As someone who has attended or spoken at hundreds of conferences globally spanning more than two decades, I was blown away. Had you been there, you wouldn't have believed that Shoptalk was in its inaugural year. On May 15 through May 18 at the Aria in Las Vegas, it was clear that an entire industry was being shaped right before my eyes.

As I came down the escalator the first thing that I saw was manufactured meeting room pods that had spilled out into the hallway. Despite being a first-time event, the conference had run out of exhibitor and meeting space and was creatively leveraging every square inch of one of the bigger hotels in Las Vegas that caters to large-scale conferences. I remember thinking to myself, "How could this be?"

"Originally, we had planned for 2,000 attendees," said Rob Wells, Head of Media Relations for Shoptalk. "That was already an aggressive goal but the demand was so high, we reconfigured every aspect of the event to allow more than 1,000 additional attendees. That's no small feat, mind you, as we had to go back to the drawing board on all of our logistics. We had originally only ordered enough bags, food and materials for 2,000 people, for example. Adding 50% more attendees than originally planned took a lot of doing--including buying out onsite restaurants."

Traditional event planners wouldn't have even attempted creating an event like Shoptalk. But that's what sets Shoptalk apart from the other conferences. Which is why I wanted to speak to the founder, Anil Aggarwal, and learn how (and why) he did it.

Treating an Event Like an Agile Product Launch
Anil Aggarwal, is the founder and chairman of Shoptalk and Money20/20 (another massively successful annual conference). First and foremost, Mr. Aggarwal is a tech entrepreneur. He sold his last FinTech startup to Google and stayed on as the Head of Google Payments and Wallet Business Development from 2012 to 2013. His LinkedIn profile describes him as a "Venture-Backed FinTech & NextGen Commerce Entrepreneur with exits to Google, TSYS, i2i Events Group (Ascential) and IIR USA (Informa)." He's raised more than $75m in venture capital funding for multiple ventures, all with successful exits aggregating over $400m. He's also a venture partner in a $500m growth equity fund called Oak HC/FT.

Simply put, Mr. Aggarwal could have easily retired long ago, but chose to put his incredible knowledge and resources toward shaping and redefining an industry. I had the distinct pleasure of sitting down and interviewing Mr. Aggarwal and I now have a crisp understanding of why both Shoptalk and Money20/20 have taken their respective industries by storm.

Changing Industries at the Ecosystem Level
"The way the entire payments industry looked at innovation needed to change," said Mr. Aggarwal. "That was the reason we started Money20/20 in 2011. For decades, innovation was defined simply as the evolution of inefficient paper-based payment systems into efficient electronic ones. We needed a completely new framework for the evolution of payments based on changes in commerce and the emergence of anytime, anywhere connected consumers. Shoptalk, which we started in 2015, is similar in its mission to create a completely new framework--but this time for retail and ecommerce: Shoptalk is the only event to take a holistic view of the evolution of how consumers discover, shop and buy every product and service."

In order to accomplish his vision, Mr. Aggarwal didn't just set out to create events. Instead, he treated both Shoptalk and Money20/20 like the tech companies he had launched in his massively successful career--by focusing relentlessly on the requirements of the product, launching an initial product that met an important market need and then iterating with the market to perfect it over time.

"First and foremost, we are in the business of helping industries that are going through dramatic changes," Mr. Aggarwal explained. "We help by defining the new ecosystem of stakeholders and creating a modern narrative which facilitates decision making at a time when questions about strategy and tactics are getting very hard to answer. Getting this right serves as the basis for the best possible events."

"Our culture is also like that of a tech company. For example, we believe in small in-house teams of highly capable people-from our content and creative to logistics and engineering teams. We control everything end-to-end so that we can deliver the best possible product-from the world-class speakers and agenda to the highly engaging design and onsite experience."

Shoptalk: A Holistic View of How Consumers Discover, Shop & Buy
What was so fascinating about Shoptalk was that Mr. Aggarwal put the discussion of the consumer at the heart of a retail and ecommerce event. While that might seem obvious in retrospect, it's an important point of differentiation. He and his team dissected the consumer experience and took a critical view of the very definition of commerce.

"Commerce today is a very fragmented and siloed conversation," says Mr. Aggarwal. "Our thesis for Shoptalk is that commerce is changing rapidly and that a comprehensive narrative must emerge to ensure everyone in the ecosystem is working towards meeting the needs of today's consumers."

And that's precisely what Shoptalk accomplished this year. From celebrities like Lionel Richie sharing the impetus of why he launched Lionel Richie Home to a fascinating view of the staying power of physical retail by Hudson's Bay Company CEO Jerry Storch along with executives from Best Buy, Home Depot, Target, Walmart and Macy's sitting alongside digital ecommerce juggernauts from Amazon, Google, PayPal and Magento to the social commerce pioneers at Facebook and Pinterest (just to name a few). And then there were the seemingly endless venture-backed disruptors like The Honest Company, Dollar Shave Club, Rebecca Minkoff, Bonobos and Birchbox, the CEOs of which all took the stage. There was certainly no shortage of power players in every conceivable industry, technology and platform all speaking from various unique perspectives on today's ever-evolving customer journey.

Its no wonder Shoptalk attracted more than 30% of it's 3,100+ audience from the C-suite and almost 400 CEOs. According to the Robin Report, "Stores will be reframed as experience centers. And it's going to take a lot of next-gen ingenuity to deliver these frictionless experiences through data science, complex CRM software, AI, augmented reality, new algorithms, machine learning, and bots."

We have Anil Aggarwal and his power team to thank for launching an industry re-defining platform in Shoptalk that will shape the very fabric of the commerce ecosystem for years to come. Next year's event will be held on March 19-22, 2017, back at the Aria in Las Vegas. Just a month after the inaugural event and they've already announced speakers, starting with Mindy Grossman, CEO of HSN, Inc. You may want to join the Shoptalk mailing list to ensure you are able to register for the event. While they are anticipating over 5,000 attendees, they are likely to sell out based on the success of this year's inaugural program.

Published on: Jun 23, 2016