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I’m currently in New York attending TechCrunch Disrupt. While I am impressed with few startups that are launching, I have mixed feelings for the startups in the commerce (both e and offline) space. I don’t necessarily see disruption.
I was at a fireside chat earlier today with Chamath Palihapitiya, the managing partner of Social Capital, a venture firm that is focusing on disruptive startups. He mentioned something which resonated with me — “We are at an absolute low point in terms of startup quality.” It may seem slightly harsh considering that entrepreneurs are problem solvers who convert a gap into an opportunity. And, of course, the easiest opportunities to see are the ones that are hanging low. I have been in the e-commerce space for a while now, and work with tons of startups and developers around the world. I have a sense of where the industry is heading. I had a feeling before I came here that the startups were walking dangerously close to being just “one more.” TC disrupt sealed that feeling. Very few startups are truly disrupting. Let’s take a look at the startups that are here:
Startups attempting to change retail experiences:
- 42 — Personalized retail store experience. Provide offline product recommendations to shoppers by tapping into the POS system.
- OK’d (from Paidpiper) — Ask anyone from your contact list to help you buy an item while you’re in a store
Startups attempting to change e-commerce:
- Black Tag — Personal shopping assistance. It saves user preferences and finds products that they are most likely to buy.
- Blappit — Personalization tool for understanding shopping behavior. Can train the tool and tell it what customers like.
- Epaisa — Square for the India and Middle East markets.
- Gentleninja — Marketplace for digital goods. Like Walmart for web products and services.
- Imply lLbs — Uses social data to compute probabilities to be used for product recommendations.
- Mallwego — Shopping with gamification.
- Mavatar — Comparison shopping platform across multiple retailers.
- Moodyo — Social shopping. Search for products you want and get recommendations about fit, price, etc. from your direct and extended circles.
- Paytango — Links credit card data with biometric identification. Pay by scanning your finger.
- Peopleprint — Online printing marketplace.
- Sailplay — A loyalty program connected across different online stores.
- Snaptiva — Search products matching your home decor or wardrobe by snapping a picture, works across different retailers.
- Touchtopay — POS system that uses a fingerprints-based payment system.
- Bidzy — Customer can easily schedule services and have merchants bid for theit business.
All these startups (except Epaisa, Paytango and Snaptiva to an extent) seem very similar. The biggest trends I am seeing with e-commerce — or, more generally, commerce startups (payments, retail experiences, etc.) — seem to around social and personalization. Are these our biggest problems?
Shopper experience is critical. Shopper behavior is just a cool problem to try and solve — it’s not the biggest commerce challenge we are facing today. Also, I don’t believe that we can solve it perfectly. Shopping behavior is fickle. Using prior data to compute probabilities or product insights based on social network behavior is flawed. It assumes that everything people share on their social networks is real, and defines their personalities. This is clearly not the case. Several people build a social aura around them, which can be quite different from their real needs and beliefs. Prior shopping behavior data might help a little, but again it is based on the assumption that we are shopping with similar motivations every time. Then why are startups solving these problem? Partly because there is a lot of money being pumped into social commerce.
What’s something truly disruptive? I think TV commerce has a ton of potential. This morning I was talking to a technologist from Samsung and we had a very interesting conversation about TV commerce and how to create actionable transactions from TV viewing experiences. We brainstormed a bit on how Samsung smart TVs can provide hooks in the platform to create incredible shopping experiences that are both gesture- and second screen-driven. Enabling people to purchase on TV is cool. We need to dig deeper. What other things can be enabled?
When I was talking to one of my evangelist friends, he mentioned a dad building an iPad app that served as a wall for his child’s TV watching experience. The app quizzed his son from his study materials. If he aced the quiz, he would earn TV time. This seems to be a logical fit for integrating with smart TVs. Which takes me to another point — in addition to enabling shopping on TV, can we enable people to be good citizens, both in their families and their society? When there is a catastrophe, we see the destruction on the news channels. What if, right there, we are able to interact with our TV and make a donation to the relief efforts? This is an application that is at the intersection of cutting edge technology and impact.
We are at an incredible point in technology. With innovations around interactive computing, wearable devices, augmented reality and virtual reality, we can see tons of opportunities where we can do the same thing we do today in a better, sexier way. When we make innovations in technology, it also opens up a bunch of low hanging fruit. And that is what many startups go after. But, at the same time, innovations also inspire new opportunities to go in a completely different direction. They open doors to make progress on problems that were considered impossible to solve earlier. Those are the problems we need to focus on.
Do you have world-changing ideas in commerce? Talk to me @saranyan.
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