Should You Buy That? Thingtesting Has the Answer.
In an era dominated by online shopping, dubious influencer endorsements, and trendy, direct-to-consumer gear, it’s harder than ever to know who to trust. Jenny Gyllander, the mind behind the product-review Instagram account @thingtesting, is here to cut through the noise.
Jenny Gyllander spent the summer of 2019 covered in bug spray. As the creator of the review company Thingtesting, Gyllander had scored an early sample of a new outdoorsy personal-care brand called Kinfield. She’d already researched Kinfield’s mission and sustainability practices, interviewed the founder, and shot photos of the products at her studio in Helsinki. The only step left was to thing-test—her term for evaluating a product—its deet-free repellent.
“I’m not a person who would wear mosquito repellent for a night on a New York terrace, so I did it my way,” she tells me. “I used it specifically in outdoor settings for a month during the summer, from Finland to North America. I try to integrate the products into my life and not hysterically try them over 24 hours. That’s the fairest way to assess, Do I need this?”
That candid tone is what Gyllander’s fans have come to expect from Thingtesting, a review platform that as of this writing, but not for long, exists only on Instagram. The @thingtesting grid is filled with medium-shot photos of protein cereal, Veja sneakers, and bars of shampoo in plastic-free packaging, accompanied by analysis of each product in the caption. Part of her review for the repellent reads: “I like that Kinfield added their ingredient list to the bottle, which otherwise isn’t mandatory for repellents regulated under the Environmental Protection Agency.”
Thingtesting, as 29-year-old Jenny (pronounced “yenny” in her native Finnish) frequently describes it, aims to be the millennial Consumer Reports. She discovers interesting products and reviews them honestly. It’s a simple proposition, but in a market saturated with paid influencers and mislabeled branded content, it has earned Thingtesting more than 42,000 followers, some of whom pay a premium for additional content, and one of whom is Natalie Portman. Thingtesting’s target readers are the type of early-adopter consumers that marketing firms spend billions trying to woo. According to Gyllander, her audience doesn’t want to impulse-buy products algorithmically served to them between wedding photos. Instead, they try to make responsible purchasing decisions with an understanding of a product’s efficacy and the brand’s sustainability practices, funding structure, and place in the market. Gyllander calls this consumer attitude the curiosity factor.
Aside from Portman, the most powerful Thingtesting followers are investors who you may not have heard of unless you’re a recent MBA graduate. Gyllander spent her midtwenties working at Backed VC, a London venture-capital firm that funds the type of excruciatingly millennial startups whose products she would later go on to review. With Thingtesting’s help, these companies and the investors who fund them are determining what our gym bags, grocery carts, and skin-care shelves will look like in the future.
Thingtesting specializes in contemporary brands geared toward young shoppers, brands that tend to bypass traditional retailers and sell directly to consumers. There’s a disproportionate amount of Helvetica and pastel. From house paint to dental floss, most of the more than 100 products Gyllander has reviewed feature a minimalist design and look like things you’d find in the same Brooklyn concept store. About half of them fall into the gear, wellness, or sustainable-living space; she often highlights the type of innovative running shoes or personalized vitamins that may already be in your backpack. (Especially if that backpack is Fjällräven.) Many of the other products have likely come across your radar, because brand strategists and marketing directors design them to appeal to a specific base of conscious consumers. If an item isn’t on your wish list already—say, an affordable cashmere sweater or a notebook made from stone paper—it may be after a scroll through the grid, especially if you’re between the ages of 18 and 35.
Gyllander photographs each product on a piece of white paper and photoshops a pale background underneath. This friendly aesthetic has come to symbolize the Instagram era, just as hot pink and triangles typified design in the eighties. Recently, Gyllander decided that Thingtesting’s appearance is a little too tied to our current moment and is now working on a rebrand. For now, the contents of the Thingtesting grid might remind you of a posh general store: you may not need anything, but it feels soothing to walk in and poke around.
Thingtesting is one answer to a daunting product-review ecosystem, but unlike many tech companies, it wasn’t reverse engineered to fix a problem. It started because Gyllander wanted to shop.
Smaller brands often don’t make it to Finland, so while growing up in Helsinki, Gyllander became accustomed to coveting products from afar. “Everyone in Finland knows that you go to Sweden to buy things,” she tells me. Her family had a summer cottage there, so Gyllander was always that au courant kid who came back to school with the newest Swedish fashion swag. By the mid-2000s, she was an adolescent early adopter who introduced her friends to Creative Zen MP3 players and Eos lip balm. Her longtime friend Sylvia Sene tells me that Gyllander was the first person she knew who ordered something on the internet. Gyllander’s fiancé, Chris Cloutier, says she convinced him to try a new way of hailing a taxi: Uber. Then there’s Gyllander’s interest in sustainability, which she traces back to a love of scuba diving. “My first memory of being shocked by plastic pollution was while diving in Malaysia,” she says. (Four years after that trip, she’d go on to slam a particularly wasteful subscription-box company for breaking her “#oceanplastic heart.”) Out of this eco-consciousness, combined with what Gyllander admits is a “competitive” need to be first, Thingtesting was born.
Gyllander has always been interested in fashion, but by the time she went to school to study it in 2011, retail was pronounced dead. “The professors realized, ‘Oh God, we have to show these girls something other than how to design a shopping window,’ ” she says. As a last-ditch effort, they taught students software like Photoshop and InDesign, which would prove useful when Gyllander launched Thingtesting. But the curriculum wasn’t enough to keep Gyllander interested. She enrolled in Helsinki’s Hanken School of Economics, where she wrote a 110-page dissertation on venture capital that landed her the job at Backed in 2017.
When Gyllander moved to London, she brought along a list of products she could finally get her hands on. “When I called back home, I would vent about whatever products I’d just tried,” she said. “At one point a friend said, ‘Jenny, I don’t want to hear about this stuff anymore. Can you just tell me how you’re doing?’ ” But Gyllander wanted to keep talking about brands, so she decided to do it on Instagram.
She posted her first review, of a beauty subscription box, in April 2018. The caption has all the elements that would become Thingtesting signatures: personal anecdotes, information about the company’s VC funding and business practices, and suggestions for improvement. Eleven months later, she quit her day job to focus on Thingtesting full-time. Six months after that, in September 2019, Thingtesting announced $300,000 in angel-investor funding.
Shopping has always been overwhelming, but with the eruption of social media and e-commerce, it’s easier than ever to outsource purchasing decisions to someone else. Buying a reusable water bottle? Amazon has more than 20,000 to choose from. There are Reddit threads devoted to the nuances of Nalgene versus Yeti versus Hydro Flask. All that choice may seem beneficial, but for many of us it’s merely exhausting. Shoppers looking to make informed purchases turn to review sites like the Strategist and Wirecutter, or the product reviews in this magazine, all of which use hundreds and sometimes thousands of words to describe the best options. Every decision can feel like homework.
With so much competition, it can be difficult for a company to produce a genuinely superior product. Still, many of us do have an opinion in, say, the water-bottle wars, and often that comes down to brand loyalty. You might choose a Yeti if you’re the weekend-adventure type but a S’well if you’re more likely to be found at an after-work fitness class. Both companies aim their products at a tight demographic and have trained us to believe that what we choose says something about who we are. Since direct-to-consumer companies can’t rely on retailers to get their products in front of consumers, their rise has coincided with a feverish emphasis on brand strategy. As Gyllander explains: “Direct-to-consumer brands operate with a very specific narrative that is emotionally driven.”
Take Magic Spoon, which makes a protein-packed breakfast cereal that Gyllander reviewed last June. The brand’s colorful boxes and catchy tagline—“Childlike cereal for grown-ups”—momentarily hypnotized me into thinking it was the first high-protein option on the market. In fact, Kashi, Quaker, and Special K all offer them, yet none of their boxes make me feel as giddy or nostalgic as Magic Spoon does. Gyllander aims to break the spell of these brand-derived “stories.”
Even informed shoppers—Gyllander’s ideal audience—are buckling under the weight of too many options. “Every purchase I make requires two weeks of googling and an Excel spreadsheet,” says Emil Sievinen, an avid Thingtesting follower. Weary consumers often turn to influencers for help, but amid the fog of affiliate links, discount codes, and sponsored posts, trust can be an issue.
“It’s a black box to many consumers,” says Magic Spoon cofounder Gabi Lewis. “It’s hard to tell why something is being endorsed, and it’s not binary, either. Maybe they do like it but they’re getting paid as well.” Simply by saying that it doesn’t participate in the pay-for-play review economy, Thingtesting cuts through that uncertainty.
Gyllander doesn’t use affiliate links, which enable influencers and publications to earn kickbacks when someone purchases a product on their recommendation. (Outside’s website participates in affiliate marketing.) She occasionally accepts free products for review, making sure to identify these “gifted” items in the captions. But she prefers to buy the stuff she tests, so she can decide whether that alcohol-free cocktail or those organic-canvas sneakers are worth the price. “I don’t think I’ll buy this again” is a fairly common refrain in her reviews. “My number one priority is building trust,” she says.
For consumers, a Thingtesting review is a welcome alternative to the endlessly scrolling “see more items” page. For companies, it’s a chance to benefit from the goodwill Gyllander has created among her followers. When Kinfield repellent showed up on Thingtesting last July, founder Nichole Powell was thrilled. “I would rather have a good constructive review than a glowing fake one, and I think our community would agree,” she says.
Gyllander’s reviews typically fall somewhere between constructive and enthusiastic, but they never tip fully into critical. She gets asked about negative reviews so often that she addresses the topic in the site’s FAQ.
“Thingtesting is about helping you find new brands that do good,” she says. “We are about learning and discovering, so we don’t write negative reviews because there is enough negativity in the world already. We can, however, recommend some new features to the products that we’d like to see be added.” She says that of the ten products she tests per month, some are duds—and they don’t make the grid.
It’s too soon to predict exactly what Thingtesting will become, but Gyllander has a long list of issues that she knows she’ll need to address as her company grows. First, she can’t write every review herself. Because she’s careful to post only those products she has used, Thingtesting hasn’t been able to include men’s shoes or shaving kits, even though her audience is split evenly between men and women. Eventually, the plan is to form a community of thing testers who follow one another and share expertise. (For fans who have grown accustomed to Gyllander’s singular taste, an expanded version of Thingtesting with more opinions may not be an improvement: one American student described himself to me as “an avid follower of Jenny.”) As with any Instagram-centric company, Gyllander knows that she’ll have to leave the platform behind if she wants to build a successful business. I ask her if she’s worried that Thingtesting’s fate is currently tied to Instagram. “One hundred percent,” she says.
For now, Thingtesting is coasting on last September’s investment round and modest earnings from Instagram’s Close Friends feature. Close Friends lets Instagram users post photos or videos that are visible only to a chosen set of followers. Most people I know use it to shield office selfies from their bosses or outfit polls from their dates, but resourceful influencers see it as an opportunity for premium content. For $149, Thingtesting’s Close Friends tier gives users access to a monthly newsletter, event invites, a curated list of brands Gyllander is curious about but hasn’t had time to test, and other behind-the-scenes content. Gyllander considers it a simple way to experiment and get feedback from her audience. The next step is to create a Thingtesting website, with the long-term goal of profitability through a paid subscription model, comparable to Netflix or Spotify. “I see a trend toward paying creators directly instead of the creators selling out on their audience,” she says.
“When you invest in a company at this stage, it’s really about the founder,” says Tina Sharkey, an early backer of Thingtesting. “It’s too soon for a business model. You’re investing in the person and their ability to execute their vision.”
As Sharkey and other funders realize, Gyllander is an attractive investment. She’s been formally recognized for her business accomplishments as part of Forbes’s European 30 Under 30. And she’s almost pathologically organized. Gyllander is the only source I’ve ever interviewed who sent me a calendar invite to confirm our talk. “She’s definitely a spreadsheet person, let’s put it that way,” Sene says.
The future of Thingtesting will include a revamped design and a proprietary platform, and one gray November night in Helsinki, Gyllander thing-tested a novel approach to product evaluation. When I show up at Thingtesting Laboratory, the company’s first event, I immediately notice her black leather ankle boots. I’ve spent years of my life on an impossible mission to find the ideal combination of heel height, toe shape, and leather texture—and Jenny is wearing it. She’s in jeans and a white T-shirt, and she’s managed to make them look sophisticated. She also has on a lab coat in preparation for some of the world’s current and future business leaders to thing-test along with her.
Soon, an international contingent of startup founders, investors, and hangers-on arrive and suit up in lab coats. We’re in a borrowed art gallery, and Gyllander and her volunteer assistants have set up product samples from 18 direct-to-consumer brands for guests to poke and prod. Everybody is given a clipboard and a review sheet, where they can write notes about the products and rate them from one to ten. Tonight’s event—in addition to serving as a meetup for people who want to try the latest plant-based nonalcoholic spirit—will bring in hundreds of opinions for her first attempt at collaborative reviews.
In one room, a Cornell MBA student uses both hands to try and rip a pair of purportedly unbreakable pantyhose. In another, an investor gulps down a thumb-shaped blob of gin and tonic encased in a digestible seaweed pod. In the back, a lab-coated volunteer talks up Eterneva, a mail-order gem company that crushes the ashes of departed loved ones into a keepsake diamond. It’s an unusual scene, but guests recognize it immediately, because it’s a real-life replica of the @thingtesting Instagram feed.
Gyllander has stacked the room with such a broad array of aesthetically pleasing products that a pair of $20 organic-cotton socks don’t look out of place on a white museum display block. Thingtesting’s Instagram grid produces a similar effect. The photos are so beautifully wrought that it takes a moment to realize you’re looking at a running shoe or a bowl of cereal. Nothing at Thingtesting Lab is for sale, and removing the pressure to buy creates additional space around the products. Guests can contemplate the value of these particular white tube socks without having to consider, Wait, do I even need new socks right now?
The point is to get a jump start on Gyllander’s plan to involve other thing testers and slowly move the brand away from being a reflection of her sensibility. And no one at the meticulously managed event, myself included, would guess that this is the first time Gyllander and her four-person team are all in the same room together. She has marketing and development staff in Helsinki, Barcelona, and New York, and Gyllander herself moved from Finland to Detroit a few weeks after the event. (Her fiancé lives there, and Gyllander wanted to be closer to the founder and investor community in New York.) Just over a year ago, Thingtesting was still one woman’s after-work project. A year from now, a user may be able to harness the power of a global Thingtesting community.
The question, as Gyllander phrases it: “Do you want to pour gas on this thing right now and make it a rocket? Or do you want to spend ten years building an amazing brand?” If Gyllander wanted to sell out, she could. But she hasn’t, which is why I recommend buying her favorite vegan, sulfate-free, vanilla-scented bug spray.