The Internet is rife with would-be solutions for our thoroughly modern, tech-centric lives. From proprietary web-surfing bookmark apps to yet another third-party Tweeting client, the promise of many of these products deliver more micro-management options than they do practical functionality or purpose. Sherif Shalaby and his team at The Stashbox hope they’re building a web service that clears some of the digital clutter in our lives, making less middlemen and more impact.
Sitting in the bar of southern BBQ restaurant Hill Country – great BBQ in NYC still eludes him, despite his intrepid efforts to find as much as possible to remind him of his Oklahoma City roots – Shalaby wants to bring the best habits of his background in design, branding, and DIY ingenuity to The Stashbox, a rapid-fire, visually-focused answer to the often bland and vague survey systems most online businesses use to understand their customers.
After doing some studio work and then a gig writing and designing for pre-Etsy craft magazine Readymade, Shalaby made the move to Manhattan and enrolled at Parsons, where he studied fashion and product design and honed his understanding of the business. It’s also where he learned of big business’s shortcomings in comprehending the potential of emerging technologies over the past decade. “It was kind of the same problem,” he said, referring to the countless brand management meetings he’d find himself in. “‘We don’t know what to do with technology. We know we want to talk to people more. We know we want to make it an experience.’ It’s all of these things that are catchphrases now.
“Then all of a sudden I’d have someone come in from higher-up and be like, ‘We’re going to spend 250,000 dollars on a Facebook Like campaign.’ And I’m like, what are you talking about? How is that really fostering any conversation?” That disconnect between end-user and corporate brain trusts, with miles of bureaucratic red tape between them, is what drove the initial premise of Stashbox, whose immediate, customizable template has been helping independent businesses coordinate ad campaigns that allow users to actively participate in the building of a brand identity, letting them instantly weigh in on anything from how a given brand should be designed to what products it should stock, all while incentivizing users, with curated giveaways for participating. In practice, it’s meant to be the anti-survey, asking concrete questions that elicit simple, honest answers.
“When they click on [a traditional online survey], they go into what we call ‘Scantron World.’ It’s just ridiculous… why do we care about the consumer voice? That’s the tool you’re using?” said Shalaby. “Everything else is a branded experience, everything else is enhanced. Why is direct communication not incredibly powerful and customized? It doesn’t have to be that hard.”
While Shalaby’s work experiences have weighed heavily on The Stashbox’s mission, its central philosophy owes itself to another unlikely source: Oprah.
“I was ditching work one day and I was watching Oprah Winfrey. I’m not kidding, because you have to stay relevant in different markets and all that stuff,” he said, only half-jokingly. The blissed-out pandemonium of “Oprah’s Favorite Things,” her audience giveaway segment, revealed an easily overlooked truth of human behavior. “I saw this woman’s face. She was just crying hysterically over this tin of cookies… it was that idea of a consumer being rewarded, not that they gave feedback on those products, but there was something about that excitement of being involved in something. And it just kind of clicked in my head.”
Keeping the outreach issues of corporate branding in mind, Shalaby found a through-line between his revelations in the boardroom and surfing on the couch: consumer engagement as the engine for positive industry transformation. After spending the next six months developing the idea in his spare time, Shalaby found angel funding and launched the initial version of The Stashbox, in all its bug-addled glory. “It was nuts but the thing is – I don’t even know how people first got into the site because it was just so, so badly done. But the thing is that once people got in there, they were giving us really great feedback.”
With an over 90% completion rate with users, Stashbox was beginning to prove its concept to the public and Shalaby alike. “We started to realize what we are really good at is getting people to talk,” he said. “We try to mimic this,” he added, referencing our interview. The snappy, simple exchanges between people carry more resonance than larger businesses might recognize amid their perpetuated tech chatter; in a world of Twitter ad blitzes and pseudo-subversive sloganeering, word of mouth – and more specifically, what those words are – are gospel. “When we think about technology we don’t think about a computer. We think about, ‘How do we talk?’
Understanding that question forced the Stashbox team to explore the type of power the contemporary customer has. Shalaby is sensitive to his tool set, a near-limitless suite of smartphones and web services that allow them to broadcast their thoughts and opinions through countless mediums at any given moment. He thinks modern business must embrace the give and take of basic interaction with their audiences, and which, in turn, will allow them to transform their trade.
“Any company, whether it’s small or large, is foolish to think that their consumers aren’t already incredibly empowered, and their voice is multiplying everyday. Whether they want it or not, that ship has sailed long ago,” he said. “It’s not just the branding or targeted ads. That’s not the magic. The magic is when you get to say ‘I’m a part of this brand.’ I think that is the number one thing that’s most important. You’re on that site for a reason, you’re in that app for a reason… whether you hate the brand or love the brand, you’re on that site for a reason, and you want to talk to them directly. “That’s what we always think about: how would I want to talk to a company… if I can talk to the head of Amex, what would I want to say?”
As Stashbox went on to develop a relatively small but dedicated base, Shalaby and his team continued to focus on fine-tuning the tools of the platform and offer them to the businesses that need them most, finding better traction with contemporary smaller enterprises. “Our platform can be used for a small mom and pop barbecue place all the way up to a giant company,” he said, claiming that the most exciting part of Stashbox’s growth is seeing how and where it will be used next. As their user base grows, as does the nature of the interactions that the service fosters, the company remains ardently focused on empowering people.
“Coming from design and fashion and tech, I’ve never had to work in boring industries. I think sometimes people forget how bored most people are at work every day,” Shalaby said. “I think we sometimes forget that there are a lot of people stuck in cubicles who don’t ever get to do anything creative, and that’s one of the things I love about our platform. Yeah, maybe you’re only giving feedback on the color of lipstick that’s coming out next season. Maybe that doesn’t seem very exciting to the fashion people. But to the end-user? They’re like hell yeah! It’s not just that my voice has been heard: I know that I got to give feedback on something I would normally never have had access to.”
As Shalaby hoped, tending to that creative spirit in all people has begun to rear its head in the Stashbox user community. “I think some of the best insight we’ve seen is from people you would never, ever think… there might be some guy from Nebraska who tells us a comment about packaging and the company sees it and we’re all, ‘holy shit, we’ve never really thought about it from this angle,’” he said. “That’s why we’re called the Stashbox. It’s like that little hidden area of your brain where you’re keeping those secrets.”
Supporting that network of secrets and homespun wisdom reminded him of his days at Readymade, where his how-to design column generated and sustained a community of readers who could tinker, create and learn together. While this may be a DIY custom of the past, Shalaby sees that its spirit, when applied to the burgeoning tech solutions of tomorrow, can lead to a more interesting – and universally accessible – future. “It was freaking amazing to watch people send pictures of how they’ve done it themselves, or even how they tweaked it. And I think all of that is seeded in my brain. Those moments are exciting for everyone involved.”