Private investment firm Comvest Partners acquires the financially troubled e-retailer, which filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in March.
If she has her way, My Virtual Model’s Louise Guay will change not just web retailing, but the web itself.
Few technologists can claim to have had a direct impact on the way the Internet is used. Since its inception, the Internet has been a collaborative venture, with a few break-throughs-like the browser-changing the way people use the web. But mostly the web has been an accretion of ideas and uses as someone had a good idea and someone else improved upon it.
But that’s not the case with Louise Guay. While her name is not as well known as Marc Andreessen, who perfected and popularized the browser, or Bill Gates, Guay has been slowly defining her part of the Internet. And even though her product is a small part of the web experience now, her early success indicates it could become a big part of Internet retailing eventually. And if she fulfills her vision, of the Internet itself.
Guay is the founder and brains behind Montreal-based My Virtual Model Inc., the online fitting-room technology that nine web sites use today, including sites of such major online retailers as Lands’ End and retail chains Limited and Lane Bryant. It launched at CrossingPointe.com last November
Since its debut at LandsEnd.com in 1998, My Virtual Model has set the standard for online fitting of apparel. Today, 3 million consumers have created models using the My Virtual Model technology and the company expects as many as 10 million by the end of the year.
While it has competitors, none has had the impact of My Virtual Model. It bought competitor EZSize last June. Rival LuuLuu Inc. has one customer, but no others. A third-FitMe-just released its product. “Louise Guay was one of the first-back three years ago-to see that virtual models had a role on the Internet,” says Bill Bass, senior vice president of e-commerce at Lands’ End Inc., one of the most enthusiastic users of the My Virtual Model technology. “And she’s done a great job of trying to refine the technology to make it evolve with the web.”
A natural growth
Creating a virtual person grew naturally out of Guay’s background. She was always fascinated by acting and after college, where she studied philosophy and aesthetics, she worked on a children’s show for French TV. She produced a show in which a puppet constituted itself on screen. “It was very experimental; very alive,” she says. And it was in some ways the forerunner of online models. “My Virtual Model can exist between reality and virtuality,” she says. “It allows people to imagine who they want to be.”
After TV, the ideas that Guay had for creating virtual identities in an electronic medium stayed with her. After she presented a program of her own writings at McGill University in Montreal, she was approached by an audience member who, while he didn’t understand everything she was trying to communicate from the stage, was intrigued by her ideas. That person ran a research center back in France and he invited Guay to come to the center and work on her concepts for multi-media presentation of ideas.
At the center she came into contact with a group of children who were learning about Middle Ages monasteries and she helped them create a virtual monastery, with computers in each room that explained what the monks did in that room. She then encouraged the children to communicate their interest via computer to children in Canada.
That interest finally led her to the University of Paris where she earned a Ph.D. in multi-media communications in 1986 and used virtual technology to present her thesis. Her interest was in creating a multi-media trans-cultural teaching tool for children around the world to learn about art. She called it the Pocket Museum.
The cost of creating the virtual museum had been high-meaning it was not replicable on a mass scale-and so her Ph.D. committee encouraged her to take her interest in multi-media communication and create a business. In 1990 she started Public Technologies Multimedia Inc., a Canadian multimedia and web site development company that taught corporations how to think and market in multi-media. Ten years later, she re-named the company My Virtual Model to reflect her new focus.
Given that as a child, she was, in her words, “obsessed with Pinocchio” because she liked the artificial intelligence aspect of the puppet, it was a logical leap from the world of puppets and virtual museums to the notion of creating a virtual identity online, she says.
Prodding by customers
Just as thinking about Pinocchio led Guay to the idea of an artificial identity online, Guay’s colleagues give her credit for her ability to quickly see solutions to problems and then follow the idea wherever it leads. In fact, that ability was what led to the creation of My Virtual Model. “She really had the concept years before the technology existed,” says Yona Shtern, chief marketing officer for My Virtual Model. “She has a definitive vision of how this will evolve even when she can’t tell you how it will get there.”
How My Virtual Model developed from its early versions is a good example of how Guay’s and the company’s vision changes as the technology changes. The first models were cartoonish, she admits. Since then the company has worked on making the skin tones and the features more realistic. Furthermore, says Shtern, “When we started, we
didn’t even have a product. This was custom-coded for Lands’ End. But we got some gentle prodding from our clients who told us there was a business in creating these models. They were getting lots of feedback from their customers who were having a great experience with this.”
That feedback encouraged My Virtual Model to proceed, in spite of the drawbacks. “Even though the technology was not completely accurate, people understood the power of the concept,” Guay says. “We knew it would evolve.”