14 Jun MarTech Interview with Michael Scharff, Chief Executive Off…
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 that 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 on 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 e-commerce 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 combinations 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 it is 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…