Invisible Selling at its Best

We have seen countless cases of groundbreaking ideas being discussed or being born at usual places and later turning out to be a game-changer. But, there haven’t been many cases where the ideas are discussed at unusual places and goes on to make it big.

Going up against this statement as the perfect example is – the first AI company to power proactive consumer selling with retail bots – the story of which had started over a bottle of wine.

The founders were talking about how they had all been sold wine at some point but how the wines somehow did not live up to the recommendation of the wine sales person. The problem that they found was that they were often sold products by sales people that didn’t know about them nor the product they are selling.

The answer to this problem had to be technical, as all of them were Silicon Valley techies with more than a dozen successful startups collectively under their belts. And there it stood – the idea of creating a digital sales assistant that knew everything about a domain and its products; knew how people preferred to shop; could explain why a particular product is good for them; address any and every concerns that might pop-up; and basically sell like a passionate sales person would, only if one were to be found!

Since, this started with a bottle of wine, they figured they’d start with a name. Therefore, their first product was named Virtual Sommelier, representing the virtual version of a wine steward. Even before Virtual Sommelier would be launched, the founders knew that it was probably the best wine search and wine shopping tool on the market. Virtual Sommelier had signed customers before the founders even had a demonstrable prototype. They are now in the process of launching with one of the world’s largest wine and spirits retail chain across hundreds of its global stores.

Transforming shoppers’ journey into linear fashion

The retail industry is going through a tremendous transformation as a result of advancing technology. Today, the notion that technology will assist people – both online and in physical stores – to be more informed and get better assistance has been well established. It has become a common knowledge that machines can in many cases help amplify the shoppers’ experience better than a human sales person might do, which some people refer to as the autonomous mode of shopping.

Stretching this concept further, magia has taken a very unique approach by creating an intelligent virtual sales assistance that people can intuitively interact with. It would be similar to any other competent human sales assistant, who is thoroughly knowledgeable about the product and holds the ability to understand the shopper at a personal level. Unlike other companies that are building virtual assistants by taking a very simple decision-tree type of approach, the technology of magia has developed a virtual assistant with advanced logic and reasoning, natural language understanding, information retrieval and other techniques. The result? The journey of shoppers is turning into a linear fashion which earlier didn’t quite happen.

Three pillars, collectively doing wonders

The technology of magia has three main pillars. The first being the knowledge base, which is built for each domain. magia does not simply boast a generic knowledge base that knows everything there is to know about a product domain (e.g., wine, cars, TVs, wearables), but instead, it is also agile in how it can retrieve information from it randomly.

The second pillar is the retail-specific natural language understanding or NLU that is optimized for the retail sector. In their NLU, queries like “wine to go with steak” is the same as “TV to go with PS4”.  In other words, magia’s NLU is trained for the retail world, independent of a product domain. Accordingly, the NLU also knows that the “wine with steak” is not the same thing as “TV with Roku.”

The third pillar is what the team calls as to be the “brain” where much of the intelligent selling resides. Scenarios such as the shoppers meandering journey, resolving conflicting constraints, maintaining or discarding contexts intelligently, etc. are handled by the brain. And of course, these three pillars are tightly integrated as they all need to interact very closely for everything to come together.

The unison of discipline, perseverance, and patience

The challenges magia has faced are somewhat similar to other startups, i.e. essentially crossing the barrier of getting their first initial commercial deals. magia is always striving to constantly push the envelope in getting from a very good to a yet better solution; balancing resources between current opportunities and longer term roadmap considerations.

The biggest challenge, however, has always been creating market awareness. Retailers are not exactly on the cutting-edge of technology.

How does the team make them aware of what is possible with magia and at the same time motivate them to move quickly? A modulated approach, wherein every progress is a building block to the next one and to the next one. At some point it reaches a tipping point where they then hit the proverbial hockey stick curve. This takes discipline, perseverance and patience, and the magia team has got all of it to its name.

An industry leader utilizing all of his experience

Sam Vasisht, the Co-founder of magia is responsible for establishing the company’s strategy and marketing. magia is his third company in building virtual assistants.

The first virtual assistant he launched was back in 2012, when Apple’s Siri started to gain traction in the market. Nonetheless, Sam’s virtual assistant was far more advanced and created quite a buzz, albeit it was only for video. “I’ve brought a relatively long span of experience in virtual assistants and AI to magia as a result. The learning of prior companies is invaluable as we navigate this space. For one, there is a lot of customer skepticism as most other products on the market do not perform. We have to overcome that from a customer education standpoint. Second, I have learnt that creating a simple solution, even if it an elegant one is pointless if it does not really solve consumer problems. Consumers are very astute in what they choose to adopt. We focus a lot on solving real problems rather than just giving consumers a new shiny thing,” shares Sam.

Having launched a lot of hi-tech products across nascent industries over the past 15 years, Sam has learnt to balance the art of getting fast market attraction early in the life of a startup while at the same time building a bridge for the mainstream market to catch up. He believes that most startups fail either because they only get early traction or they’re in the waiting mode for the mainstream market to catch up, and as a result of which they die on the vine. “I have been involved with startups at all stages, including exits of some late stage startups that were on death’s door. I’ve seen how these companies got to that fragile state, and how it could have been avoided. These are all the things one tries to avoid when you’re starting with a clean slate, and experience is the best teacher,” he further adds.

A bright future for shoppers and retailers

Going ahead, the team at magia envisions a future scenario where a fresh graduate can select his or her first car confidently within minutes without needing to know anything about cars. Additionally, magia wants to create a future where a grandmother can buy her first laptop without needing assistance from her 20-something grandson. They want to create an opportunity where a new parent can buy a car seat for their infant and feel completely confident and unconcerned about whether it is the right seat or not. “We envision a future where the notion of ‘buyer’s remorse’ does not exist. Primarily, we envision a future where in addition to always buying the right product, buying anything is a breeze, no matter how complex the product and how uninformed the shopper is about it,” Sam concludes.

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