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WAKE FOREST – House of Blueberry recently raised nearly $6M to support its goal of dominating digital fashion in the metaverse. So how will that be done?

WRAL TechWire’s Sarah Glova spoke to founder and CEO Mishi McDuff and COO Katherine Manuel about the company and their vision for the Triangle-based brand.

McDuff shared that she moved the brand from Turkey to the US because she wanted to build a US-based business. 

“As we brought on more partnerships, and we brought on investors, it made more sense for us to be in the US and build a US-centric team to scale the company,” said McDuff. 

She picked the Triangle for the talent and cost of living.

“It has such a thriving group of core talent because of the gaming industry that’s growing here,” said McDuff. “The cost of living is so reasonable, even though there’s an incredible pool of talent. So it was just the perfect place for us to base House of Blueberry.”

Manuel, who joined House of Blueberry earlier this year, first moved to the Triangle when she attended Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business. Years later, when she and her husband (also a Fuqua graduate) were both working for the same company in New York, they “jumped at the chance” to come back. 

“Thomson Reuters acquired a company that was based in Durham. The corporate M&A team came to us, and they were like, ‘Do you all want to move back to Durham and help integrate the company?’” said Manuel. “That was 15 years ago for us.”

Katherine Manuel (House of Blubeberry image)

The inspiration for House of Blueberry

McDuff is a serial entrepreneur; she founded and sold two tech companies before creating this one in 2012. I asked her about starting House of Blueberry—specifically, her inspiration for the name. 

“I wish I had a cool story to tell you, but I initially named the company ‘Blueberry’ because ‘Strawberry’ was taken,” she told me. 

But she has no regrets. (“’Strawberry’ doesn’t have the same cool factor as ‘Blueberry,’” she said.) 

She also shared that her personal motivation for creating digital fashion is making the experience of purchasing luxury fashion items more accessible to everyone. 

“Somebody in Turkey, for example, might not be able to enjoy a $5,000 luxury purse,” said McDuff. “We build a brand that is widely recognized—you get to experience that branded, luxury item in a digital space for a fracture of the cost.”

McDuff also acknowledged that the concept of fashion is different in digital spaces. 

“When we say fashion in digital spaces, that doesn’t necessarily mean the same fashion like couture on a runway. It’s different,” said McDuff. 

She also shared that the look of “high fashion” in digital spaces can vary from platform to platform. 

“Every game has a different sense of style, so high fashion might look like Tokyo streetwear on one platform, and it can look like pastel colors and animal unicorn backpacks on another platform,” said McDuff. “So when we say fashion, take it in the sense of just expressing yourself. It’s in the culture of that platform that you’re socializing in.”

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“I’ve always been interested in tech and entrepreneurship, and before I founded Blueberry, I already had two exits,” said McDuff. “So when I first discovered Second Life and noticed that people were interested in buying digital assets, I immediately was able to recognize the market opportunity.”

McDuff grew the House of Blueberry community on Second Life to about 400,000 users.

“We were able to capitalize on that really, really fast. Because I had, thankfully, the experience of building a business and maximizing revenue,” said McDuff. “I had a bit more context than your regular creator. So we were at an advantage from the get go.”

The company raised an initial round of capital at the end of 2021, to fund a team that could scale it.

“We were going from just one platform to being on 10 platforms. And that’s how me and Katherine met,” said McDuff. “I needed a really strong partner.”

​​Manuel, who joined the company earlier this year, has always been interested in tech. 

“My mother was a Systems Engineer at IBM in 1968. It was early. I mean, she was one of the first wave of women at IBM,” said Manuel. 

Her parents met at IBM in Boston, and Manuel said their roles in tech influenced her early interest. 

“We had a home computer. I was a gymnast as a kid, and I figured out a way that I could start tracking and trending how I was performing. I would print out these charts and put them on my walls.”  

Despite her early interest, she did not study computer science in school. 

“Per culture — and there’s a lot of things that led to this — I really got away from technology,” said Manuel. “When I joined Thomson Reuters, we needed somebody to run technology in our healthcare and science business, some of the strategy behind it. And they gave me the architecture team, and they were like, ‘You understand how to talk to all these people.’ So I kind of always had tech as a core interest of mine. And my career has always, kind of, interchanged with technology, but it was always a very comfortable place for me.”

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Why are people buying digital clothes?

When I asked McDuff about explaining digital fashion to new users, she compared it to getting “dressed up” for social experiences in the real world. 

“I think the easiest way to understand it is just looking at it as, honestly, any one of these games are no different than going out with your friends,” said McDuff. “When you’re playing Roblox, you’re not playing against bots—they’re other people. You’re interacting.”

Today’s digital platforms allow gamers to play together—so your avatar could be seen by users around the world.

“So the same reason why you feel compelled to dress up in real life is the same reason why you customize your avatar in these games.” 

McDuff also emphasized that each platform, even each game, might have a unique style.

“It might be fantastical, it might be cute, it might be urban, but the core motivation behind why you customize your avatar is the same reason why we go on shopping sprees,” said McDuff. “You know, when you’re about to go to a destination wedding, you buy yourself, if it’s a beach wedding, you buy yourself beachy clothes. It’s the same motivation behind it.”

Manuel reflected on the growth of these social communities during COVID-related shutdowns. 

“I have a 10-year-old who, through the pandemic, that was the way that she had playdates, was getting on FaceTime and playing Roblox with friends, or Minecraft,” said Manuel. “And I think that, as these generations get older, that is just one more way that they find community.” 

She also called the addressable market “enormous.”

“This addressable market of kids and adults, young adults, really connecting and finding this sense of place and a way of being themselves and, sort of, forming these bonds, is going to only increase as we move forward.”

More on the metaverse

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