AiThority Interview Series with Michael Scharff, Chief Executive Officer at Evolv
Know My Company
Tell us about your interaction with smart technologies like AI and Cloud-based Enterprise platforms.
It’s my privilege to be sitting at the helm of a new and exciting company which is at the forefront of cloud-deployed AI-based enterprise solutions, Evolv Technologies. And, what an exciting time to be working in the space! The capabilities of AI – ours and others — continue to expand in amazing ways. The cloud as a delivery environment is advancing as quickly, offering new possibilities. And the world’s enterprises are in the midst, arguably, in a do-or-die transformational phase where how well they traverse and whether they exit that phase depends their embrace of technologies like what we and others offer.
How did you start in this space? What galvanized you to start at Evolv?
I’ve been working in the intersection of retail and technology for over twenty years, starting originally in a merchant role and leading eCommerce and digital organizations for the last 15 years. Working for companies like Best Buy, Sears, Toy’s R Us and other leaders in retail gave me a front row seat to the opportunities inherent in online and digital shopping – and the challenges which make it difficult for organizations to take full advantage of the digital opportunity.
I had been advising the board of Sentient Technologies, a leading AI research and development firm, for several years, and had always been impressed in particular by Ascend, the company’s AI-powered optimization platform which was launched in late 2016. Ascend uses evolutionary algorithms in a powerful new way to enable companies to achieve true experimentation at scale, in turn enabling much faster growth in conversion rates, average revenues per user and other key metrics.
Sentient’s R&D focus dozens of patents applied for and granted wasn’t the ideal culture to build out an enterprise cloud-based software business. Despite this, the team had built strong momentum for the Ascend, winning business from top worldwide brands and delivering a truly unique and valuable product.
I saw an opportunity to double down on growth in the Ascend business through increased focus and investment, and presented this to the existing investors of Sentient, who loved the idea.
We formed Evolv in late 2018 and in early 2019 acquired the Ascend business from Sentient. Same team, same product, 100% focused on delivering innovation in autonomous optimization.
We added fuel to the new business through an eight-figure funding round led by Horizons Ventures along with most existing Sentient investors, as well as some new investors excited by the potential opportunity. We announced this just recently and I couldn’t be more excited to work with the team to see how far we can take this.
What is Evolv and how does it leverage AI in its operations?
Evolv develops and sells the Ascend by Evolv autonomous optimization platform, which harnesses the power of evolutionary algorithms, a branch of AI, to help companies achieve faster growth. Ascend’s AI gives teams in charge of user experiences an order of magnitude increase in power in their ability to test out ideas for improving those experiences.
Traditionally web sites and mobile apps are optimized through A/B testing. But, except for the world’s largest digital properties, there are sharp limits to the scale of testing that companies can achieve using A/B testing alone. Most companies have huge backlogs of ideas they’d like to test, to improve their experiences, but can’t, due to the traffic requirements for a single definitive A/B test.
Ascend and its AI breaks through this limitation, allowing teams to test twenty or thirty changes at once, instead of the single change tested in an A/B test. Ascend automates an evolutionary process testing generations of designs in sequence, and learning from each one to solve what are the best combination of changes out of thousands or millions of possibilities that achieve the best performance.
This kind of speed-up and automation through AI is delivering faster growth to companies of all sorts that are focused on honing their digital experiences. Our clients don’t need to know AI Ascend does that part to harness this power.
What is the state of AI for IT autonomous optimization in 2019? How much has it evolved since the time you first started here?
It’s been great watching the evolution pun intended of the worlds of experimentation and optimization since the launch of Ascend in 2016.
I want to make sure we differentiate for now between what we at Evolv do optimize user experiences to achieve performance gains and the whole other world of using AI to optimize IT-oriented outcomes, like network performance or cloud costs. There’s some great work happening there too.
Back to the world of experience optimization. Many more companies understand now, as compared to three years ago, the critical importance of experimentation at scale to remain competitive in the digital economy. They’re watching the leaders like Amazon and booking.com and looking to emulate these and other thought leaders in building experiences based on experimentation and data.
Secondly, the products have evolved. Our own Ascend platform is certainly different than it was three years ago, both in terms of the sophistication of its AI and how it makes decisions, and more generally as an enterprise-quality software tool. As digital experiences continue to migrate to the mobile phone, and web experiences get more app-like, so, too, have our abilities to hone these experiences.
Finally, the practices have evolved. We brought AI into to augment a field that relies on human insights and creativity – figuring out what words/images/layouts/flow/code/etc will best move your customers where you want to move them – and its been fascinating to see how the two combine. What would you do if you all of a sudden had 10 times the capacity to do something? It’s like the difference between walking and driving. When you open up teams’ abilities to try new ideas and improve the products they manage by that much, great things can happen.
Tell us more about your vision into growing revenue opportunities by deploying Evolv in their IT stack.
Experimentation and optimization can touch every aspect of a company’s digital business.
To date, Ascend has been focused on optimizing the front-line experiences users see on web and mobile sites. Ascend’s AI helps companies figure out the layouts, images, colors, words, page flows, form designs and other visible features that will best help the user towards a purchase.
But there’s a lot more that goes into a digital user experience than just presentation. What products or services is the user shown? What is the pricing and/or promotions associated with a given product? And digital experiences don’t exist in a vacuum, either – they are part of an omnichannel world. How can we help companies optimize across their channels, and at a deeper level.
This is where full-stack server-side capabilities come in. By extending Ascend’s capabilities through APIs and a set of SDKs, we’re now able to bring the performance improvements of evolutionary testing to bear on product testing, feature testing, price testing, and other experimentation that is being done not just by the marketing and sales teams but by the IT and product teams as well.
Imagine if your call center scripts were optimized on the fly based on caller and call type to achieve the shortest call times, or perhaps the most closed phone sales. Or if you can optimize your native mobile apps and in-store digital signs as easily as you do your web site. Or if your promotional price dynamically adjusts to maximize profitability by key user segment. All of these use cases and many more will be available as we link Ascend into the IT infrastructure more directly.
Tell us more about your new approach to ending poor website performance? How does Evolv help customers in overcoming these challenges?
The web and the mobile phone are unforgiving environments. If your customer experience isn’t delivering what the customer is looking for, your competitors are only a click or tap away.
And there’s no shortage, in most companies, on ideas about how to improve the customer experience. Your teams think about this all the time, and there are plenty of agencies that are expert in experience optimization as well.
What has been the problem is the ability to test these ideas and to deploy them, or not, based on data. Traditional testing and experimentation platforms have, based on their core method, just required too much traffic to test a single idea, let alone dozens of them.
Evolv’s Ascend platform solves this problem. By using AI, it gives teams the ability to test dozens of ideas in a single experiment – an order of magnitude increase. And it automates the process, saving hours of time as well.
The more ideas you test, the more quickly your website performance will improve. There’s no excuse any more for poor website performance!
How do you see the raging trend of including involving AI and Machine learning in a modern CIO/ CMO’s stack budget?
AI shouldn’t necessarily be a line item in the CMO’s budget – it should be part of many lines in the budget. The question shouldn’t be, “Should I be buying AI?” but should instead be, “How is AI changing how I work and what does this mean for the tools and processes I use?”
AI is the how, not the what.
In the world of optimization and experimentation, we’ve shown with Ascend that AI can deliver an order of magnitude increase in speed. Other AI-based tools can deliver similar gains in other areas, whether that’s in honing your advertising targeting, optimizing for search engine rankings, managing your outbound sales pitches, and much more.
So, we expect spending on AI-enabled products like ours to increase dramatically, from the same marketing and IT budgets used to purchase older-school solutions today.
How do you differentiate between technologies for Customer Success vs. Customer Support? Who are you competing with in this landscape?
Ascend is an optimization and experimentation solution, not a bespoke solution for setting up your customer success or customer support experiences and programs. Where Ascend fits in is that it can autonomously optimize, through experimentation at scale, any digital touchpoint between a business and its customers. While most of our customers focus on optimizing revenues, conversion rates and lead flow, some of our customers are using Ascend across both customer support – for example, optimizing the pages which guide customers to reduce phone calls – and customer success sections of their apps and sites.
What is the biggest challenge to Digital Transformation in 2019? How does Evolv contribute to a successful digital transformation?
Experimentation is at the heart of digital transformation. Getting your systems digitized and integrated is no mean feat, but realistically that’s just the plumbing – the table stakes – required to get started for digital transformation. And I don’t mean to underplay the critical nature of cultural shifts in achieving digital transformation. If you want to be a data-driven business, your leadership needs to be willing to listen to the data.
But the biggest problem for many digital transformation efforts is the lack of usable data on which to make decisions. What’s the best way to display your products so that consumers want to buy them? What products should your customers see when they search on a certain category? How can you minimize phone calls to your support lines by better support information online? The answers to these and so many other questions can only be answered by trying different approaches, testing different ideas, and seeing what works
This is where Evolv and Ascend fit in. We accelerate company’s abilities to make the right decisions about their customer experiences by applying AI to and automating experimentation at scale. The more you test, the faster you learn, and the faster you grow.
One other note – many digital transformation projects become huge “boil the ocean” endeavors that take years to realize. For innovators inside of company’s that want to show immediately the impact AI enablement can make on your results, Ascend is a very quick way to do so, and often can pave the way for more aggressive investment in transformation.
Where do you see AI/Machine learning and other smart technologies heading beyond 2020?
There is so much great work going in in the field of artificial intelligence that it’s hard to predict the future with any fidelity. Our own research work is focused on continuing to advance the state of the art in evolutionary algorithms and on the incorporation of other AI techniques to enhance evolution for use case of experience optimization.
We’re excited to see the rise of AI chip sets and what that will mean for the distribution of AI processing throughout the network.
And we’re excited by the advancements in AI technology that are offering more insights to how AIs make decisions. Our own field of evolutionary algorithms is not a black box technology, but deep learning and many other forms of AI can be, and the more explainable AI-based systems are, the better they will be adopted.
The Good, Bad and Ugly about AI that you have heard or predict –
Technology isn’t good or bad, or pretty or ugly – it’s all in how you use it. AI is no different in this regard. Without a doubt there are already and will be more nefarious actors attempting to use AI techniques for cybercrimes and other malfeasance of various sorts.
And the impact of AI on businesses, and how they choose to staff and grow (or reduce in size) based on it will, similarly, depend on the people making those decisions. AI makes businesses more efficient – how they choose to deploy that efficiency is up to them.
Fortunately for us, our own use of AI is clearly beneficial, so there hasn’t been any particular controversy. Ascend is used to grow revenues and sales, not cut costs, so it creates, not eliminates, opportunities. Ascend amplifies human abilities – you come up with ideas to try to improve your experiences and Ascend automates and speeds up the testing of those ideas – and doesn’t replace them.
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What is your opinion on “Weaponization of AI/Machine Learning”? How do you promote your ideas?
If your business operates online – and soon, if your business just operates at all – embrace of AI-powered solutions will be a necessary element for survival. You’ll be able to make decisions faster, and better, than your competition with it, and without it, you’ll eventually lose touch with your customers. We’re happy to help “weaponize” those companies that want a competitive advantage, and a better customer experience, at any time!
The Crystal Gaze
What Cloud Analytics and SaaS start-ups and labs are you keenly following?
There are hordes of interesting companies in the AI space alone, let alone the larger analytics and SaaS markets.
I’m very impressed by Chorus.ai and Highspot and the work they are doing in helping sales teams improve their selling practices. Also in the field of sales enhancement, Conversica is doing great work in driving engagement with customers.
AutoML startups like Squark and Vidora are also on my radar.
What technologies within AI/NLP and Cloud Analytics are you interested in?
There are many exciting technologies being developed and deployed in the field of AI today. Those that excite me most are the ones that help improve customers experiences, create new methods of engagement, and help streamline processes – allowing firms to operate more strategically and efficiently. Technologies such as advanced speech recognition (speech to text, text to speech), virtual agents, augmented reality, decision support tools, etc. will all help improve customers experiences when engaging with brands through digital channels.
As a tech leader, what industries you think would be fastest to adopting Analytics and AI/ML with smooth efficiency? What are the new emerging markets for these technology markets?
We’ve seen the fastest adoption among digital native companies, independent of what business they are in. If you were born on and have always lived on the mobile phone or the web, you’re probably thinking about AI and analytics differently than companies with a longer heritage.
Retail is certainly one of our largest segments – taste-based markets move at such a fast pace that those companies always have to innovate to stay alive. Many didn’t innovate enough, as we saw over the last few years.
Consumer financial services, travel, internet services (e.g., streaming music or video) are all great adopters of autonomous optimization, and we’re seeing also players in the lead generation markets make big moves as well.
What’s your smartest work related shortcut or productivity hack?
Finding time to think and process is critical. In our always-on world of constant information flow it is very hard to slow down and be thoughtful about your work. I find carving out time to ponder strategy, organize my thoughts and plans, and consider how to best lead the team is key. Creating space with no interruptions is challenging but can be really helpful in clarifying your focus.
Tag the one person in the industry whose answers to these questions you would love to read:
There are plenty of thought leaders in the AI and SaaS space, but I like to hear from people that have a broad view across the technology space. I always enjoy hearing Reid Hoffman and Marc Andreesen perspectives, and am sure they would have some interesting perspectives on these topics.
Thank you, Michael ! That was fun and hope to see you back on AiThority soon.
Experienced digital and omni-channel executive with a 25+ year track record of exceeding financial goals and driving high impact strategy, innovation and growth initiatives.
Broad skill-set in developing and managing cross-functional teams in complex businesses to meet customer needs.
Executive experience in digital commerce and consumer engagement, merchandising & marketing, innovation, partnerships & new ventures, corporate strategy & business development and large scale P&L management.
Evolv Technologies is defining autonomous optimization for the digital era. Using breakthrough Artificial Intelligence, developed over the course of ten years, Evolv helps enterprise customers continuously optimize their digital KPIs and meet their goals and objectives. The company’s flagship product, Ascend, is used today by recognized brands around the world to improve experiences across web and mobile.