Operator wants to “unlock the 90% of commerce that’s not on the Internet”, CEO Robin Chan tells me. After two years in stealth, Chan was finally willing to give TechCrunch a peek at his startup, which he sees as the convergence of the biggest themes in tech: mobile, messaging, and the on-demand economy.
Operator calls itself a “Request Network”. It’s an app that uses a network of human ‘Operators‘ to fulfill customer requests. It can handle a broad range of commercial requests. For now it’s focused on “high-consideration” purchases that may require expertise or have lots of options to choose from.
The app is currently in private beta, but Operator will be letting in more users off the waitlist soon, which you can sign up for here. Chan wouldn’t give specifics on when the public launch will happen beyond “When it’s ready”.
Building The Switchboard
Two years ago, Chan and Uber co-founder Garrett Camp were looking for a way to work together. Chan says they realized that “messaging was going to be a very big theme in the age of the Internet.” Natural language and messaging could potentially usurp keyword queries punched into search boxes. But messaging wasn’t being applied to commerce, yet.
So Chan and his team built Operator within Camp’s startup studio Expa, which has raised $50 million from name-brand investors and also released restaurant reservation and payment app Reserve. You might have heard of Magic, a startup gets you whatever you want if you send in a request via text message. But Magic was built hastily as a side project. Operator is the real deal.
Chan and Operator’s goal is to combine the best parts of brick-and-mortar and online shopping. It gives you the expert personal service you’d expect from an in-store employee, but doesn’t lock you into shopping at just one physical location. Meanwhile, Operator offers the convenience of shopping from anywhere, anytime via your phone, but handles the research you might not be qualified to do and the annoying checkout experience.
“Ecommerce bifurcates in two ways” says Chan. “#1. ‘I don’t want to talk to a human being’-commerce, like vending machines. This is the commerce that ecommerce is optimized for.” Then there’s #2. “‘I want a lot of service’. That range of products is quite wide and it doesn’t perfectly fit on the Internet”, which Chan tells me is why Operator is going after it.
Chan, the former head of Zynga’s Asia Business Division and a prolific angel investor, describes Operator as “The switchboard for goods and services”. He explains that “You used to dial ‘0’ and there was a human being on the other end. Why isn’t there an app on your phone where there’s a group of people helping you?”
A few weeks ago I published a story about what Operator does based on sources, but now we have official info and screenshots straight from the company.
Here’s how Operator works:
- Operator’s homescreen is an outbox of your requests. To start a new one, you send an instant text message in Operator that you want a new pair of Rayban Club-Master sunglasses, a stuffed lion for a child’s bedroom, or most anything else. You can send photos too if that helps.
- The request is routed to Operators with expertise on or an affiliation with the right product category, brand, or store. They will research the best thing to buy for you. Rather than computers, Operators are real humans, and you can see their name and face in the message thread.
- The Operator messages you back with purchase options that you can give feedback on. You can tap in to check out a product in greater detail, with photos from multiple angles, description, and pricing. Once the Operator shows you something that’s right, you hit the “I’ll take it” button and they buy it for you with your credit card on file.
- Operator sends you receipts in-line, and has the product shipped to you as fast as you need it.
Along with sending messages, Operator users can also browse a Discover section of great products, search for items, brands, or stores and check out product catalogues, or follow individual Operators to see their favorites picks.
To make this all happen, Operator partners with retailers, which can sign up here to join in. If the store is big, it might have its own employees respond to Operator requests, sourcing things from the shop. If the retailer doesn’t have enough staff, Operator could potentially work with it to have an Operator who knows its inventory.
Service With A Digital Smile
Connecting with these Operators could get you expert help — a big step up for someone who doesn’t know much about what they’re trying to buy. Chan says “There are many, many things in your life where a human being can give you better service than a bunch of reviews on an ecommerce site.”
A true sneaker aficionado could find you the coolest new shoes when you might not know where to shop or what styles are in fashion. You might hear a great speaker system but not be able to identify it. An audio fanatic from a music shop could quickly tell you the make, model, and where to buy just based on a photograph. This is why Chan declares that “The demise of the store is greatly exaggerated.”
Still, normally you’d have to go to a physical shop for this level of service. But even if they can tell you what you need, if they didn’t have the product in stock, you’d have to trek across town looking for it. Chan cedes that “if you can buy it on Amazon you should just buy it on Amazon”. Operator’s unique value is in helping you buy “anything where you’d want someone to give you some judgement if it’s the right fit for you, where you’d value their opinion.” But you aren’t stuck committed to a single store to get great service.
As for shipping, Chan tells me Operator is exploring different partnerships to potentially offer same day or next day local delivery. When I mentioned Postmates and Uber, he said at least one of them is under consideration. Chan doesn’t want Operator to build out a delivery system of its own. saying “I think the logistics fabric is already there. It’s a question of us stitching it together.”
Operation Before Monetization
Operator is “focused on building the commercial graph” first and foremost, according to Chan. “What really matters is that customer and businesses care about the product. Then the business models emerge naturally.”
But if Operator can reach scale, there will be plenty of ways it could monetize. There are more conventional methods like getting a revenue share on sales made through Operator, or charging retailers to use it. Right now many retailers don’t answer a lot of the phone calls they get from potential customers.
More innovatively, Operator could sell its insights into what customers want, or the ability to know in detail who a business’ customers are. And whenever there’s search and discovery around commerce, there’s potential for sponsored placement.
Long-term, if Operator can index every type of business, it will exert massive power over where to route its lucrative requests.
For now, though, it’s not going to nickel and dime customers or businesses with fees to earn money. Scale first, revenue later. Expa’s pockets are deep enough to keep Operator’s lights on.
If Operator seems a bit pointless to you, consider this. Once upon a time, brick-and-mortar stores probably weren’t sure they needed to be able to take orders over the new-fangled telephone. Similarly, ecommerce sites didn’t seem necessary to every store when the consumer Internet first took off. A few years ago, building mobile apps might have felt like overkill to some merchants.
But now that mobile messaging has become one of the dominant ways people communicate, a messaging interface for ecommerce seems sensible. People are busy, on the go, and don’t feel like researching purchase options or typing in payment info on their phones. They just want what they want.
Chan tells me he sees Operator as the third wave of ecommerce. At first shopping was architected around the browser stack. Recently, it’s been rapidly reoriented around apps, though many are just miniaturized versions of websites. Now with Operator, Chan says “we think there’s a light data layer we can infuse in an offline context” to let technology bring the benefits of in-store shopping to the Internet.
There are surely enough of bodies to man Operator. Chan explains that on weekends, retail stores are packed, but are empty during weekdays when shoppers can’t visit in person. Employees end up sitting idle in the shop while online shoppers struggle to make purchase decisions. “You have a lot of slack resources in physical stores” that aren’t in sync with where demand is, Chan proclaims.
Combining the simplicity and convenience of messaging, the breadth and rich visual aids of mobile shopping, and the instant gratification of the on-demand economy could take the hassle out of commerce. With Operator, you won’t even have to break stride or stop your conversation to buy something.
Chan concludes. “I don’t think retail is dead. I think retail needs to find a new equilibrium.”