It sounds like a Silicon Valley story: an intern and her boyfriend write a nifty smartphone program, sell it on the Apple Store, quit their day jobs, and spend their days updating their software and fending off hungry venture capitalists. But the company in question, Right Brain-Left Brain Software, recently landed on Nassau Street after getting its start in Manhattan. In fact, Stylebook could only have come out of the East Coast.
Stylebook is a wardrobe management app that allows users to snap pictures of their wardrobe items, then mix-and-match pieces of clothing to create new outfits. It is run by Bill and Jessica Atkins, who founded the company back when smartphones were just catching on. Jessica does writing, interface design, marketing, and photography, while Bill handles the coding and technical work. (Bill admits Jessica is the more stylish of the two.)
The year 2009 may not seem long ago, but for an application on the Apple Store, it’s practically an eternity. Stylebook has been in the top 30 most-downloaded “Lifestyle” applications (a feat considering that it costs the princely sum of $3.99) since its launch, and rose as high as No. 2 on several occasions.
Jessica had the idea for Stylebook when she was working for Conde Nast, in the art department of Lucky Magazine. Her then-boyfriend Bill was also in New York, working as a programmer for a Google Ventures startup called Signposts. When Apple announced it would sell third-party programs in the app store, he saw a big opportunity. The couple was looking for a side project to do after work and on weekends, and Jessica was hit by an inspiration.
She got the idea from her work the previous year as an intern for Vogue and Modern Bride. These two publications maintain a great and boundless storehouse of clothes. Every item of clothing shown in the glossy pages of those magazines is borrowed from designers and manufacturers. Keeping track of it all is a task that falls to the ranks of interns like Atkins, who spent her days keeping antique paper records. Each item of clothing had with it a binder, a Polaroid photo, and a long information sheet to fill out.
What Vogue needed was some sort of smartphone app that would allow people to digitize all that information. Not only would such a program make life easier for Modern Bride interns, but Jessica thought fashion-obsessive people outside the publishing industry could use it to organize their closets.
The couple whipped up the first version of Stylebook, which was just a simple application that allowed users to take photos of clothing and then catalog them. Everything changed later that year when the New York Times stumbled upon the app and wrote an article about it. From there, Stylebook took off.
It turned out there were more customers out there than either Bill or Jessica had thought. “I knew a few people in the magazine world who did weird things to keep track of their wardrobes,” Jessica says. “People made little spreadsheets, or had hand-drawn diagrams. It was characteristic of people working in that industry, but I didn’t really believe there was a wide range of people who needed this service.”
As it turned out, the app allowed people to rediscover forgotten items in their wardrobes. A shirt can go unnoticed in the back of a closet, but if it’s on the main screen of Stylebook, a user might see how it ties into a current outfit.
“The main advantage of it is that you can see everything at one time,” Jessica says. “When you have a grid of items on the phone, you see a lot of items that are pushed to the back of a closet that you forgot you even owned. When I started using it, I got so much use out of items that had previously gone neglected.”
The app’s data tracking tools can also reveal patterns that users may not be aware of and save on unnecessary clothing purchases if the app reveals, for example, that a woman already has 20 pairs of black pants and probably doesn’t need to buy any more.
As more people started using Stylebook, the Atkinses were bombarded with feature requests. Today, the app has more than 90 features, including the ability to “cut out” the clothes from the background, paper doll style. It also has integrated shopping with major retailers — users can add items of clothing to a wish list and see how things would look compared with stuff they already own.
There is also a men’s version of Stylebook. It’s almost the exact same software, but it has a black-and-white design instead of the pink and purple of the woman-centric app. It also has “ties” and “suits” as default categories instead of “skirts” and “dresses,” in a nod to the male wardrobe.
The sudden success of Stylebook allowed the couple to quit their day jobs and work on Stylebook full time. Bill says they have a few other ideas in the works but is playing it close to the vest. “Every few months we get calls from venture capitalists interested in basically trying to get information on how our product works so they can copy it,” Jessica says. “We have to be careful and make sure we don’t give out too much.”
Stylebook faces competition from other wardrobe management apps, but benefited from being one of the first on the block, as well as from the constant updating they have done. In addition to working on the program itself, Jessica writes fashion articles and photography tips.
The company recently moved to Nassau Street in search of cheaper digs, having previously left Manhattan for Westfield. The couple likes the traditional “Main Street” vibe of downtown Princeton. They also like Princeton’s small software developer scene and the Princeton Tech meetup group.
Bill and Jessica grew up in Monmouth County and went to high school together, where they were in many of the same classes. They didn’t start dating until they reconnected in New York City after graduation, where Jessica was studying at NYU and Bill was working as a programmer for Goldman Sachs.
They each had strong family reasons to go into business. Bill’s father owns a limousine company in Tinton Falls, and his late mother was an administrative assistant. Jessica’s father was an electrical engineer who co-founded a company called Telecom Analysis Systems, which is now part of UK-based telecom giant Spirent.
“I always kind of wanted to have my own business,” Jessica says. “When I was a kid, I was selling brooches I made in a little shop in Red Bank.”
Stylebook was recently nominated for the 2014 Tabby Awards, a competition for mobile apps. Other finalists include Disney, Fandango, and USA Today. The Atkinses have not rested on their laurels, and that may be the reason why Stylebook has remained on the Apple Store charts for so long. “We always have to be on our toes,” Jessica says. “The startup industry is very competitive.”
Left Brain / Right Brain LLC, 20 Nassau Street, Princeton 08542; 609-252-0200; Jessica Atkins, co-founder. www.stylebookapp.com.