Hamish Ogilvy and David Howden are the brilliant scientific minds behind AI search engine Search.io. Find out how they have leant on Tidal to articulate their vision, hire, and grow into multiple markets.
20 May 2021 · 4 min read
If amazing and life changing ideas are the heart of every startup, then technical know-how and persistence must be the brains. This is particularly true for Hamish Ogilvy and David Howden, the two brilliant science and mathematical minds behind AI search engine Search.io (formerly Sajari).
Frustrated by poor search capability on websites and hearing that frustration echoed among colleagues, Hamish and David decided to fix it by building a more intelligent search engine, and they have succeeded. Not only that, they have found a powerful niche in e-commerce that enables the conversion of search queries into transactions.
As a startup, their story is not unusual. They did most things themselves as they gained some momentum: built a website, developed beta prototypes, learned to code, looked for customers, paid the payroll, insurance and themselves (sometimes).
Their early learning curves were steep: What do we charge? How do we make that recurring? How do we scale? What are the best use cases for our idea? Who do we target?
And the biggest question of all: How do we get to the next step?
Having had angel investors to help with some early hires, Search.io started looking to the next horizon. “Tidal was really the first decent size investment that actually allowed us to think about scale.” according to Hamish. “Angel funding doesn’t quite provide enough for the next proof point, but Tidal has been really good at working with us on this.”
He goes on to say how this was “more of a factor for us than money and valuation”, as they were seeking “alignment in terms of where we saw the business going and the product-led attitude of Tidal was the right fit.”
Location was not an issue with Hamish in San Francisco and David in Australia, matching with Tidal’s product expert Wendell in Sydney and investment leader Andrea in New York. “Having someone who understands Australia and the world is handy because Australian and US markets work differently.”
Hamish adds, “when you find people that you click with and you have common opinions on what's important, then decisions become easier.”
Deeply technical products like Search.io take time and are complex to build, then once you get there technically, there’s still the business part to think about. “Scale is very much about process,” says Hamish. Starting a business is “like a jigsaw puzzle with pieces on the floor and you’re trying to find bits that fit so you can start moving in the right direction. But scaling a business is more about putting structures of repeatability in place.” This is where Tidal offered expertise, they helped with the scaling strategy, providing advice on structure and “understanding some of the gaps that we needed to fill.”
Having reliable sales models was one of those gaps. Scaling isn’t just about spending money to get more inbound sales, Hamish points out, “you have to work out where you can spend it to get repeatable impact to the business. And that brings in a different way of thinking that's not necessarily where we had been. We needed help to build out the structures to make that actually work.”
Scaling a business is not something that you’re born knowing, says Hamish “the more advice and assistance that you get from people who know parallel businesses, the better. I can ping or talk to the Tidal team anytime and that has been really helpful.”
The Search.io team. David is 3rd and Hamish is 4th from the left.
Working with Tidal, they had to determine the best way to recruit and then “hand off efficiently while keeping the vision and the quality in terms of what you want to do.” It requires thought and planning to get “people in a position to get up to speed and execute on things.”
Through meetings and conversations, Search.io and Tidal developed a hiring plan that included the identification of key positions, numbers and mixes of roles, that would set them on a path to “transition from being resource-efficient to growth efficient.” The plan eventually went to the board with Tidal support.
There’s a power of numbers in hiring, as Hamish explains, “you don't hire one person in sales. You hire two. Even if you only need one, you hire two.” This avoids a single point of failure where if one person does not work out, you've lost a hundred percent capacity. Building teams in cross-functional sales pods was exactly the kind of shift in thinking that Tidal steered Search.io through.
“Future hiring is a key part of the ongoing planning and thought process.” Producing more and selling more can only be supported with carefully managed recruitment, not just more people.
In hindsight, Hamish says they “we’re probably a little bit conservative, which slowed us down.” But in their defence, it is difficult to know how aggressively to hire at the beginning of a pandemic.
Like in hiring, it’s not a matter of more, it’s a matter of being repeatable. Tidal was there to advise on how to restructure billing for scale. “Overcoming those challenges were really important growth factors for our business, and Tidal gave us great advice on that.”
His heavy but true parting advice for new founders is to remember that “you're building a revenue machine. At the end of the day, that's the only thing that allows you to grow and do what you want to do. So put that into your strategy and priorities from day one, being able to understand all the numbers. And if you don't find that interesting, or don’t want to do it, then don't start a business.”
Get our latest newsletters delivered right to your inbox
At Tidal Ventures, we use an ‘AI stack’ framework to structure our conversations. I’ll explain how we use it to frame our discussions around AI’s far-reaching investment implications, breaking down the layers that define this exciting technology field and exploring their investment opportunities.
Leaders from our portfolio companies Flagship, Hone, and Lifelenz explore the role of AI, discuss innovative strategies, and consider its potential to enhance overall product value.
We’re thrilled to have had the opportunity to lead both Orkestra’s Pre-Seed and Seed rounds. Orkestra is a software provider that empowers teams within the clean energy sector to streamline the feasibility and deployment of new projects with enhanced ease and precision.