Our Co-Founder and CEO, Zohar Gilad, was interviewed for StartUp.info, on how Fast Simon is using cutting edge technology to make their merchants succeed.
First of all, how are you, your family, and employees doing in these COVID-19 times?
Zohar Gilad: My family and I are fine. In the US, we built the company as 100% remote – i.e., working from home. So, you can call us visionary.
Still, even though we have been working from home, we increased our daily communications with video calls and more contact points, which we have not done before. It helps us feel together while working separately from home or sheltering in place.
Tell us about you, your career, how you founded Fast Simon (InstantSearch+).
Zohar Gilad: I started out as a software engineer in image processing, computer-aided design, and medical imaging. After receiving my MBA, I turned to products, marketing, and business management in Enterprise software. I became an intrapreneur, building stuff and bringing it to market: product lines, business units, cross-company initiatives, M&A – all in the same company. Throughout this period, I drove over 20 software products and acquisitions that have since been used by millions of users. Some of those, such as LoadRunner, have been category-defining. After 20 years in Enterprise software, I switched to eCommerce. In 2013, my co-founder, Adar Greenshpon, and I founded Fast Simon and launched InstantSearch+ for eCommerce. Our initial edge back then was a patented lightning-fast search autocomplete for eCommerce. Today, while the product has evolved into a full-fledged eCommerce conversion platform, we are still known as InstantSearch+ for the tens of thousands of merchants using it. In fact, our web site is still www.instantsearchplus.com, while www.www.fastsimon.com is being developed.
How does Fast Simon innovate?
Zohar Gilad: We focus on the customer – the eCommerce merchant. We bring cutting edge technology that until recently has been available only for behemoths such as Amazon, to the masses of eCommerce merchants. We started with eCommerce Search, and expanded to AI Merchandising, AI Visual Recommendations, Personalization – all around the same target customer, in a platform that is easy for them to consume. Sometimes, we have to invent the technology such as the eCommerce autocomplete, serverless-search engine, and AI merchandising, and sometimes, we take existing core models/technologies and re-purpose them for our eCommerce merchants in a way that they can use off-the-shelf. We are in a continuous development cycle. Unlike enterprise software, where vision & marketing usually precede reality – we are the opposite. Our marketing is way behind our apps.
We will go out of our way to make our merchants succeed. Gone are the days when SW vendors would sell a multi-million dollar 3-year contract and move on to the next customer, while their product is collecting dust on the shelf. Well, at least in eCommerce.
How the coronavirus pandemic affects your business, and how are you coping?
Zohar Gilad: COVID 19 is the terminator of brick and mortar retail as we know it. It is saddening to see retail chains closing for good, tens of thousands of lost jobs forever, small brick and mortar businesses that are shut down. For eCommerce, however, some say it accelerated adoption 5 years ahead.
While our business had seen a slight decline in Feb-March when risk and uncertainly prevailed, it has been up and to the right since April. When we started out in 2013, the common wisdom was to build a product or development API and then integrate with partner platforms. It made sense ten years ago when most eCommerce was custom and fragmented. We, on the other hand, did the opposite. We designed our product for the eCommerce platform before we had a generic solution or API. This is why we have a seamlessly integrated app for Shopify (SHOP), BigCommerce (BIGC), Adobe Magento (ADBE), WooCommerce, and WixStores (WIX). So now, when the market has more than 70% adoption of these platforms, we ride its coattail. Business was good and growing before, but now everyone is jumping in: brick and mortar local merchants that must go online to make a living, entire retail chains that went bankrupt and moving to an online-only model, major brands that have been selling only through retailers, and suddenly are going direct online. This is the Tornado of eCommerce.
Did you have to make difficult choices, and what are the lessons learned?
Zohar Gilad: It is about placing your bets and minimizing your potential losses. The first difficult decision was on selecting our cloud provider when we just started. We are bootstrapped, so selecting the provider was a big deal. We started developing our product on Google Cloud when it was still a Beta, and our developers loved it. However, it was still in Beta, with a chance that Google would pull the plug. We bet on the fact that Google could not afford not to be in the cloud game, so we selected Google Cloud. We certainly like how it played out.
The most difficult strategic decisions, which are hard for me, are what not to do. It’s a key dilemma for a startup that is always strapped for resources and always needs to be laser-focused. On the one hand, if you move fast, you get a first-mover advantage; on the other, it may prove to be a fad. Timing is everything.
In 2016, bots were all the rage. At that time, any VC deck had to have a bot in there. Our dilemma was whether this was for real, and we should go in and be ready with a product – or not. We had our CTO, Alexandra, build a quick working prototype of a search and recommendation chatbot. We managed our risk while learning what the technology and user experience really were. Much better than shifting your entire team on the new hype. We learned that despite the hype, the common web browser or mobile app was a much better interface to commerce than a serial text messaging bot. Needless to say, we have never got a request for such a product from a single merchant.
How do you deal with stress and anxiety, how do you project yourself and Fast Simon in the future?
Zohar Gilad: A few miles walking/hiking with our dog and workout clear my head and give me energy. I strive to do it daily. Luckily, our dog is a Viszla, a high energy dog that will get anxious if she is not active enough. It’s a win-win.
We are on a mission to bring eCommerce merchants everything they need to deliver an optimized shopper experience and increase their conversion.
Today, Fast Simon uses shopper behavior signals, visual and data signals, store signals, and merchant policies to deliver AI search, collections, merchandising, upsell, cross-sell, similar styles, and complete-the-look. Fast Simon’s brings integrated AI conversion optimization to automate manual work and replace expensive, complicated, long implementations by point vendors.
I see ourselves expanding into additional product areas to improve the match between what/how shoppers want to buy and what/how merchants want to sell.
Our integrated platform not only replaces point solutions but also delivers superior experience due to the number of data streams fed to its AI engine. It gives us a competitive advantage as we can quickly interleave different signals to produce results that increase sales, margin, AOV, and conversion for merchants. Much like we broadened our customer touchpoint from the eCommerce team to merchandisers and buyers – I see us reaching additional teams within the brands that are serving today and will serve in the future.
Who are your competitors? And how do you plan to stay in the game?
Zohar Gilad: We have many competitors. From small search app vendors to enterprise vendors such as Bloomreach or Reflektion, from high-end personalization multi-channel players such as Certona, filter builders, or visual search only startups.
Staying in the game was defined many years ago by Lewis Carol, Alice in Wonderland: “My dear, here we must run as fast as we can, just to stay in place. And if you wish to go anywhere you must run twice as fast as that.”
For us, running twice as fast means:
- Focus on our customer, the eCommerce merchant
- Continuously innovate
- Expand our reach through partners and channels
Your final thoughts?
Zohar Gilad: Our team has been eating, drinking, and breathing eCommerce for 7 years with the leading eCommerce platforms such as Shopify and BigCommerce, fast-growing brands such as SteveMadden and PuraVida Bracelets, building a platform that delivers results that help merchants compete against the Amazons of the world. We are in the right place, the right time, the right product, and the right customer base. What’s not to like about that?