Qubit — a British company shaping the future of the Web
A group of young employees gathers around a screen in their Piccadilly offices, where a fast-growing British company called Qubit is spearheading a new wave in Website personalisation that will see our online experiences become increasingly optimised to personal browsing and purchase behaviour, preferences and demographics. The company has just announced a 26 million dollar investment led by Accel Partners from its Big Data fund, with Salesforce Ventures and previous investor Balderton Capital also joining. Key Internet industry figures including Bruce Golden of Accel and Balderton’s Bernard Liautaud, founder of Business Objects, are now members of the Qubit board.
This level of investment is quite an achievement for a British Tech company formed only a few years previously by four guys fresh from leaving Google in London, with dreams of creating a company that would harness the powerful optimisation techniques that they had already seen to be so effective. Their work with Google clients had shown them the great benefits of improving the customer journey for people trying to navigate the often tortuous paths created by high street retailers at the time, on their websites, before a shopper could make a purchase. A few tweaks, a different font, the movement of a button, the removal of a redundant step in the buying process could drive percentage point differences in the number of people who bought from that company when they arrived on their website. This insight would transform the online performance of many UK retailers and give birth to a new kind of analytics company bent on improving the way we all interact with companies when we shop with them online.
Ian McCaig, the CMO of Qubit, has taken the leap of faith that his investors have shown him very seriously by relocating to the New York office to help lead the move into the US market that the investment will help to fund. Along with CEO Graham Cooke, he will take the Qubit mission of Web personalisation to the vast American market and start introducing US companies to the software platform that Qubit have built by hand in London. Both Graham and Ian are very excited by the prospect and are keen to hi-light the British roots of the company. Graham is grateful for the fantastic pool of engineering talent he can draw on from across Europe and says ‘London is the most exciting city to build Tech products in Europe, especially with the backing for UK startups that there is from the Government.’ Ian is equally excited by the calibre of the new faces on the Qubit board. Bruce Golden comes from Accel Partners, who have helped to build over 300 companies including famous Tech successes such as Rovio (creators of Angry Birds), ComScore, Dropbox, Facebook, Kayak, Playfish, Spotify, and Wonga. Qubit are very happy to be in such company and it is testament to their potential that Accel are on board with them at this stage.
Equally, Ian admires Bernard Liautaud as an entrepreneur who built a new category of firm with Business Objects, before selling it for billions of dollars. Graham is quick to point out that Business Objects was made in France, before it conquered the US and world markets. He would like to see Qubit take a similar path and achieve the unusual feat of a British company successfully taking its technology to the US. Of course, we have seen many US companies dominate the UK tech scene. Web platforms from Google, Facebook and Twitter to retailers such as Amazon and eBay are testament to the transatlantic power of Silicon Valley in the UK.
With offices expanding in New York, San Francisco, Boston and Chicago, both founders realise the huge scale of the US market and the different challenges it presents. However, they are not leaving the UK behind. Graham, as an American who has been living in the UK for many years, is equally comfortable in both countries and wants to emphasise that the Qubit technology will continue to be built in London, where he has assembled a top class team of software engineers and sales and marketing staff. The young company is full of passion for the task at hand and it is clear that the focus remains on helping their clients improve their business online. Graham bats off suggestions that there is any thought about a big payday for staff in the next few years. He is firmly focused on building a company for the future and acknowledges that they are only at the beginning of a long journey to realise the potential of their platform. Qubit software is already used by well-known companies including Hilton Hotels, Jimmy Choo, Staples, Farfetch, Topshop and Uniqlo.
Emre Baran is the Qubit CTO and the man behind the platform that has attracted the attention and backing of Silicon Valley investors. He describes how it works. As someone visits a site running Qubit software, the technology is able to instantly identify their profile, pulling these details on the fly from the cloud, so there is no clunky storage of information in cookies. The customer profile is not their complete identity, more their past history with that particular retailer. Such information can be very powerful in tailoring the experience that customer has on the site and making it more relevant and user-friendly. He has a relentless focus on the user and points out that before Qubit invented their platform marketers might have had up to thirty pieces of software running on their websites, none of which spoke to each other. This lack of the full picture wasn’t good for the user or the retailer itself as a disparate bucket of data was generated and it was very hard to decide which part of the mix was actually making a difference to the bottom line.
Qubit is able to pull in all of the data sources that are generated by a site, sift them and categorise them in a giant database they name ‘the Visitor Cloud’. This cloud of big data, is then open to analysis and testing. The key to Qubit’s success is the ability to change small parts of a site, in a methodology called A/B testing and then assess in real time what the benefit of that change might be. The change can then be adopted and the website altered or abandoned and you can move on the next set of tests. This test and learn approach enables retailers to harness the mass of data they have on customers and incrementally improve the performance of their websites, making them more appealing to their customers and more effective in selling their own goods. Emre is very confident that Qubit measures real data from sites and that when changes are made that the results will be seen in the balance sheets of the company. Too many analytics platforms claim 5 or 10 per cent changes in metrics he says, but when analysed those changes are hard to translate into real profits. The Qubit platform is so strong and detailed in its analysis across all the data on a site, that they can confidently stand by the results of tests, implement them immediately and take advantage of the improvement. Unlike other legacy platforms, Qubit performs the site optimisation in real time, so successful tests are implemented immediately with out resort to IT teams or long processes. This can be a key advantage for companies wanting to be agile during periods such as Christmas, when there is great demand and big profits to be made. Emre also faces the formidable task of maintaining a technology stack that supports more than 1.5bn online customer events every day, doing this through its own servers and use of Amazon’s cloud services.
It is easy to get a bit lost in the ‘Visitor Cloud’ and a little hard to imagine exactly the tiny tweaks that are being described. However, Stephen Eggleston, the Client Services Director, is able to bring to life some of the work Qubit has already done with clients. The Arcadia group, with its familiar brands such as TopShop, Burtons, BHS, Wallis or Dorothy Perkins was one of Qubit’s earliest clients. Simple innovations like including an updating weather icon on their sites have proven really effective in improving performance. People like seeing the changing weather reflected on the site. In the backend, the site can prioritise showing the customer summer ranges on a hot day, for example. The platform can also be a great help for British companies selling their range abroad. A tweak to the sizing guide for the US TopShop site proved very effective. American consumers were a little bemused by British sizes, but a little extra help was introduced by bracketing sizes with small, medium and large and soon TopShop fashions were winging their way to the US in increasing numbers. Stephen stresses that Qubit has teams of young graduates purely focusing on coming up with these Web personalisations, with the challenge really being the limit of their imaginations in applying Qubit’s data processing powers to real world tests and improvements for clients.
Qubit is already proving to be a great British company that has taken real inspiration from the Google background of its founders, but has shaped that experience into something new that has the potential to fundamentally alter the way websites are experienced by their users. Perhaps, there will be fewer standardised sites and instead each page, each product, each description even will be tailored to our individual needs and preferences dynamically. If Qubit are successful in their mission, my Web is going to be very different from your Web in the future.
(c) 2015 Barney Durrant