Think Analytics was crowned Scottish Exporter of the Year at the HSBC Scottish Export Awards in association with Scottish Enterprise. BQ Scotland editor Peter Ranscombe caught up with chairman Eddie Young to find out what the prize means to the company.
Sometimes the very thing that you’re looking for is right under your nose. For Eddie Young, that thing was Think Analytics, the Glasgow-based technology developer that has provided real-time personalised content recommendations for Sky, Virgin Media and other big-name television companies.
But Think Analytics looked completely different when Young came across it. The business had been founded in 1995 by University of Strathclyde graduates focused on real-time predictive analytics and embedding intelligence into applications. It was way ahead of the time.
When Young discovered the company, it was part of Gentia, an American technology outfit. But Young could see that Gentia was in financial difficulties and so he spotted an opportunity. “We’d come across Think Analytics and we liked what the company was doing,” remembers Young. “We thought it was an American company at first because we were dealing with its staff in Boston.
“But then we found out that its development team – the beating heart of the business – was based here in Glasgow. Its developers were sitting in an office just a few streets away from us in Charing Cross.
“Along with the management team, I made an offer for Think Analytics and took the business private in 2001.”
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Young was no stranger to the world of computing. He left IBM in 1990 to establish ACS, an information technology (IT) consultancy that he grew over the following 16 years to become one of the largest independent Microsoft partners in the UK and Europe. He sold the business to Dell in 2006.
During its first incarnation under Young’s leadership, Think Analytics provided software for call centres, helping mobile phone companies like Orange, T-Mobile, Virgin and Vodafone to offer their customers the right deals.
“Our software would look at the customer’s value and usage and interpret from the interaction on the call and determine the next best or optimum action to keep that customer loyal. It would show the call centre operative which deal to offer the customer. This was at the height of the mobile phone boom and it saved companies tens of millions of pounds by enabling them to offer the right handsets at the right offer to the right customers.”
From telecommunications, Think Analytics then moved into the fledgling media market for personalised content in 2005, with television companies Sky and Virgin Media among its first customers. The company’s software can look at a customer’s viewing habits and then come-up with recommendations for other programmes that the customer may enjoy. There is now a wealth of content from multiple sources but it is difficult for the viewer to find it easily.
“We’re like Google but for television,” smiles Young. “If you go on the internet then you begin by searching for something, but watching TV is much more passive, laid-back experience – in effect you’re sitting there and saying ‘Show me something that I’m going to enjoy’. We can do that in a very subtle and effective, non-intrusive way.”
The technology works across a wide variety of platforms, from set-top boxes and internet catch-up services all the way through to tablet computers and smart phones. The software is now available in more than 40 countries and in 32 languages, including Hindi and Mandarin.
More than 70 companies now use Think Analytics’ technology, with in excess of 170 million subscribers worldwide benefiting from its recommendations. Last year the firm signed-up a further 12 clients, including Astro Malaysia, New York-listed CenturyLink, and PCCW in Hong Kong. The business has grown to have around 80 staff spread across its sites in Glasgow, London, Los Angeles in the United States, Pune in India, Sao Paulo in Brazil, and Singapore. “Our revenues grew by 50% last year and are now measured in the tens of millions,” says Young.
“We’re not going to be the next Scottish unicorn, but we’ve continually grown the business profitably and that’s been very important to us. With the decision to be a private company with no venture capital funding, the first four-to-six years were really tough and there were two or three times when the business could have gone bust. But we’re experienced business people as well as technical and we know how to ride out the tough times and manage the cash.
“In the next two or three years, I think we’ll have grown the company into a $100m-plus business. I could see us floating the business on the stock market – probably in London rather than on the Nasdaq in New York because its costs have risen so much in recent years.”
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Think Analytics won both the ‘Most Entrepreneurial Exporter of the Year’ title and the overall prize for ‘Scottish Exporter of the Year’ during the HSBC Scottish Export Awards in association with Scottish Enterprise. But those aren’t the only pieces of silverware in the company’s trophy cabinet.
Back in 2014, the company was presented with an ‘Emmy Award for Technology & Engineering’ from the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences. In his acceptance speech, Young told his American audience that the US did not invent the television, but that Scottish innovator John Logie Baird had created the mechanical television and so it was high-time that a trophy was heading back over to his side of the Atlantic.
When he’s not flying around the world to visit Think Analytics’ far-flung offices, Young is a music fan and enjoys Led Zeppelin, ACDC, and Foo Fighters, “I’ve benefited from our technology as much as anyone else – the TV lets me know where and when they are on,” he laughs.
“There was a Neil Young concert on Sky Arts and our technology told me about it. I’d never even heard of Sky Arts – it’s two or three pages further on in the TV guide than the sports channels that I usually watch. When you’ve got 500 or 600 channels to choose from then you need that sort of help to find things. Simple really.”