How a dream became a reality for this Aussie startup

By Indira Laisram
Splashup co-founders Nathalie Rafeh and Vivek Bharadwaj

The pandemic, not surprisingly, has disturbed the old economic order and destabilised stable careers of many. But for new Aussie startup company Splashup, the pandemic has provided fodder as it looks at ways to leverage technology to build platforms and connect with people in e-commerce with an eye on exponential growth.

Splashup, an AI digital shopping experience, has just won 150,000 dollars in funding as winners of the Xccelerate21 program. The Xccelerate21 is a  program designed to support experienced entrepreneurs and early-stage startup founders through x15, a Commonwealth Bank of Australia (CBA) collaboration.

Splashup co-founder Vivek Bharadwaj is thrilled to bits. He says companies such as Airbnb, Spotify etc. were all born out of challenging times too. At the same time, he is feeling the weight of the responsibility. “We have to deliver outcomes as all eyes are on us.”

How did this happen?

For the past seven-eight months, Bharadwaj, with his expertise in data science and artificial intelligence (AI), and his co-founder Nathalie Rafeh, who has been working in the space of e-commerce, have been delving into the all-important questions of acquiring and retaining customers in the retail segment and, more importantly, the question of customer conversion funnel and optimisation.

“So, when we started talking about this, sparks literally flew because we just had the same idea in mind but different perspectives to solving this and we thought there is something here we need to be doing,” says Bharadwaj, also the Lead Instructor of data science at General Assembly, a world-leading professional education and career transformation organisation.

Investors are motivated by stories as much as they are by data. And Bhardwaj and Rafeh brought that to the table. After a hectic and intense competition among 80 entrepreneurs, some of whom are well-established names, the duo found themselves in the top five to pitch for the 150,000 dollars.

“We were blown away looking at the calibre of some of these other startups in technology, AI and retail. There were some incredible value propositions, some incredible pain points that some of my colleagues were solving and looking at that we were just happy to be in this company,” reflects Bharadwaj.

Vivek Bharadwaj

But their pitch resonated with the judges of x15 and CBA. Splashup’s core value proposition was: making life easy for shoppers by using intuitive cutting edge AI and a brilliant simple experience for users to find what they want when they are shopping on an e-commerce website.

Explains Bharadwaj, “When, say, you are shopping for a particular dress, all you need is to ask, ‘hey Splashup I like this dress, can you get me something in green or a different brand with better reviews?’ It is this replication of talking to a salesperson in a store that we are trying to solve using technology.”

The 150,000-dollar infusion from CBA is a turning point for Splashup. After months of working quietly, Bharadwaj says, “This is definitely a big boon for us. We are finally cocooning out and ready to show the world what we are capable of doing.”

So, what are the business goals now? “We have some large and far-reaching goals. The funding amount is paramount to us at this early stage of our startup, we will be using this mainly for our product build and we will be making some key hires in helping build and ship the product. We already have a prototype in the market which has gone on private beta, so what we want to do is go to market with our first customer, a furniture marketplace.”

Both Bharadwaj and Rafeh are also excited about Splashup’s initiation into CBA’s broader network synergies with their portfolios, which, potentially, would help them with traction and acquiring more customers as well. “We are very excited for the x15 to provide us with that network of community and that trust in us, which we don’t intend to let down,” says Bharadwaj.

The reckoning for machine learning and artificial intelligence in retail technology came early for Bharadwaj, who believes algorithmic personalisation is not the future. “Privacy is becoming more and more important and so we need to design solutions that aren’t intrusive but at the same time deliver personalisation.

“Also, I don’t even believe these cookie-based things are even effective and accurate because if you browsed for a pair of socks four weeks ago, it doesn’t mean you are still looking for a pair of socks even now. Your intent has changed so there should be no reason why we should be recommending a pair of socks every time you log in.”

Personalisation in terms of real time guidance and one that does not involve tracking a shopper is what Bharadwaj is betting on. “What our machine learning has got to do is to learn preferences at a more aggregated global level.”

With a whole lot of competitors doing personalised retail and e-commerce, how does Splashup plan to be different? “We are just not relying on cutting edge AI algorithms, that is just one aspect of our core engine. The other aspect of our core engine is these real time user nudges to our proven user experience methodologies, and we are building these by interviewing hundreds of users where we are trying to understand what are the key levers that people need at different stages of their user journey,” says Bharadwaj, a Melbourne Business School graduate.

Combining these two aspects, he hopes will give Splashup the edge over its competitors. Eventually, Splashup wants to serve every segment of the market from fashion to furniture to food.

Over the next 12 months, the company is looking at creating a beautiful atmosphere filled with interesting challenges and impactful work. “We want to build a team to deliver some incredible first wins and build a set of case studies that then makes us a serious player in that space. Our next 12 months is all about helping us get that product market fit that every startup founder dreams of and scale to a whole bunch of customers who we can help with their conversion outcomes.”

In his 15 years of work experience in e-commerce, advertising, banking, insurance, retail, and HR domains, Bharadwaj has architected and executed large projects, built a number of intelligent automation applications and helped businesses compete in today’s technological landscape using machine learning and artificial intelligence.

Since having founded this startup about a year ago, he believes Australia needs more entrepreneurs as there are “so many problems waiting to be solved. The Australia that you probably knew earlier was a bit lackadaisical in their support for entrepreneurs and founders, but I think that Australia is changing. There is plenty of support and the startup founder community is an incredibly welcoming helpful community”.

At least for Bharadwaj, the belief became a reality.

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