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Q&A: How Erin Kelly is adapting to a new normal.

The President and CEO of Advanced Symbolics Inc. shares her strategy and advice.

Erin Kelly is President and CEO of Advanced Symbolics Inc. (ASI), a company that uses Artificial Intelligence to augment market research and prediction. ASI’s patented AI, named “Polly” is the world’s only AI for Augmented Human Behaviour and Market Research. Polly quickly catapulted to fame in 2016 after correctly predicting both BREXIT and the Trump election and she is the AI of choice for leading consumer companies including Disney, Mastercard and GM and is well known in the medical research field for her work in mental health and suicide reduction. Erin is frequently called on by national and international media for her insights into AI and its future impacts on society. She shares how the pandemic has impacted ASI, including what financial resources she is tapping into and what has surprised her most. 

 

What area of your business is getting your most energy and focus?
At the moment we are focused on product development and getting our AI, Polly, as fast, streamlined and easy to use as possible. This will get results to our customers faster and allow them to test different scenarios easily because the data will be very easy to manipulate. 

What is the most important problem you are trying to solve? 

We are solving the insight problem. Traditional market research relies on vanity metrics and proxies instead of directly answering what marketing executives really want to know: Why aren’t people buying my products or resonating with my message, and what top 3 things can I do right now to change that?

Traditional market research hasn’t evolved in 70 years and that’s a big problem because we no longer consume products and messaging the way we did 70 years ago. The conversations today are all happening online and to properly gain insights you need artificial intelligence. A web panel isn’t going to do it – those studies suffer from the same contrivances as traditional market research and are not randomized samples. Companies today compete on analytics and AI is going to be part of the toolkit for a leading company.

What has been your most successful solution so far? 

I need to pick 3! Our most in-demand solutions right now are Look-alike sampling, Topic Discovery and Attribution Testing.

Look-alike sampling allows us to create cohorts of people online that are very similar except for one thing we want to measure, which enables us to determine with high accuracy, the effect of that influence on human behaviour. We are using this with great effect during COVID. With each region opening under different policies and innovating with different programs and ideas, we can determine what works best to help people feel more comfortable and safe and to optimize revenue for our customers during this very challenging time.

Topic Discovery is a solution marketers love because it tells you the top factors affecting sales of your products without you having to know to ask about it ahead of time. With traditional market research, you have to know the questions to ask in advance. Topic Discovery gives you insight into what you should be exploring even if you hadn’t thought of exploring that before because it wasn’t on your radar. 

Attribution enables you to determine, very precisely, why people will choose your product over the competition and to tailor your message and your media buy accordingly.

 

“The key is to focus on solutions and not surrender to feelings of hopelessness.”

 

How have you been staying connected with your customers and employees? 

Initially, we have been staying connected through Zoom. We have bigger plans for the fall though as we realize that the traditional ways of staying connected, through conferences and other face-to-face opportunities, have gone away. So stay tuned for fall programming! 

What financial resources are you tapping into?

When we kicked off the company we applied for and received a loan from the BDC which allowed us to hire our first employees. The BDC turned this around very quickly and they have been terrific giving ongoing support and guidance – very proactive. In September 2018 we also did a small private equity round and have some great angel investors who have all offered to provide ongoing financial support should it be needed. During COVID, we applied for the financial funds that we were eligible for as soon as the lockdown was imposed in case we needed it. I like the financial mix that we have, and I think it is important, from the point of view of financial sustainability, to have a healthy mix of equity and debt investment. Most importantly, we have strong revenue and we are able to sustain our operations through revenue. When we take cash injections it is to grow and diversify.

What has surprised you?

Aside from COVID? I think the biggest surprise is how hard it is to find great talent. I sound like an old curmudgeon but universities are simply not preparing business students with the right skills for the current business environment and businesses really do rely on universities to produce that talent. We find we have to re-train all of our staff almost entirely from scratch when they start with us. And who runs a business program without teaching students about sales… the most important business function?! Even when we hire students with Econometrics backgrounds they have huge gaps in knowledge even after 4 years of studying. We can get them up and running in 3 months so that tells you something. I am also surprised at how many students graduate from marketing without knowing the first thing about analytics, sampling and other basic market research techniques. This has to change. 

How far ahead are you planning?

We are very long term thinkers. We are not building a company to flip we are building a company to grow internationally. That means making significant sacrifices in the short term for the benefit of the long term health of the company. I think it really helps to have a North Star high up in the sky that you work toward. In the short term, it’s all about cash flow – and there are lots of solutions for that, fortunately.

What keeps you positive?

My business partner. We keep each other buoyed when things get difficult! Being an entrepreneur can be very lonely and I think it is no coincidence that companies with 2 or more founders typically do much better than companies that have only one. In fact, many investors won’t back a company that has only one founder.

What message do you want to share with entrepreneurs right now?

I sometimes find it difficult not to be dragged down by all the negative headlines because that can be a real poison pill. Find a way to stay positive – whether that is by focusing on the businesses in your industry that are getting it right and modelling yourself after them or finding short term opportunities to make money until you can get back to doing what you love or borrow until the economy gets better and you can rebound. The solution will be different for everyone but the key is to focus on solutions and not to surrender to feelings of hopelessness.