Pioneering the Future of Customer Feedback Analytics - Startup Stories with Alyona Medelyan
Anton Oparienko (COO, Upsilon): Today, I'm pleased to have Alyona Medelyan with me, the co-founder and CEO at Thematic, an innovative feedback analytics solution. Alyona, could you please tell us a little bit about your background?
Alyona Medelyan (Co-founder and CEO, Thematic): I grew up in Crimea, Ukraine. Initially enrolled to study English and German, but then moved to Germany to study Computer Science and Computational Linguistics. On an exchange semester in New Zealand, I landed in the famous Waikato University's Machine Learning lab, and ended up moving back there after graduating to do a PhD in Natural Language Processing (NLP).
Anton: What drove your interest in AI and machine learning?
Alyona: My dream initially was to become a translator. I always loved languages. Then in a lecture I learned that there are people who teach computers to understand language. This was in 1998! And there were already back then examples of NLP in action. For example, Microsoft Office had a spell checker, and there were the first search engines that matched user queries to documents. I fell in love with the idea of working on these algorithms and have now been working in this space for 25 years.
Anton: You also have a Ph.D. in Computer Science that was funded by Google. That's very impressive! What have you learned from this experience?
Alyona: A PhD teaches you to work on the same problem for several years. It's actually not that easy! For the PhD thesis itself, you need to come up with a good hypothesis and then conduct research to prove or disprove it. I also learned the importance of publishing your work and open-source code.
Anton: Before Thematic, you founded Entopix. Could you tell us about this natural language processing and machine learning consultancy?
Alyona: My ultimate goal was to start a company of my own, but I didn't know what problem was worth solving. By running a consultancy, I learned about a variety of problems people have. There was one project, where I developed an algorithm for matching wine names to a database, and another for identifying the content of an email. I also collaborated with other PhD researchers on designing a chat bot and an app that analyzes bottle labels.
Anton: So, you started working on Thematic by seeing a need while working as a consultant at Entopix? How did you come up with the idea?
Alyona: There were several companies that shared with me that they needed help analyzing NPS feedback. NPS stands for Net Promoter Score, and this is how companies measure the strength of their word of mouth marketing. I designed a prototype and showed its results to these companies. We collaboratively arrived at a solution that solves the problem and they became my customers. I convinced my husband Nathan Holmberg to join me as a co-founder. Initially, we thought that it would be a small company and it would allow us to travel the world. But it quickly grew and we realized that we need to take this seriously and build a team to help support our initial customers.
Anton: Could you tell us a bit more about Thematic? In a nutshell, what does the product do?
Alyona: At Thematic, we analyze feedback to help companies improve their products and services. In a nutshell, we first gather feedback across various tools through integrations, API or uploads. We then use AI to discover common themes and subthemes of what customers are saying. Our users are analysts who create reports about the quality of customer experience, common issues, requests and questions. Thematic also helps product managers, customer experience managers, product operations and researchers find answers in feedback that help them make data-driven decisions.
Anton: There are other existing text analysis alternatives out there, like Qualtrics XM Discover, Medallia, Chattermill, and Kapiche. How does your customer experience management software stand out from the others on the market?
Alyona: We have always prioritized two things at Thematic: AI and trust. We use the latest AI algorithms to provide automation. The older solutions aren't great at this. They rely on people telling them what to find in the data. We build trust by bringing transparency into AI, which newer solutions tend to deliver as a black box. Our unique UI allows users to work with the AI to get the best of both worlds.
Anton: Based on the list of customers you've already helped (including LinkedIn, Atlassian, and DoorDash), Thematic is a widely applicable feedback analytics SaaS. Who do you think can make the most of this progressive AI tech?
Alyona: We tend to be most useful for B2C companies that have a research or an insights team.
Anton: You've recently announced that Thematic has partnered with Woolworths Group to assist them in boosting their customer and employee experience via AI feedback analysis. That's a big win! What do you think helped you outperform the big players in your space?
Alyona: It was really easy to work with Woolworths. They have clearly outlined their specific needs and we made sure that during demos we demonstrated how we can deliver on these. Things that were critical for Woolworths were the exact things we do well: discovery of themes, an easy interface, and the ability to tailor analysis to business needs (people working with the AI). They also loved our culture of innovation, which matches how Woolworths themselves like to operate, despite being a large company.
Anton: You've already made it possible to integrate Thematic with popular feedback tools. What are your current plans for Thematic? Are there any product roadmap points you can share?
Alyona: We just launched Answers, a new way of interacting with customer feedback similar to how people ask questions in ChatGPT. We are really excited about this. It's not perfect and there are still ways to go, but it's already described by early testers as "mind-blowing". I believe this is the future of any data analytics company and proud that we are leading the way here.
Anton: Let's talk about Y Combinator a bit. Back in 2017, Thematic tripled its revenue and received $1.2 million in the seed funding round thanks to the accelerator. Was it worth it? Could you give some advice and the major lessons you've learned?
Alyona: Absolutely! We loved our time in YCombinator. You learn not just tactical advice but also a mindset of focusing on the right things. It's been a transformative experience for us in the early days of Thematic.
Anton: Is there any other guidance you can give to aspiring entrepreneurs and tech startup founders?
Alyona: My only advice is to give it a go! You'll learn a lot by doing it. If you are a technical person, learn sales. If you are a salesperson, learn a bit of technology. Today it's so easy to upskill yourself in any area. Ultimately, talk to as many people as you can, don't be afraid of sharing ideas, get feedback from strangers. Gradually, you'll build a good picture of what's missing and what to build.
Anton: Thank you for sharing your story with us, Alyona!