Machine learning technology is enhancing the way we identify, approach, and close sales opportunities
We often hear about the application of new technologies through social media, television, or other news outlets. However, how often do we get a chance to go beyond third-party sources and do a deeper dive into the technologies and the people behind them?
This article provides a window into the personal and professional journey of Erhan Eren; the founder of an up-and-coming SaaS company based out of San Francisco, California called “Enki” (previously called “Zephyr”). The recorded transcript below captures a raw and visceral conversation, which highlights the application of new technology, the company helping to bring it to market, and the challenges one may face as they break new ground in uncharted territory.
Q: In 2017, you founded a company originally called “Zephyr.” What is Zephyr and which market do you serve?
A: Zephyr is a B2B AI-driven sales assistant. It helps sales reps close deals faster by providing actionable insights based on a customer’s industry, competition, and other key benchmarks. We recently changed the name of the company from Zephyr to Enki. Enki is a Sumerian knowledge god. This name fits the company better because we are focused on creating a “knowledge” platform with an emphasis on capturing true sales intelligence.
Q: Got it. Thanks for clarifying. The new name has a nice ring to it. It rolls off the tongue well. What inspired you to start Enki?
A: I used to be in marketing research and was tasked with performing competitive analyses based on publicly available information, such as news releases and financial statements. The primary objective was to use this information to better understand a company’s positioning and its competitors. However, there was no tool to address these issues systematically; it all had to be done manually whether you are viewing a company’s earnings call transcript or investor deck presentation. I would have to spend an entire day on each analysis which was very inefficient when you have multiple clients. I saw an opportunity to build a solution that could quickly create AI-driven insights for both sales executives focused on P&L statements and account executives focused on B2B sales. This challenge was the inspiration for Enki.
Q: You often hear about startups creating a defensible moat–something that makes the company unique beyond a feature set or business model that can be easily replicated. What is Enki’s defensible moat? What sets it apart from the competition?
A: When you look at the market there are multiple sales solutions available; some provide insights in the form of newsfeeds, while others come in the form of analyst reports you have to dig through to find relevant information. Wouldn’t the best option be one that saves time by providing the relevant information needed to actually help you address your customer’s pain points and close deals faster? There should be a tool as easy as Google where you ask a few questions and then receive information you can act upon. I believe filling this gap is what sets Enki apart because most solutions are focused on market intelligence, but Enki is focused on sales intelligence — a missing ingredient necessary to win business.
Q: What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced so far?
A: Resource allocation is definitely one of the biggest challenges I’ve faced so far because I’m working within a very tight budget. We’re still at the seed stage so every dollar counts. It’s all about being frugal, creative, and flexible.
For example, instead of paying for LinkedIn ads, I prefer to reach out to people with personalized messages. I also cut costs by hiring people from Fiverr to provide various services such as the creation of my company’s logo.
Another challenge is finding the right people to expand your team. I find myself circling back to the following question: How do you build something useful for your customers? In order to answer that question, you need the right team; one that is agile. This is actually the reason I live in a hacker house; in order to network and meet bright people with similar interests.
Q: You just mentioned a hacker house? Let’s dive a little deeper since many people don’t know what that is. What is a hacker house and what are the advantages of living there?
A: A hacker house is a residence for entrepreneurs. It’s like a college dorm where students live together. The difference is that all the residents in the house are founders or working at a startup. I decided to live in a hacker house because it’s a great place to network and meet new people.
Q: Is your hacker house located in the Bay Area?
A: Yes, I currently live in the Bay Area. I just moved here a few months ago from Seattle, Washington.
Q: What prompted your move from Washington to California?
A: The ecosystem. In Seattle, there are a lot of people who want to be an entrepreneur. However, there are no “in between” companies in Washington — meaning companies ranging from billion dollar companies to zero value companies. In San Francisco, there are several in-between companies — one founder had a $10 million exit while another had a $50 million exit. So, the ecosystem is richer in California.
Q: You recently joined an accelerator. What criteria did you use to select the accelerator? Are you happy with your decision?
A: Yes, but the program hasn’t started yet. We’re in the process of finalizing everything. The accelerator is based in San Francisco and is quite new. I like the accelerator’s personalized approach. They don’t take on several startups and instead focus on smaller batches. I believe the accelerator will be able to focus on my company’s pain points, go-to-market strategy, and value proposition especially when compared to other accelerators which tend to take a more general approach.
Q: Any advice you would like to provide current or future founders?
A: Team is everything. It’s not product, it’s not your idea. It really all comes down to people. You will never solve the problem the first time around. Your initial idea will always be wrong. The application of your idea and creating a successful MVP is very hard. The best way to overcome these challenges is to have a team that compliments each other. You need to find people you enjoy working with who have a similar passion because that is what is going to carry you through the tough times. When you first start a company, you won’t be making money and will be living a minimalist lifestyle so it’s important to have fun and enjoy spending time with the people you work with.
Q: What if you don’t have a team? How do you go find the right people?
A: Go to hack-a-thons you are passionate about. For example, if you want to build a blockchain solution then go to a blockchain hack-a-thon. Try to focus on finding like-minded people. However, don’t just go to these events and think you will automatically create new relationships. You might have to go to several events and build relationships gradually over time.
Q: Didn’t you meet your co-founder while participating in a hack-a-thon?
A: Yes, I did. I met my co-founder while participating in IBM’s Cognitive Builder Faire in Seattle back in 2017. We used sentiment analysis and weather data to find people in emotional crisis and match them with the right people, friends, and products for support.
Q: Congratulations. That’s awesome! I noticed your team won the hackathon. There’s a photo of you and the team on IBM’s website receiving the award, and it includes a dog. Was the dog the reward for coming in first place?
A: [laughs] No, but there’s a funny story behind the dog in the photo. During the hack-a-thon, we had to come up with a team name. I couldn’t think of a name, so I turned to one of my teammates who brought his dog and asked him its name. He told me the dog’s name was “Zephyr” so we decided to use that name for our team and company originally. The name “Zephyr” means “cool breeze.” The dog kind of became our mascot so we brought him onstage during our three-minute pitch. While onstage Zephyr pulled the plug to the laptop and we lost access to the monitor! Fortunately, we won the hackathon. It was that experience which laid the foundation for the company you see today.
Q: It sounds as if the IBM hack-a-thon was one of the catalysts that helped jumpstart your company. Did everything fall into place following the hack-a-thon or did you experience bumps and bruises along the way?
A: It was definitely the latter because I was actually working on two additional projects while participating in the IBM hackathon. One of those projects was an application that connects friends and events by analyzing their Facebook posts. With this application, you would be able to find associations between the content in the posts and personal preferences. The app would then present the user with upcoming events based on their preferences (e.g., Jason, there is a wine tasting happy hour and you should go with Erhan. Would you like to set up the event?). The application would also send out the invitation for your event after you swipe right and confirm. Unfortunately, we ran up against too many API and privacy restrictions and had to rethink our business model and product offering.
I didn’t necessarily know how to address this issue, so I decided to focus on pitching the idea to more people in hopes of getting additional feedback. While pitching, I started to get requests for finding more information about the social interests of a particular client to foster stronger relationships. This eventually led to the development of an application to mine and run personality models based off of twitter data. The app was built in January of 2018 with demos to prospective customers shortly after that. During these demos, we were surprised to find that many B2B organizations wanted access to more business insights, such as what the top product lines, pain points, and initiatives were for any given customer. This led us to build the current application in spring 2018 with a beta version of Enki Insights released in October 2018.
Q: Let’s talk a little bit about your flagship product, Enki Insights. Can you give an example of how it works?
A: Certainly. It’s probably best if I show you in a demo. Before we jump in I want to emphasize the fact that sales intelligence is so much more than a singular feature or piece of information. To really get the answer you are looking for you often need to pull multiple pieces of data before you can make an informed decision about a potential business opportunity.
Let’s say you have a prospective client who is a major food and beverage agency or tech consultancy. And let’s assume the client wants to better understand Anheuser Busch’s partnerships, technology initiatives, and growth opportunities — three areas that could potentially impact whether there is even a need for the services the agency provides. Or perhaps you want to gain deeper insights across the entire food and beverage sector?
Our starting point assumes businesses are like onions; they look pretty simple on the outside, but as you peel each layer back you soon find complexity and a bit more than originally anticipated. The ability to simplify this complexity is at the heart of Enki. The auto-generated heat map displays similar companies in the food and beverage space and analyzes each company from the perspective of industry insights, financial health, and products being sold by the seller. Each company is ranked according to these categories.
Let’s take a look at the outer layer of the onion, which gives a good picture of the entire food and beverage industry. As we view the heat map you’ll notice that even though Anheuser Busch is a great technology buyer, McDonald’s is leading technology initiatives within this cohort group. Just hover over the name “McDonald’s” and you’ll soon find that most of the discussions are happening around acquisitions pertaining to artificial intelligence and strategic initiatives in the areas of menu selection and customer services.
As we peel back another layer of the onion we can hone in on Anheuser Busch and really start to address issues impacting the company within the sub-industry of beer. So what’s everyone talking about right now as I run this demo? Well, there’s a considerable buzz around Corona (a subsidiary of Anheuser Busch) because the company is currently working on an alternative malt beverage and non-beer beverage called “Corona Refresca.”
Not only is this information presented in a concise format, it’s also very relevant. The synopsis tells us that Refresca is going to be Corona’s first non-beer beverage, which means the risks and rewards are high. We also receive contextual information such as the fact the beverage was taste tested by consumers and will come in three flavors.
And if that’s not enough, we can easily cut deeper by asking Enki specific questions which help serve as the foundation for building a business opportunity or partnership with Anheuser Busch. For the ad agency, this means you now have the ammunition to create a strategy which could potentially persuade Anheuser to allocate marketing dollars to your firm. Or perhaps Anheuser is unaware of the fact that some of its peers in the food and beverage industry are doubling down on artificial intelligence and you have access to technology that would help the company develop additional flavors of beer with greater accuracy using AI? No matter how you cut it, B2B buyers are 5x more likely to engage with a sales professional who provides new insights about their business or industry.
Q: Thanks for the insightful demo. You’re obviously off to a great start. Does Enki have any other superpowers you would like to share?
A: Yes, Enki also has the ability to parse through and present relevant insights from earnings calls. While using Enki, you can ask direct questions about a company’s current achievements, growth opportunities, and challenges. You simply ask a question and the relevant text will be extracted accordingly. This feature is a work in progress and will continue to evolve as we double down on resources in the near future.
Q: After hearing your story and seeing the tech in action I’m convinced you’ve accomplished more on a shoe-string budget than several Series A startups. I hope those who read this article feel the same. How can people contact you if they’d like to learn more about Enki?
A: My pleasure. Thanks for letting me share my story and journey! My email address is: firstname.lastname@example.org