As a coder at Google (GOOG), Microsoft (MSFT), and Yahoo! (YHOO), Vik Singh, 28, learned firsthand that state-of-the-art data processing gives tech companies a big advantage. That includes data as old-fashioned as sales leads, says Singh. His two-year-old startup, Infer, has developed software that treats a sales transaction as a puzzle that can be solved with an algorithm—instead of finessed over a round of golf and a hearty meal. “The way the typical company manages data is piss-poor in comparison,” he says.
Palo Alto-based Infer has developed analysis software that connects to a company’s sales-tracking system, such as Salesforce.com, and rates customer leads based on the likelihood they’ll pan out. The ranking system relies on 150 signals, including dozens of online data feeds. With basic information about a potential customer’s name and corporate address, Infer begins mining local demographic information pulled from the U.S. Census Bureau, then delves into company hiring practices, job boards, and sample tweets from both the potential customer and other employees of that business. “Companies are doing all kinds of stuff to generate a large volume of leads,” says Singh. “You might as well make sure that the right kinds of deals are being pushed in front of your sales reps.”
Lori Wizdo, an analyst at Forrester Research (FORR), says Infer’s software gives a sales force an easy way to freshen, enhance, and sort stale or incomplete leads. That search- and social-media-based infodump is an outgrowth, Singh says, of his years fine-tuning search systems for Google before he moved to Microsoft, where he developed database technology alongside Jim Gray, one of the great computer scientists of the last 50 years. After that, he built out a Yahoo search system that the company offers to other businesses.
Infer’s paying customers already include Silicon Valley startups such as Yammer and Box, as well as health-care providers and insurers. Singh says a midsize company could expect to pay several hundred thousands of dollars per year for the software. He’s raised $10 million from backers including Sutter Hill Ventures, where he used to be an entrepreneur in residence, as well as Redpoint Ventures, Social+Capital Partnership, and Andreessen Horowitz. (Bloomberg LP, the parent of Bloomberg Businessweek, is an investor in Andreessen Horowitz.)
Infer has worked with Box and other customers since shortly after its founding to evaluate its results. It trawls historic sales data and compares outcomes with its predictions. Singh says the company comes out near-perfect in these experiments, although he isn’t releasing any proof.
Wizdo, the Forrester analyst, says quickly sorting new data is just as important for the software as updating old leads, noting that companies often generate large volumes of raw leads through free trials and trade shows. “The ability to rapidly sort your inbound traffic into ‘worth a call’ or ‘worth an offer’ from ‘others’ is a great value,” she says.