Q&A with Matt
Tell me about your role at Belk and the apps that you manage.
At Belk, I originally started out on the business side of things – then I was hired to work on IT. But, because I have a business degree, I have a say in a lot of the product decisions. I manage the team that builds our app, and I work with the business team on what goes into it.
The Belk app has done extremely well this year – we’ve more than doubled our revenue. Our rating on Android improved from a 3.9 to a 4.6, and on iOS, it rose to a 4.8 (although our iOS rating has always been high). Also, our iPhone app was featured by Apple on the iOS store. We’ve seen a lot of positive gains from investing in mobile.
How did you get involved in the mobile app development space? What were some of your first projects?
I’ve been programming since I was 12, building things like calculator apps in Turbo Pascal, and I’ve always been entrepreneurial. When I turned 18, I started building websites.
One of my first clients was my dad’s chiropractor who needed a website – so I built it for him. But I had no idea what to charge. I called my dad and asked for advice. He told me to, “Charge him what you need.” Well, I needed my rent – So I gave him an invoice for the cost of my rent. It was stressful and I didn’t know if he was going to pay it. For me, that was a lot of money. But he wrote me a check, right there for the invoice – and I was hooked.
When it came to making apps, one of the first ones I built was for a buddy of mine. He approached me with an idea, I built it out, and we went from there. I also worked on a trivia game for a while that drew 100,000 downloads. But mostly, I was building apps for different people. So, I went to work for a company called Rockfish Interactive who did work for Walmart stores and Sam’s club. During my time there, I got to work on the Sam’s Club iPad app. About six years ago I came to Belk – and three years ago, I took over the Belk mobile app.
What character traits would you say it takes to succeed in your field?
Hard headedness, good communication, valuing your team. You are working with a lot of valuable players that are young and very smart. They need to trust you. You need to be able to trust the people around you that are making the product decisions. Mostly what makes you successful is your team though. To be honest, it’s not a specific trait other than that you attract the people, and choose the people, you work with. But good leadership goes a long way. Most of the work that gets done is a group effort. Even if I get the credit for something, there are 18 people on my team that do an amazing job every day and are passionate about their work.
How important is it for the Product/IT/Marketing teams to be in alignment when working on the app and deciding on new features?
Alignment is not as important as trusting each other. There are plenty of times that we are not in alignment on how something is going to go. Getting consensus is not always the goal – it’s understanding when it’s time to let go of your, “want” and when you need to put a stake in the ground and say, “I will not let this go.”
One example is native checkout on the Belk app. At the start, a lot of people weren’t for it. It wasn’t a business question, so business didn’t care how it was it was implemented. But how it is implemented makes a huge difference, so that was a place we had to put a stake in the ground. Another example is our, “Add to Bag,” button which doesn’t have a size selector until after the button is pressed. Business didn’t love that decision, but IT liked it, so we went with it. It was more of an implementation question because it was going to be challenging to change it.
We’ve seen features like instant-checkout and AR try-on. What do you think is the next big thing for retail and shopping apps?
This is always a tough question because everyone wants the answer to be exciting, but it’s not. Augmented reality has its challenges, and the value is limited. Try-on, to this day, is very challenging to figure out what size chart we should be showing and such. Getting augmented reality correct is tough. If you’re in furniture, it’s great. I’ve done an AR furniture app on the side and there is a good fit for it there. But, it’s still really not customer-facing when it comes to retail. And there’s some cool companies out there doing it, but it’s mostly a novelty.
Easier checkout and easier payment are always going to be the most important piece. Performance, ease of use and payment are becoming increasingly important. Even Apple Pay is still not perfect. PayPal takes two or three clicks to get through. Performance is number one. Making it faster – making it not take 30 seconds to get the payment out there. Secondly, paying faster and more automatically. Those are going to be the small innovations that really change the way people do things. Because, the faster they get through it, the more likely they are to buy and get what they want.
The other thing is that, as a retailer, it’s important to think about the customer’s actual experience. When my daughters were first born, I still had to work. And I realized one day, I’m sitting there holding my daughter as she is crying trying to go to sleep, that anything I can do from my phone with one finger made my life better – because I could still hold my daughter and I could still tackle my responsibilities. If implementers, developers or retailers think like that, they will start to realize that performance, speed and usability are what actually impact people’s lives – while augmented reality, nobody cares about.
Are there any conferences or trade shows that you recommend people in your field attend?
Internet Summit and the Digital Summit series are great – I had a great time there. They move around quite a bit which makes them easy to attend for people with busy schedules. Click Summit was also really good, but it is invite-only from Brooks Belle – they do A/B testing.
The smaller conferences offer a lot and give you the opportunity to go deep with people. But the best ones are the big ones like South by Southwest (SXSW). SXSW has a great eCommerce piece in the technology portion that I would highly recommend. And someday, I will go to Apple Worldwide Developer Conference (WWDC). WWDC and Mobile World Congress (MWC) are the top two I want to go to. In all these years, I have never mustered up a ticket.