Operator fuses bots with humans to build cyborg shopping experts

Big purchases are scary to make online without anyone there to quell your fears and answer questions. Operator’s app wants to give you the same peace of mind, not with mechanical chat bot responses, but through real humans with knowledge about whatever you’re buying.

Today Operator 2.0 launches with a new Discovery tab where curators assemble recommendations about their favorite products in a category, and can offer guidance about which to get. That said, bots will still help handle mundane interactions to free up experts for more subjective work.

Operator Expert Screenshots

Operator CEO Robin Chan tells me the update will help the app push its $90 average purchase size and 10-15% conversion rate, which destroys the typical 1-3% conversion rate on ecommerce sites.

Not only could Operator’s experts give you the same personalized suggestions like you’d get from a lifelong record store clerk. If they promote the app and rally their own social graphs to score more commissions, they could give Operator a critical growth boost.

Operator emerged in April 2015 from Uber co-founder Garrett Camp’s startup studio Expa. Run by Chan, former head of Zynga’s Asia business and a successful angel investor, Operator raised a $10 million Series A from Greylock. But the iOS and Android beta apps have been slow to take off because they’re trying to teach people a totally new way to shop.

Operator Human

Instead of searching through a product database, Operator lets you type in a request for something over chat, like “brown mens shoes size 10 or 11 that are light but good for hiking”, “earbuds with the best bass under $100”, or “a super comfy leather couch that’s easy to move around.”

Tracking down products with those specific traits would be tough for an amateur. But Operator hosts shoe, headphone, and furniture experts who already know what’s best. “The products that work for us are considered purchases” says Chan. “If you’re going to spend a couple hundred or a thousand dollars on a thing, you want to talk to someone.”

This could be Amazon’s weak point. Competing with the commerce juggernaut on price or selection is a fool’s game. But plenty of digital shopping carts get abandoned because people are just too unsure to pull the trigger.

Operator Discover

Operator pays commissions only, but hopes that can work out to at least $15 an hour. At first glance, that’s less than an Uber driver makes, but there’s no cost of gas, car, insurance, or the stress of being at the mercy of morons on the road. High performers could earn more through commissions.

The core of Operator’s challenge remains inserting itself at the moment of intent, and redirecting users from their go-to search engine or big box retailer. Chan promises he has some tricks up his sleeve for acquiring users and “getting them to understand this new model”. Whether Operator becomes a household app or ends up some tech giant’s acquihire will depend on it.

“We think of Operator as the third wave of commerce” Chan concludes. At first, everything had to be bought in person at a store. You got great help, but it was inconvenient. Next, websites let you conveniently buy from home, but you didn’t have assistance. Combining the ease of the internet with the help of a human could spur the next evolutionary leap in shopping.

Operator is available for free on iOS and Android beta