Understanding the world of big data

Understanding the world of big data
Running a start-up is akin to climbing mountains... Mr Shankar (right) and Mr Sastri at the top of Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania.
PHOTO: Courtesy of Suresh Shankar

The biggest challenge companies are facing today is that it is being inundated with more and more data while having little time to navigate through and make sense of it.

This is according to Mr Suresh Shankar who set up Crayon Data with a vision to simplify the world of big data.

Big data refers to extremely large data sets that may be analysed computationally to reveal patterns and trends relating to human behaviour and interactions.

Mr Shankar, who did his master's of business administration in Indian Institute of Management Calcutta, had spent about half of his life in corporate jobs in sales and marketing in companies including J. Walter Thompson (JWT), JWT Fulcrum and ABN Amro.

A job offer from Dentsu Young & Rubicam brought him to Singapore from India in 1997.

"I worked in sales, marketing and advertising which is all about helping brands understand their consumers. It was about how creatively you can pitch your business to them," said Mr Shankar.

But when he came to Singapore and worked on projects in his corporate job, he realised marketing was moving from a right-brained activity to left-brained one.

Initially it was all about understanding consumers and being creative with their approach.

Now it's more about technology and data. Going deep into these things and engage them digitally, he explained.

His foray into the business of big data started in 2000 when he left his job at ABN Amro to set up RedPill Solutions - a customer analytics company.

"RedPill was an attempt to create left-brained marketing," said Mr Shankar.

The company provides customer management services, including customer strategy and analytics primarily to the telecom, technology, financial services and retail sectors.

Said Mr Shankar: "The first four years were difficult. Everyone would say we want to use data but no one would put their money on it.

"But after 2004, companies started realising customer analytics could help them and they started engaging our services. We started expanding and had clients from Japan to Saudi Arabia."

This led to the successful buy-out of the start-up by computer hardware company IBM in 2009.

Mr Shankar then joined the company to spearhead its operations but two years later, the 53-year-old Chennai-born gave in to the entrepreneurial urge again and left to explore a disruptive approach to big data with Crayon Data in 2012.

This time, with a friend Mr Srikant Sastri, who he got to know while doing his MBA in Kolkata.

The difference between RedPill and Crayon Data?

The team at Crayon Data has built a platform called SimplerChoices and "this is done by technology and algorithms instead of people trying to analyse data".

"In RedPill, we would send four people to the company and ask for their data and then analyse it but we no longer do that".

While there are many players in the market today, Mr Shankar said the way most firms are collecting data is flawed explaining that Crayon Data has made a conscious choice to switch to a machine-based algorithm model, rather than a people-heavy analytics team, which is both expensive and inaccurate.

SimplerChoices uses a complex machine-learning technique to apply cognitive thinking algorithms to collected data.

It studies consumer behaviours, interests and likes and uses this data to create taste maps which help Crayon Data predict what an individual customer will like.

The start-up's personal concierge app Maya then maps this taste graph to the internal data of businesses, allowing them to deliver highly personalised choices to consumers.

"Right now if we open a banking or hospitality app, it will appear the same to both of us.

"But if these companies have subscribed to Crayon Data, the information you see when you open the app will be personalised. They will cater to an individual's tastes," said Mr Shankar.

This is done through a consumer's mobile device through the respective companies' app, SMS or e-mail.

Crayon's main focus is on banks and it works with the largest credit banks and card issuers in the Middle East, the US, India and Indonesia, said Mr Shankar.

According to him, its solution has helped a hotel chain in Europe increase its percentage of repeat visitors from 9 per cent to 14 per cent, and helped increase customer spending during their stay.

The big data solution also helped an Asian Pacific global payments company discover five times the number of leads.

Other clients include Emirates airlines, Citibank, Emirates National Bank of Dubai, HDFC Bank, ANZ.

These companies pay a monthly fee to Crayon Data to subscribe to its data analytics services and help them serve their customers.

Crayon Data has raised more than $10 million of funding from venture capitalists like Jungle Ventures, corporations like Mitsui from Japan, government agencies like Spring Seeds Capital as well as prominent private investors like Ratan Tata of India and other angel investors.

Besides Singapore, the start-up with 75 employees has a development centre in Chennai and a presence in London, New York, Dubai and Jakarta.

Mr Sastri shuttles between these countries and takes care of its operations.

Mr Shankar likens running a start-up to one of his interests - climbing mountains.

"The journey is risky but it's rewarding. Sometimes you're faced with uncertainty and don't know which paths to take. You may make mistakes and you won't always make the right decisions but it's an exciting journey. You discover things about yourself along the way and that's the true joy of entrepreneurship," said Mr Shankar.

Three years ago, he climbed Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania with his co-founder - Mr Sastri, 55, who hails from Mumbai.

He hopes to continue pursuing his love for climbing mountains now.

"Everest is too difficult. I hope to climb one mountain in each continent," he said with a smile.

amritak@sph.com.sg


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