Interview with Shopkick cofounder and CTO Aaron Emigh, Part I

November 7, 2010 § Leave a comment

In a time when more and more people shops online in search of bargains, Shopkick is transforming the way consumers interact with physical stores.

Shopkick, established in the summer of 2009, is an online app that aims at improving shopping experiences. It allows retailers to deliver coupons directly to their users’ cellphones and offers “kickbucks” for entering stores and scanning products, which could be used to claim rewards such as movie tickets, gift cards and even Coach bags.

Here is how it came into being and where the company is heading towards.

Ella:  [0:55] Can you tell me how did you come up with the idea of establishing Shopkick?

Aaron:  [1:06] So, the idea behind Shopkick was very much driven by trends in technology that have meant that, for the first time ever, people are carrying devices with them that are capable of running all kinds of software and also know roughly where a user is. And the evolution of the software ecosystem that permits people to install software on the devices under their own control rather than the control of carriers and manufacturers.

Aaron:  [1:50] This has opened up a lot of capabilities that weren’t possible in the past and in particular we felt that location based services are going to be an incredibly important arena. It’s very very powerful with computing to be able to run applications on a platform that is with you all the time and that knows where you are. And we thought that shopping was the first place for that. [2:23] And this is something that I had believed for a long time and started talking with Cyriac, and with Jeff and Cyriac at the time was an entrepreneur in residence Kleiner Perkins, and we were thinking very deeply about applications of smart‑phones and retail. And so we began talking there, he had some really creative ideas about the potential of unlocking performance based marketing in the real world and the kinds of value that could be offered to consumers through this platform.

[2:59] And really opening up stores and making them into virtual, interactive worlds, if you will, and creating an element of personalization in retail that hadn’t been possible. So it was a really the analysis of a confluence of technology developments that was suddenly unlocking a whole range of new possibilities in the physical world.

Ella:  [3:23] I read from the news that each store has a device that can actually send a sound to your cell phone so your cellphone will know that you’re actually in the store. How did you come up with this idea?

Aaron:  [3:55] The idea basically came about, it’s very important to know if somebody is outside a store, close by, in the vicinity, or if they’re actually inside a store because there’s a very different experience that’s appropriate for those two cases.

And also, from the stores point of view, if they want to offer incentives for people to come into the store, it’s very very important that they actually know when people are in the store or they are informed when somebody is in the store rather than knowing that they’re out in the parking lot or they’re driving down the street a block away. [4:35] Which is the kind of resolution that you can get out of GPS and WiFi triangulation, it’s actually even worse when you look at cell tower triangulation and so on.

So basically, we knew that this was going to be a really important problem to solve, the problem of presence, not just of affinity, but of presence. And people have been talking for years about Near Field communications and how RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) is going to solve this problem and so on, and that’s a potentially exciting technology, but for 10 years people have been saying that it’s coming to cell phones and it still hasn’t happened yet. But in the meantime you have this incredibly large installed base of cell phones so we thought it was really important to come up with something that would work with today’s hardware platforms.

So what we did, is we came up with, we just made a list of all the analog interfaces that exist on a cell phone, so we were looking at the cellular radio, the WiFi radio, we’re looking at Bluetooth, we’re looking at the accelerometer, the magnetometer, the camera, basically every single [features?] that the phone can interact with the physical world. And for a variety of different reasons, ruled them out one after another as being too inaccurate, of not having the capabilities, the right kind of UI and so on.

[6:01] And the last thing that hadn’t been ruled out was the microphone, and you know, we looked at it and saw that the sampling rate was sufficiently high, that we could do some interesting stuff there. And we did some pilots and figured out that it was actually possible to use audio as a signal and then we obviously spent quite a while developing the technology to do that. But it really was a process of elimination. We knew that presence was a very, very important problem to solve, and just tried to exhaustively look at every single possible way to solve that until we found one.

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