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Wantful Aims to Bring the Pleasure Back to Gift-Giving

Inside a bustling Victorian flat on Haight Street, a team of merchandisers led by serial entrepreneur John Poisson has just launched a service to “help solve your gift-giving dilemmas.”

Didn't think you had any such dilemmas? Think again.

How often does a birthday, wedding, or anniversary roll around and you just can’t figure what to give someone?

Meet Wantful. What this little company has figured out how to do is to hand that choice back to the recipient in the form of a beautifully designed little book or catalogue with 14 different gifts -- plus some charities she can redirect the money to if she prefers that option.

The Wantful team has hand-chosen 1,000 products to date, which come from 150 retail partners like TCHO Chocolate White Sycamore, Areaware, Laguiole, Robindra Unsworth, Rustico, or Le Palais des Thés.

They’ve been able to negotiate printing costs down to the point so that the lovely 6"X6” book can be delivered to your chosen recipient in Japanese-style paper and envelope for $5 plus shipping.

The effect on the person receiving the book is like being invited to go on a personalized shopping trip for something special that you’d probably (in most cases) not buy for yourself.

The prices of these gifts, which currently range from $30-$500, are not listed in the catalogue, of course, because this is, after all, a gift.

Poisson, who has started a number of successful ventures in the past, including Tiny Pictures (acquired by Shutterfly in 2009) says the idea for Wantful was influenced by a few years he spent working in Japan for Sony earlier in his career.

There, the elaborate rituals and elegant aesthetics around gifting, including the beautiful presentation of items, deeply affected the approach he has brought to Wantful.

From a business perspective, Wantful is a startup aimed at the $100 billion gift-card industry, which Poisson calls “a big massively commoditized market ready to be disrupted. There’s nothing personal about a gift card. Nothing gratifying. We’re about bringing back the ritual and personalizing gift-giving.”

In that sense, this startup evokes a nostalgic sense for an era when we all seemed to have more time to not only make gifts more personal but more thoughtfully so. Gift cards, by contrast, are indeed the ultimate in the art of the impersonal.

With Wantful, you can sign in via its website or with Facebook Connect. The latter option brings advantages, including leveraging your social graph and all of the birthday data users share over the massive social network.

It also allows Wantful's recommendation algorithm to suggest gifts for your friends based on the many indicators from their social profiles, as well as your answers to a short list of questions about their personal tastes, sense of style and preferences (white wine or red?). 

During a demo by Poisson, it was apparent that a user could design a customized catalogue in a matter of minutes that would contain a range of unique products and charities tailored to your friend.

You can choose among cover options for the booklet and include a personal message inside. Then just push a button and Presto! This little gift book is on its way to your friend, just in time for the holidays.

Investors in this startup include Greylock, Harrison Metal, Dennis Crowley, Alison Pincus, and Dave Morin.