The charismatic Chase Thomason was demonstrating his new app called Skip to crowds of fascinated onlookers at this year’s “Big Show” – the National Retail Federation’s (NRF) annual convention and expo. I sat with the San Francisco based entrepreneur for a brief chat about himself, Skip, and the future of retail.
Let us start with a little background about you. Where did you grow up and where do you live now?
I grew up on a potato farm in Idaho, in a little town called Rexburg and lived on the farm pretty much all my life, helping around and spending harvest picking potatoes. I finished high school there and did a two year mission in Texas, then attended BYU [Brigham Young University]. I now live in San Francisco.
Now at fourteen years old you participated in Babe Ruth’s World Series. Don’t ask how I know this.
[Laughs] Who have you been talking to? Yes, I grew up playing baseball. Every summer that’s what we did. There was a small group of us that played since were very young and at fourteen, we played really well, won many tournaments, and played in regionals. From there, we went to the nationals and played in the Babe Ruth World Series. It was an amazing experience because that year, we won one or two games and I officially ranked fifth in the world. It was amazing but it was the experience of being in New York and rubbing shoulders with other people from international teams that was really cool.
Fantastic! So let’s talk about your product. You’re here at NRF, this is your first time.
Yeah it is my first time. Skip is a mobile solution that enables shoppers to walk into the store, scan and shop what they need, and get out; you skip the lines and move on with your life. What’s funny is I set out to skip the checkout line because I have three kids and would often do the grocery shopping for the household. I would go to the grocery store two or three times a week and it blew my mind that I had to wait in line for long periods of time, when I had this extremely powerful device in my hand. So because of that, I wanted to figure out a way to save that problem.
So the idea came from your need to go into a store and get our as quickly as possible.
Yes, from my own personal frustration.
Tell us about the development of the idea. How was the process and what were the steps taken?
When I came up with the idea, I was working at another company as head of product. Once I had this idea for checking out, I hired an Indian developer and I would stay up at night with him putting designs together. I threw these designs together, made this fake product, and went to the stores to find out if it was something that they would actually pay for. It turned out that they would and it was a solution they had been looking for. From there it snowballed, but I needed funding to build a team, so I moved to San Francisco. My family remained in Utah and I would visit every few weeks, but I stayed in San Fran to fundraise. Once there, I started networking with the developers and through the connections we made, we raised a million dollars from venture backed money, which allowed us to put a team together.
What were the challenges? Tell me your top two as a new company.
I would say integration into the store’s systems. That is a challenge because it is difficult to find a retailer who not only wants to try this new concept of retail, but also connecting with their system, and figuring out the best way we can work together. Another one is how do we make our solution more secure. How do we make it extremely safe for the retailers, but also for the shopper.
Then what is your pitch to retailers and how do you approach them?
Mobile checkout solution. We explain it as bringing the power of e-commerce to the brick and mortar experience. I say this because not only are we allowing people to checkout, but as a user, when I walk into a store and scan what I need, I see the price of the product as well as taxes, coupons, and discounts because we’re integrated to the store’s system. Also, if I don’t know where an item is in the store, I can do a quick search and it will quickly tell me where I can find the item. The more I use the app, the more it learns about me, which enables it to make suggestions, or notify me of sales on items I may be interested in.
So there is machine learning involved?
Yes definitely! In order to customize the store to the needs of the customer and not the other way around.
What is the plan for this year?
2015 was all about developing the product and testing it. This year is about growth and expanding in other locations.
You’re now at the Microsoft Booth here at the NRF Convention. Is this a partnership that you have?
Yes, this past summer we were invited to participate in Microsoft’s venture accelerator where they really provided us with the resources needed to grow from a small company into a larger one and at a faster rate. Our backend is built on Microsoft’s Azure which is a huge privilege to have.
Azure is their Cloud Services, right?
Yes and it provides data and analytics as well as machine learning. There is so much you can do with Ager. They provided backend infrastructure, research, and we would go visit their research arm to look at the different technologies for smart carts, smart bags, and other really cool, futuristic stuff. They also provide insight which will allow us to reach new customers. So for 2016, some of the pilots we’re exploring came from Microsoft. One is a retail chain that has over $15 Billion in revenue and another at $20 Billion in revenue. Those are huge opportunities that came from the introduction from Microsoft.
Are there any other big partnerships you’re eyeing right now or want to explore?
Right now we’re really just focused on Microsoft and working with them. We have other smaller partnerships with retailers but those are the stores we work with.
So the five year goal for SKIP is?
Honestly, our only focus right now is to build the best product. People ask us all the time what the end goal is and whether we’re looking for acquisition. We just want to provide something that is disruptive and provides people with what they want.
[laughs] San Fran’s favorite word: Disruption
[laughs] yes, disruption and innovation
You guys have been around for just over a year and I am sure competitors will be popping up all over the place soon. How do you plan to stay ahead?
It is easy to get distracted by thinking about competitors, but you either get motivated and hungry and you want to destroy your competitors or you get anxious and you just want to hide from them. Honestly, this is such a huge space and such a huge market, it doesn’t matter if there are many competitors or not. The opportunity is way too big to worry about competitors right now.
So let’s talk about the current consumer climate in retail settings. Where do you see things headed?
I think it is one of the most exciting times right now for consumers. For me as a consumer there are so many ways I can interact with a brand and a retailer. With things like IoT and various ways of purchasing items, there will be a lot of things changing over the next five years, which will change the ways in which we transact and acquire things.
Do you think that it is important for there to be human interaction when shopping in brick and mortar stores, especially during the sales process?
I think it is important. Right now most retailers have cashiers and all that the cashier does is process transactions. We want to be able to provide a solution and have it be so popular that people want to use our product, which will then free up those cashiers to be on the floor as customer advocates. They’re on the floors helping people out.
Do you think it will be a good thing to have them on the sales floor? Personally I don’t want sales associates coming up to me all the time when I’m shopping, or even coming at all, unless I have a question or require assistance.
Yes, I guess it depends on what my need is at the moment. What is neat about what we provide is that through our app we can provide a help button. So if a shopper needs help, they tap that button and someone comes over to assist
Any plans to move to other retail categories, like apparel for example?
Yes absolutely! We already have a number of requests to go in that direction and initially we wanted to start there. The reason we went with grocery shopping is because grocery is a habitual and we wanted to tap into that behavior. Also, because grocery stores are famous for having lines, which is one of the toughest things to solve for, finding a solution to that, should make everywhere else easy.
What advice do you have for budding entrepreneurs?
You know, just this morning I was thinking about hope and confidence. To me, those are two of the most powerful emotions any entrepreneur can have because as a startup you’re trying something new and it can feel like the world is against you. Everyone is telling you why it is not a good idea and to achieve your goals you must have the confidence to try. You have to take it one step at a time and hope comes secondary because you need to feel like you can pull it off. Sometimes the stars align and sometimes they do not and if not, then you must have confidence to try again.
What do you think about social responsibility, does your company focus on it?
Absolutely! One of the things we want to encourage is bringing your own bag when shopping. Our solution compliments that cause and in some of the stores we will be working with, we really want to test and promote that concept.
Let’s talk about you. Any favorite sports and teams?
Yes, football and I love the Bengals and Seahawks.
Interesting, I thought you would have said snowboarding.
[Laughs] Yeah, I love snowboarding but how do you know these things about me and we just met? I love snowboarding and have been doing it since I was six or seven. I am very outdoorsy and love being outside and doing things. I also love riding motorcycles and dirt biking, as well as camping and taking my kids and wife out. I am very family oriented.
How old are your kids?
Five and three years and we also have an eight month old.
Congratulations! How do you relax?
Thanks! I snowboard and love reading to my kids.
OK, let us play a game of rapid fire questions. So you can’t think before answering, yes?
Day or Night?
Ice-cream or Frozen Yogurt?
Cats or Dogs
Chocolate or Sex?
Steak or Sex?
Skydiving or mountain climbing?
Skydiving. I have never done it but I think I would really enjoy doing it.
Learn more about SKIP by visiting goskip.com