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Ashwini Asokan is a rare breed of female entrepreneur – the breed that encouraged VC’s to empty their pockets in recognition of the power of the AI platform she founded, Vue.ai. Powered by the AI company Mad Street Den, that she founded alongside her husband, Asokan put this power to use in the form of retail AI solutions for fashion companies. “Retail data is broken” she told me, and her modular software solution is set to fix it.
Announcing today a Series B round of funding to the tune of $17M, Asokan and her team are intending to prepare retail brands for the “experience economy” that sees them facing stiff competition from online behemoths including Amazon and Alibaba, who are successfully using AI to personalize products and services for shoppers.
Setting the scene for the emergence of Vue.ai’s seven part ‘modular software solutions’, she cites a number of fashion retailers and brands going into meltdown in 2016. The catalyst? Combined pressure of new direct to consumer brands “doing e-commerce better”, coupled with Amazon offering unparalleled product ranges and fast fulfilment. “A bridge was needed for retailers and brands to close the gap between what they and their rivals were offering” explained Asokan. She describes this as the right time for her company’s AI software solutions to begin uniting the ‘broken data’ chain of retail. Consumer data and retailer data remain largely fragmented and unleveraged, she claims, giving Amazon, and the like, a clear competitive advantage.
Having spent several years at Intel as a product designer incorporating AI into consumer electronics, and with her husband, Anand Chandrasekaran, in academia (neuromorphic engineering), they aspired in 2013 to taking AI from labs into the ‘real world’. “AI needs to be in the market, in the hands of people across industries – it needs to be in the wild to be scalable” is Asokan’s belief. So they began building proprietary AI software inhouse at parent company Mad Street Den, until 2016 presented retail as a sector ripe for visual AI disruption. Enter the “retail apocalypse”, as she calls it during our conversation.
Expanding on Vue.ai’s goal of “fixing fragmented fashion”, she goes on to claim that “fashion has the most problems to solve – not a single brand has a central view into their product and consumer data” and furthermore, consumer behaviour data and merchandising data are disconnected. Vue.ai offers a centralised “data brain” to join these ‘digital dots’.
Asokan highlights significant potential for Vue.ai’s solutions to support the shift towards a sharing economy within consignment retailers who offer subscription boxes. thredUP, a client of Vue.ai, and Stitch Fix are the obvious retailers that comes to mind in this segment. Chris Homer, Co-founder and CTO at thredUP said “with over 2M unique items in inventory at any given moment, we are constantly innovating on ways to help each customer locate the perfect needle-in-a-haystack item. Vue.ai’s AI stylist allows us to personalize the end-to-end customer experience.” In this consignment model, the volume of merchandise moved is much higher, which is not easy for legacy technology to keep abreast of. Purely from a volume play, Vue.ai’s digital tagging and merchandising solution provides good ROI results, Asokan claims. As an example, the digitised “tagging” process is 10 times faster than the cataloguing process that requires the features of the product to be entered manually. VueTag’s visual recognition populates this data is a snap.
Other solutions provided by Vue.ai include model photography. Generative networks for AI-generated human models can allow for personalisation and lower cost of digital versus physical assets in the form of mannequins. A third module gaining sway is AI styling. VueStyle provides customer segmentation and curates ensembles across channels from web to email and social – at every touch point.
The overarching view from Asokan is that the “whole model of just selling things to people is over” and the “future of retail is entertainment and the experience economy”. As brands like Under Armour and Nike are designing retail worlds for the consumer to immerse themselves in, “AI is the electricity that powers that experience” by way of how the inventory is managed, photographed, merchandised, styled and ultimately, purchased – with the personalised consumer experience at its heart.
April 24, 2019 at 06:28PM
Forbes – Entrepreneurs