We talked to David Novák, CEO of Ximilar, which is a visual AI that helps many businesses and here is what he said about it.
First, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
David Novák: We’re actually not as bad as probably many people around me and in the whole world. We managed to live through the whole year being relatively active without catching the disease. I think I managed to stay calm during the first months. I was trying to find a balance between caution & responsibility and the freedom to spend time with people I like in the places of my choice.
Tell us about you, your career, how you founded Ximilar.
David Novák: I spent more than ten years at Masaryk University (Brno, Czech Republic) doing Ph.D. and research focusing on data management, specifically on similarity search. The idea is to search your data collection for items based on their mutual similarity. A common application of this approach is visual search (search by photo) or finding visually similar alternatives. With this application in mind and with a few early-stage customers, I decided to leave academia and co-found Ximilar.
What innovations does Ximilar bring?
David Novák: In general, Ximilar helps sellers, manufacturers, comparators, and many more to manage their considerably large image collections efficiently and easily. We use machine learning, computer vision, and AI image processing to automate image categorization & tagging, object detection, or visual search. We build our own Visual AI App, enabling people to train machine learning models on their own data, and we provide the same through API as well.
Since AI solutions for e-commerce are a relatively new field, there is a lot of space for creativity and innovation. Apart from the ready-to-use visual AI services, we realize a dozen custom or partially custom solutions a year and talk to several dozen big customers or potential partners a year. All these collaborations bring very interesting challenges to the table and drive the innovations in our technology and company. We often research and develop a custom solution and then turn it into a standard service.
How does the Coronavirus pandemic affect your business & finances?
David Novák: Fortunately, the Covid-19 period does not have a negative impact on our business. A lot of our clients are in e-commerce, which was not significantly affected. On the contrary, many are thriving with a growing number of online customers. The companies from other industries were hit by the pandemic more, but some of them actually used the time to invest in innovations like visual AI. Nowadays, AI-facilitated automation is one of the most cost-effective ways to increase revenue, and it pays off in the long term as well.
Did you have to make difficult choices regarding human resources, and what were the lessons learned?
David Novák: Fortunately not, the company is constantly growing, and we are rather looking for and hiring people. We learned to communicate through multiple channels on a daily basis and schedule project updates. This way, we can be productive even when we are separated and working from home.
How did your customer relationship management evolve? Do you use any specific tools to be efficient?
David Novák: We are very happy with PipeDrive as our base CRM platform. In the past, we also tested Zoho and used Salesforce for a while, and it was a relief to switch to a modern and light but powerful tool as PipeDrive. As we have skillful developers in the team, we like integrating various tools via API and a system called Integromat: our customer database, CRM, Mailchimp, Slack, email, and also the invoicing system are all integrated this way. Our communication with customers hasn’t changed much since our clients come from all over the world, and the majority of our meetings were online long before the Covid-19 pandemic.
Did you benefit from any government grants, and did that help keep your business afloat?
David Novák: We have recently received a grant within a prestigious national research program, competing with much larger companies, universities, and research centers. This support helps us to push the quality of our visual AI services to the very edge of current research knowledge – or even push the edge itself. This particular topic of research and development was motivated by the needs often expressed by our customers. But in the long term, grant money makes up just a small fraction of the company revenue.
Any final thoughts?
David Novák: Last year and a half was kind of a stress test for us all. Ximilar is proud to be a fully bootstrapped company without any external investments. It is clear that not every business can be started without a significant initial budget, but I would recommend to anyone who has the choice to seriously consider the harder way: invest your time, some money, and find co-founders who are willing to do the same. It is possible, and it feels good!
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