Search, Discovery & Building a Global Unicorn

Dubbed the ‘Amazon of South Korea’, Coupang is going from strength to strength. Now one of the largest mobile e-commerce sites in the world and valued at over (USD) $5 billion in 2015, Coupang is on a mission to revolutionise the e-commerce shopping experience. An integral leader on that mission is Hui Xu, SVP of Platform, Search & Discovery at the company.

Having been at Google for almost a decade and joining Coupang from Pinterest, Hui knows what it means to build successful products, and successful teams. He describes Coupang as a ‘truly global technology company’, with offices in six locations – Beijing, Los Angeles, Seattle, Seoul, Shanghai and Silicon Valley (Mountain View). His own teams are spread across four of those locations.

Speaking to Winter Circle Magazine, Hui considers the challenges of leading teams across time zones, describes his passion for innovating the end-to-end e-commerce experience and highlights how companies like Coupang and Amazon are really changing the game.

What would you say is the main mission for your team?

The team I support is a full stack team, including engineering, design and product. Our job is to help our customers find what they’re looking for. Search and discovery is about helping users to make an informed purchase decisions and have a pleasant shopping experience. It is about how we display the right information and customer reviews as well as ensuring the transactional experience is great.

I work with my teams to scale the platform and look at how we can do a better job to improve the customer experience in these areas – search and discovery, cart, checkout and the whole website experience.

With teams in so many different locations, how do you build successful teams?

Coupang is unique from any company I’ve worked for before because it is a truly global company in terms of how we think about the talent strategy, where we hire and the way we build teams.

Companies get scared about the communication costs of having teams in different locations or even having two reciprocal teams in different buildings. Over time, they develop a very strong ‘headquarter’ concept, which doesn’t exist at Coupang.

Our talent philosophy is that as long as there is a location where we can attract and hire at scale to help certain functions of the business, we want to consider building a team at that location and give complete ownership of the function to that location. That’s why my teams are distributed so widely. Most of my teams are actually distributed in two locations and although there is clearly a communication overhead and it’s hard to collaborate on certain projects, we have figured out a practical way of doing working together and we are enjoying it.

Google was the first company to introduce knowledge in a search engine, at scale.

You mentioned that you are trying to ‘help customers find what they’re looking for’, which is something we as users have come to take for granted on platforms like Coupang or Amazon. How have you seen this evolution in Search & Discovery evolve over your career?

A lot of search engines like Google and Amazon have built very good technologies to help customers find what they’re looking for. The best search and discovery experiences mean you don’t have to think twice, you can put your trust into the search box and get what you want. Over time, you forget about the complicated engine or technology behind it. That’s exactly the customer’s experience we’re after.

To better understand how search has evolved over the past few years, you have to focus on one word – discovery. More and more companies put search and discovery together, which wasn’t the case five or 10 years ago. Because of Google, most people understand much more about the search than the discovery. If you ask people for the definition of discovery, you’re probably going to get very different answers depending on who you talk to.

For example, when you search for something, most of the time you enjoy the results you get. Think about the query and how specific it is. Have you ever asked a search engine ‘what should I buy my son or daughter for their next birthday’, ‘what would be the best decorative item for my kitchen?’. For that kind of question, you’re probably not going to use a traditional search engine because it’s not going to work.

The answer to those questions can largely help us think about discovery. A few years ago, the search engine was really about which engine will connect the most number of web pages to surface the content under the right query and at the right time for the customer.

How has that changed?

When I was at Google working on building Google Search, one of the challenges that Google later addressed was the question and answer relationship. The engine largely relies on the fact that there has to be a web page that answers the question, otherwise the engine will not be able to find the right answer. Google was the first company to introduce knowledge in a search engine, at scale. They started accumulating knowledge about certain frequent questions. So now when you search on Google, instead of getting the traditional 10+ pages of results, you get the direct answer to your question. You can see the shift as search engines try to be smarter.

More and more, search engines started trying to help customers finish a task, rather than answer individual questions. Search needs to be some sort of conversation between the engine and the customer. The search engine is trying to provide options for you by understanding your high-level intent, what job you want to accomplish.

What do you see happening in this space over the next couple of years? Is the focus on speed?

Many companies are trying to make search query understanding more human. Deep learning and other similar technologies help breakthrough this challenge. But what I’ve learned from recent work at Coupang, and a lot from Amazon, is that a great search experience in the future should be an end-to-end experience. Take product and e-commerce search as an example, the best experience is like some of the experiences Coupang has created in Korea. Starting from search, you find something you want to buy and, in a very short period of time, get it delivered to your home.

These kind of experiences will make a huge difference when it comes to attracting customers

I don’t think any company in the world has figured out how to do effective fashion discovery.

As users, we’re quite impatient when it comes to searching and finding what we need. We want it to happen quickly and we want that positive end-to-end experience – how do those high user expectations affect the job you’re doing? Does it make it difficult to build the product?

It depends. If my customer is a busy mom who wants diapers or wipes for the baby at home, they probably won’t want to waste time shopping or searching for those. If we make it easy for them to find and buy what they need, the transaction will happen very quickly. This is different from other categories, such as fashion. Our fashion customers want to take time to enjoy the experience, to select and compare the products. We want to cater to those differences and tailor the experiences accordingly. This is also the difference between your traditional keyword search, versus a more discovery-driven experience.

I don’t think any company in the world has figured out how to do effective fashion discovery that truly helps the customer. That’s one area we’re very passionate about changing.

As Coupang grows, how do you decide what to prioritise?

At Coupang, we learn a lot of great things from Amazon about being customer-centric. We connect with customers try to understand the problems we need to solve for them. We want to build a service so that later on our customers will ask ‘how did I ever live without Coupang?’.

We don’t build any technology just because it’s convenient. We firstly identify what the inconveniences are in people’s lives and then we go backwards to try to find a solution for them. This kind of philosophy served has us very well. As a startup, we can be laser-focused on the most important things we believe can really influence people’s lives and not waste our precious resource working on something we don’t know people want to use. We try to identify big opportunities to help customers and to improve their lives by removing inconveniences where we can.

Second-day delivery is a good example. When e-commerce in Korea started gaining traction and customers, we didn’t jump in with questions like ‘how do we make search better’, or ‘how do we make discovery better?’, we looked at customer pain points. At the time, they weren’t happy with waiting five or six days to receive their items and the quality of the delivery was quite low.

Rocket Delivery was one of our best innovations – it not only shortened the delivery time, but it dramatically changed the experience. Whenever we ship items to our customers, we don’t view the items as items or boxes, we call them gifts. We hand them to our customers with love and care and that makes the experience unique.

Coupang is focusing on becoming a mobile-first company. How does that present challenges for your role and how does it affect search and discovery?

The challenge we’re facing is the same as most companies with mobile apps – the screen is small. There is always going to be tension between the different kinds of information we want to show as well as the different teams and stakeholders who want to reach the customer. We have to keep asking ourselves – what are the most important things we want to show the customer to help them make the optimal decision and to provide them with an informed search and discovery experience?

The expectation of quality in the search world is called ‘relevance’, so the bar is higher on mobile because the screen is small. The better we do, the more we help the customer find what they want and the more they will enjoy the shopping experience.

We have created a mobile world and we are doing many things at Coupang to cater to this. For example, most people in Korea have a phone so social networks and messaging apps are very popular. When we’re delivering items, we will send them a picture to show the customer exactly where we’ve dropped the item. This strengthens communication and the whole experience. Customers can interact really easily with the customer care team on mobile.

We are leveraging mobile devices but we haven’t done enough, this is definitely one area we are continuing to explore.


Hui Xu is the SVP Platform, Search & Discovery at Coupang. Coupang is a Winter Circle client, using the Winter Circle network to find and connect with its next senior leaders.

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