We’ve been dealing with smart virtual assistants for decades. The first gadget that could recognize speech was launched as early as 1961, called the IBM Shoebox. But most of us only got familiar with the idea in 2011, with the debut of Apple’s Siri.
However these technologies might have evolved until now, with the rise of devices like Amazon Echo and Google Home, it seems like humankind is yet to develop a commercially-viable tool that can do its job without fomenting frustrations. As it turns out, human communication goes beyond language recognition.
But Jetblack believes that natural language processing (NPL) and natural language understanding (NLU) are at the core of the future of the retail industry, so they decided to tackle conversational commerce while it’s still in its infancy.
The startup is focusing all its efforts to build an AI that can successfully and efficiently communicate with users to quickly solve their everyday shopping problems. Customers can communicate with the virtual assistant through either voice or text message to order specific products or ask for suggestions for a panoply of case scenarios, such as a birthday gift or an outfit for an event.
Currently targeted at busy upper-class parents living in Manhattan or Brooklyn, Jetblack promises to learn its users’ preferences and lifestyles, being able to recognize that “Jack” is your 3-year-old son and that “Kevin” is your husband, for example. After finding the perfect product, shoppers can order it immediately and, most of the time, get a delivery in the same day.
The ultimate goal is to create a seamless shopping experience that can be individually tailored to each user.
“With Jetblack, we have created an entirely new concept that enables consumers to get exactly what they need through the convenience of text messaging and the freedom of a nearly unlimited product catalog.”
– Jenny Fleiss, co-founder and CEO of Jetblack
Jetblack is currently testing its $50 subscription with an 8-month long closed beta launched in May 2018. During this trial period, the startup was already able to reach some conclusions. It looks like users choose the assistant’s suggested products 79% of the time, and that an average of 10 items are ordered per week. Text message prevails over voice, particularly because people can see pictures of the recommendations before making a purchasing decision.
The project that led to Jetblack’s origin started at Store Nº8, Walmart’s tech incubator. Formed in 2017, Store Nº8 was set up by Marc Lore, jet.com’s founder who came along with the company’s acquisition by the multinational retail corporation. The team has been quietly working on a number of projects that aim to develop the technologies that will shape the way people will shop in the future. They recently acquired Spatialand, a virtual-reality company, and are working on a “cashierless” store technology under the codename Project Kepler.
“I don’t think it was just Walmart’s size that enabled us to do it,(…) It came down to senior leadership team taking the view of being where retail is going over the next 20 years and which areas we need to lead in so we can disrupt rather than have others disrupt us. We need to be disrupting ourselves and our business, leaning into those technologies that will disrupt earlier rather than later.”
– Lori Flees, lead Principal of Store Nº8
Jetblack is the first startup to come out of the incubator. Under the leadership of CEO and co-founder Jenny Fleiss, it took only 14 months for the project to reach daylight. Fleiss’s experience in the field comes from co-founding the successful online apparel rental company Rent the Runway in 2009.
The startup operates completely independently from Walmart, and you wouldn’t even realize it’s owned by the enterprise unless you looked it up. This was a necessary step for more than one reason. For one, autonomy is essential for a startup to have the time and room to experiment, make mistakes, and try again, while not being held back by corporate bureaucracy. Besides that, since Jetblack acts as a middleman between several retailers and consumers, it needed to have a non-biased appearance.
Jetblack is now working to get the technology ready to be released to a wider market, and is currently finding the balance between offering high-end products and getting suppliers that thrive on scarcity on board with the project.
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