Operator harnesses chatbots, humans, and $15M to sell US goods to China

With a little personal shopping assistance, Operator thinks Chinese citizens will pounce on American products sold through its conversational shopping app. The promise of becoming the guided commerce layer connecting China with the US has earned the two-year-old a $15 million series B round at a $100 million pre-money valuation.


Operator CEO Robin Chan (left) and new Operator China CEO Yolanda Xue

We’re making commerce borderless”, Operator CEO Robin Chan told me.

GGV Capital, which specializes in US-China startups, led the round and its partner Hans Tung will become a board observer. Tung praised Operator’s “mass-market-first approach” and its understanding of “the value of creating a global company from the start” rather than trying to bolt China onto an app built for the US.

Other new investors include Formation8, Morningside Ventures and billionaire Li Ka Shing’s Horizons Ventures. Existing investors Greylock Partners and Expa from Operator’s April $10 million, $40 million pre valuation Series A also participated

Hugo Barra, former Google Android VP and current VP of Xiaomi Global, will join the board to bring his China chops. Operator China will start a logistics and marketing office in Shanghai led by Yolanda Xue, former VP of merchandising at mobile commerce at Wish. They’ll give Operator a home town edge rather than coming in blind from abroad.

Instilling The Confidence To Buy Big

Operator’s iOS, Android beta, and Facebook Messenger interfaces let people browse categories of topics like apparel, shoes, cosmetics, gifts, home goods, and electronics. They can get the goods delivered from the closest, cheapest possible source. If needed, users message a chatbot for help, which will connect them with a human expert in that product category who earns a commission on what they sell.

The idea is to fill the gap between ecommerce and brick-and-mortar by combining the convenience of shopping from anywhere with the personalized customer service of being there in person. Though there’s potential for this model in the US, Operator is still trying to find viral growth.


But its new strategy revealed today attacks a ripe market. To get goods from the US, Chinese buyers typically have to risk purchasing fake knock-offs, expensively have someone else shop for them abroad in person, actually travel themselves, or endure a distant ecommerce experience on sites like JD or Alibaba where they might have trouble reading English reviews.

With Operator, Chinese citizens will be able to text chat with a human shopping expert from the US with Chinese language skills. They can show the customer products that fit the price, quality, and style they’re looking for, even if the buyer is unfamiliar with US brands.

Chan says “We’re trying to pioneer a new type of global commerce.” That might sound exciting, but it will be tough work to educate consumers about a totally foreign way to buy things. But Chan is resolute in his belief in “a standalone messaging platform that looks like a commerce platform.” After 20 years of shopping on websites, Operator could bring back a human touch at scale.