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Mirror founder Brynn Putnam on life with Lululemon — and whether or not she sold too soon

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Brynn Putnam has a lot to feel great about. A Harvard grad and former professional ballet dancer who opened the first of what have become three high-intensity fitness studios in New York, she then launched a second business in 2016 when — while pregnant with her son — she was exercising at home and couldn’t find a natural way to watch a class on her laptop or phone. Her big idea: to install mirrored screens in users’ homes that are roughly eight square feet and through which they can work out to all manner of streamed and on-demand exercise classes, paying a monthly subscription of just $39 per month.

If you’ve followed the home fitness craze, you already know these Mirrors quickly took off with celebrities, who gushed about the product on social media. Putnam’s company also attracted roughly $75 million in venture funding across several fast rounds. Indeed, by the end of last year, people had bought “tens of thousands” of Mirrors, according to Putnam, and she was beginning to envision Mirrors as content portals that might feature fashion, enable doctors’ visits and bring both kids’ classes and therapy into users’ homes. As she told The Atlantic back in January, “We view ourselves as the third screen in people’s homes.”

Then, in June, the company revealed it had sold for $500 million in cash — including a $50 million earn-out — to the athleisure company Lululemon. For Putnam, the deal was too compelling, allowing her to secure the future of her company, which continues to run as a subsidiary. Investors might have liked it, too, given that it meant a fast return on their investment, not to mention that Mirror had steep competition, including from Peloton, a growing giant in the home fitness market.

For now, the deal seems to be clicking. Just today, Lululemon announced that it is installing Mirrors in 18 of its now 506 U.S. locations, including San Francisco, Washington, D.C. and Miami. While Lululemon hasn’t started selling products directly through Mirror yet, “shoppable content” is “certainly on our radar” too, says Putnam. Meanwhile, Mirror’s revenues, expected earlier this year to reach $100 million, are now on target to surpass $150 million in revenue, she says.

Still, as the pandemic has raged on, it’s easy to wonder what the young company might have grown into given the amount of time that people and their children are spending at home and in front of their screens. In conversation late last week, we put the question to Putnam, who continues to manage a team of 125 people. Our chat, lightly edited, follows. You can listen to the full conversation here.

TC: People who follow the company know why you started Mirror, but how, exactly, did you start Mirror?

BP: In the case of Mirror, I had this concept for the product, and then really, the first step was buying a Raspberry Pi, a piece of one-way glass and an Android tablet, and assembling it in my in my kitchen to see if this idea in my mind would be able to work and come to life.

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TC: Did you take any coding classes? People might not imagine that a former ballet performer with a chain of fitness studios would put something together like that in her kitchen.

BP: No, I’ve been very fortunate to have a husband who has a bit of a development background. And so he helped me to put the first little bit of code into the Mirror and just really ensure that the concept I had in my mind could be brought to life. And then from there, obviously, over time, we hired a team.

TC: Are they manufactured in the States? In China? How did you start figuring out how to put those pieces together?

BP: I had heard a lot of hardware horror stories about teams working with design agencies to design these beautiful products and who, by the time they actually got to manufacturing, found out that something wasn’t feasible about their design when it came to commercialization or just running out of money in the process. So I actually went backwards. I drew a sketch on a napkin and did a small set of bullets of the things that I thought were really just crucial to make the product a success. And then I went to find factories in China that were familiar with digital signage, working with large pieces of glass, large mirrors, learned about their systems and processes, and then brought it back to the U.S. to a local manufacturer here on the East Coast to refine into a prototype. And then we eventually moved to Mexico when we were ready to scale.

TC: The mirror is about $1,500 dollars. How did you go about winning the trust of consumers that would lead them to make such a sizable investment?

BP: When you’re building a [new] product, you can’t really compete on specs and features like you do with phones or laptops. So you’re really building a brand, which means that you’re telling stories. And in our case, we spent a lot of time, from the very early days, really imagining the life of our members and figuring out how to craft and tell that story.

And then we were fortunate early on to have members fall in love with the product. And then they started to tell our story for us. So once you have that customer flywheel that starts to kick in, your job becomes much easier.

TC: You had actors, celebrities, designers and social media influencers talking about their Mirrors. Was it just a matter of sending it off to a few people who started getting online and sharing [their enthusiasm for the product] with their followers? Was it that simple?

BP: We knew that we wanted to make big bets early on to make the Mirror brand seem larger and more established than it was, because it’s a premium product in a new category. And we wanted people to trust in us and the brand. And so we did things like out-of-home advertisements quite early, we moved into television quite early, and we also did some very strategic early celebrity placements. But the way in which the celebrity placements grew and expanded was very much not intended and was just kind of a fascinating early example of the network effects of the product. One celebrity would get it and then another would see it in their home. Or they would see it in their stylist’s home or their agent’s home.

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TC: How did you convince early adopters that your business had staying power, and were investors persuaded as quickly?

BP: Trying to assure customers that they wouldn’t invest in this Mirror, and then the company would go out of business in a few years and they’d be left with a piece of hardware but no access to the content or the community that they’d fallen in love with, was very important. It was one of the factors in deciding to partner with Lululemon and have the incredible brand stability and love of such a premium global brand.

In terms of fundraising, I think we were really fortunate to have a product that once you saw it, you got it and fell in love with it in a market that was clearly big and growing, with a really good competitive data point in Peloton.

TC: Who started that conversation with Lululemon? Were you talking to Peloton and other potential acquirers?

BP: I’ve been really fortunate to actually work with Lululemon for my entire fitness career. There was a team of Lululemon educators here in New York who were the very first clients of my studio business, and frankly, in many ways were responsible for helping that business to grow and thrive and to give me confidence as a first-time small business owner. Then we reconnected with Lululemon about a year before the acquisition as an investor; they made a small minority investment in the company. And we began to work together on various projects . . . From there, really, the partnership just grew. Mirror was not for sale. We were not looking for an acquirer. But it’s really your responsibility as a founder to always be weighing your vision, your responsibility to your team and your responsibility to your shareholders. And so when the opportunity presented itself — before COVID actually — it felt like really just too good an opportunity to pass up.

TC: But you also you had ambitions of turning this into a much broader content portal where you would maybe have doctor visits and other things, which I would think won’t happen now.

BP: The vision for Mirror very much remains the same and we’re excited to continue to expand the types of content that we offer via the Mirror platform, really with an eye toward any type of immersive experience that makes you a better version of yourself. So I think you will see a broader range of content from us in the coming years.

TC: You’ve mentioned in the past that Mirror is a product that’s used by families. Is there children’s programming or is that coming soon?

BP: More than 65% of our households have over two members, which means that you’re often getting younger members of the household involved. I do think that is a function of both the versatility of the platform and the fact that multiple people can participate in more content. At the same time, we’ve actually seen the number of users under 20 grow about 5x during the COVID months as young adults have returned home to be with their their families or teenagers have started doing remote schooling. So we’ve leaned into that with what we call “family fun” content that’s designed to be performed by the whole family together.

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TC: Do you see a secondary market for refurbished Mirrors in the future? Will there be a second version, if there isn’t already?

BP: We’ll obviously continue to to refine the hardware over time, but the real focus of the business is through improving the content, community and experience, and so for us — unlike Apple, where the goal is to really release a new model every year and continue to have folks upgrade the hardware — we focus on providing updates via the software and the content, so that we’re continuing to add value onto the baseline experience.

TC: What can people look forward to on this front?

BP: We’re taking a major step toward building a connected community through our community feature set launching this holiday, including a community feature that enables members to see and communicate with each other and their instructor; face-offs that allow members to compete head-to-head against another member of the community and earn points as you hit your target heart rate zones; and friending, so you can find and follow your friends in the Mirror community to share your favorite workouts, join programs together and cheer each other on.

TC: Are you still selling Mirrors to hotels and businesses outside of Lululemon?

BP: We do have B2B relationships. You can find mirrors in hotels, small gyms, buildings, residences and then obviously direct-to-consumer through the Mirror website, the Lululemon website and both of our [offline] stores.

TC: When you look at Peloton now and how its stock has completely exploded this year, do you think ever that you should have hung on a little longer? Do you ever think ‘maybe I sold too soon?’

I’ve woken up every day really for my entire career kind of focused on the same mission but trying to solve the problem and achieve my vision and in different ways. Which is: I really believe that confidence in your own skin is the foundation of a good and happy life. And fitness is an incredible tool for building that confidence that carries over into your personal relationships, your work performance, your friendships. And so for me, that’s always really been my North Star. ‘How do we get more Mirrors into more homes and provide more access to to that self confidence?’ So I spend very little time comparing to competitors and much more time focused on our members’ needs and how to meet them.

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Google December Product Reviews Update Affects More Than English Language Sites? via @sejournal, @martinibuster

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Google’s Product Reviews update was announced to be rolling out to the English language. No mention was made as to if or when it would roll out to other languages. Mueller answered a question as to whether it is rolling out to other languages.

Google December 2021 Product Reviews Update

On December 1, 2021, Google announced on Twitter that a Product Review update would be rolling out that would focus on English language web pages.

The focus of the update was for improving the quality of reviews shown in Google search, specifically targeting review sites.

A Googler tweeted a description of the kinds of sites that would be targeted for demotion in the search rankings:

“Mainly relevant to sites that post articles reviewing products.

Think of sites like “best TVs under $200″.com.

Goal is to improve the quality and usefulness of reviews we show users.”

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Google also published a blog post with more guidance on the product review update that introduced two new best practices that Google’s algorithm would be looking for.

The first best practice was a requirement of evidence that a product was actually handled and reviewed.

The second best practice was to provide links to more than one place that a user could purchase the product.

The Twitter announcement stated that it was rolling out to English language websites. The blog post did not mention what languages it was rolling out to nor did the blog post specify that the product review update was limited to the English language.

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Google’s Mueller Thinking About Product Reviews Update

Screenshot of Google's John Mueller trying to recall if December Product Review Update affects more than the English language

Screenshot of Google's John Mueller trying to recall if December Product Review Update affects more than the English language

Product Review Update Targets More Languages?

The person asking the question was rightly under the impression that the product review update only affected English language search results.

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But he asserted that he was seeing search volatility in the German language that appears to be related to Google’s December 2021 Product Review Update.

This is his question:

“I was seeing some movements in German search as well.

So I was wondering if there could also be an effect on websites in other languages by this product reviews update… because we had lots of movement and volatility in the last weeks.

…My question is, is it possible that the product reviews update affects other sites as well?”

John Mueller answered:

“I don’t know… like other languages?

My assumption was this was global and and across all languages.

But I don’t know what we announced in the blog post specifically.

But usually we try to push the engineering team to make a decision on that so that we can document it properly in the blog post.

I don’t know if that happened with the product reviews update. I don’t recall the complete blog post.

But it’s… from my point of view it seems like something that we could be doing in multiple languages and wouldn’t be tied to English.

And even if it were English initially, it feels like something that is relevant across the board, and we should try to find ways to roll that out to other languages over time as well.

So I’m not particularly surprised that you see changes in Germany.

But I also don’t know what we actually announced with regards to the locations and languages that are involved.”

Does Product Reviews Update Affect More Languages?

While the tweeted announcement specified that the product reviews update was limited to the English language the official blog post did not mention any such limitations.

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Google’s John Mueller offered his opinion that the product reviews update is something that Google could do in multiple languages.

One must wonder if the tweet was meant to communicate that the update was rolling out first in English and subsequently to other languages.

It’s unclear if the product reviews update was rolled out globally to more languages. Hopefully Google will clarify this soon.

Citations

Google Blog Post About Product Reviews Update

Product reviews update and your site

Google’s New Product Reviews Guidelines

Write high quality product reviews

John Mueller Discusses If Product Reviews Update Is Global

Watch Mueller answer the question at the 14:00 Minute Mark

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Survey says: Amazon, Google more trusted with your personal data than Apple is

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MacRumors reveals that more people feel better with their personal data in the hands of Amazon and Google than Apple’s. Companies that the public really doesn’t trust when it comes to their personal data include Facebook, TikTok, and Instagram.

The survey asked over 1,000 internet users in the U.S. how much they trusted certain companies such as Facebook, TikTok, Instagram, WhatsApp, YouTube, Google, Microsoft, Apple, and Amazon to handle their user data and browsing activity responsibly.

Amazon and Google are considered by survey respondents to be more trustworthy than Apple

Those surveyed were asked whether they trusted these firms with their personal data “a great deal,” “a good amount,” “not much,” or “not at all.” Respondents could also answer that they had no opinion about a particular company. 18% of those polled said that they trust Apple “a great deal” which topped the 14% received by Google and Amazon.

However, 39% said that they trust Amazon  by “a good amount” with Google picking up 34% of the votes in that same category. Only 26% of those answering said that they trust Apple by “a good amount.” The first two responses, “a great deal” and “a good amount,” are considered positive replies for a company. “Not much” and “not at all” are considered negative responses.

By adding up the scores in the positive categories,

Apple tallied a score of 44% (18% said it trusted Apple with its personal data “a great deal” while 26% said it trusted Apple “a good amount”). But that placed the tech giant third after Amazon’s 53% and Google’s 48%. After Apple, Microsoft finished fourth with 43%, YouTube (which is owned by Google) was fifth with 35%, and Facebook was sixth at 20%.

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Rounding out the remainder of the nine firms in the survey, Instagram placed seventh with a positive score of 19%, WhatsApp was eighth with a score of 15%, and TikTok was last at 12%.

Looking at the scoring for the two negative responses (“not much,” or “not at all”), Facebook had a combined negative score of 72% making it the least trusted company in the survey. TikTok was next at 63% with Instagram following at 60%. WhatsApp and YouTube were both in the middle of the pact at 53% followed next by Google and Microsoft at 47% and 42% respectively. Apple and Amazon each had the lowest combined negative scores at 40% each.

74% of those surveyed called targeted online ads invasive

The survey also found that a whopping 82% of respondents found targeted online ads annoying and 74% called them invasive. Just 27% found such ads helpful. This response doesn’t exactly track the 62% of iOS users who have used Apple’s App Tracking Transparency feature to opt-out of being tracked while browsing websites and using apps. The tracking allows third-party firms to send users targeted ads online which is something that they cannot do to users who have opted out.

The 38% of iOS users who decided not to opt out of being tracked might have done so because they find it convenient to receive targeted ads about a certain product that they looked up online. But is ATT actually doing anything?

Marketing strategy consultant Eric Seufert said last summer, “Anyone opting out of tracking right now is basically having the same level of data collected as they were before. Apple hasn’t actually deterred the behavior that they have called out as being so reprehensible, so they are kind of complicit in it happening.”

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The Financial Times says that iPhone users are being lumped together by certain behaviors instead of unique ID numbers in order to send targeted ads. Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg says that the company is working to rebuild its ad infrastructure “using more aggregate or anonymized data.”

Aggregated data is a collection of individual data that is used to create high-level data. Anonymized data is data that removes any information that can be used to identify the people in a group.

When consumers were asked how often do they think that their phones or other tech devices are listening in to them in ways that they didn’t agree to, 72% answered “very often” or “somewhat often.” 28% responded by saying “rarely” or “never.”

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Google’s John Mueller on Brand Mentions via @sejournal, @martinibuster

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Google’s John Mueller was asked if “brand mentions” helped with SEO and rankings. John Mueller explained, in detail, how brand mentions are not anything used at Google.

What’s A Brand Mention?

A brand mention is when one website mentions another website. There is an idea in the SEO community that when a website mentions another website’s domain name or URL that Google will see this and count it the same as a link.

Brand Mentions are also known as an implied link. Much was written about this ten years ago after a Google patent that mentions “implied links” surfaced.

There has never been a solid review of why the idea of “brand mentions” has nothing to do with this patent, but I’ll provide a shortened version later in this article.

John Mueller Discussing Brand Mentions

John Mueller Brand Mentions

John Mueller Brand Mentions

Do Brand Mentions Help With Rankings?

The person asking the question wanted to know about brand mentions for the purpose of ranking. The person asking the question has good reason to ask it because the idea of “brand mentions” has never been definitively reviewed.

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The person asked the question:

“Do brand mentions without a link help with SEO rankings?”

Google Does Not Use Brand Mentions

Google’s John Mueller answered that Google does not use the “brand mentions” for any link related purpose.

Mueller explained:

“From my point of view, I don’t think we use those at all for things like PageRank or understanding the link graph of a website.

And just a plain mention is sometimes kind of tricky to figure out anyway.”

That part about it being tricky is interesting.

He didn’t elaborate on why it’s tricky until later in the video where he says it’s hard to understand the subjective context of a website mentioning another website.

Brand Mentions Are Useful For Building Awareness

Mueller next says that brand mentions may be useful for helping to get the word out about a site, which is about building popularity.

Mueller continued:

“But it can be something that makes people aware of your brand, and from that point of view, could be something where indirectly you might have some kind of an effect from that in that they search for your brand and then …obviously, if they’re searching for your brand then hopefully they find you right away and then they can go to your website.

And if they like what they see there, then again, they can go off and recommend that to other people as well.”

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“Brand Mentions” Are Problematic

Later on at the 58 minute mark another person brings the topic back up and asks how Google could handle spam sites that are mentioning a brand in a negative way.

The person said that one can disavow links but one cannot disavow a “brand mention.”

Mueller agreed and said that’s one of things that makes brand mentions difficult to use for ranking purposes.

John Mueller explained:

“Kind of understanding the almost the subjective context of the mention is really hard.

Is it like a positive mention or a negative mention?

Is it a sarcastic positive mention or a sarcastic negative mention? How can you even tell?

And all of that, together with the fact that there are lots of spammy sites out there and sometimes they just spin content, sometimes they’re malicious with regards to the content that they create…

All of that, I think, makes it really hard to say we can just use that as the same as a link.

…It’s just, I think, too confusing to use as a clear signal.”

Where “Brand Mentions” Come From

The idea of “brand mentions” has bounced around for over ten years.

There were no research papers or patents to support it. “Brand mentions” is literally an idea that someone invented out of thin air.

However the “brand mention” idea took off in 2012 when a patent surfaced that seemed to confirm the idea of brand mentions.

There’s a whole long story to this so I’m just going to condense it.

There’s a patent from 2012 that was misinterpreted in several different ways because most people at the time, myself included, did not read the entire patent from beginning to end.

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The patent itself is about ranking web pages.

The structure of most Google patents consist of introductory paragraphs that discuss what the patent is about and those paragraphs are followed by pages of in-depth description of the details.

The introductory paragraphs that explain what it’s about states:

“Methods, systems, and apparatus, including computer programs… for ranking search results.”

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Pretty much nobody read that beginning part of the patent.

Everyone focused on a single paragraph in the middle of the patent (page 9 out of 16 pages).

In that paragraph there is a mention of something called “implied links.”

The word “implied” is only mentioned four times in the entire patent and all four times are contained within that single paragraph.

So when this patent was discovered, the SEO industry focused on that single paragraph as proof that Google uses brand mentions.

In order to understand what an “implied link” is, you have to scroll all the way back up to the opening paragraphs where the Google patent authors describe something called a “reference query” that is not a link but is nevertheless used for ranking purposes just like a link.

What Is A Reference Query?

A reference query is a search query that contains a reference to a URL or a domain name.

The patent states:

“A reference query for a particular group of resources can be a previously submitted search query that has been categorized as referring to a resource in the particular group of resources.”

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Elsewhere the patent provides a more specific explanation:

“A query can be classified as referring to a particular resource if the query includes a term that is recognized by the system as referring to the particular resource.

…search queries including the term “example.com” can be classified as referring to that home page.”

The summary of the patent, which comes at the beginning of the document, states that it’s about establishing which links to a website are independent and also counting reference queries and with that information creating a “modification factor” which is used to rank web pages.

“…determining, for each of the plurality of groups of resources, a respective count of reference queries; determining, for each of the plurality of groups of resources, a respective group-specific modification factor, wherein the group-specific modification factor for each group is based on the count of independent links and the count of reference queries for the group;”

The entire patent largely rests on those two very important factors, a count of independent inbound links and the count of reference queries. The phrases reference query and reference queries are used 39 times in the patent.

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As noted above, the reference query is used for ranking purposes like a link, but it’s not a link.

The patent states:

“An implied link is a reference to a target resource…”

It’s clear that in this patent, when it mentions the implied link, it’s talking about reference queries, which as explained above simply means when people search using keywords and the domain name of a website.

Idea of Brand Mentions Is False

The whole idea of “brand mentions” became a part of SEO belief systems because of how that patent was misinterpreted.

But now you have the facts and know why “brand mentions” is not real thing.

Plus John Mueller confirmed it.

“Brand mentions” is something completely random that someone in the SEO community invented out of thin air.

Citations

Ranking Search Results Patent

Watch John Mueller discuss “brand mentions” at 44:10 Minute Mark and the brand Mentions second part begins at the 58:12 minute mark

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