Debjani Deb’s first company was bootstrapped and enjoyed a successful exit. Yet, knowing her second venture, ZineOne, would take years to build a product with a million dollar plus price tag made for some anxious moments. Recently, the CEO hired a chief revenue officer. Finally, she was able to step back, take in the big picture, draw a deep breath and smile. Golden Seeds’ Lilia Shirman and Tracey Riese spoke with Debjani about what it takes to create a new realm of AI-driven personalization and a company Gartner designated a “Cool Vendor.”
LS/TR: Tell us about the origins of your company.
DD: ZineOne was founded in March 2014 by Arnab Mukherjee, chief technology officer, Manish Malhotra, chief of products, and me. Just prior, Manish and I both had our own social media companies, which were acquired around the same time. Arnab was head of engineering for a call center software company and saw that the need for real-time customer engagement was coming fast. Whether it’s financial information, clothing or food, millennials want things immediately; they don’t want to wait on hold for a half-hour with a call center. They prefer to use text and messaging services to get answers right away. This group has been driving communications. With this in mind, we felt the next step for brands and enterprises was a new technology stack that would enable real-time engagement as millennials were defining it. It was perfect timing in many ways and we had the expertise. We started out whiteboarding information at a public library and vowed to build that platform.
LS/TR: What market need are you solving, and how is your approach different from how others have addressed this need?
DD: Our Customer Engagement Hub platform provides large brands — retailers, banks, hospitality companies — an in-the-moment view of each customer. We deliver this in milliseconds and it allows our customers to engage users in ways that truly resonate and drive sales, loyalty and lifetime value. Further, in addition to the usual digital communications channels, we provide personalization capabilities on-site at physical locations. If a user walks into a clothing store, they’re notified how many reward points they have, when they expire, what “wish list” items are in stock. If they’re in a grocery store aisle, they’re presented with coupons — at the meat counter, they receive wine pairing suggestions. Reacting to users in real-time requires a new set of technologies and that is what we power. This is the next generation in a customer engagement solutions market that analysts projected would already top $14 billion last year. What’s different is we use artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) to harness ever-changing user data, which adds a whole new level of personalization, and we make that available on every customer communication channel. Lots of organizations are now pursuing this, but we had a big head start. We’re in this at the right time and in the right position.
LS/TR: What challenges have you encountered along the way? How have you overcome them?
DD: It takes a lot of time and money to bring an enterprise product with an average selling price in the millions to market. It took two and a half years to build; time in which we had no money coming in, which can be unsettling. But we knew if we could get the right fit, the dollar value we could command from enterprises would be very high. It wasn’t always easy, but the payoff has made it all worthwhile.
LS/TR: What’s coming up next for your company? Any big milestones on the horizon?
DD: 2019 is going to be our “coming of age” year. In 2018, we proved our product market fit and that we could deploy successfully. We’ve now got 100 million users and many large enterprises have signed up for multi-year deals. We are now entering our scaling year: We want to take what we did in 2018 and multiply our clients, geographies and so on. Our big desire is to be first in AI-driven personalization, so we are laser-focused on driving that market leadership. We are pushing the envelope on technology, filing multiple patents and speaking at large conferences. Simply put, we plan on defining and leading this segment.
LS/TR: What advice do you have for early-stage founders about raising money, growing a team, fostering company culture or other issues you’ve had to address?
DD: Be focused on the fundamentals of what it takes to build a company. In Silicon Valley, there’s too much hype around fundraising — how much money you raise does not define success. The fundamentals are revenue, profit, margins, product, people. Build a solid product, a cohesive team. Figure out who will be those first customers that will pay you well and provide them with an awesome experience. Do this and you’ll win.
LS/TR: Tell us about your experience with Golden Seeds. How has the Golden Seeds network been helpful to you?
DD: It’s been awesome. Golden Seeds has always been right by our side. Particularly for female entrepreneurs at early stages, it is a great organization to have as a partner. Personally, their people have been there through all the ups and downs, listening to me and providing moral support, which was really helpful during those first years when it was difficult to see more than a few months out.
This blog was originally published in the Golden Seeds blog.