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Ravenswood firm’s software helps local retailers offer customized products

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Updated: July 6, 2012 9:26AM



Chicago tech entrepreneur Rachel A. Brooks honed her customization-software idea in a reality-TV-like setting: In a tech incubator challenge, she lived in a house in San Francisco for three months with six other would-be tech superstars, sharing ideas, networking and sizing each other up in close contact.

Brooks seeks nothing less than upending the way customers buy and retailers sell customized, made-to-order products — from clothes to furniture to beer.

Brooks, 25, and software engineer Bryn McCoy, 36, co-founded Citizen Made (Citizenmade.co) in the Ravenswood neighborhood last fall to provide Chicago’s locally owned and small-sized retailers an affordable platform from which to sell personalized products — not just so customers can pick a certain color, for example, but so they can fully design the product they want.

Such a platform would revolutionize retailing in two ways: Letting small, independent shops gain access to what are now multi-million-dollar “customizer” machines that let sneaker buyers fashion their own shoes, and enable shoppers to fashion just about anything they want for competitive prices.

“I thought it would be exciting to help small companies create new user experiences. We are the first company to provide a turn-key solution to provide custom products online,” said Brooks, a Wicker Park resident who grew up making most of her own clothes and designing mix-and-match fashions for others.

Citizen Made has signed up six companies to use its product — five in Chicago and one in Boston — and is negotiating deals with seven others.

For Chicago businesses Urban Wood Goods and The College Sport Scarf, Brooks’ software answers their need for customers to see the products they are creating in real time on the web before placing an order.

“Our customers will be able to see what the scarf they are designing will look like, rather than go through a telephone call with a price list,” said Travis Lutz, a 27-year-old Purdue graduate and co-founder with Matthew Kiefer, 28, of The College Sport Scarf (CollegeSportScarf.com), a college-themed and customized apparel company based in the Old Town neighborhood.

“Right now, creating the designs takes time and a lot of back-and-forth with the customer, which can add a week to the sales process,” Lutz said, noting that timing is even more critical now that The College Sports Scarf is branching out into cotton T-shirts, jerseys, zip-up hoodies and silk ties and scarves.

Erin True, who with husband, Jason, run custom furniture-design company Urban Wood Goods (UrbanWoodGoods.com), both online and at a Fulton Market neighborhood studio, said Brooks’ software fills a need for customers to visualize their unique designs.

“For our customers to be able to drag and drop and mix and match this tabletop with these table legs, to see the thickness of the wood, the dimensions of the tabletop and other aspects of their design — it’s now doable,” said Erin, 34, whose company uses only reclaimed wood and has been featured on HGTV for its eco-friendliness and vintage industrial design.

Brooks’ advisor, tech entrepreneur and academic Vivek Wadhwa, says he would like Brooks to be ‘the first black woman Mark Zuckerberg” because her vision is as forward-reaching as that of the CEO and co-founder of Facebook.

“Why can’t she be?” said Wadhwa, vice president of academics and innovation at Singularity University. The university educates a select group of leaders about technologies they foresee that will soon change the world.

Brooks refused to let go of her dream of what she calls “mass customization” after she came up with it for a class at the University of Michigan, her alma mater, and started her own clothing line two years ago to try to make it happen. Though her menswear line, The Style Cooperative, sells successfully in retail stores in Ukrainian Village locally and in Mequon, Wis., Long Beach, Calif., Tokyo, Japan and Edmonton, Canada, she wanted to find the perfect software solution for e-commerce personalization.

“Five to 10 years from now, having a say in everything we do and buy will be more and more apparent,” Brooks said.

Brooks leapt toward her dream by winning a spot in the NewMe Accelerator program, enabling her to pick the brightest of Silicon Valley’s technology brains.

The NewMe Accelerator has won acclaim for assembling under-represented minority and women tech entrepreneurs to hack each other’s startup projects and to get tips from tech and business leaders ranging from rapper-turned-dance website co-creator MC Hammer to Eric Ries, creator of the Lean Startup philosophy.

Brooks’ next step is coming up with affordable customization and 3D printing techniques.

Such 3D printing is part of what’s becoming known as the Industrial Revolution 2.0, in which software renders photos into designs that can “print” physical objects.

Already, websites such as Thingiverse offers drawings of more than 15,000 objects that people can “make” at home from 3D printers.

The Institute for the Future in Palo Alto, Calif., calls 3D printing “manufacturing’s Big Bang” because it enables individuals, small retailers and others to create objects without having to get copyright permission, and could lead the way to personalized manufacturing much as iTunes has led to personalized music lists.

Yet retailers have yet to figure out how to turn a 3D or augmented reality feature into a life-like experience, said Howard Tullman, a serial Chicago entrepreneur and president and CEO of the Tribeca Flashpoint Media Arts Academy.

“The single experience missing today in e-commerce is recreating walking into a bookstore, surveying the sales table and physically handling the books. It’s that kind of serendipity that we’re missing,” he said.

Brooks aims to fill that gap.

After she reached out to Wadhwa, he convinced Brooks that her technology concept can change the way we live.

“Being able to explore the bigness of ideas and true innovation has been the most meaningful part of (the accelerator experience),” she said. “It’s about envisioning a world that isn’t quite there yet could be.”



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