What would you do with $143m? It’s a question most of us fantasise about answering, but for Shobhit Shukla, co-founder and CRO of martech start-up Near, it is a reality.
The company recently received the largest investment ever into such a business and is looking to change the game.
Shukla told B&T the funding will primarily be used to help the business expand into new geographies and allow for more investment into R&D and take the company “to the next level” and stay ahead of the competition.
“In technology, and particularly in data and machine learning, what is exciting and novel today is not going to be a novel tomorrow. You have to adapt,” he said.
Shukla and his team did not just stumble upon this enviable funding round, rather they have built the company from the ground up, with the intent of changing the way we use data.
Near is a location-based customer profiling company that allows brands to track the physical behaviour of their customers through AI.
And what it is doing has been referred to by some as the “Holy Grail” of modern marketing – capturing an accurate picture of what consumers are doing throughout their day.
This might help Telstra offer a customer a student package from identifying the user attends university, or give NewsCorp the chance to identify users that have visited a car dealership and place a car ad accordingly.
And with 1.6 billion monthly users – 15 million of which are here in Australia – chances are Near is using some of your data, most of which is collected from smartphones via apps that require user consent.
One of Near’s main selling points is the ability to help marketers better track their return on investment by connecting online and physical.
“You have to close the loop,” Shukla outlined. “So from the people that saw your ad, how many of them ended up doing something about it. [With Near] marketers can get an understanding of what was the ROI of the marketing spend, which has been a challenge for many years now.”
Having set up an office in Sydney, Near’s Australian partners now include Telstra (the company received early backing from Telstra Ventures), NewsCorp’s NewsConnect and MCN.
Privacy by design
In relation to data, automation and AI, 2013 – the year Near was founded – seems like a very long time ago.
Shukla and Near have watched as data changed the way we live and in the last few years, they have seen the general population respond.
When you look at what Near is trying to do, data protection and the supposed death of the third-party cookie, seem like obvious roadblocks to the company’s success.
But instead it’s something that has been embraced.
“We’ve always followed a framework which follows the ideology of privacy by design,” he said.
“Over the years with regulations coming in place, it has helped us a lot because we have that framework and all we had to do was to be to make minor tweaks to be compliant with GDPR [the European Union’s data protection regulations introduced last year].”
The company has been founded on a strong set of data principles, ultimately helping growth. We have all seen what happens when businesses get it wrong.
“We have invested a lot in security,” Shukla explained. “We have redundancies built in – all of the data that we store is hashed and anonymised. There’s really no way for the anonymised data to be reverse-engineered.”
Near is in the business of consented data and works hard to acquire it.
“You need to architect to identify when a consumer is giving you consent versus when consumers are asking you to delete the data,” he said.
“Doing that at scale, and in real-time, is a non-trivial problem. So you have to make investments.”
Clean data is another term oft-spoken about in a marketing context and it’s something Shukla knows the importance of.
“A lot of our IP has been built around [data cleansing],” he said.“When the data comes in, it is very noisy. It’s also high velocity, because you’re getting pings from millions of devices constantly.
“We need to process them first and clean them to differentiate between the ones that are noisy or not very accurate.
“You also need to process it to store it and make it available in the software of the products so customers can access it.”
And although competition is now starting to heat up in this space, Shukla and the company seem bullish that their privacy-first approach can give them an edge.