At Propelify festival, talk centers on future of retail in an e-commerce world

Entrepreneurs, tech businesses and retailers gathered in Hoboken on Thursday at the second annual Propelify Innovation Festival to network and share their experiences with aspiring entrepreneurs.

Among more than 10,000 attendees, panelists spoke of the opportunities they saw when they began to work with their organizations, as well as the changing landscape of tech-enabled business and its effect as a disruption to the market.

“It’s an amazing time to be a technologist. … the barriers to entry have become so low that, if you want to start something, there has never been a time in the history of the world that has been better to start a tech-enabled, tech-powered business,” said Jack Hanlon, vice president of analytics for Jet.com. “Some of the challenges, as a result, have shifted. Whereas before, you would have had to raise an insane amount of money or buy custom servers … now the challenge is about discipline and, given all of these things at your disposal, how do you make sure your business is about what you actually do?”

Jet.com is an e-commerce website for grocery shopping as well as conventional e-commerce products, like appliances and clothing.

Hanlon’s talk, “Forget Machine Learning If You Don’t Own Use Learning,” focused on the importance of being able to apply new technologies like deep learning and automation properly to make a personalized user experience.

“Personalization is an amazing opportunity right now, because of the power that machine learning and deep learning can bring to bear on the types of problems that we have,” he said. “We can actually talk about achieving meaningful one-to-one personalization. And I’m not just talking about products, that’s a pretty narrow view of what personalization can be, but actually a whole experience on a website that just feels right. We’ve never had more power to solve those types of problems, but, in trying to solve those problems, it takes some advanced tools, and whenever we introduce advanced tools we introduce a lot of opportunity to fall flat. Bad personalization and bad solutions are worse than no personalization and no solution.”

A panel that included the co-founder and CEO of Bulletin, Alana Branston, and WeWork Labs co-founder Jesse Middleton also mentioned the opportunities that emerge in retail with the introduction of technology.

“In retail, what we’ll see is, 100 percent of brands that don’t yet make $1 billion a year need an option, which is both economically viable, but also scalable and flexible where they are able to shift with the trends that happen,” Middleton said.

He mentioned the shoe company Allbirds and how the company made its name, at least to him and a modest number of people in San Francisco, through Facebook advertising, and compared its global reach to the potential savings a company could see as opposed to signing a lease in a downtown urban area.

Jack Hanlon of Jet.com was one of the…

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