with such a circumstance last year.

In avoiding Amazon, businesses often turn to Facebook, Instagram or Google, which also take big cuts of each sale.

Some of the businesses on Sook are bigger than a single neighborhood boutique, but much smaller than Nike, for instance. These include San Francisco-based Marine Layer, a casual apparel brand with dozens of brick-and-mortar stores across the U.S.

Sook displays product images, descriptions and prices across categories that lean heavily toward clothing and accessories. There are about 4,000 brands and small businesses and about 3 million products right now. The links go directly to the brand websites.

“We’re essentially a free phone book for them,” Mulcahy said.

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The plan is to scale to about 10,000 brands and 10 million products, and Mulcahy has some future tweaks in mind.

He’s going to add back in a filter for anyone who might want to narrow their search to just Seattle, or any other city. He wants to add discovery features such as “more like this” and “favorites” so that a shopper’s Sook will have some personalization.

The Sook logo. (Image courtesy of Sook)

The monetization plan will revolve around taking 10% from the brands’ affiliate programs, in which merchants pay websites to send them traffic. He’ll eventually add advertising, as well.

“Right now obviously the biggest thing is just making it a site that people are delighted by and they want to go back,” Mulcahy said. “We are building a discovery marketplace — where consumers, small businesses, small batch and upstart brands, can find each other without paying the 40% monopoly tax.”

Along with a tweaked look and feel, Mulcahy also designed a new logo for Sook. Orange in color, it seems to nod at Amazon’s own smile logo. The Sook version plays off the name’s two o’s to make them appear to be eyes.

“It’s a much different type of smile. Doesn’t look as evil,” Mulcahy said.

In addition to Sook, Mulcahy is also trying to get his own product off the ground.

Seizing on the work-wherever-you-want craze, Mulcahy is co-founder of theStand, a lightweight, portable desk that looks like a laptop stand on a tripod. No doubt the product is just the kind that could end up with a spot on Sook.

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