The Future of Retail Over The Next Five Years, with Peter Trepp, CEO of FaceFirst
I had the pleasure of interviewing Peter Trepp CEO of FaceFirst, a global patented enterprise-grade facial recognition software platform designed to be scalable, fast and accurate while maintaining the highest levels of security and privacy. As an executive leader, investor and entrepreneur, Peter has helped numerous technology companies achieve successful exits, including CSC’s purchase of ServiceMesh, BlackLine’s sale to Silver Lake Sumeru, and RedHat’s acquisition of Inktank. He earned his MBA at the UCLA Anderson School and his BA in Economics from UC Irvine. Peter is a widely quoted industry expert whose thought leadership has appeared in Bloomberg, Digital Journal, Education Week, Business Insider, New York Times, Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal and elsewhere.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
It all started when I was a part-time teacher and coach for young companies. My specialty was entrepreneurial finance and the tools needed to raise money. I guest lectured at UCLA and worked with companies that were introduced to me. For most start-ups with a “great” idea, this is the Holy Grail and money will solve all problems (or not). My platform was called “CFO Bootcamp” based on the premise that most young companies don’t have CFOs and most young entrepreneurs had never raised money outside of rich Uncle Bob. After seeing scores of companies, I learned that the biggest challenge was not a lack of passion for their idea, but rather an inability to tell a story based on a sound strategy that was going to turn this idea into a real business. This adventure allowed me to choose projects I cared about and pursue my combined passion of corporate strategy and life-changing technology. When I got the call to run a facial recognition company that needed to be restructured and positioned for the dawn of a new industry, I couldn’t pass it up.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
I love cars, just ask anyone that knows me. I would curate an amazing collection if I had the space (and the money). I never expected that my love for cars would connect me with so many friends and create some great opportunities.
In 2008, I saw a prototype electric BMW (Mini Cooper EV — aka MINI E) at the LA Auto Show. I learned that I could “have” one if I applied to be in their field trial. Not only did I apply, I was chosen to receive the very first electric BMW (Mini) car in the world and quickly found myself interviewed by virtually ever newspaper, magazine and TV news show around the globe. It was thrilling and I enjoyed every minute of it. BMW dropped off a Rolls Royce Phantom Drophead Coupe for a couple of weeks as a thank you gift for my time promoting the car (not a bad perk).
Along the way, I met some of the most interesting people, many of whom I’m still friends with today. It was quite unexpected, and I’ll never forget it.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I had an idea. I raised money for this idea. I built a company. I built an app. Then it (and I) failed, big time. It was crushing, deflating and embarrassing. Everyone I knew heard all about my idea, and now they all knew it failed. My wife waited patiently while this all played out. It stung but it didn’t kill me.
My idea was to fix calendars. It was based on the premise that digital calendars around the world are disconnected. “Why does my calendar not connect to your calendar, and my favorite band’s calendar, and my kids’ calendars, and their school, and so on?” I asked everyone I met. They agreed! No one had an answer, and everyone agreed it needed to be solved. I quickly became a calendar expert and knew exactly what the problem was. I built a team. I raised some money. I built an app. Ultimately this was a big idea that required a lot of cash. Maybe someone will solve this problem one day, but it hasn’t been solved yet.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
A lot of tech companies say they want to make the world a better place, but I’m amazed with how transformative FaceFirst really is. Last week, a retail customer told us that the system had identified an Alzheimer’s patient whose family was looking for him in one of their stories, and they were able to contact the police and reunite him with his family. Before that, one of the rescue organizations we work with found two victims of human trafficking. And the technology is preventing crimes on a daily basis. FaceFirst is an incredible place to work.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
1. Surround yourself with smart people who can execute
2. Fire people who are assholes and play games; they are just a distraction
3. Be frank with people; ask for help when you need it; don’t forget to be respectful
4. Get real work done every day, not just the small checklist stuff
5. Talk to people who challenge you and your ideas
6. Don’t run out of cash. My favorite b-school professor, Bill Cockrum always said, “cash is king”
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
Without a doubt, my biggest source of inspiration and support is my wife Suzanne, who I met many years ago at UCLA. Suzanne is incredibly knowledgeable, intelligent, funny and an incredible sounding board on both professional and personal matters.
Are you working on any exciting projects now?
FaceFirst just announced a product that uses face recognition to prevent retail return fraud — almost exactly the same scenario featured in the recent Oceans 8 movie, where Sandra Bullock’s character grabs merchandise off a shelf at Bergdorf Goodman and “returns” it. This is a $9.6 billion dollar problem in the U.S. alone, and the first deployments will go into retail stores later this year.
Can you share 5 examples of how retail companies will be adjusting over the next five years to the new ways that consumers like to shop?
1. High-Touch Service — Retailers understand that nothing draws consumers like terrific customer service, and it is absolutely essential to selling against online competitors. We’re going to see more companies emphasize service in the way that Bonobos did with their Ninja Customer Service. Instant VIP recognition powered by AI will enable the trend.
2. No Lines, No Cashiers — The Amazon Go concept store in Seattle has proven that object recognition can make “just walk out” experiences possible, but other companies around the world are figuring out how to scale it affordably. Expect this to hit the low-end of the retail market such as convenience stores and small grocery first. If it works, it could be the savior that retailers hoped self-checkout kiosks would be.
3. In-Store Personalization — Over the past several years, the tech industry has made it easier for advertisers and marketers to deliver more relevant messages, experiences and content to consumers based on their profile and preferences. We’ll see similar innovation for in-store experiences, ranging from personalized offers delivered during retail visits to dynamic ad displays based on who is in the store. Tie-ins to make Rewards programs stickier will fuel this trend.
4. Shop-in-Shop — The trend started several years ago when bookstores, grocery stores and other retailers began inviting Starbucks into their locations. We’re about to see this trend go mainstream and become extremely creative, with retailers bringing entire shops and services in to give consumers more options. This year, J Crew, JC Penny and many others are collaborating with other brands to give consumers more in-person options, and expect to see it everywhere within five years.
5. Better In-Store Experiences — Retailers will be creating activities to draw foot traffic that would be impossible to replicate online. Outdoor sports retailers have been the leader in this area for years, with brands like REI offering in-store fly fishing lessons, bike paths and climbing walls. That actually creates community and culture, and we’re going to see many brands follow suit.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
I would start a whole new school in higher education and challenge every norm. I have thought about education for years and believe that young people are frustrated with the educational choices offered to them today and teachers are frustrated with the constraints they are under as well. It’s quite clear that the rigors of a traditional education can be valuable, but that many programs are no longer preparing young people for the careers and challenges they find today. This has got to change. Our access to information coupled with amazing technology and entirely new teaching methods calls for us to rethink the delivery mechanism. Prestigious institutions steeped in generations of tradition are increasingly ill equipped to address the needs of students today. I would like to assemble a new passionate group of open minded educators who can help to carve out a brand-new approach, provide teachers with a platform for delivering transferring their knowledge, and simply think outside the classroom. I also want to make this school available to anyone who wants it. Education is ripe for disruption, and if it were done properly, the benefits could be astounding.
How can our readers follow you on social media?