How AI Will Influence the Future of eCommerce

Alex Knight Unsplash 1-SRvNyNfSxgguPCQOX63Wyg.png

Less than a decade ago, the world was skeptical when it came to eCommerce, weary about the idea of pulling out their credit cards and making purchases online. But today, with eCommerce exceeding $22 trillion in sales across the globe and expected to make up 11% of all retail sales in 2018, it is safe to say the industry is growing at a mind-boggling pace.

Of this massive number, the Asian-Pacific will remain the world’s largest market for eCommerce, reaching $1 trillion in 2016 and expected to double that within the next couple years.

Both Europe and North America are not too far behind the pace car. Americans are not only opening up to the idea of making purchases online, they are embracing it — currently spending $51 billion on clothes, $26 billion on electronics, $16 billion on groceries and $4 billion on pet and baby products.

Who would have dreamt of the day we would all be buying diapers and groceries… online?

Today, not only American culture but culture across the globe is forced to face yet another major change that is bringing about mixed feelings of skepticism and excitement (not unlike the introduction of eCommerce years ago): Artificial Intelligence (AI).

While AI has been a topic of both exploration and development for years, it made its most popular debut when Apple started dating a girl by the name of Siri and before we knew it, iPhone lovers across the world were making requests to their devices like “Hey Siri, Call [fill in the blank]”.

Since its inception, AI has grown light-years. So much so, that by 2020, it is expected that 85% of customer interactions will be managed by… non-humans.

Martians? No, AI.

The rapid advancement of AI, along with the growing acceptance of eCommerce, has led to a cultural intersection that will completely transform the way we buy, how we buy and where we buy. In the near future, AI will be able to:

Decrease bounce rates & increase customer conversions by creating onsite conversation

You will notice more eCommerce sites are beginning to use chatbots in the hope that customers will feel less like a number and more like the only customer in the store.

While this has improved the customer shopping experience to some degree, some might argue chatbots come off a bit… well, robotic.

This is because chatbots aren’t AI. They can’t actually understand the individual they are communicating with. The majority of chatbots match words with a pre-set database of answers, not yet creating their own replies.

However, apps like Mona are seeking to take this idea a step further through the integration of artificial intelligence. Mona dreams to create the world’s most personal mobile retail shopping assistant.

The goal is to create a mobile shopping experience that is similar to an in-store conversation between a customer and a personal shopping assistant. Today, Mona simplifies mobile search, discovery and purchases; but, eventually, she will be able to do returns and reorders too.

In the future of eCommerce, you will see more adoption of artificial intelligence in the form of personal assistants. There is a personal element of physical, in-person shopping that eCommerce does not currently offer. Artificial intelligence will help fill this void.

Improve the shopping experience by changing the way consumers search for products

Back in 2015, Pinterest launched a groundbreaking rendition of AI in the form of a visual search tool — allowing consumers to easily and conveniently search their platform through images rather than words.

Pinners can now click on a picture on Pinterest, zoom into an object in the picture and then search the site for the object.

For example, let’s say you are looking at a picture of a kitchen and, within the picture, a pretty red chair catches your eye. You can simply zoom in on the red chair and hit search. Pinterest would then search the site for images similar to the chair that had caught your eye.

A huge issue within the eCommerce of the present is how difficult it is for customers to actually search for what they want. While online shoppers often know what they are searching for, they have trouble coming up with the right search term to find what it is they are looking for.

AI has not yet been able to effectively bridge this gap between keyword searches and natural language, partially because the shopping experience is so visual for consumers.

Because of this gap, apps like CamFind have had plenty of success — utilizing mobile visual search technology to help users find what they are looking for by searching with images rather than words.

Collect customer data and accurately predict what they will do in the future

Amazon Go is an innovative shopping technology that will allow consumers to shop in a physical store location without having to deal with the hassle of long checkout lines — providing what Amazon calls the “Just Walk Out Shopping” experience.

By simply downloading the Amazon Go app, customers will be able to walk into one of Amazon’s store locations, grab what they want from the shelves and then walk right out of the store. Shortly after leaving, the customer will receive an online receipt and will have their Amazon account charged.

In addition to providing an innovative checkout experience, this technology will allow Amazon to track individual customer buying habits and, in turn, predict what buying decisions they will make in the future. This will also allow Amazon to offer targeted products that they know their customers are interested in.

For example, if a customer buys 25 gallons of Blue Bell ice cream a year, Amazon may decide to market the customer products like… ice cream scoopers or perhaps an insulated bowl that keeps their ice cream cold.

If Amazon Go is successful, they will be among the first to truly bridge the gap between in-store and online.

Influence the way we live on a daily basis, not just how we shop online

While, over the next decade, we will see firsthand AI’s influence on eCommerce, we will also notice the influence it has on our day-to-day habits.

For example, Siri’s creators are currently working on a new form of artificial intelligence technology they are calling Son of Siri. They hope it will be a virtual assistant that can fulfill transactions like calling an Uber, ordering pizza and booking a flight.

Understanding human habits and consumer behavior are vital to running a successful business, whether it be online or offline. Embracing AI — accepting the fact that it is changing the way we as humans interact, work, buy and even live — will put you and your brand one step ahead of the competition.

Not only do we need to understand how our consumers shop, we need to understand how they live on a daily basis. This will start and end with Artificial Intelligence.

I would ❤️ to hear your thoughts (in the comments below) about what AI and machine learning applications will be used to automate eCommerce — What am I missing? 🤔

Does a Distributed Team Work?: Why It’s Best for Pixc

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Pixc has been an adventure since the beginning. Honestly? It’s like nothing I’ve ever done before, and that’s what’s been so exhilarating. I’m learning new things every day. But finding the right people for the company? That was something I had to learn how to do very early on and a distributed team was exactly the right way to do it.

A team’s nothing without amazing people to stand behind it. As James Cash Penney, the founder of JCPenney, once said, “Growth is never by mere chance; it is the result of forces working together.” I realized just how true that was when I wanted to start growing the team with fresh faces.

At first, I tried to hire people locally. But here’s the thing: I wanted to grow quickly, but I didn’t have the easiest time finding a lot of like-minded people in my neck of the woods. So I had to figure out a new approach… and fast.

Enter Upwork. The online freelancing platform allowed me to post job listings and consider applicants from all over the world. And, because I was able to meet people from a huge variety of backgrounds, it became so much easier to find passionate people who shared my interest in eCommerce and technology.

There’s a lot of value in building a distributed team, and it just may be the ideal solution for you.

What is a Distributed Team?

To keep things simple, your company has a distributed team if the majority of your workforce works remotely — away from your main office.

  Source:    Blossom

Source: Blossom

Members may be miles or even entire oceans away from each other. But despite any differences or cultural barriers that exist between the members, the team’s still able to come together and make something great.

How Balasmiq Inspired Me

Good design is one thing I appreciate above anything else, and I love the way that Balasmiq designs not only their beautiful widgets, but also the structure of their company. Most of Balasmiq’s employees are remote.

Balasmiq founder Giacomo Guilizzoni has always believed that work should be fun. And since no one likes commuting, he decided to build a distributed team from the ground up. And it works.

Even the way Balasmiq promotes their products shows how much they love the idea of individuals doing their work the way they want it, wherever they are. Employees only need their ideas, some coffee, focus and a good attitude to reach a brilliant idea:

 Source:  Balsamiq

Source: Balsamiq

I think we can all learn a few things from Balasmiq’s remote culture. Primarily, that work can be fun. When employees are able to have a better life/work balance with commuting off the schedule, they’re able to focus more time on doing their best. Productivity will increase with morale.

This has certainly also been my experience. My employees like to be able to be in new places, whether that’s travelling or working from a new cafe or coworking space. They can work when they want to work, and they are satisfied having full control over their time.

One of my favorite Balasmiq practices is how the team hires new employees together (something I have yet to try). This helps to ensure that all new members will have an easier time fitting into Balasmiq’s culture. Plus, it helps build a culture of trust and transparency. The new guys know they aren’t the anomalies — they are not only typical, but essential.

The Advantages of Building a Distributed Team

So I decided to take a page from Balasmiq’s book when I built my own distributed team. Along the way, I discovered that there was a lot to gain from having one. Here are just a few few reasons why:

It’s cost-effective

Say good-bye to renting an office space. You can have an incredible team without having to worry about finding a space to keep everyone. And because they work from home, they’re able to save on time and petrol (aka gas) that they would otherwise be spending on the commute.

And you, like Pixc, don’t have to blow your budget on workspace amenities or prime locations. You can use that money to reinvest in your business.

Moreover, if you choose to hire freelancers, you also lower other employer costs including your human resources budget. There’s also a lower cost per person when you choose to expand — you can do so incrementally and quickly, without waiting for the traditional in-person job interviews and scheduling that normally slows things down.

It grants you access to global talent

It’s not always easy to find local, talented employees who are an ideal fit for your company. But if you build a distributed team, it’s an entirely different story. You can bring people in from all over the world.

With team members distributed across time zones, you’ll even be able to get more out of your team. While some developers sleep, others can work on code testing. Customer support can even be provided 24/7.

Pixc has a team of hundreds of freelance photo editors who work for us all over the world 24/7. This would not be possible (at least, it would be significantly more expensive) without a distributed team system in place.

It makes your employees happy

Since employees can work from home — or really, from wherever they would like — they don’t have to choose between the best place for their careers and spending time with their family. They can have both! And because they have the ability to work from anywhere, proven they have Internet, they can even travel on the job.

Moreover, more and more people are looking for the kind of flexibility that distributed teams provide. According to the media trend analysts at PSFK, there’s a large group of workers called the “Nomad Class” who want to work remotely for companies like yours. PSFK have even released a whole reporton who they are and how to target them.

In my experience growing Pixc’s team, there has always been a wealth of applicants looking to apply for every position we have offered. These are the jobs people are looking for.

Some Challenges to Building a Distributed Team

All that being said, there are some challenges you’ll want to consider before leading a distributed team.

It’s harder to build a shared culture

Because everyone’s working from different places, it can be harder to build a shared culture or for employees to bond. Remote employees can sometimes feel like second-class citizens, especially if you have an in-office, local team.

The key is making sure they feel included at every level of organization. A team Slack channel and the occasional retreat, when possible, can make a huge difference. Buffer also has some great tips for running a retreat for distributed teams.

I also do my best to send birthday cakes to team members, just like I would if they worked in the cubicle outside my door.

Language and cultural barriers can cause confusion

Diversity has its challenges, but navigating cultural and linguistic barriers certainly isn’t impossible. You can make it a company policy to only hire employees who are fluent in your company’s native language and/or ensure that you’re hiring multi-lingual employees who can help translate when possible.

Whatever you do, be sure you’re practicing clear communication techniquesto minimize the potential for misunderstanding.

A Few Best Practices to Keep In Mind

Ready to lead your own distributed team? Great! Here are a few things you’ll want to keep in mind to help keep things running smoothly:

1. Hire the right people

Distributed teams need employees who are:

Passionate — You’ll want to make sure that the people you’re hiring are as excited and as passionate about your company as you are. Passion is key — it’s what drives innovation. I firmly believe that no company is complete without employees at every level who are passionate about your vision.

Self-Motivated — Make sure that your employees are also responsible and motivated enough to work without supervision. Strong leadership skills are a plus. Ideally, you’ll want to hire employees who have had previous work-at-home experience.

It can be an adjustment, and it’s not always easy to find a good groove with remote working if you’ve never done it before. Granted, this shouldn’t be your only criteria for hiring someone, but it’s something you’ll want to consider while building your team.

Skilled in Written Language — And, of course, you’ll also want to make sure that you’re hiring people who are competent written communicators. After all, most of the time you’ll be communicating over instant message or email. You have to make sure that your conversations are clear at all times.

2. Value your employees

People, by far, are your company’s most important resource. Providing the support they need is key. Be sure that you take a genuine interest in their lives and are open to investing in their skills.

Being willing to play a role in your employee’s professional development will do much towards making sure you’re building a culture of trust and encouraging retention.

3. Remember that communication is your most important tool

Distance affects everything — how you feel about people and what you know about them.

That’s why clear communication is vital in making sure your team can get things done. Remember how I talked about cultural barriers earlier? Do everything you can to make sure everyone’s on the same page. It can be very helpful to have regular meetings to discuss what needs to be done each and every day.

Encourage a direct line of communication between everyone on your team. When misunderstandings do arise, (and it will happen, let’s be honest), strong communication helps clear things up.

Passion is What Matters in Every Kind of Business

Talent is universal. That’s one of the biggest lessons I’ve learned from my time at Pixc.

Distributed teams allow you to fill your company with talented people from all over the world. Location doesn’t matter. Instead, it’s passion and creativity that will fuel your business, just like it fuels Pixc.

Pixc wouldn’t be anything without our distributed team. And I’m proud to say that, for me, a distributed team was the best solution to helping Pixc grow.

Open your mind to the possibilities. You just may find your most talented engineer or designer an ocean away.

What’s Hot DesQ Really Like?: FAQs from Someone Who Knows

You’d be forgiven for thinking that the reason I moved back to Australia was for the coffee. (That is not an unreasonable assumption.) But I really came back because I was offered an amazing opportunity to help grow my company: the Hot DesQ grant.

It has been three months since I have been in Brisbane as part of Advance Queensland’s Hot DesQ grant program. Hot DesQ invites start-ups to relocate to Queensland to be a part of Australia’s newest entrepreneurial community. They provide an equity-free grant and 6 months of free co-working space to move to Australia and network with top business advisors and mentors.

As a native Australian, I jumped at the chance to open an office back home and help other entrepreneurs learn from my experience. Being in Queensland has allowed me to build base in a fantastic, thriving startup city while growing a global company.

As part of the first round of entities who received a Hot DesQ grant, I’ve been able to learn a lot about the program. And now that Round 2 is open, I’ve been flooded with questions from you — my fellow entrepreneurs — about what you can expect. I’ll answer as many as I can in this post:

Hot DesQ Questions That I Have Received

1. What is the Hot DesQ program?

To clarify, Hot DesQ is neither a program nor an accelerator. It is a grantwhich runs for 12 months — 6 months of which are spent in Queensland, Australia.

Hot DesQ does not teach you about what you should do with your company, nor do they take equity. You are expected to build your company while helping out the Queensland ecosystem, but they will facilitate with introductions when you need help.

2. What are the main benefits you received from the Hot DesQ program?

In addition to the grant itself, recipients receive 6 months of free office space and connection to a network of business and industry resources. Not to mention the sunshine — it’s gorgeous here (but I am a little biased).

3. What was the destination you chose?

 Photo via  Jesse, Unplash

Photo via Jesse, Unplash

Hot DesQ has a network of innovation hubs (“Hot DesQ Hosts”) across Queensland including Townsville, Gold Coast, Ipswich, Sunshine Coast, Brisbane, Cairns and Toowoomba. As I still wanted to be in a place where there was a relatively large amount of people (I’m a city person), I chose Brisbane. It is the largest city in Queensland and has some great universities, which I wanted to be close to. It also has an international airport and is very easy to get to other places — Sydney, Melbourne or overseas if you need to.

 Image via River City Labs

Image via River City Labs

In terms of host locations, I chose River City Labs (RCL) because not only is it one of the oldest and most inspiring coworking spaces in Queensland, it also co-hosts Telstra’s accelerator program, muru-D, of which I am an alumna. I have some wonderful connections I made there and wanted to be close to the community that really believed in my ideas from the start. (RCL is currently in the process of moving to the brand new Precinct in the heart of Fortitude Valley).

4. What is Brisbane’s startup community like? What sort of help did you get from them apart from the co-working space? Did you find that this helped contribute to your personal education and development as a startup founder?

Although the Brisbane startup community is relatively new, I was pleasantly surprised about how much goes on, as well as how much Advance QLD is doing to assist Startups. Check out any of the “Entrepreneurs and Startups” programs on their website and you’ll see what I mean.

However, like being new in any city, you have to take the time to map out the landscape and find the interesting and intelligent people in your industry. I have been very fortunate to meet some of these people, including Erez Saf, CEO of CRiskCo, who also recommends the Hot DesQ experience,

“We were able, in a short time, to develop new opportunities with QLD government, a leading bank, and rolled out a pilot in Sydney. Much has happened even before half of the program had finished” .

There are also quite a few founders who are not active in the Startup scene, but are very successful. It seems that they started their companies before startups were a ‘thing’.

I can honestly say that nothing will contribute more to your growth as a founder than networking with a diverse, talented group of people. Queensland can give that to you.

5. Why was Hot DesQ a good fit for Pixc?

The grant we received from Hot DesQ has allowed Pixc to hire extra talent and build other product features like automation and integrations.

It has also allowed us to build out a base from Queensland and have a presence in a fast growing startup ecosystem.

6. What advice would you give others to maximise their time in the Hot DesQ program?

  • Live close to the office — Brisbane is affordable, so to cut down on commute time, pick a place hear your ‘host’ location (your host is your office space).
  • Find local companies that you would like to be introduce to — Your host location or the team at Hot DesQ would be more than happy to connect you.
  • Get involved in the community so both you and the company are known — This can be beneficial from both a hiring and fundraising perspective if you’re looking to meet investors.

7. What have you gotten out of the 6 month program, and would you recommend it?

Just to confirm, we are only 3 months in. So, we still have another 3 months to go.

But yes, so far, I would definitely recommend applying to anyone. You have the opportunity to live in a fantastic city with a growing ecosystem, and the grant money gives you an opportunity to hire someone on your team and grow your company.

8. Was there anything you didn’t like about the program?

Nope, and being the first round of companies, we were (and still are) the guinea pigs :)

What has been great about it is that the Hot DesQ team knows that we need space to run our company, and they do not get in the way of that. (Thanks Richelle and Elise!)

What I would love, is more hiring events to meet local talent from the industry and universities. I believe the Hot DesQ team are working on this for the next round of companies.

9. Am I still eligible if I’m in the very early stages?

I believe it does not matter what stage you are at in your company — early, later, with or without traction. The Hot DesQ website invites both “Early stage entrepreneurs and startups” and “Established startups looking to expand into Asia-Pacific” to apply.

What Hot DesQ is really looking for is people with:

  • Previous experience
  • Domain expertise, and
  • Knowledge that they can spread in the Queensland community

If you have a deep knowledge of your niche and (ideally) experience of running a startup that you can share with others, then this opportunity is for you.

10. I’m an American living in Sydney with a co-founder from NZ. Can we apply?

Yes — if you do not have a company registered in QLD, then you can apply.

11. It’s unclear what amount (between $50,000 and $100,000) my company would be allocated. What skills and experiences would a founder need to receive the full $100,000?

To be honest, I have no idea. Advance Queensland did not release that information to us, and it is not something that I have discussed with the other founders. I would check with the Hot DesQ team.

12. How many hours per month does it take to earn your 1000 network points, and what type of activities did you need to participate in? Was it a distraction from the main process of building the business?

I know…. “1,000 network points” sounds pretty intimidating when you already don’t feel like you have enough hours in the day. But it’s not — it’s very manageable. Mostly because if you are part of a startup community at the moment, you’re probably doing these things on a monthly basis anyway!

It is no way distracting from the main process of building your business because they are exactly the kinds of things you need to do to build it.

If I had to estimate specifics, I think that you need to dedicate enough time to assist two companies as a mentor, be on a panel or present at an event, as well as 1–2 other activities (such as a blog or social media post) per month. But there is a lot going on in the Queensland startup community, and you will be asked for help by a lot of people. You will be not lacking opportunities to share your talents.

13. How easy was it dealing with a government department? Receiving payments, for example. Was it painless?

It has been (surprisingly) amazing. The Advance Queensland team has been easy to deal with from the get-go. After they received the applications, Advance QLD determined who they would fund rather quickly. We were not left waiting by the phone for ages. They have also created a simple and straightforward reporting process every month and pay all invoices within 7 days. I’ve been impressed.

You have nothing to lose by applying.

We’ll be moving shortly to Queensland’s next innovative workspace — the Precinct — in Brisbane’s Fortitude Valley, and I’m excited to see what innovations this growing, dynamic community will develop. For applicants looking at this FAQ past this year’s deadline, I’ll be updating my blog with additional facts about the experience after the end of the 12 month program.

If you have any other questions that aren’t answered by this post or Hot DesQ’s Guidelines & FAQs, let me know in the comments below!

Applications are being accepted until May 3, 2017
Apply here: 
http://www.hotdesq.com.au/application-process

 

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5 Questions about Hiring a Virtual Assistant

Since writing this article, hiring over 200 people online and being part of Upwork’s video series, I have been receiving questions every week about hiring VA’s and building a distributed team.

I decided that instead of having a one-on-one call or one-on-one meeting with people, I would document it in some way — that could be via phone, Skype, email (text) or video.

Last week, Nick saw me speak at Myriad in Brisbane where he then sent me five questions. I have listed them below and there is a video to come if you would prefer to watch.

 Speaking on a panel with David Ryan, from Corilla and Chris Titley as the moderator at Myriad

Speaking on a panel with David Ryan, from Corilla and Chris Titley as the moderator at Myriad

I have started generating a list of things I would like the VA to do — is there a better approach?

You are going about it the right way here. I always tell everyone to create a list of things that they could handover to someone else — and this is pretty much anything that you do online / on a computer.
 
 As a founder, it is hard to hand things over but it needs to be done over time and you will find that it frees you up for the more important things. 
 
 So, keep going with your list — you can also break your list into smaller tasks which can be divided to multiple people.

Once the jobs are identified is it best to try and find one person to do all/many of these and employ them for a number of hours or is it better to have a number of VA’s with specific areas but employ for less hours?

I find that it is really hard to hire one VA to do everything. You are best starting with many doing small tasks and as soon as you find the one that is most competent for the job and one or more that works well with both you, your team and your company culture, give them more tasks. 
 
 You do have to go through a few VA’s to find the best ones.

Do you need to put an agreement in place with them regarding how long/how many hours/confidentiality around IP/passwords (eg Mailchimp) etc?

Most agreements are covered by Upwork when the contractor accepts the contract to work with you. 
 
 It is best to get your lawyer to check the legal terms to make sure you are covered.

Onboarding — what, other than Birthday cakes, would you advise to get the VA up to speed with how you want things done and what sort of frequency in terms of communication do you expect? Any other tips around leading a virtual team?

We have a private Facebook group where everyone can chat / share things about what they are up to. Remember, when you are dealing with people from all sorts of cultures and countries, it is easier to use the tools that they use already every day — Facebook is one of them!
 
 I also set up a Google site (it is free, no coding is required) where you can have all the on boarding material like the company story, vision and mission, as well as how you like things done.
 
We are also working on having an extra weekly Google Hangout every 1–2 weeks where we talk about everything other than work. This helps with company culture.

I also meet with each team (tech, product, customer success) at least once a week, at a dedicated time. If I need to reach anyone urgently, we use Slack or Whatsapp groups. It is best to hire people who are self motivated – you wont have to chase them and they will bring you their problems.

What updates/additions would you now put in your Medium post if you were to write it today?

I still stick by my original blog post on How to Hire a VA, on medium. 
 I would like to add more job description templates — I might need to crowd source them from everyone I have helped :)

Feel free to tweet any questions you have to @hollyccc

The Big Players Are Moving into Virtual Reality — What Will It Really Mean for Commerce?

  Playing with the VR gear at Emergent VR’s office in San Francisco

Playing with the VR gear at Emergent VR’s office in San Francisco

A few weeks ago, I attended the Shopify Unite conference in San Francisco. I saw with my own eyes how much of a community the eCommerce industry is, and I loved meeting the partners who build great stores and apps within the Shopify platform.

I was also fascinated by one thing in particular: the conference’s virtual reality display.

Including a VR display was a great touch — it shows that Shopify is keeping an eye out for important industry trends. The Shopify CEO, Tobi Lütke, is incredibly passionate about VR, and I have no doubt he’s positioning his company at the forefront of the coming vCommerce (virtual commerce) movement.

Tobi is right to see big potential in VR. I’m not alone in that opinion, either: Giants like GoogleAmazonAlibaba, and Facebook are getting into the market one after another. If VR hasn’t been on your radar thus far, take a closer look at the next big thing that will sweep the world. The VR wave is still a few years out, but it will arrive faster than we expect — so start preparing your business to thrive in a new, fascinating virtual landscape.

First things first: Virtual reality, augmented reality, and the difference between the two

You might already be familiar with virtual reality and its cousin, augmented reality. But in case you’re not, here’s a quick crash course.

Virtual reality (VR) is a three-dimensional, computer-generated environment that you can interact with. The point is to place you in a world where you feel separated from the “real” world, where you feel totally immersed in the experience being presented to you.

Just look at how everyone in this video reacts enthusiastically to everything they’re seeing in the virtual world even when they’re actually in front of a green screen:

Now, augmented reality (AR) is a little different. It takes a real-world environment and enhances your perception of your surroundings. For example, you might use augmented reality to see how furniture will look in your house:

See the difference? Essentially, VR aims to bring all of the user’s senses to another world or experience, while AR seeks to immerse the user in their current world.

VR and AR both have one thing in common, though: They’re both fascinating, and they both have the capacity to transform our lives for years to come.

VR and AR for online shopping is poised to become big — really big

 The term ‘virtual reality’ when put into Google Trends

The term ‘virtual reality’ when put into Google Trends

Since I operate in the eCommerce space, I’m intrigued by the applications of VR and AR for online transactions.

The first question we might ask about vCommerce is: Do the consumers want it?

To me, the numbers point to “yes.” Here’s a statistic from WalkerSands Communications’ Reinventing Retail 2015 report:

More than a third of consumers (35 percent) say they would shop more online if they were able to try on a product virtually … and 63 percent said they expect it to impact their shopping experience in the future.

There’s more: Digi-Capital predicts the AR and VR market will hit $150 billion by 2020. (Hat tip to David Kariuki at Hypergrid Business for the statistics.) AR and VR will “grow new markets,” they say, and “cannibalize existing ones”.

If you’re skeptical or on the fence, I recommend giving vCommerce a second look. Brilliant new technologies have a habit of sneaking up on us, upending entire markets against the predictions of industry veterans. Many people predicted in 2007 that the iPhone would fail miserably; from our present-day vantage point, we know the iPhone revolutionized the cell phone industry and helped make smartphones ubiquitous.

Consumer demand seems to be growing for vCommerce, and the market seems to be ready for rapid growth. But will vCommerce replace eCommerce?

The short answer is: Probably not. Many industry observers think vCommerce will be incredibly useful but also believe vCommerce will operate alongside existing sales channels instead of immediately replacing them. vCommerce, they believe, will fit into an omnichannel user experience for online stores around the world — people will love VR for shopping, but they’ll also continue to shop through mobile devices, desktops, and brick-and-mortar stores.

Now, whether vCommerce will overtake eCommerce remains to be seen. Dan Virgillito wrote for Shopify that “it’s too early to make conclusions,” and I agree.

The one thing I can say now is vCommerce should definitely be on your radar and you should definitely start preparing for it. Check in on vCommerce news periodically and keep evaluating whether you need to upgrade your website for VR and AR. There’s a good chance we’ll all need to make improvements sooner than we think!

Current players in the VR/AR space

VR and AR are still nascent industries, so there aren’t many players in these spaces right now. However, forward-looking companies are angling for supremacy in the coming VR and AR landscapes.

I mentioned earlier that some of today’s giants are hopping into vCommerce. Alibaba is one such company — they’ve created a VR research lab called GnomeMagic Lab and recently invested in AR company Magic Leap at an eye-popping $4.5 billion valuation. Alibaba’s archnemesis Amazon, meanwhile, has indicated they want to introduce VR to Amazon Video (and I’m sure the always-innovative Jeff Bezos is thinking about VR/AR integration for online sales too).

Google has already made forays into AR with Google Glass, and they’re now making VR more accessible with the affordable Cardboard. (Google has shipped over 5 million Cardboard units, and users have downloaded more than a thousand Cardboard apps 25 million times.) Another tech giant, Facebook, acquired Oculus VR in 2014 and is demonstrating promising possibilities for immersive video and advertising capabilities.

There are, of course, newer players seeking to become the premier companies of the VR and AR age.

VRCommerce, for example, wants to become the Shopify of VR (how cool would it be to start your own VR store?). ShopperKraft is creating new features in 3D immersive shopping. And FaceCake has created technology that, as ABC describes it, “lets you try on virtual clothes before you buy.” Click here to watch video

Many people would say VR and AR aren’t global phenomenons quite yet. But as the giants of today push the envelope with exciting technologies and startups find rapid success in VR and AR, I’ve no doubt other companies will start embracing the virtual realm.

What will VR and AR for online shopping look like?

This is where we can have some fun speculating how vCommerce will operate.

My friends at VRCommerce think vCommerce will mostly have customers enter special rooms or pop-up stores to buy products. Once putting on headsets, customers will enter virtual rooms with four walls, and then they can proceed to browse items in the virtual world.

I’d like to see consumers immersed in virtual locales related to what they’re buying. For example, say you want to buy yoga gear. It would be really fun if you could put on a headset and go to a virtual yoga studio to shop for your apparel and equipment.

Perhaps you could buy cycling gear while watching the Tour de France on TV — perhaps you’d be whisked away to a virtual store right next to the race itself. Or you’ll visit a model home virtually, during which time you can buy a couch you see that would look great in your own house. On the latter point, IKEA is already doing something in this realm: The company recently partnered with video game developer Valve to create a VR kitchen you can enter using the HTC Vive.

I believe VR and AR will transform experiences for consumers in online shopping, just like it will do so for gaming. vCommerce is a win-win for both store owners and consumers: The quick experience makes it really easy to make purchases, so retailers move product faster (and at higher volume) and customers don’t have to wait to buy their favorite items.

Possibilities for product placement abound as well; companies are already allowing customers to purchase real-life things in virtual worlds. Take the computer game EverQuest II, for example, where you can buy a meal from Pizza Hut in-game. On a related note, a great way to test vCommerce for product placement would be to put a buy button into a current video game (VR or not) and sell Amazon products that would be dropshipped to customers.

The possibilities for vCommerce are simply astounding. In time, I’m certain innovative companies will introduce new ways to shop online that will surprise everyone and delight consumers everywhere.

Nuts and bolts: Making purchases in vCommerce

Sure, we can dream about the possibilities with vCommerce, but at the end of the day we have to figure out how exactly vCommerce transactions will transpire.

Say you have a VR headset on and you’re shopping for items. How will you actually purchase the items and check out?

One possibility is using a sort of two-step process:

  1. First, you browse for your items on the VR headset, seeing how they’ll look on you/in your house/etc.

2. Then, you take off the headset and purchase the products on a different input system (like a tablet, computer, or mobile device).

I think we can do better. I’d love to see eye-tracking technology inside VR headsets that can help you make selections and purchase items seamlessly. Eye-tracking in VR is a growing trend, and it’ll be only a matter of time before we can use it for vCommerce.

Eye-tracking for vCommerce could work brilliantly. For example, there could be a buy button on the top-right of your headset screen. You’d look at the button, and the system will ask you to confirm your purchase. You’d flit your eyes to the “Yes” button, and just like that, your items will be on their way to you.

Retailers who reduce purchasing friction for their customers sell more. That has been true for a long time, and it’ll be true well into the future. Even with the magic of VR and AR, checkout needs to be completely frictionless (see: Amazon’s brilliant one-click ordering innovation), otherwise customers will drop off the sales funnel.

Luckily, VR and AR might allow us to create seamless sales processes for consumers. It would be incredibly helpful, for example, if we had virtual sales assistants to answer questions on the spot. The lack of on-hand sales assistants is a gaping weakness in eCommerce; how many times have you removed an item from your cart because you weren’t sure if a product was right for you? Virtual sales assistants can overcome objections and reiterate conversion-boosting policies like hassle-free returns to keep customers happy.

Overall, if we place everything consumers need right in front of their eyes — stunning visuals of merchandise, clear answers to questions, and easy checkout options, for example — online stores everywhere can enter the coveted realm of sky-high conversions.

Spinoffs for the VR industry

Whenever a huge industry is created, there’s bound to be a spinoff industry that accompanies it. One example is the smartphone market, which spawned the smartphone accessory market (including phone cases, screen protectors, apps… and yes, even selfie sticks).

Since the vCommerce market is poised to grow so large, there’s bound to be a need for services that will streamline vCommerce operations.

For a present-day parallel, just take a look at all of the services that support eCommerce:

  • If you want to create an online store, you can use services like ShopifySquarespaceBigcommerce, and Big Cartel.
  • There are lots of services that integrate eCommerce with social media, like Soldsie and Like2Buy.
  • You can get editing for product photos from services like my company, Pixc.
  • If you need designs created for your website, you can use ThemeForestfor a store theme or 99Designs for a logo.
  • Other services abound. You can use Sellbrite for a multi-channel listing service, for example, and you can use PayPal and Stripe for payment gateways.

When the vCommerce market hits it big, we’ll see an upswing in the same types of auxiliary services, just adapted for the virtual and augmented spheres.

For one, services like Shopify and Bigcommerce will need to start offering vCommerce store builders. While they’re creating new options for their customers, they’ll undoubtedly face new competition in the space from companies like VRCommerce.

We’ll need services to transform all of the 2D content we have now into 3D content (here’s looking at existing 2D-to-3D companies like 3Defy and ZVerse). And we’ll need music companies, design companies, content companies, distribution platforms, and design platforms (companies like LucidCamEEVO, and Koncept VR) that will allow us to create immersive experiences in VR and AR.

In time, forthcoming VR and AR content creation methods will bring increasingly immersive experiences to consumers and business owners alike. Sounds exciting, doesn’t it?

Start preparing your business for VR and AR

We all know it’s dangerous to get complacent, especially in the world of business. There are always innovations around the corner just waiting to take the planet by storm.

Virtual reality and augmented reality are great examples. They’ll revolutionize gaming and online shopping as we know it, and there’s a good chance they’ll reshape other industries as well.

Although it’s a little while away, start thinking how you will incorporate VR/AR into your business for the upcoming movement — then watch as the industry astounds you. What will we see next in VR and AR? It’s anybody guess. But the innovations will captivate us and transform our lives for years to come. I, for one, can’t wait to see what’s coming.

Building a Startup Is Like Building a Fire

Building a Startup Is Like Building a Fire

Last night was one of those Sunday nights — sitting in bed wishing my heater was a real fire. Just sitting and thinking — like I was Don Draper or something.

My thoughts drifted to a few business-minded questions (that typically come from an impatient startup founder) — why do startups need capital? Why can’t we simply build our businesses without relying on capital; why can’t we just generate tons of revenue and bootstrap our way to the top?

How to Hire a Virtual Assistant

You have a lot to do and you know that it is not worth your time doing repetitive tasks. That includes researching bloggers that you could reach out to for your next guest post, finding content for your social media this week, booking your upcoming holiday, and how about organising those flyers to be designed and printed for your next event?! Yes, you can outsource this. All of it.

After hiring over 200+ people in 12 different countries, I want to help you hire the right virtual assistant so you can save time and get more done.