According to a 2020 report from Grand View Research, Inc., the global artificial intelligence market size is expected to reach US$733.7 billion by 2027, of which up to 20% of revenue will come from the advertising and media sector. This is welcome news for Appier, a Taiwan-based startup that provides a suite of AI-powered products to brands and marketers looking to better understand — and predict — their customers' needs. The company was established in 2012 by Chih-Han Yu, Winnie Lee, and Joe Su, three friends who met while working and studying in the US. Eight years later, the company has attracted upward of US$162 million in investment, making it one of Taiwan's highest valued startups. Insider spoke with Winnie Lee, Appier cofounder and COO, about how AI and predictive technologies are powering the future of business.
Insider: In the eight years Appier has been in operation, the company has grown rapidly to where it is now valued at over US$1 billion. What has driven this growth?
Lee: I think there are three key elements. One is technology advancement. The second is the product solutions we build. And the last one is the business execution. These three are very critical to our growth. The first two echo back to the company mindset of having market-driven innovation. We need to make sure that any innovation is really addressing the market needs. This allows us not only to drive the technology advancement within the team, but also to think from the customer's point of view — what would really make their lives easier? We need to develop products that are solving the end user's problem but we also need to continue to drive the AI development. Both are very crucial to us.
At the same time, Asia is composed of so many different countries and if you want to grow as a company you really need to understand each market that you enter. We have been operating in 17 cities across Asia and in each city we hire people from the local market because we believe they will understand the customers there. Through this interaction between each business team from each market to the product team, we can fast iterate our product and make sure it is meeting everyone's needs.
Insider: Why did Appier choose the marketing and sales sector as its area of focus?
Lee: What we had observed is that as businesses started to go digital, the first piece of data they want to digitize is the customer data. As an AI company, if you have very clear goals and sufficiently relevant data then you can help those companies to utilize their data and improve continuously and can easily show your value. However, if you enter a field that has very little data then it becomes almost impossible to prove your value. That's why we chose to start in the marketing and sales domain.
Insider: What are Appier's strengths compared to other marketing solutions companies such as Salesforce and IBM? How does the company differentiate itself in the market?
Lee: We are different in two ways. The first is that most other companies tend to group their products by functions. We are unique in that we are trying to think from our customer's perspective and how they can map their business challenges on a day to day basis against the solutions we can offer.
The second difference is that we are actually an AI-native company. When we started the business, our aspiration was to use AI to empower businesses to use their own data. Everything we design and everything we sell is surrounded by this idea or concept. We are almost an 'AI as a service company'. Not just a SaaS company, but more an intelligent software company. There are a lot of companies that are trying to add AI into their software. When we design a product, the AI capabilities are already built in.
Insider: Over the past few years Appier has acquired a number of tech companies, such as Japanese AI solutions provider Emin. What is the thinking behind this acquisition strategy?
Lee: When we want to expand our product portfolio, our first logical thought is to look around in adjacent fields and see which area would make the most sense to enter first. Once we have identified a specific area, we start to scan the market. If we don't find anything close to what we want to build then we just go ahead and build it. But if the functionality that we want is already there with another company, then we would consider whether that company would be a good target for us.
For example, Emin was in a sector that we wanted to enter, which is optimizing transactions for businesses. However, their AI technology was not as advanced. After we had acquired them, we injected our AI capabilities into the platform and now the performance of that platform has become a lot better compared to what it was before.
Insider: Predictive AI — the ability to analyze historical data to predict future behavior — is an emerging field in marketing. How do you see this evolving?
Lee: In the past few years there has been a lot of focus on solving data collection and data organization problems. But from our perspective, the challenges that marketers face is not only this but also managing this increased amount of data and being able to continuously understand their end users.
Predictive AI is the trend the industry is moving toward right now. Turning data into insight is of course important, but how to turn data into insight and then into action is even more important. Within our suite of solutions, we focus on building this predictive capability instead of just providing insight and analytics to the customers. We want to help them actually turn data into action. Reactive approaches based on historical data is useful, it's still important, but how do you predict future behavior or the future action you should take? This proactive approach is going to be critical for most companies.
Insider: The three cofounders all met while studying and working in the US. Why did you decide to bring the technology back to Asia?
Lee: Growing up here, we knew that we have very strong tech talent, a very strong software talent pool in Taiwan, which was not obvious to the rest of the world back then. In addition to the talent pool, Asia has been a great place to grow a business. There is a lot of growth and a lot of companies needing solutions like ours.