CIO100 2017: Ones to watch: Alyona Medelyan, Thematic
Originally, Thematic specialised in Natural Language Processing and Machine Learning consulting, says CEO Alyona Medelyan.
Over the past 12 months, the company has successfully transformed into a SaaS business, meaning that it can scale better. The project success was measured using the MRR metric (monthly recurrent revenue).
“Our goal was to get an MRR to support two full-time salaries in 12 months, which we have achieved. The main challenge was to find a product suitable as a SaaS offering.
“Our initial idea was a high-performance NLP library. There were international inquiries, but they never resulted in a sale. In parallel, we discovered a product need in CX and built a prototype called Thematic."
She says one company said that it would want to buy it next month. Another two signed expressions of interest. It was a challenge to drop the initial product and focus on what customers are prepared to pay for.
“When the first sales came in, this decision was much easier to make. The core business process is now focused on customer needs. Being an expert in R&D, I upskilled myself by attending an enterprise sales course. Knowledge on how to lead discussions with customers and how to understand their needs is instrumental to how we do things.
“With only two small government R&D grants we were able to bootstrap a profitable business and the traction continues to increase.
She says Thematic’s main innovation compared to what's available in the market, is the use of Deep Learning to detect emerging themes in customer feedback in a way that is both transparent and accurate.
“We were able to integrate new technology fairly quickly. We are now actively researching other areas where Deep Learning can improve our product, such as sentiment and emotion detection.”
By using Deep Learning in combination with Natural Language Processing techniques developed during Medelyan's PhD, Thematic was able to create a highly competitive offering. Whereas other companies use manually crafted rules and taxonomies, it captures themes in feedback by simply reading raw customer comments.
“Our costs are minimal and we are hoping to disrupt the entire customer insight market with our tech. We were lucky to get a Callaghan Grant for the R&D, which means we can spend 30 to 40 per cent of our time on research and innovation. Apart from technology itself, conversations with customers are what drives the specific areas where innovation is needed. Keeping the customer always at the top of our minds, is what helps us focus on the solution rather than the technology,” Medelyan says.
Last year, Thematic decided it needed to bring in an expert in operating and growing the company. She says they were lucky to get connected with the former CEO of a competing company in the UK, who was an expert in high-growth companies.
“We attracted him as a major shareholder, after working together for six months and making sure he adds value to our company.
“This is an example of how strategic hiring has helped us to free up operational resources, while at the same time enabling company growth into a new market and freeing up time for R&D by the original founders.”
Thematic has three fulltime people and several contractors who work on demand. There are weekly meetings to discuss technology strategy.
“For example, we have identified an area of innovation in which we want to excel - emotion detection. All three people are involved in making sure it is done right such as attracting customers to join the customer advisory board, communicating with expert analysts in this area, doing competitive analysis and the actual research.”
Being a technical CEO, Medelyan realised her soft skills needed improvement.
“Simply meeting with potential customers wasn't enough, so I took an Enterprise Sales course that fundamentally changed how I approach sales.
“Last October, I attended the Sales and Marketing Jam put together by the Kiwi Landing Pad. In February, I attended the SaaStr event in San Francisco, which is another opportunity to upskill myself in how to grow a business.
“At the same time, I am upskilling myself technically by attending and speaking at technical events such as O'Reilly Strata, Sentiment Analysis Symposium and Customer Experience conferences,” she says.