Howard Lerman, CEO of Yext, Talks Location Data, Big Data, & Beacons
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data. You mash it all up together with a payment model for credit cards.
We view the data we’re collecting, and helping our customers get out there, as a platform. We’re never going to be a consumer destination. We’re all business-to-business. But we make it possible for third party properties and apps to get information out there.
X: With the spread of beacons, low-energy devices that send info to smartphones when people walk into businesses, where do you see Yext fitting in?
HL: You know when you look on your phone sometimes and the map shows you somewhere that you’re not? It turns out the location services on your phone today use a cocktail of GPS, Wi-Fi, and cell tower data. Using those raw sources of data, your phone tries to guess where you are. It does a decent job when you’re in suburban areas and outside.
The problem is that doesn’t work so well in a city—the urban canyon—and when you’re inside. The vast majority of people spend their time inside. And the World Health Organization estimates that 60 percent of people are going to live in urban areas by 2030.
To address this gap, Apple pioneered a protocol called iBeacon, which uses a low-energy Bluetooth signal. You can make a physical beacon, which emits the signals that an app on your phone can hear, wake up, and do something with. Apple has built that into their location services. This doesn’t give you absolute position; it gives you proximity to the beacon, which go about 30 meters.
That means anybody—a store, an office, a person—can take one of these little beacons, program it to chirp its own name, like a UUID (universally unique identifier) over and over again, and then make an app that would listen for that beacon.
This gives you proximity and has profound implications for location. It’s micro-location and gives app developers, marketers, and everybody a more specialized way of building applications directly into phones.
This means Starbucks could install a beacon and when you walk in, the Starbucks app wakes up and can automatically order what you like from the barista.
We view beacons as extensions of businesses’ geo-local presence. In the same way Yext is managing location data, beacons are something we’re looking at too and see as increasingly playing a role in offline commerce.
X: Are there other sources from the Internet of Things and connected devices that Yext could draw data from?
HL: In the land of the smart home or smart office, all of these underlying technologies are kind of fundamental. Something like a beacon is not really the point. The point is the application that sits on top of that stuff.
Beacons are bigger elsewhere in the world. In London, if you walk down some of the major streets, you might get offers on your phone from nearby businesses. Things like beacons will be enabling technologies and applications that help consumers; they’re not the main point. The end touch points are going to be the actual things that people do.
X: So are there other ways we could be gathering data with such underlying technology?
HL: Look at some of the health applications on your phone. They can be connected to the cloud, storing all your data from your workouts, how often you’ve gone to the gym, what you should be doing. Maybe that maps out some of your personal health stuff. Maybe your doctor or health insurer is informed that you did go to the gym, which automatically processes a health insurance rebate.
The potential of hyperlocal technology is amazing. But it’s the applications that are going to have to come. Finally, we’ve gotten to a place where a lot of sci-fi movies have been talking about since the 1960s.
The ability to tie stuff together outside of the cloud is pretty interesting. It is faster and more reliable from a technical perspective to use Bluetooth to connect things and be more decentralized than running everything through the cloud and back.
X: What can we expect to see from Yext as the rest of the year unfolds?
HL: We’re getting up internationally. We acquired a company in the Netherlands, which established us with 16,000 Dutch small and medium businesses. We’re now live in Finland. We’re in Austria, Ireland, and Portugal. We are going across Europe, going into Latin America, and then Asia this year.
X: Why choose to keep growing the company in New York?
HL: A lot of people say New York doesn’t have a big breakout tech company. Those people forgot about Bloomberg. The only reason no one talks about Bloomberg is because Bloomberg owns the whole company, never raised any venture capital, so no venture capitalists blog and brag about it. We do have a big multibillion-dollar tech company here; they’re the standard.
We’ve been successful not in spite of New York, but because of New York. In the northeast corridor of the United States, there’s an immense amount of technical knowledge from universities such as MIT and Carnegie Mellon. The great engineers at those institutions don’t necessarily all want to move to Silicon Valley. When it comes to recruiting technical talent, which is the basis of any tech company, we’ve been able to do so because of our location.
We fundamentally sell our software to marketers, and there is a huge number of marketers in New York City.
X: More players want in on the big data scene. What is Yext doing to stay competitive?
HL: The most important thing that we do is work with publishers around the world with propriety integrations to get them data. If FedEx needs to be published in the Netherlands across all the Dutch and Finnish sites, Yext can do that. There’s some economies of scale and a moat around our publishing relationships. The more data we’re able to put out there, the better we are positioned to help our customers.
I also think it’s good for the world to have a source of data that’s not just Google. Right now, Google has all the location data for the world’s maps. It’s pretty hard to get good location data. It’s really hard to get great location data.
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