If you’ve ever shopped online at Nordstrom, Urban Outfitters, Sephora, or Stitch Fix, you’ve got Julie Bornstein to thank for helping to make a lot of that possible. In fact, her resume makes you wonder if there’s any major e-commerce retailer she hasn’t changed for the better. So when she decided to take all her experience and build an AI-powered shopping app, we knew it meant big things for the future of online shopping.
After working with her and her team on the design of The Yes, we can confirm that this is definitely one you'll want to download ASAP. We got the chance to ask Julie about her vision, the things she’s learned the hard way, and why she hopes brick-and-mortar retailers never truly die.
On The Yes
Was The Yes a result of a lightbulb moment or was it an idea that evolved over time?
It was sort of a combination of both. I’ve been thinking about the idea ever since Amazon.com started selling books in 1996. To me, e-commerce was the perfect combination of my life-long love of shopping and obsession with efficiency.
In my experience working at Nordstom.com, Sephora, and Stitch Fix, I got a much clearer understanding of the challenges e-commerce faces: the overwhelm of choice, the one-size-fits-all nature, the inefficiencies of re-shooting every article of clothing, and the costs and limitations of owning inventory. Now that the tech is finally advanced enough to solve these problems, it felt like the right time to give it a shot!
Why do you believe people are ready for a whole new way of shopping for retail?
For a lot of people, buying fashion online is really hard and overwhelming. We have the conversion rates to prove it. Also, media services like Spotify, Pandora, Apple News, and YouTube have trained us to understand the huge benefit of services that work smarter, ranking and editing content on our behalf. It's time to apply this to the shopping experience.
Why do you believe e-commerce has been so slow to change?
It’s a complex technical challenge. Established e-commerce players have huge tech infrastructures that have been built over the past twenty years, and they’re hard to establish, expensive to replace, and require a different level of expertise to manage. There are many interesting technologies emerging in the industry but most of them don’t have sustainable business models attached to them.
What do you believe will be the hardest consumer behavior to shift? The easiest?
Trust will be the hardest. Our goal is for The Yes to become the “go-to” destination for all your fashion needs, which requires people to trust that we have the best selection, the best prices, and the best service. Trust takes time to build, but given our deep dedication to our customers and brands, I’m certain we can earn it. I also think the new paradigm of choosing “Yes” or “No” as a means of sharing preferences will be an addictive behavior, even though they’ve never done it for fashion before.
Can you talk about the strategies you practice that have allowed you to see and seize opportunities in the status quo rather than get stuck operating within it?
Two things I’ve always practiced: eat your own dog food and be solutions-oriented. My teams have always joked that I’m the best QA (quality assurance) person because I’m the one who uses our products and services the most. I’m always hunting for bugs and opportunities for improvement. I love thinking about how things can be done better.
Who inspires you the most? Why?
My mom, for teaching me that you can be deeply committed to your family and your career simultaneously. Meg Whitman and Sheryl Sandberg, for paving the way for women in business and tech. And Nancy Pelosi, for showing us all that you can still kick ass at 80 years old.
Not to leave out men, Steve Jobs and Elon Musk, for true invention and innovation in our time, my husband, for proving that a man can be their wife's cheerleader while still having his own career and identity, and Colin Jost, for being so smart, handsome, and funny (and for nabbing Scarlett Johansson)! I love stories about having it all—why not aspire to that?
What have you learned from failure? From success?
As cliche as it sounds, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Every failure I’ve had (and trust me, there have been many) helped me look at what I’d do differently next time. From success, I’ve learned to trust my instincts.
Whenever I’m afraid, I take that as a signal that I need to learn more in order to overcome the fear.**
Can you talk about your relationships with fear and discomfort?
I’ve always faced my fears head on. But I wouldn’t have been able to start this business, convince investors to believe in me, or hire a killer team if I wasn’t certain I could do it, which is something that comes with experience. Whenever I’m afraid, I take that as a signal that I need to learn more in order to overcome the fear.
At this point in my career, I know what I’m doing and I’m qualified to build the best shopping experience, so that’s how I’m able to sell my ideas to others. The only exception to my fear rule is scary movies: I just don’t watch them.
Do you ever struggle with imposter syndrome?
Truthfully, not anymore. I guess that’s what you get for waiting until age 47 to start something! I’ve learned so much over the years and I’ve worked very hard to earn my stripes. As a result, I feel experienced and qualified, which gives me the confidence I need to push through the hard parts. That, and having great parents, of course :)
What stands out to you about your experience being a woman in leadership, particularly in a stereotypically feminine vertical, like retail, within a stereotypically masculine landscape, like Silicon Valley?
When I joined Nordstrom.com in 2000, I worked directly for Dan Nordstrom. I had such strong instincts about what we needed to build and what the consumer wanted, in large part because I was the target consumer. Dan saw that and believed in me. I’ve always felt like being a woman has been a huge advantage in building businesses for women.
Two things I’ve always practiced: eat your own dog food and be solutions-oriented.**
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve experienced and been witness to gender bias, too. I’ve never been one to keep my mouth shut in these moments, and I’ve always taken them as my cue that it’s time to move on to bigger and better things.
Most importantly, I had the privilege of having grown up with two sisters and always feeling like my opinion matters, so no man’s been able to convince me otherwise.
You’re a big believer in marrying the physical and digital worlds. What analog tasks or activities do you hope never get “disrupted?”
My favorite sport is shopping, especially the physical kind. I truly hope stores never go away. It’s just that they don’t serve our every need in a way that online shopping can, so retail shopping is more a form of entertainment than a satisfying needs-based experience. I spent my childhood in the mall and I still love spending a few solid hours getting lost in great stores and boutiques.
I also really value the face-to-face time it affords you. Nothing like a “shelter-in-place” mandate to appreciate how virtual face-time could never replace physical togetherness.
For more about The Yes and the app we designed together, read the case study.