All posts in “Entrepreneurship”

Andrew Ng is raising a $150M AI Fund

We knew that Andrew Ng had more than just a series of deep learning courses up his sleeve when he announced the first phase of his last week. It’s clear now that the turn of Ng’s three part act is a $150 million venture capital fund, first noted by PEHub, targeting AI investments.

Ng, who formerly founded Google’s Brain Team and served as chief scientist at Baidu has long evangelized the benefits AI could bring to the world. During an earlier conversation, Ng told me that his personal goal is to help bring about an AI-powered society. It would follow that education via his deep learning classes is one step of that and providing capital and other resources is another.

2017 has been a particularly active year for starting AI-focused venture capital funds. In the last few months we have seen Google roll out Gradient Ventures, Basis Set Ventures hall in $136 million, Element.AI raise $102 million, Microsoft Ventures start its own AI fund and Toyota corral $100 million for AI investment.

It’s unclear at this point how Ng’s AI Fund will differentiate from the pack. Many of these funds are putting time and resources into securing data sets, technical mentors and advanced simulation tools to support the unique needs of AI startups. Of course Ng’s name recognition and network should help ensure solid deal flow and enable Ng to poach and train talent for startups in need of scarce deep learning engineers.

I’ve sent a note to Andrew and we will update this post if and when we get more details.

Featured Image: Dawn Endico/Flickr UNDER A CC BY-SA 2.0 LICENSE

What Will Rise From Uber’s Ashes?

There has been quite a bit of churn in the waters around Uber during the last few years. Now that founder Travis Kalanick is no longer CEO, what does the future look like for the company, workers, drivers, investors and customers? Will Uber continue to grow and lead, or has it seen its best days?

Most people connected to the company probably would say the same thing: They want calm but rapid growth. There is now a good possibility for growth if they get the right CEO and right strategy. However, Uber has been like two different companies in recent years.

On one hand, it created a new space — that is its biggest accomplishment. Whether Uber lasts or not, the space will, and that can be traced to Uber’s use of wireless and smartphone technology, like the wireless data network and the wireless Internet.

On the other hand, behavior of certain key people has not been good. Issue after issue — and there were quite a few — kept them in the headlines in a negative way, and that was a drag on the company. The company was like someone with behavioral problems. In one respect it was a superhero — but in another, was miserable and very troubled.

The Right Chief

Uber’s future depends on who it brings in as CEO to run the company and build it going forward. Can a new chief create a smooth-running operation in which everyone wins and everyone is satisfied? That’s something Uber never has experienced.

I’ve heard speculation about several impressive candidates, like Jeff Immelt, who is retiring as CEO of GE. If Uber can get someone of that caliber, it could make all the difference in the world. It would take that sort of individual to shake things up at Uber, and that’s what it needs.

It reminds me of when Bernie Marcus and Arthur Blank eventually retired from The Home Depot, a company they created. The company struggled for years until it found the right new CEO to replace them. So, the question is this: How quickly will Uber turn around? It depends on how long it takes to find the right CEO.

If you listen to its advertising, Uber sounds like a winner. That attracts customers, drivers and investors. The big problem is that after a bad experience, workers and customers who started with Uber sometimes move to competitors like Lyft — and there are companies like Lyft in countries all over the world.

Uber’s Growth Wave

Uber is still king of the hill. That may change, but if it can recover, then it can continue to grow. Will it get the right leadership and growth strategy? Will it transform itself into a respectable company? Will it be the company that gets past the rocky road it’s now on and continues to grow? Will it hang onto its industry leadership? Or will it be a company that created a new space but then lost its leadership position to bad behavior?

Only time will tell. I’m the eternal optimist. If GoDaddy could turn itself around, then Uber can do the same. There have been plenty of companies that struggled with this image problem. I hope Uber can dodge all the rubble in its road — rubble that Uber itself put there.

We’ll have to wait till it has a new CEO and a new strategy to see whether the company will turn itself around or not.

Jeff Kagan has been an ECT News Network columnist since 2010. His focus is on the wireless and telecom industries. He is an independent
analyst, consultant and speaker.
Email Jeff.

Yes, and…

The further we go in the CRM adventure, the less our efforts seem to be about technology. That’s because we’re reaching a theoretical limit, or asymptote, on what technology can do in the vendor-customer relationship.

Think of an asymptote as the ceiling that a graph never reaches as it curls over to the horizontal. Increasingly, we’re encountering situations where the best technology can do is assist humans as they deal with complex issues and other people pursuing products and services. This is not to say that technology doesn’t do a very good job handling the simple stuff.

All this was brought home to me recently in some Harvard Business Review articles and in my own explorations in Chicago, where I got indoctrinated in the ways of the comedy troupe Second City. First Harvard.

Emotional Intelligence in a Machine Age

It is interesting that even in situations where machines are talking to machines, there’s more to be learned. In “Success with the Internet of Things Requires More Than Chasing the Cool Factor,” Maciej Kranz, VP of the Corporate Strategy and Innovation Group at Cisco, explores some people issues. Kranz is also the author of Building the Internet of Things.

In a nutshell, Kranz’s advice is this: “First, train your employees in critical IoT skills — not just technology and processes but collaboration, too. Second, implement a culture of innovation across all grades, functions, and regions.” Look at all of the people skills needed even in the age of machines talking to machines.

Then there’s “The Personality Traits of Good Negotiators” by Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, CEO of Hogan Assessment Systems, professor of business psychology at University College London, and faculty member at Columbia University.

Chamorro-Premuzic’s research is top-notch, and he’s a frequent contributor to HBR, writing about emotional intelligence, or EQ, and psychology in the workplace.

A “study by Wharton and MIT professors shows that people with higher EQ are more likely to induce positive mood states in their negotiation counterparts and leave them more satisfied with the outcome of the negotiation,” Chamorro-Premuzic wrote. “EQ also translates into higher levels of satisfaction with one’s own negotiation outcome, regardless of the objective result.”

While both impressed me, these two articles didn’t come together in my mind until I happened to hear a Second City troupe member talking about comedy while on vacation in Chicago.

Keeping It Real

During a tour of the neighborhood where Second City’s theater complex is located, the troupe member, Margaret, explained the company’s approach to comedy and, interestingly, how some of the more than 3,000 current students and cast members learn improv comedy and sometimes teach it on corporate campuses.

One of the foundational techniques can be boiled down to “Yes, and…” in a comedic dialog. For example, I say, “The food here is terrible!” and you might say, “Yes, and the portions are so small!” Or one of my new favorites, “Honey, the kids are acting up!” followed by, “Well, call your ex-wife!”

With that foundation, you don’t really need a script — you just follow and try to add to what you’re given, and that’s what makes it improvisational. Maybe that’s why leading corporations try to inculcate it in their cultures.

Of course, business is not always or even often funny, but that’s not the point. The point is that if the people skills embodied by EQ are trainable, and if we invest in them, then we might find ourselves more productive and satisfied when we affirm others.

Most call centers today have scripted affirmative responses like, “I’m sorry to hear that…” or “I do apologize…” but we all know that they are scripted. We need to make affirming statements as part of a diagnostic process, but it’s not OK to let our technique show.

There’s a set of games that aspiring comics use to learn the craft of improv — again, proving that it’s something you can learn. We owe a great debt to Viola Spolin, an actress who invented the games in the 1940s, and her son Paul Sills, a director who helped perfect and teach them.

Getting more out of our CRM investments will require greater attention to methodology. With methodology, we can experience a new era of growth in CRM — but without it, our asymptotes might be just ahead.

Denis Pombriant is a well-known CRM industry researcher, strategist, writer and speaker. His new book, You Can’t Buy Customer Loyalty, But You Can Earn It, is now available on Amazon. His 2015 book, Solve for the Customer, is also available there. He can be reached at

Most Businesses Want Agility but Few Have It

Although many organizations recognize that agility enables better responses to changing business conditions, few have taken the necessary steps to reach that goal, a new study from CA Technologies suggests.

Although two-thirds of the respondents to the firm’s recent survey saw value in business agility, only about 12 percent said their organizations were on their way to achieving it.

Fifty-four percent of respondents said improved business agility could provide a better competitive advantage; 65 percent said it could lead to higher customer satisfaction and retention; and 58 percent said it could result in better employee satisfaction and retention.

Despite those clear advantages, though, many businesses face hurdles in their quest for better agility. Sixty-four percent of survey respondents cited complex environments as an impediment to achieving that goal, while 58 percent cited cultural and political barriers. Twenty-five percent said there was a lack of financial commitment, and another 25 percent cited outdated apps and tools.

“Success today requires that companies quickly sense and adapt to changes, pivot to address market changes and customer needs, and do so at scale,” said Surya Panditi, general manager of agile management at CA Technologies.

High-Level Execs

More than 150 top executives at selected companies participated in the survey, which Gatepoint Research conducted between March and June of this year. The survey pool’s composition was 19 percent C-level, 15 percent vice president level, 36 percent director-level and 30 percent managerial-level company officials.

CA Technologies has focused heavily on the development ops and cloud space since its 2015 acquisition of Rally Software Development Corp., a provider of agile development software, for US$480 million.

“We’re at a tipping point, and this is just the beginning,” CA Technologies Director of Marketing Marla Schimke told the E-Commerce Times.

Vantiv Case Study

Among the companies that CA Technologies has helped transform since the Rally deal is payment processing solutions provider Vantiv, a customer using CA’s Agile Central tool.

CA Technologies worked with Vantiv to get its products to market more quickly and improve collaboration between its product and IT organization, enabling it to be more responsive to customer needs.

“The goal was to grow our organization in a way that would separate us from the competition by enabling us to deliver, incrementally, the right thing,” said David Kent, enterprise agile coach at Vantiv.

“In doing so, we would be much more engaging with our clients, deepening our relationships — and, again, getting them what they wanted and needed without the excess they wouldn’t utilize,” he told the E-Commerce Times.

Elusive Objective

“For most companies, the likeliest impediments to agile adoption are organization complexity, and cultural or political resistance,” he told the E-Commerce Times.

“In the first case, agile adoption works best when it extends across the enterprise, not just a few departments,” King explained, “but that requires senior executives to be on board with the strategy and be willing to lead — forcefully, if necessary.”

Like individuals, organizations tend to resist change, he said, especially when it may lead to a shift in the balance of power, or threaten the position of various individuals or groups.

“Unless agile projects and strategies are carefully nurtured and monitored, organizations run the risk of efforts being nudged off track,” said King, or becoming “subject to painful or even fatal delays.”

The perceived difficulty in attaining business agility may be clouded by the challenge of assessing a company’s performance in real time, suggested Jim McGregor, principal analyst at Tirias Research.

“I find it hard to believe that a company can adequately evaluate if they are agile or not. The only way to really determine if your organization is agile is through hindsight,” he told the E-Commerce Times.

“Changes in business can come from just about anywhere — the economy, business segment, competitors, regulations, customers, etc. The only truly agile businesses are startups, because they have to react to anything that comes their way to survive,” McGregor explained. “As companies grow and mature, they naturally become less agile just by adding structure.”

The study’s release comes at a time when BMC Software reportedly is in talks on a potential deal to merge with CA Technologies.

BMC had contacted banks about obtaining financing for such a deal — one that would create one of the largest leveraged buyouts since Dell went private in 2013, Reuters reported in June. CA at the time had a market capitalization of about $13 billion.

CA spokesperson Leslie Marcotte told the E-Commerce Times that the company does not comment on rumors or speculation.

David Jones is a freelance writer based in Essex County, New Jersey. He has written for Reuters, Bloomberg, Crain’s New York Business and The New York Times.

It’s a Whole New World With Alexa

Voice computing is replacing the graphical user interface, Shawn DuBravac, chief economist of the Consumer Technology Association, said early this year at CES.

Digital assistants will be integrated into many household objects, he noted.

About 5 million voice-activated digital voice products had been sold as of January, and Bravac estimated 5 million more would be sold this year.

Amazon’s Alexa voice assistant software captured 88 percent of the global intelligent home speaker market in the last quarter of 2016, according to Strategy Analytics.

That widespread acceptance suggests that it could be in Alexa’s power to disrupt multiple industries as the world increasingly goes digital and the Internet of Things becomes the norm — including retail, travel, the automobile industry, customer interactions, e-commerce, security cameras, intelligent homes, and through integration with semiconductors, pretty much everything else.

“Alexa’s very popular because of its open platform approach,” commented Trip Chowdhry, managing director of equity research at Global Equities Research.

However, its success “depends on a smart company that knows how to integrate it into their platform,” he told the E-Commerce Times. “Not every device using Alexa will be successful.”

Boots on the Ground, Metaphorically Speaking

Smart appliances using Alexa and other voice assistants are available from home appliance makers including LG, Bosch, GE and Kenmore.

Then there are the Arlo security cameras, which support Alexa.

“The old world was, you put in your wires, put in your system, and stream it 24 hours a day and you’re still clueless,” Chowdhry observed.

The Arlo platform is unique “because you have a very smart device running in an unfettered mode which can do visual intelligence in the cloud and can be controlled and enabled through voice commands,” he explained.

Several automobile companies, including Ford, BMW and Hyundai, are rolling out Alexa capabilities, or “skills,” as they’re called.

Alexa in Retail

Amazon recently relaunched the Dash Wand, with the Alexa voice assistant built in. It lets consumers scan barcodes of items on store shelves and add them to their shopping cart, or use voice commands to place shopping orders through Amazon’s Dash consumer goods ordering service.

The possibilities for such devices are “basically limitless,” noted Stephen Kaufman, chief product officer at Blue Software.

However, their use requires consumer goods manufacturers to provide accurate and rich product data on the bar code.

“If the data’s incomplete or inaccurate, the brand will risk a slide in consumer trust or confidence,” Kaufman told the E-Commerce Times.

With the advent of this technology, the entire retail landscape “could shift to a substantially different model,” he observed.

Shopify Plus merchants soon will have access to ChatBot, Linc Global’s voice and digital customer service and engagement platform, which will let them offer branded customer ChatBots on Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp, as well as voice assistance through Amazon Alexa and Google Home.

Voice-Enabling Customer Facing Tech

Voice technologies are gaining ground in customer relationship management, but users still have to make sure they “deliver the right experience contextual to the customer’s need at his or her moment of need,” emphasized Ying Chen, Pegasystems‘ head of platform product marketing.

However, the technology has to evolve more to become pre-emptive, and “this is where transparent [artificial intelligence] comes in,” she told the E-Commerce Times.

Businesses implementing CRM or other customer-facing technologies with voice capability need speech analytics to “quickly adapt or modify strategies to best meet and exceed customer expectations and provide a frictionless experience,” cautioned Brian Laroche, CallMiner’s director of program marketing.

CallMiner’s products automate and analyze 100 percent of customer interactions, he told the E-Commerce Times, quickly searching and identifying context-based critical business challenges in four main areas: contact center efficiency; agent performance; risk and compliance; and the customer experience.

They let businesses respond to operational inefficiencies, poor agent behaviors, customer dissatisfaction and other issues before they can impact the bottom line, Laroche added.

Splice Software recently released a new Alexa skills app that lets CRM pros in retail, insurance and finance industries connect with customers where, when and how they prefer.

Alexa in the Travel Industry

Consumers soon may be able to use voice commands to book trips and check into hotel rooms, among other things.

“Voice-activated Internet is looking more and more like it will eventually replace the mobile app universe and, in this context, the rise of voice-activated search may upend direct booking wars between suppliers and third parties,” suggested Carl Livadas, VP of data science at Sojern, which offers traveler marketing to hotels, airlines, rental car companies and others travel industry companies.

“We’re not only seeing brands like Marriott testing both Siri and Alexa, but some brands are even developing their own signature technologies,” he told the E-Commerce Times.

AI and machine learning will be incorporated with voice to offer a full personalized experience, but this “will take a lot of back-end work from travel brands to educate customers and to provide the right responses,” Livadas said.

Chip Ahoy!

Qualcomm eXtension Program members Sensory and Rubidium support the Alexa wake word on the Qualcomm CSR8670 and CSR8675 Bluetooth Audio SoCs (systems on chips). Bluetooth products made with them can be operated with Alexa voice commands.

Semiconductor maker Microsemi is offering the Microsemi AcuEdge Development Kit for Amazon AVS (Alexa Voice Service), which can be used for emerging human-to-machine applications in the Internet of Things, Industrial Internet of Things, and automated assistance markets.

“Although getting better each day, voice recognition is still more inaccurate than accurate, limiting its use to non-critical applications such as information and entertainment,” said Nucleus Research CEO Ian Campbell.

The situation will improve, and eventually it will be possible to envision an airline pilot “making a [radio] frequency change request to a virtual assistant,” he told the E-Commerce Times, “rather than entering the frequency by pressing buttons or turning knobs.”

Richard Adhikari has been an ECT News Network reporter since 2008. His areas of focus include cybersecurity, mobile technologies, CRM, databases, software development, mainframe and mid-range computing, and application development. He has written and edited for numerous publications, including Information Week and Computerworld. He is the author of two books on client/server technology.
Email Richard.