Froomle’s ground-breaking AI technology helps companies create a smarter user experience. It is the mission of this dynamic start-up to recommend the right content for the right user in real-time.
Personalization is a crucial component of successful ecommerce. Ideally, accurate recommendations improve the user experience (UX) as well as sales. In practice, the experience on most online platforms is far from perfect and often leaves users frustrated. Even market-leaders such as Netflix, Apple, and Spotify still see a lot of room for improvement. These big tech firms cooperate closely with the academic world. One such knowledge partner is the University of Antwerp, which is where Froomle’s co-founders Koen Verstrepen (CEO) and Bart Goethals (CTO) first met and started work on their cutting-edge technology. Verstrepen did a PhD in AI and UX, and Goethals was his professor and supervisor. ‘We were fortunate to be able to work with researchers from top companies in the world such as Netflix,’ says Verstrepen. ‘They are leading the way in AI and UX, and it was great to see that we had technology that can compete with the best.’
Goethals and Verstrepen did their research together with the tech firms and published about it. Along the way, they identified numerous issues. For instance, providers such as Netflix work with user profiles. Often, a family uses one and the same profile. This pollutes the profile, making accurate recommendations for this family more difficult. Verstrepen’s research focussed on how different flavours within one profile can be discovered.
‘In the past, we were amazed when a chess computer beat a human; now it is the most normal thing in the world'
In computer science these days, doing research with big tech opens many doors, explains Goethals. ‘In our field, we study and analyse huge amounts of data. The tech companies are often at the source of the data, and are therefore ideal places for our kind of research.’ At the various conferences on data sciences and recommender services, many attendees are industry professionals. This is not surprising, as the field is still very much in its infancy. But it’s evolving rapidly, observes Goethals. ‘In the past, we were amazed when a chess computer beat a human; now it is the most normal thing in the world. The boundaries are continually being pushed forward. Yet, there is still much to be researched and improved.’
Goethals and Verstrepen continue their studies every day, but in 2016 they also decided to put their findings into practice by founding Froomle. Verstrepen explains the reason behind the decision. ‘If you have a mission to bring your AI technology to the world, then the only realistic way is to start a company. Just doing research is too non-committal. You really need to build a product to follow it up. The commercial aspect also creates a reality check; it shows you whether it adds value.’
Froomle’s first goal was to bring state of the art AI to the commercial domain. This had to have impact and make an actual difference. Verstrepen gives an example: customers in a web shop often have to scroll down many times before they see personalised recommendations. ‘Perhaps one percent of shoppers actually go there, so how can you expect it to make an impact?’ Froomle helped webshops to personalise banners or photographic material at the top of a page, rather than showing generic blocks. Promotions on a site have to be personalised as well, adds Verstrepen. ‘Some people are receptive to a discount in euros, others are more susceptible to a discount expressed in percentages. Some aren’t even interested in discounts at all, they just want to find the best possible product. In this respect, there was still a long way to go in ecommerce.’
The market was certainly ready for Froomle. Competitors had not yet found the ‘secret formula’ to really make an impact, observes Verstrepen. ‘We saw that elsewhere the technology was not advanced enough. The ambition to really make an impact also fell short.’
Not surprisingly, the young firm soon worked for a variety of clients, each with their own, very specific demands. Veepee, for instance, is an international e-commerce company specialised in flash sales. Products here are limited, they’re only on sale for a short period. The critical sales window is within hours after becoming available.
‘For a product with a longer shelf life, you have a few days to learn how it behaves and how customers interact with it'
This requires a much faster personalisation, explains Verstrepen. ‘For a product with a longer shelf life, you have a few days to learn how it behaves and how customers interact with it. But if your product is only available for a short time, you need to have those same learnings within minutes. Our powerful AI was able to fully deliver on that promise.’
Plug and play
Clients praise the accuracy of Froomle’s recommendations, as they ring true with the experience of their users. The company more than doubled its revenue every year and the number of employees went up from two to twenty. ‘It’s challenging and exciting,’ enthuses Goethals. It is also becoming more international. Currently active in America, Africa and Europe, Froomle expects to expand into Asia and Australia soon. ‘When we deemed ourselves mature enough, we made the choice to go global in order to achieve the necessary scale.’ Goethals still finds time to combine entrepreneurship with his job as a Full Professor at the University of Antwerp. ‘But I’m putting in a double shift,’ he laughs. ‘The great thing is that, as an academic, I have access to the research data of large companies. My two jobs combined produce very interesting findings. It also has added value for my students, many of whom do an internship at Froomle.’
The academic link helps Froomle innovate in a rapidly changing environment, says Verstrepen. ‘So much has changed in the last five years alone. That's why it's important for us to be very close to fundamental research.’ The main focus now is on usability. Froomle’s next step will be a plug-in for Shopify. As many e-commerce companies are migrating to that platform, it is vital to have a strong presence there. ‘Because we are there as an app, all vendors on Shopify can work with Froomle through a plug and play solution. We will bring this to other platforms as well, because usability is key.’
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